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Kansas City, MO, 64105
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Karen Faith: Research, Strategy & Creative


J.S.Bach, the father of agile software development

Whether you’ve used the agile method yet or are still itching for the chance, you might already know that the biggest obstacle isn’t so much switching your own gears as it is switching your client’s. Communicating how agile process works to a partner who takes pride in tradition can feel like teaching a scroll-reading monk to use a book. Of course, old isn’t always bad, and some of our most current technologies can be traced to genius stuff from ages ago that just keeps coming back around. I mean, the wheel, for example. Really great work, ancestors.

That said, my agile method story starts way before software development, in fact, it starts around 1703. But I’ll do us all a favor and start in 1994, when I was 15.

Storytime part one.

I didn’t know back then, the day I auditioned for the orchestra at the University of Southern Mississippi, that I’d just taken the first of 5 (and counting) major detours. It was what I like to call the overachiever’s runaway plan, going to college so early, but the alternative was motivating; the Forrest County Agricultural High School music department consisted of 2 dozen brokedown horns and a stack of Aggie Fight Songs in a tore up trailer back between the greenhouse and the cattle, halfway out to the ball field. One day I managed to talk someone into letting me play Bach on my faux-Baroque viola while Coach taught the boys to pull a calf and the next day, by some ACT of God (a.k.a. a certain standardized test), I got the green light to skip the barndance and head to music school. That was my personal Part One and, if you count from when I started, it lasted about 20 years.

The undead end.

About 5 years into an orchestral career, I learned enough about myself to realize that fiddling wasn’t my final destination. There was more research to do, more to create. So I took up 3 new arts and let my symphony seat take the back seat. It was super all day long, except the bummer of feeling like I’d dumped a 20 year savings account. In my darker moments, it seemed like all those nights in the practice room had become the pointless futility I’d always feared they were – countless hours of scales and etudes, battling the rush and crash of stage terrors, balancing the expression and control of a phrase – all these excruciating, highly specific lessons all wasted. It felt like a dead end.

The good news, with foreshadowing in it.

I was wrong. A little. What I’d gained in all those practice rooms wasn’t the ability to perform orchestral excerpts, but an intimate knowledge of the shape of learning, the steps of a path. And when I started a new path as a visual artist, and then a writer, and then a dancer, and then a teacher, I walked through those processes more quickly, weaving the old lessons with the new. Each process began with the same few steps, but didn’t need as long to develop. Another path soon began, and then another, until they were all jamming pretty harmoniously. Like a fugue.

What this has to do with anything plus a YouTube video.

Fast forward to January 2013. Now a design researcher specializing in values-driven, user-centered fieldwork, I am having a conversation with UX wizard, Nick Hahn, my research partner at the now-defunct collaborative, Design Cloud, and he starts telling me about the agile method for software development. For those who aren’t familiar, agile process is a way of structuring development in shorter, staggered, iterative cycles so that changes can be made before much time is wasted going down dead end paths. (See: Viola Performance.) Nick said, “if we apply the new learning every time we begin a new cycle, the process gets smarter each time, evolving and shortening the learning curve as each development track begins to inform the other.”

“Like a fugue,” I said.

Nick gave me the eyebrows so I took him to YouTube. 

In case that didn’t speak for itself.

The first voice carves the path. The second follows and soon deviates. The third begins and echos without copying the variation of the second. Each new voice adds complexity as other voices pause and return, grounding and ornamenting their counterparts in a series of ever-evolving cycles. Just as my music practice initiated every practice since.


Today, Nick and I are creating a design method based on the agile process that includes iterative cycles of research, design, testing, development and adoption planning woven together in a contrapunctal chorus of creation. In other words, we are learning as we go, beginning each cycle a little smarter, moving forward in separate but harmonious cycles of creation. He thanks the Manifesto for Agile Software Development; I thank J.S. Bach. Your clients, however, are going to thank you.

Are you a hybrid professional with a resume so diverse and confusing it puts the Whole Foods salad bar to shame? Do you have a hard time explaining your process to humans? Do you like to obsess about what different systems have in common with one another, or like, how everything is a metaphor for everything else in a micro/macro/meta kind of way, and then do you like to draw pictures on napkins that no one else, including the you of the future, will ever understand? Tell me about it.