Saturday, September 29, 2007

Agile In The Burbs?

In a recent post, my friend Alex commented on the complex art of managing employees in remote locations, which came at a time when I was thinking about the high toll of co-located teams.

My reflexion started a few weeks ago when I was reading a reader's letter in IEEE Spectrum's Forum. Commenting on a very complete coverage Spectrum just run on big cities and their challenges, the reader said:
Why does modern society think that it’s entitled to expend all that energy, in whatever form, merely to transport people to their jobs? No one mentions the toll that a 4-hour-per-day commute takes on relationships. (...) What has always seemed more sensible to me is to live where you work. My commute is 10 minutes each way, on foot. And in my entire career as an engineer, the longest commute I’ve had was a half-hour drive.
(Read the full letter "Megacommutes to megacities")

My first reaction was: lucky man! Then my second thought was: why can not we all have such a life, a life where the distance to work does not put a toll on our lives and our environment?

So why do we rush to big cities? Because this is where the demand for IT workers is high: banks, public sector entities and private companies have a tendency to locate themselves downtown. Since they have a high need of software engineers, they act as a magnet for us geeks of all sorts.

But why do not we telecommute more? After all, this is a revolution that has been announced a long time ago and we now have the tools that would allow us to make it happen. Massively distributed open source communities have proven that this is a model that can work.

On the contrary, agile principles tell us that teams should be as co-located as possible, because of the millstone that distance puts on communication, whose efficiency is a major cause of success for software projects (and the lack thereof a major cause of failure). Industry luminaries and extensive discussions have made this point very clear.

Since housing madness only allows singles and dinkies to live downtown, the ones of us with a family are then forced to live in the burbs, far away from work and far away from the perfect commute the aforementioned reader says he experienced all his life.

Trying to accommodate the often conflicting requirements of agility, personal life and business is not a trivial task, but one that is certainly calling for a broader rethinking of the way our cities and workplaces are organized and located.


Ben Fulton said...

The demand for every job in big cities is high. But many software companies don't really have any need to be in cities, since their customers are global and their shipping costs negligible. To turn the question on its head, why aren't more software companies moving out of big cities?

David Dossot said...

That is a very good question.

For consulting firms developing software for traditionally patriarchal entities (banks, insurance groups, government agencies), this is maybe just not an option: everybody should be together in the building, like a happy family looked over by a proper number of management layers.

But for the lucky ones, either consulting for more adventurous (modern?) clients or purely developing software as their primary business, moving out of big cities sounds like a tempting endeavour.