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December 16, 2015
Can you do agile development with packaged software?
By: Mirco Hering

I have heard this question many times and only recently realized that the person asking the question and me hearing the question had a different understanding of what the question means. Let me try to explain. The question posed by this blog post can be interpreted in two ways:

  1. If you use packaged software like SAP or Siebel, can you use an Agile methodology?

  2. If you want to be Agile, can you use packaged software?

I know the difference is subtle, but the impact of the understanding and the response is amazing. I had this realization when talking to a colleague who is taking an Agile course with me. My response to both questions would be yes, the difference being that to the first question I would say “YES”, to the second question I would say “yes, but…” It is easiest to see the difference if you consider the alternatives in question: in the first question the alternatives are Agile or Waterfall, in the second question the alternatives are packaged software or custom software.

Let me explain. If you want to be agile, there are a couple of things you want to achieve. So let’s look at some of them when considering packaged software:

  • Faster time to market: My experience tells me that you will not be as fast with packaged software as you would be with a custom solution in many cases (just the sheer size of the software is often significantly larger).

  • Decoupling of dependencies: This is much harder in packaged solutions.

  • Use a lot of automation and DevOps practices: This is a little bit trickier with packaged software.

  • Want a first release quickly: If you know which product to choose you might be, but usually packaged software requires more requirements analysis and fit-gap analysis up front to choose the right product.

So if you want to be really Agile and use DevOps practices and autonomous self-directed teams with little dependencies, then packaged software might be harder to use, hence the “yes, but…” You should ideally choose a custom solution or perhaps a SaaS solution in that case (but be careful, many SaaS products are not DevOps supportive either).

Now, let’s look at the other question: Assume you already use Siebel or SAP, can you use an Agile methodology? Here the answer is a loud and clear “YES”. Think about all the good things about Waterfall. They all still exist in Agile, just better if you do it right. You have the rigor of change control (just for a shorter period – the iteration), you have extensive testing (just automated and within the iteration), you have as much or as little time for analysis as you require in the discovery phase. You will likely not see the same results in regards to time to market as if you would use custom software, but I bet you get better results than if you do Waterfall with packaged software.

So yes, I think I (and many others) have responded to the wrong question.

To give you an idea about my experience: I have supported Agile projects for Siebel at many different levels of scale and usually with 2-3 week iterations. I have implemented some of the core practices of DevOps around configuration management and automatic deployments for Siebel as well as automated testing. It is absolutely possible, and I think most of my colleagues would agree, that using Agile is preferred over Waterfall for Siebel if you do it right (perhaps packaged software is a little bit less forgiving than custom if you don’t do it right – but that’s for another discussion). Could we be faster and better if we could use a custom solution? Absolutely. But that is a different question now, isn’t it? 

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