Software Development Screwtape Letter


This is the first of many letters from Screwdisk to his protégé Virus[1]. I make no claims to the authenticity or accuracy of these letters, other than they ring true with what I have seen in the field over the last 10 years. Some of what you will read may sound a bit too familiar. It has me wondering if I have ever unknowingly been on a team with Screwdisk or Virus. I have never been able to find out who Virus and Screwdisk really are, but from what I've seen they could have been at many different organizations around the world - maybe even yours.

My dear Virus,

You were a very down in your last email; don't be too worried that your organization has just had a successful Agile pilot deliver on time and under budget and is the talk of the town. Yes, it is unfortunate that they have released their product ahead of our clients. It is sometimes very difficult to get that first team to fail because the individuals on that team tend to be very motivated and, in your case, they had brought a very experienced Agile coach to help them through. This is, after all, only one release of one product, and I have reassured our clients that our goal is to completely sabotage their competitor and not just one project.

In fact, to look at this glass half-full, the success of an Agile pilot will allow you to have more influence in how the entire organization adopts Agile. Proper adoption of Agile values and principles is the one thing you must prevent! Fortunately, it is not very difficult to appear to practice Agile while in fact creating a cargo-cult [2] that will take years to run its course and actually make things worse than they are now.

Take heart, your chance will come soon since, as a member of the successful Agile pilot, you will be ‘farmed out' to other teams to be their resident Agile expert. I suggest you start thinking about building the foundations for success right now. As you know, what makes Agile so dangerous for us is that it builds upon personal strengths and creates all-too-often a high performance team. What many conveniently forget is that, at the core of successful Agile teams, are the individuals on the team and not the process and tools. I always have to laugh at how easily people trade the important for the urgent in their rush to be successful.

So, I understand you have the opportunity to help choose the members of your next team. Do your best to get the least talented folks in communication and human interactions. It is a little known rule that a team can only be as effective as its least effective member, so it won't be hard to do. In general you want to find non-team players, those who will undermine the effectiveness of the whole. Those who will never pick up things that are not in their area of expertise. Those who believe that they can succeed no matter if the team fails to meet its goals or not.

Good candidates are those who are full of pride - arrogant ‘experts' - who will never compromise in their work because it is - naturally - the most important part of any project. Or, if you can't find arrogant experts, those who are always afraid of looking bad are also great candidates. They don't realize that teams learn by failing and that mistakes have to be made if a team is to succeed spectacularly.

One of my early successes involved just such a case; I nominated one of the top developers to lead a mission critical team to build a piece that would make or break a long term project. He was brilliant and regularly built the most difficult components in several previous projects. He was also young, and thought that success meant getting the best technical solution - which almost always tended to be his solution. So, when he took charge of the project, his ‘vision' was the only thing that mattered. He promptly annoyed, alienated, and/or intimidated the rest of his teammates and many of them shut down and

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