What does “agile software development” mean and how does it compare to other approaches to development?
In this guide, we’ll cover key concepts related to the agile methodology, including:
- A definition of agile software development
- Agile vs. waterfall
- Hybrid approaches to development
- Important concepts related to agile, such as scrum, sprints, and user stories
Agile software development has become very popular in recent years and could even be considered an industry standard for the programming world.
But why has agile become so widespread – and is it really the best method of software development?
Below, we’ll find out the answers these questions.
A Byte-Sized Guide to Agile Software Development
Let’s get started by looking at the basics – what agile is and what it’s benefits are.
Agile Software Development: A Definition and Short History
Agile software development is an approach to software development that focuses on principles such as:
- Responding to change instead of following static plans
- Functional products instead of extensive documentation
- Collaboration over contract negotiation
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
The ideas underpinning the agile approach have been around for decades. Iterative and incremental software development and adaptive software development, for instance, had similar ideas to those that would later be embodied in agile.
Agile truly became mainstream, however, when a group of software developers met in Snowbird, Utah, to create and publish the Agile Manifesto. That document “hard-coded” the ideas mentioned in the list above, which principles have now become central to the agile methodology.
Agile vs. Waterfall vs. Hybrid Development
Agile is focused on adapting to the needs of customers, the market, external conditions, and change. This is an ideal approach for adapting to today’s fast-paced digital economy, meeting customers’ shifting expectations, and releasing products quickly and cost-efficiently.
In part, this approach was a reaction to slower, less adaptable approaches to software development, such as the waterfall model.
The waterfall model focuses on:
- Planning a project in advance
- Breaking down the project into a linear roadmap
- Completing each stage in that process before moving to the next
From an agile perspective, the biggest drawbacks to this approach is its lack of flexibility.
Since project managers must stick to a static plan, they cannot readily make changes if needed.
For example, assume that the customer experience team finds that customers prefer one feature instead of another – a waterfall development approach would have a difficult time accommodating this shift. An agile approach, on the other hand, would be setup to respond to those changes.
That being said, there are benefits to the waterfall model.
- Staying on-budget is easier, since project requirements are predefined and predetermined
- It is easier to delegate tasks, since responsibilities are less likely to change during the project
- Progress is more clearly defined and therefore easier to measure
Software developers that want the best of both worlds combine the waterfall and agile methods into a hybrid approach.
A hybrid agile approach incorporates different development methodologies, such as:
Hybrid approaches are customized to suit the situation at hand, so there are perhaps as many hybrid models as there are software development projects.
The advantage of hybrid approaches is that they can be designed to suit the needs of the team, the project in question, the business, and the circumstances.
Components of the Agile Workflow
Here are a few of the most common steps that are included in agile workflows:
- Epics. An epic defines a body of work that must be completed during the project, which can then be further broken down into user stories.
- User stories. User stories define specific features and software components needed, as those features might be described by users.
- Scrums. Scrums are a set of practices, such as meetings and roles, that allow teams to self-organize and stay productive during a project.
- Sprints. Sprints are time frames within which scrum teams must complete a specified set of tasks.
- Backlogs. A backlog is a list of work items that must be completed by the teams.
- Kanban. Kanbans are work boards divided into columns, and each column is broken into a category, such as a priority level or a stage in the workflow.
- Roadmaps. The roadmap is the overarching plan of action that will be followed when developing the product.
Importantly, agile workflows should also follow the principles of agility – namely, they should respond to the needs of the team and be flexible when necessary.
Beyond Agile Software Development
Agile methods were popularized thanks to the software development community, but agile has spread into many other business functions.
Today, for instance, we have concepts such as:
- Agile project management
- Organizational agility
- Workforce agility
- Agile change management
- Agile manufacturing
- Agile supply chains
In fact, agile has become so central in today’s business world that major research firms such as McKinsey argue agility is essential to succeeding in the post-COVID next normal.