The perceived sudden appearance of the Diversity in Agile workgroup has apparently stirred up a few feelings and no small amount of controversy within the relatively small community of agile thought leaders and bloggers. Lanette Creamer has blogged about why she loves the project. Lisa Crispin has blogged about why she thinks such a group is productive, if not necessary. As a counter, Jon Bach has recently blogged in favor of a form of meritocracy were an ideal of “its the work, stupid” should define us as gender neutral. Finally Maura van der Linden argues while she appreciates the need for diversity, she doesn’t see any gender specific issues in agile and so wonders why a diversity group is necessary.
With all the controversy, I thought I might was well add my own voice to the chorus and give my unasked opinion.
I am a giant fan of diversity. I love it. Diversity is one of the reasons I fell into agile development years ago and have never managed to extract myself fully. You see I’m not a true tech geek. Sure I watched reruns of Star Trek and stood in line to watch Star Wars when it came out, but so did millions of other kids my age at the time. About the geekiest thing I did growing up was play first edition rules Dungeons & Dragons. But even that wasn’t so much geeky as escapist and an outlet for my story telling. You see, I’m a theater/literature/glee club geek. I went to college on a nearly full ride scholarship for my singing and acting talent. I used the scholarship to study modern English Literature. My first real exposure to a computer was when I inherited one from my mother and used it only as a word processor to write novels and short stories. Fast forward *cough* twenty years and I’m making my living in an industry usually requiring at least a four year bachelor of science degree in computer engineering before being considered as an entry level worker bee. It’s a somewhat admittedly homogeneous environment, but it allows me to bring my diverse experience to bear.
Both fortunately and unfortunately my background makes me diverse in the software industry. Its fortunate because most agile development is about identifying and delivering value to the customer defined as stories. I rock at stories. My background in theater and literature mean I can get inside a customer story and poke around like no one else can believe. I can almost hear myself shouting asking out to the director about the motivation for an exploratory test charter I’m building. It’s unfortunate because the simple fact I’m not a computer science major often makes me diverse, even though I’m just like the majority of people on the team in every other way.
The reason a lack of radical diversity is unfortunate has to do with what I believe to be the big “value add” for diversity in the workplace, and it has to do with semiotics. Semiotics is the study of communication through symbols which at first appears to only include spoke or written languages. But widen your perspective. If we look wider, you’ll notice that all communication both internal and external makes use of symbols to varying degrees of complexity. This relation is powerful enough it spawned a now controversial theory of linguistic relativity implying a causation link between language patterns and human reasoning. We don’t need to dig deeper into this subject, just accept thought patterns and experiences will alter perceptions and reasoning to varying degrees.
Diversity harnesses these differences as a source of innovation and radical problem solving. Let me explain. If we agree differences in experience will alter reasoning then we must allow problem solving (which is based on reasoning) will also be altered. My past experiences, culture, and language will subtly effect how I approach any problem I encounter. In business, you want as many different ideas as possible when solving a problem. It is often not enough that a problem is solved, it must be solved as rapidly and cheaply as possible. Staffing a team with similar problem solvers means the problems will be solved in the same manner each time. This team probably sounds familiar to people who’ve had to live through a Six Sigma or CMMI review, and its part of the problem agile methodologies arose to address. Putting everyone together on a single team tasked with solving the same problem simultaneously was an attempt (whether conscious or not) to introduce diversity of thought and experience and increase the effectiveness of all activities.
So a long introduction arriving at a short answer which is, I’m for the group and see no problem with it. I know from personal experience that any team improves with diversity with a seemingly disproportionate increase in effectiveness the greater that diversity. We need to promote diversity in agile because agile relies on diversity to be effective. We need diversity in skills, education, experience, problem solving, conflict resolution, and reasoning. If having a Google group seek out women to honor and hold up as role models for other women or girls just starting out, then more power to them. I’ve won awards before, and it felt great. The fact these women are willing to join the group and accept the award says loud and clear they’re okay with being a mentor, which (oddly enough) is something I hear is hard to find from women friends. I also don’t care if indeed I am not welcome. If its really that important to me, I’ll start my own club and make is exclusive.
But there’s really no need. Every Tuesday night I have “Glee” which only another theater/literature/glee club geek can truly appreciate. Well us and the 14% or so of the US population currently identified as homosexual. See? I even value diversity in that club.