Agile Before there was Agile: Egoless Programming and Step-by-Step

Two key ideas underlying modern Agile development practices. First, that work can be done more effectively by Whole Teams in which people work together collaboratively to design and build systems. They share code, the review each other’s work, they share ideas and problems and solutions, they share responsibility, they work closely with each other and communicate constantly with each other and the customer.

The second is that working software is designed, built and delivered incrementally in short time boxes.

Egoless Programming

The idea of developers working together collaboratively, sharing code and reviewing each other’s work isn’t new. It goes back to Egoless Programming first described by Gerald Weinberg in the early 1970s, in his book The Psychology of Computer Programming.

In Egoless Programming teams, everyone works together to build the best possible software, in an open, respectful, democratic way, sharing ideas and techniques. People put personal feelings aside, accept criticism and look for opportunities to learn from each other. The important thing is to write the best possible code. Egoless programmers share code, review each other’s work, improve code, find bugs and fix them. People work on what they can do best. Leadership of the team moves around and changes based on what problems the team is working on.

The result is people who are more motivated and code that is more understandable and more maintainable. Sounds a lot like how Agile teams are trying to work together today.


My first experience with “agile development”, or at least with iterative design and incremental time boxed development and egoless programming, came a long time before the famous meeting at Snowbird in 2001. In 1990 joined the technical support team at a small software development company on the west coast of Canada. It was quite a culture shock joining the firm. First, I was recruited while I was back-packing around the world on a shoestring for a year – coming back to Canada and back to work was a culture shock in itself. But this wasn’t your standard corporate environment. The small development team all worked from their homes, while the rest of us worked in a horse ranch in the country side, taking calls and solving problems while cooking spaghetti for lunch in the ranch house kitchen, with an attic stuffed full of expensive high-tech gear.

We built and supported tools used by thousands of other programmers around the world to build software of their own. All of our software was developed following an incremental, time boxed method called Step-by-Step which was created by Michel Kohon in the early 1980s.

In Step-by-Step, requirements are broken down into incremental pieces and developers develop and deliver working software in regular time boxes (ideally two weeks long), building and designing as they go. You expect requirements to be incomplete or wrong, and you expect them to change, especially as you deliver software to the customer and they start to use it. Sounds a lot like today’s Agile time boxed development, doesn’t it?

Even though the company was distributed (the company’s President, who still did a lot of the programming, moved to a remote island off the west coast of Canada, and later to an even more remote island in the Caribbean), we all worked closely together and were in constant communication. We relied a lot on email (we wrote our own) and an excellent issue tracking system (we wrote that too), and we spent a lot of time on the phone with each other and with customers and partners.

The programmers were careful and disciplined. All code changes were peer reviewed (I still remember going through my first code review, how much I learned about how to write good code) and developers tested all their own code. Then the support team reviewed and tested everything again. Each month we documented and packaged up a time boxed release and delivered it to beta test customers – customers who had reported a problem or asked for a new feature – and asked for their feedback. Once a year we put together a final release and distributed to everyone around the world.

We carefully managed technical debt – although of course we didn’t know that it was called technical debt back then, we just wrote good code to last. Some of that code is still being used today, more than 25 years after the products were first developed.

After I left this company and started leading and managing development teams, I didn’t appreciate how this way of working could be scaled up to bigger teams and bigger problems. It wasn’t until years later, after I had more experience with Agile development practices, that I saw how what I learned 20 years ago could be applied to make the work that we do today better and simpler.

Reference: Agile Before there was Agile: Egoless Programming and Step-by-Step from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the Building Real Software blog

Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Basil Vandegriend
Basil Vandegriend
11 years ago

I love how this article highlights that the underlying ideas and practices behind Agile were actively in use decades earlier. There seems to be a general perception that Waterfall used to be the one true way to develop software, only going into decline with the rise of Agile, and nothing could be further from the truth. I wrote about this recently on my blog at

Back to top button