Proto-agile in the Time of Hair Bands

Join me now, as we journey back to those golden days of yesteryear…. Yes, we’re traveling back in time to revisit the 1980s, the decade of Reagan and bands with Very Big Hair.

In 1987, I took a job as the one and only technical writer at a little start-up company called Colorado Memory Systems. The company made consumer tape drives to help ordinary people hang onto 40MB or so of vital data. Forty whole megabytes was a lot in those days, considering that most hard drives only held half that much.

Aside from the nostalgia of those innocent days of yore, an interesting thing happened at CMS. First off, when I started there all of us could fit in a single, not-very-large conference room. In addition, we had no QA department. As a bootstrap start-up, we couldn’t afford the inefficiencies inherent in specialist silos. As the company grew, we still had no QA department. The upshot was that everyone tested, every day, including yours truly, the tech writer.

The developers ran builds every day, which was quite an accomplishment considering that a clean full build could take five hours. Before leaving for the day, everyone grabbed the latest build, plugged a test tape into the drive, and ran a test script that would use said tape to beat on the software – and the tape drive itself since we also made the drives – all night long. We tested error rates, recovery from data error, heroic retry data recovery, and on and on. Every night. For several years.

In my roles there, first as the one-and-only technical writer and later as manager of technical publications, I worked hard to write the user documentation iteratively and incrementally as the software and hardware were being built. The user docs served as our UX test lab: if a feature or procedure could not be described simply, the feature or procedure was either poorly designed or too complex. The whole idea was to make tape drives a consumer commodity. Software and hardware that was difficult to install or use simply wouldn’t cut it. So early engagement with technical writers, beginning in the prototyping stage of both the hardware and software, was the norm. And feedback from technical writers in the form of the written user documentation and face-to-face conversation was highly effective in helping to improve the design of the hardware and software iteratively.

Buy the time I left CMS in the early 1990s to pursue yet more education, we had grown to over 200 employees and Grunge had replaced hair bands. But we still had no QA department. There were still daily builds. Everyone still tested every night. User documentation still provided vital feedback on hardware and software design.

Only now, in the 21st century can I put a name to what we were up to all those years ago. We were doing proto-agile. True, we did not release incrementally. We did not work in timeboxes. We did not have formal cross-functional teams. We did not test first then code. We did not consciously practice continuous improvement. Those practices were still locked in the future, scarcely a gleam in the early agilists’ eyes. We simply all worked together to build the best product possible in what were essentially daily iterations. Feedback was face-to-face. Testing and user docs were done early and often.

It’s no wonder I still have a soft spot for bands with Very Big Hair.

All for now….