Agile methodologies and open source development

In the course of writing the JISCPress Project Plan, I’ve been thinking again about our project methodology. The original funding call asked for projects to adopt an agile methodology like SCRUM or XP, which I am familiar with. We attempted to use XP while I was working at Amnesty International (not long after half the IT department were trained in Prince2!) and like any methodology, it was used in part rather than in whole. We  collected user stories, held five minute stand up meetings each day and released often and iteratively so that users could feed back on the product.1

The JISCPress project has four team members, including myself. None of us work on JISCPress full-time, having other work and study commitments. Equally, none of us work together in the same department and only Alex and I work in the same university. Alex is a student of computing at Lincoln, Tony lives on the Isle of Wight and Eddie lives in San Francisco. In addition to this, we’re working wholly with existing open source software (WordPress) that is openly developed and it has never been an option in my mind, to enjoy the benefits of that community but not attempt to contribute back using the same transparency of process. It was also proposed in our funding bid that “the project will seek to promote openness and collaboration from the point of bid announcements onwards.” By this, I was thinking in terms of the open source development process I have seen with WordPress and other projects where asynchronous discussion and contributions take place through mailing listsIRCa code repositoryissue tracker and a wiki.

Reading the excellent OSS Watch website, I came across a page about the sustainability of projects and open development, and was particularly interested to read a quote from Gianugo Rabellino, CEO of SourceSense:

“If you think that one of the key ideas of agile is the unity of time and location – you need to be in the same place at the same time and doing a lot of discussion face-to-face – and then you have open development which is based on asynchronous, distributed working etc., then it looks like oil and water – they don’t mix”.

This is what I’ve been thinking recently, too. It’s not that they are wholly incompatible methods of developing software, but from what I know about agile methods, there is an assumption that the developers are working together in the same physical location, focused intensively on the same client driven product.

“Scrum enables the creation of self-organizing teams by encouraging colocation of all team members, and verbal communication across all team members and disciplines that are involved in the project.”2

Frankly, this way of working is impossible for us. On the other hand, projects that are openly developed often don’t have clients but instead have ‘communities’ of users. They rarely have short code sprints, they have open version-controlled repositories that allow anyone to test the code at any time. It’s worth noting that WordPress recently held a code sprint but given the size of the community, there were relatively few contributions. Many contributors work asynchronously and have other commitments over the course of their day, volunteering their time and effort when they can.

Likewise, JISCPress is intended to serve a community rather than a single client. We hope that it is the JISC community who lead the direction of the project through testing and feedback and who eventually benefit the most from the project. Beyond the JISC community, there is the wider community of users of WordPress and CommentPress who will likewise benefit from the project.

Ross Gardler, OSS Watch manager, describes the Open Development Methodology (ODM) as “a way for distributed team members to collaboratively develop a shared resource in a managed and sustainable way.” The ODM is characterised by:

  1. User engagement
  2. Transparency
  3. Collaboration
  4. Agility
  5. Sustainability

Agility and user engagement are also found in SCRUM and XP, but there is no requirement in these methodologies to be transparent, sustainable beyond the client’s specific use for the product or cater for a diverse group of asynchronous contributors.

With this in mind, I will continue to learn about and pursue an open development methodology for JISCPress because it is appropriate for our project. It is already part of an existing (WordPress) open development community and we have, from the start of WriteToReply and then the #jiscri call, placed a great deal of emphasis on openness and transparency of process.

It is too early in the project to measure the effectiveness of this approach. Eddie and Alex only joined us in the last few days and we’re still setting up the basic platform for working with. I have noticed that the use of IRC has not taken off despite my fondness for it. This is partly because all of us use GMail and tend to use Google Chat for quick conversations when we see we’re online at the same time, rather than having an IRC client open. Tony and I have an established way of communicating with each other over Twitter, which is public but a poor method of establishing context for the project as Twitter doesn’t archive tweets long-term and searching for anything seems to be hit and miss. I would like to establish weekly IRC meetings soon though. There is also the issue of working in a significantly different timezone to Eddie. IRC is for synchronous chat and when Eddie is at work,the rest of us are thinking of sleep. Eddie is talking about visiting the UK for a few days (paid for out of his own pocket), and I hope that the four of us and anyone else that is interested, will meet up for a day’s discussion and development.

There are clearly still things to be worked out and a routine to establish that works best for us, but I am keen that if a methodology is to be identified for the project, it is one of ‘open development’ rather than ‘agile’. I intend to devote a lot of my time on the project to ensuring that the wider WordPress community are aware of what we are doing and that they are welcome to contribute in any way they can. I shall write more about how we are addressing Ross’ five characteristics of an Open Development Methodology and am keen hear from anyone who has an opinion on any of this, including members of the JISCPress team, who I haven’t consulted before writing any of this.

  1. It may look like an empty repository but over 20,000 assets are available to logged in Amnesty staff. []
  2. Wikipedia: SCRUM []