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Dave Thomas Interview: The Corruption of Agile; Ruby and Elixir; Katas and More

Dave Thomas is a coauthor of the legendary Pragmatic Programmer book, one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto, a publisher, speaker, and the man who brought Ruby to the masses. I caught up with him at the Erlang Factory Conference in San Francisco to discuss why he hasn't attended an Agile event since he signed the manifesto, why he thinks Elixir is the next important language, and many other, well, pragmatic programming topics.

The Pragmatic Book

AB: The Pragmatic Programmer book is probably the first place folks saw your name.

DT: I think that's right.

AB: That book confirmed for me that all the things I was sloppy about were things I was truly doing wrong. It also showed me how many other things I needed to improve to be more than a journeyman.

DT: That book contained no original information whatsoever, but it did manage to distill what was commonly held information.

AB: Many of the things you recommended there are now standard practice. It's amazing how much of the industry, in terms of the discipline, has moved forward. Now things are much more about getting people to buy into continuous integration, for example, than it is about getting them to check their code in.

DT: Yes, the stunning thing to me is that if you look back to that time — 1999 — the fact that we felt it necessary to say "check in your code" is that prior to that, people weren't following that practice. I know intellectually that's true, but it's still stunning to me that that was the case.

AB: Cowboy programming was much more common then than it is today. It was about finding corners to cut, rather than using tools properly. What would you include today if you were writing that book now?

DT: A lot of the practices today are commonplace. What I would do with many of those would be to examine them because many of the things that are now commonplace are done through rote and not because they are understood. My classic example of that is testing. It's gone from being "if you tested, you were unusual and a saint" to now "if you don't test, you're the devil incarnate." And the reality is that testing is not universal and it shouldn't be universal. And to be someone who's doctrinaire about it is to misunderstand the point just as much as someone who doesn't test at all.

The whole point, to my mind, of the Agile Manifesto is that it's a set of personal practices that may scale to team level. You do not need a consultant to show you how to do that…And yet immediately what happened was that everyone and their dog hung out an Agile shingle and the whole thing turned into a branding exercise.

AB: There are a lot of doctrinaire views on that particular topic.

DT: Oh, absolutely! Yes, sometimes it doesn't make sense: "We won't accept your code unless we see the tests." Well, who are you to say? The tests are a tool. They're not a ticket. I'm not saying that testing is bad necessarily, but I am saying that the attitude towards many of these practices has gone past the point of intelligence to becoming just rote.

In addition, some of the vocabulary would change because our book predated the Agile Manifesto. And although I'm not a big fan of the way Agility has gone, I'd probably still update the book to be in line with the vocabulary people use. Some of the things would stay very much the same. Some of the techniques, such as Don't Repeat Yourself. It blows me away that that's become a standard acronym. I would like to re-emphasize: A lot of people view that as being "don't cut and paste." And I need to explain again that that's not the case.

The Corruption of Agile

AB: Let me move to the Agile Manifesto. You were one of the original signatories…

DT: Yes, yes. There were 17 of us that met in Snowbird in Utah in February 2001; and we came up with the four values and the common ground and practices. The way we came up with it was not something I'd ever experienced before. There were 17 people and everyone had their own ax to grind and their own particular viewpoint on what was best. And within a couple of hours, we'd come up with a way of working that let us discuss the principles behind what we were doing without going into the details.

So the framework itself, the actual four values, came out in half a day. It just kind of came. I think everyone kind of knew what they wanted to say. I think it was actually Martin Fowler and I — everyone else was having lunch — we were kind of sitting at a whiteboard just chatting through things and we came up with the "we value A over B" formulation, which as it turns out, has worked out really well.

AB: I think that perhaps a limitation is that a lot of people have interpreted it as "no B whatsoever."

DT: Indeed! And, in fact, we recognized that might happen at the time, and we put in the little phrase at the bottom: "whereas we value B, we value A more." So, we thought that would happen and we tried to stop it, but, of course, we…

AB: …can never control…

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