Learn the Method Software Developers Use to Work Smarter and Get Ahead

person wearing headphones on a video call
Drazen_/Getty Images

Back in 2002, Brandon Carlson was working in project management for a software company. And like a lot of project managers, he was frustrated. “I felt like there had to be a better way to work,” he recalls. “All my projects were late and over budget.” The customers who commissioned the software projects thought they were getting a bad product, while the software engineers felt they’d been given bad instructions.

That’s when he stumbled upon the Agile Manifesto. First published in 2001, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development outlined the principles behind a whole new management style and work process: not the old-fashioned way, in which orders come from the top down and developers spend months building something they hope clients and users will like, but a flexible, iterative method.

Teams working with Agile strategies break down their project—be it a piece of software, a marketing campaign, or anything else—into pieces. Small teams made up of people with different backgrounds collaborate to tackle each piece in a “scrum,” a framework in which the team proposes how something could work and then tries to build it within a “sprint” of generally a month or less. Then the client or user tests the result to see what they like and don’t like, and that feedback goes into another scrum as part of a larger, feedback-driven process.

Agile was invented to improve software development, but in the two decades since its inception, Agile methods have become the gold standard not only for IT but also for project management in business and many other sectors. That’s because Agile leads to better products and most satisfied workers, Carlson says. “Quite frankly, the thing that tipped the scales for me was that our team was happier. I thought, ‘Wow, people are having fun at work again.’”

Carlson started a company called Lean Techniques that now helps companies from startups to Fortune 100 firms become more nimble by adopting Agile principles. Everyone could benefit from learning these principles, he says, including workers who want to score the kind of cross-team wins that will advance their careers. Workers can get up to speed on Agile strategies and help their teams become more adaptable and creative by suggesting where those methods could fit in with their company’s culture. “You can win influence with them and you’re going to build credibility in the organization,” Carlson says.

Here’s how incorporating Agile methods into your work can help you move faster and work smarter.

1. You’ll Embrace Uncertainty

Suppose you work for a company that writes tax software. Every year the government releases new changes in the tax law, and then you must update the software accordingly. In this kind of straightforward task, he says, traditional workplace methods can get the job done. It’s when teams encounter open-ended problems, requiring the creativity of everyone in the group, that Agile shines.

Carlson gives a hypothetical example of building a car. The client may ask for a boxy car that goes fast and corners well. But working only from such vague generalizations, you could create a vehicle that is a boxy shape and will tear down the highway but isn’t at all what the client actually had in mind. Using Agile, your team could work piece by piece, starting from the principles of what makes a good car and then eliciting feedback at each step as to exactly what the car should look like and what its performance capabilities should be.

“Agile is a process that manages uncertainty better than any other process I’ve ever encountered,” Carlson says. Its short sprints and immediate feedback allow developers to take chances and see whether they resonate with users. With the world and the economy turned upside-down by the COVID-19 pandemic, he says, Agile ways of thinking are more important than ever. “What’s on everybody’s mind right now? Uncertainty.”

2. You Challenge Your Assumptions

The things we create tend to reflect our own values, needs, and personalities. But to proceed without questioning those values assumes that everyone wants the same things that you do. The iterative process of Agile allows teams to find out early on whether their vision matches that of their bosses or their clients.

Any project can get bogged down if a development team works from bad principles. Consider the boxy car example: Working from the client’s request, the team could build a car that fits the requirements of going fast and cornering well, but doesn’t go as fast as a car built for pure speed nor corners as well as a sports car. The team didn’t challenge their own assumptions of what the client had in mind and the result was a compromise solution.

3. You Learn Faster

Back in the Industrial Age, companies that maximized their workers’ productivity became the leaders, Carlson says. But today, labor productivity isn’t enough. “The winners and the losers are decided by who learns faster,” he says, which is why machine learning and artificial intelligence are so critical to businesses.

The Agile approach allows teams to learn and react as quickly as possible. “With rapid feedback cycles, we learn faster, we can adapt our products faster, we can adapt how we work with each other faster,” he says. Rather than waiting for approval from above for every change to a business strategy or a piece of software, teams can work how they want. For example, more introverted people might work a few hours per day coding with their headphones on, then come back to the group with their work. “The best way for me to tell you if you’re on the right track is for you to get something to me quickly so I can say yes or no, that’s not what I was thinking at all,” he says.

4. You Think About the People—and the Team

Agile is about the power of the team: uniting people with different backgrounds and perspectives for fast-paced bursts of creativity, learning, and testing. But all workers are different, and not all will take immediately to the group-oriented nature of Agile.

Every truly successful team has space for the introverts and the extroverts, Carlson says, and these companies create a process that works for everyone, not a one-size-fits-all. “Everybody wants to be a hero. You want to be the hero of your own story and your career,” Carlson says. For some people, that means getting the project done on time and on budget. For others, it might mean collaborating with as many people as possible to invent something new. The challenge is to know yourself and the other members of your team and put everyone in a position to triumph.

5. You Can Take Initiative

Carlson’s advice for managers or workers who feel like he did back in 2002, frustrated by inefficiency and longing for a better way to work: Just do it. “Things aren’t going to change for you unless you do something about it. If you’re feeling stuck, you feel like you’re not in a good spot, take action.”

Managers who want their teams to function better can learn on their own (there are many free resources out there, including courses from University of Virginia and Udemy) and begin to bring in Agile principles and practices a bit at a time. Remember, it’s not an all-or-nothing deal. Some companies choose whatever Agile methods they want to accomplish their mission. After all, the idea of building an agile, cooperative culture is more important than any codified set of rules.