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The History of Agile


Today, Agile is a well-known development methodology and the approach of choice for many development teams, especially those trying to create an environment of continuous delivery.

When we think of Agile, we often think of high levels of collaboration and flexibility as well as an iterative environment in which requirements evolve alongside changing needs. As a result, we also tend to conceptualize Agile as an approach that helps development teams across various industries deliver new features faster.

But how did we get here? What does the history of Agile entail? And how can knowing the history of Agile help us better understand the methodology and its positive impact on today’s development world? Let’s take a look.

Solving a Major Problem: Inside the Early History of Agile

Over the past few years, development teams have focused on speeding up the time to market for new products and features to solve needs in real-time. For the most part, development teams have delivered on this goal in very impressive ways. And that speed comes thanks in large part to Agile.

Imagine if you had to wait years for a solution to the key problems your business faces. Less than 30 years ago, that type of wait time was the norm. And we can trace the earliest roots in the history of Agile to this problem.

Before Agile came about, development teams (particularly those in the software, manufacturing, aerospace and defense industries) would identify problems and plan a solution. They would then work to develop that solution and bring it to market in its entirety. Specifically, most teams used the Waterfall approach, a development methodology that follows a set path in which teams:

  • Set project requirements and the scope of work
  • Design a product based on those pre-determined requirements
  • Build the product
  • Test the product
  • Fix any problems discovered during testing
  • Launch a finished product

This approach may sound fine, but Waterfall required teams to stick to the requirements and scope of work set out at the very beginning of the project and not make any changes or additions along the way. And following that fixed plan could prove troublesome, since Waterfall prioritized bringing a complete product to market – meaning it could take years before teams finished the project at hand.

During those years, the nature of the problem would often change (but the project requirements would not), rendering the planned solution out of date by the time it finally got to market. On the customer side, this delay meant that critical problems would go unsolved for years at a time. And even when a solution became available, the problem it was intended to solve had likely changed in nature.

On the developer side, this struggle meant bringing new products to market that no longer had a strong market fit. In many cases, it also led to a development graveyard of unfinished products, as teams simply abandoned the work along the way rather than deliver an outdated product. As a result of these challenges, we can consider the Waterfall methodology the antagonist in the history of Agile.

A Change is Underway: The History of Agile Takes Shape

Frustrated by the status quo, several software development teams began to change their approach to planning and delivering new products throughout the 1990s.

During this time, we saw the introduction of development methods like Scrum, Rapid Application Development, Extreme Programming, DSDM, Feature-Driven Development and Pragmatic Programming. While these methods vary, the common thread among all of them is a lighter-weight model that allows for more flexibility and less overhead planning. These approaches to software development are the earliest methods in the history of Agile that ultimately led to what we know today.

Finally, in the early 2000s, the history of Agile – and the future of development – changed forever.

It all started in the spring of 2000, when a group of 17 software developers, including Martin Fowler, Jim Highsmith, Jon Kern, Jeff Sutherland, Ken Schwaber, and Bob Martin met in Oregon to discuss how they could speed up development times in order bring new software to market faster. They recognized two key opportunities that achieving this goal would make possible:

  1. Shortening the delay of benefits to users in order to resolve the product-market fit and development graveyard problems
  2. Getting feedback from users quickly to confirm the usefulness of new software and continue to improve on it accordingly.

While this meeting did not result in the Agile methodology we know today, it was a critical milestone in the history of Agile, as speed to market, rapid feedback and continuous improvement are hallmarks of the Agile methodology.

A Manifesto is Born: Agile Comes into Focus

Less than a year after that Oregon meeting, the history of Agile came into focus when the same group of 17 developers met again, this time at a ski resort in Snowbird, Utah. During this meeting, they hoped to further expand on their progress and land on a more concrete solution to the major development problems of the time.

Within three days, the group produced the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development” (known more commonly as the Agile Manifesto). A true turning point in the history of Agile, this manifesto laid out four key values:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  4. Responding to change over following a plan

These values represent a significant breakthrough in the history of Agile, but the group didn’t stop there. To give even more color to their vision, they also laid out 12 principles that stand behind these values. Those principles include:

  • Satisfying customers through early and continuous delivery of valuable software
  • Welcoming changing requirements at any point in the delivery cycle
  • Delivering software frequently through shorter development timelines
  • Using working software as the primary measure of progress
  • Taking regular moments of self-reflection to identify opportunities for improvement

These four values and 12 principles continue to guide the Agile methodology used by teams today.

