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Johnnie Fox on Agile Development and Legal Tech

Q: What do a group of lawyers and a group of Drupal tech geeks have in common?

My first presentation at a conference with this new, fancy title of "CTO" was Imagine, an annual event for the International Legal Technology Association. I had come to the ILTA Conference with the expectation that in many ways, I’d be the tech geek, sticking out like an astronaut at a rodeo. I mean, the law industry? That’s an industry known for being sleek. And here I am, a glasses-clad CTO from a web development shop... A leading nerd of nerds.

Looking out into a sea of bright-eyed individuals who could easily be mistaken for Drupal camp attendees, I realized "I am in my element. It doesn’t matter in what industry I am presenting; it only matters that I am amongst my people: the tech world."

This twisted tale starts with an email from a former co-worker asking me if I was interested in speaking about Agile Software Development at a conference. He knew the answer was "Yes." I’ve attended and spoken at a lot of Drupal events. I thought, "Sure; this would be fun."

Maybe I should have asked which conference before blindly agreeing. But, instead, I enthusiastically volunteered, and then silently did an internal scream of a doubt when I found out it was going to be a law technology conference. Several thoughts went through my head. Are these people going to debate me? Is zero legal technology experience acceptable? Is legal technology a "thing"? If it is a "thing" how does it relate to my experience at Promet?

You don’t have to go to ILTA to understand that legal technology is indeed a "thing." Law firms share many of the same concerns that our Drupal clients have. They are under pressure to automate and execute faster. They have workflows. As businesses, they need reporting capabilities to understand and measure their resources and work.

Law firms often have their own internal software development teams who not only develop software but are often supporting third-party applications. Furthermore, they have to implement these workflows across offices that are in different cities, states and countries.

The conference of the International Lawyers Technology Association (ILTA) met in Nashville on August 17 - 21. This conference has been happening for 37 years and is attended by more than 3500 people. The professional services working committee was looking to add a speaker to a session for the conference. The title of the session had already been set. It was "Making Agile Work."   

So, I was given a session with a title which might imply that maybe Agile Development has not been working in this industry. Or maybe it is somewhat new? Obviously, there is interest here. But what are the preconceived notions regarding Agile? When I stand up there and evangelize the elimination of heavy design upfront, self-organizing teams and Sprint 0, will I be met with objections?

Once I was onsite at the conference it was somewhat different than what I thought would be there. I was sad to learn that on arriving I had missed the comic con event that the group held the night before. I did not see as many t-shirts as one would at a Drupal event; however, that was the main difference. There were plenty of people sporting backpacks, laptops, tablets of all configurations and discussing the details of making and using the software. Surprisingly, I was greeted by the echoes of the usual cut-throat debates about tablets, operating systems, and software—the sounds of which can calm any tech geek.

For the session I presented, I was joined by Jamie Artis (Director of Client Service at K&L Gates) and Sanjay Akut (Director, Application Development at K&L Gates). K&L Gates is a law firm with 4400 employees in 48 offices. However, the development team is comprised of about 60 people which is very similar in size to Promet.

For our 90-minute session, we introduced Agile concepts for the first 20 minutes and then opened the floor for questions and discussion from the audience. One would think that the world of legal technology might have a very different focus than that of Drupal development. It does not. The questions were ones that cover all organizations that work with software.   

  • How do I get users/Management to understand Agile?
  • How long is the ideal sprint?  
  • How can I get the product owner more involved?
  • Agile sounds like chaos.   How is it more structured?
  • How can I get my waterfall team to buy into Agile?

These and other questions made it clear. It is not about "Making Agile Work." Rather, it’s about making a software development process work. And this sought-after Holy Grail exists not just in the Drupal community, not just in web development, but across the technology industry at large.

Like the tech industry, software development is still relatively new and ever-changing. Every innovation and improvement brings a host of new challenges. Agile Methodology is one way to direct and manage software development... But, one day it will be as archaic as stone tablets and VHS tapes. But in the meantime, may all the tech geeks looking to make the elusive "it" work find some guidance in Agile Development.

And no matter your industry (legal or otherwise), anyone interested in Agile should first understand that Agile isn’t just a certification or a set of tooling. It is a mindset that has a set of guiding principles that should inform how you run your projects. Being Agile isn’t having a certification or a specific set of project tools. The measure of being Agile is having agility. When your organization has agility it will execute projects in an Agile way.  

The Agile Manifesto:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

So, what does a group of lawyers and a group of Drupal tech geeks have in common?

A: Everything. They both are looking for the best ways to create software. And they love a costume party (which is great).