Old White Guys and Agility

I’d like to take a second to address a trope I see here and there about the founding of the agile community. It’s the stuff about "old white men".

Non-trigger warning: relax. This isn’t a rant.

BTW, I hate using the word "agile" for our movement, & usually use circumlocutions to avoid it. I believe that, as we grew, through at least some fault of our own, our peaceful and positive vision has become a horrifying stick to hit people with, so I avoid the word. The gist of the trope I’ve seen is that our community was founded by old white men, and as a result has various flaws, depending in detail on what the author thinks is wrong with their experience and analysis of the movement.

Let me share my reaction with you, from the first time I saw this trope, from Sarah Mei some months back.

I snortled.

True story, I had a mouthful of soda, and I chortled and snickered and dribbled a little. Well? I mean, c’mon. That’s pretty good snark if you ask me. It’s got just the right mix of consensus-truth, debatable-opinion, mean-spiritedness, and finally just plain humor that makes a naturally-snarky person like me smile.

I was there, you know. I joined this movement with great fervor in the late ’90s just as it was becoming a thing. The XP branch of the cousins. And I’ve been there ever since, doing, teaching, coaching, speaking, and writing.

So. "Old white men founded this movement and that’s why it’s flawed."

Welllllllll, yes, and no, and also yes, and also no, and finally yes, but no.

(In my view, that’s the merit of all good snark, that it probes in clever and funny ways at delicate boundaries.)

My corner of the community was XP, and that’s the part of the movement whose origins I know best. Tho I believe what I’ll say here applies broadly to whole movement, I have far more familiarity with that piece of it, I freely admit.


First delicate question at the boundary: is this movement really horribly flawed?

I can say absolutely without any hesitation or doubt that the movement whose founding I participated in and in whose arms I’ve spent just over twenty years is deeply and horribly flawed. There’s no space here to enumerate those deep flaws. You can try some of my other writing to get a sense of my beliefs about it.

What I will do is tell you how that makes me feel: I feel some grief and much frustration. I often feel closer the movement’s critics than its advocates. I find the "agile as stick" and "agile as re-labeled hierarchy" particularly painful. I will tell you one more thing, then we’ll move along: I know many people with comparable experience from those days who substantively share the take I just gave. They include some manifesto-signers. They include many movement leaders.

Second delicate question at the boundary: was it really old people who founded this movement?

1) All of us still alive are sure as hell old now. 2) I’d guess the median age of the original community was in about 30. 3) Our spokespeople were, like me, closer to 40 then. I’ll leave it to you decide what "old" means, then and now. That first generation was composed of people who’d been in the trade long enough to a) succeed moderately, b) not like what it was doing to them or their peers, c) want to shape the future of the trade.

Third delicate boundary question: was it all white men?

Trivially, no. But it was reflective of that immediately prior a-b-c I just gave, and thus it was hardly representative of the larger community.

By proportion, we likely were not even representative of the larger community in the trade, one traditionally dominated by white men. We certainly weren’t representative of the world’s population. I could readily list for you at least a dozen women who were as much a part of that first generation as I was. These are women I actively learned from and with. I want to, so bad, and may do it later. But it wouldn’t disprove the thesis. It was mostly men, and mostly white men.

Fourth delicate question at the boundary: Is the age-, race-, & gender-identity of the first generation the source of the horrible flaws?

Hard to imagine it isn’t one of the sources, isn’t it? I find it easy to say "an important" source, myself. I doubt it’s "the" source. The various forms of identity in a culture are probably the single most important shaping force in the behavior of individuals in that culture. They’re generally far more powerful than acts of will.

It’d be silly to suggest otherwise, and in fact, suggesting otherwise is the cornerstone of much of what I think is most broken about our movement and our trade.

(If you’ll allow me a moment of mild defensiveness: 1) I know of no one I respect who feels the same about their identity today as they did twenty years ago. 2) I, right now, am shaped and bound by forces far beyond any ken. 3) You, too, regardless of your identity-roles.)

Anyway, if you ask me, our community shouldn’t be talking about the inclusion-diversity movement, we should be leading it.

So, "Old white men founded this movement and that’s why it’s flawed."

That’s good snark, and it’s also good perturbation — a good system-disturbing source of delicate boundary questions. It doesn’t freak me out to hear it, and I hope you got a sense of why it doesn’t. For every one of those questions, your mileage may vary, and that’s fine, more than fine, even. Speaking with one voice is as tremendously overrated as holding an identity too closely.

My very last thought:

Go change the world.

Yeah? You don’t need the first generation’s permission or support, but, actually, you have it. Go fix what’s wrong. It’s a challenging, joyful, painful, and infinite enterprise, and we highly recommend it.

[Hey, one more tiny thing. I put the key phrase in quotes to highlight it. It is not a direct quote from anyone, only my short paraphrase of a figure or trope I was drawing attention to. As such, it is what I heard, not literally what anyone else said.]

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