Introducing a New Method to the World: The Next Chapter in the History of Agile

The history of Agile came a long way during the February 2001 meeting in Snowbird, Utah, but the trajectory of Agile had still only just begun. Following that three-day meeting, the group of 17 leaders was ready for the next chapter in the history of Agile: Convincing the world of the value of everything they laid out in the Agile Manifesto.

Agile goes mainstream

To help spread the word about the Agile Manifesto, the founding fathers in the story of the history of Agile decided to create a more permanent organization, and so the Agile Alliance was born. The Agile Alliance is a nonprofit organization that still exists today. The organization’s goal is to share information about Agile, provide resources for teams looking to adopt the Agile methodology and continue to evolve the approach to meet changing needs.

Following the creation of the alliance, the history of Agile took off in a big way, gaining traction with software development teams throughout the early 2000s. Along the way, those teams often contributed to the history of Agile as we know it today, introducing practices like quick decisions, the “role-feature-reason” format for user stories, retrospectives, and daily meetings (often referred to as standups).

As Agile took off, the role of the Agile Alliance expanded. In 2003, the now-formal Agile Alliance returned to Utah for the first annual Agile conference — an important milestone in the history of Agile. The group described this event as being “dedicated to furthering Agile principles and providing a venue for people and ideas to flourish.” This annual conference, named Agile 20XX, continues to this day.

The Agile Alliance has also expanded geographically over the years. Today, the Agile Alliance supports affiliate groups all over the world that promote Agile in local markets and help nearby organizations adopt the Agile Manifesto.

Agile picks up steam

While Agile took off in the early 2000s, we saw the Agile Manifesto pick up new steam in the 2010s.

By this time, the history of Agile was a commonly recounted story among development teams, but between 2012 and 2015, real life success metrics began to accompany that story. As a result of the ability to demonstrate success in Agile at that point, the benefits of adopting the lightweight methodology became undeniable. That makes it no surprise that during this three-year period we also saw Agile surpass the 50% mark in adoption, truly taking the development world by storm.

Shortly thereafter, Agile began to explode, this time by moving beyond development. In 2017, we saw the first succinct definition of Agile Testing. This definition outlined collaborative testing activities focused on frequent delivery of quality products that prioritize defect prevention over defect detection.

What Comes Next in Agile? Preparing for the 2020s

As of 2018, we see near ubiquitous adoption of Agile in some sense across development teams, particularly those in the software industry. So what’s next in the history of Agile?

We now live in a time in which people joke that technology is outdated the moment it hits the market – and in some cases, this feels very true.

It also brings us back to the earliest parts of the history of agile and the problems development teams faced with the waterfall methodology. This situation begs the question: Can the Agile Manifesto stand the test of time?

While no one knows the future, it’s safe to say that the history of Agile is not yet complete. But the next chapter in that history book might look a bit different than what we’ve seen so far.

Today, we hear a lot about DevOps, or the idea of creating a continuous loop of delivery in which new software can go to market at any time and is always ready for production. DevOps is the latest iteration of the idea that high quality products should be delivered to users as quickly as possible and then improved upon on a regular basis. While it’s easy to think of DevOps as a new approach that will bring Agile to an end, so far this has proven not to be the case. Currently, we see teams embracing Agile and DevOps hand-in-hand, and we can likely expect this trend to continue for the next several years.

It’s a testament to those first meetings of the group of 17 software developers in 2000 and 2001 that shaped the history of Agile that, nearly two decades later, all kinds of development (and now testing) teams continue to embrace the core tenets of the Agile Manifesto. Along the way, Agile has evolved to meet changing needs, but it still stays true to that initial manifesto. Of course, we wouldn’t expect anything less from a manifesto built on the idea that teams need the ability to evolve their approach at any time to better meet changing needs.

We’re Not Ready to Close the Book on the History of Agile Just Yet

What does the next decade and beyond hold for the Agile methodology?

If we can expect nothing else, we can be sure that Agile will continue to evolve, embracing its own core values and principles to remain a ubiquitous approach among development teams in the software world and beyond, even as their needs change.

With that in mind, we still have several chapters left in the history of Agile to which we can look forward. And for those who have been along for the ride (or even helped shape the history of Agile) over the past two decades, it will be exciting to see what comes next.