20 years of Women in Agile

20 years of Women in Agile

An Anniversary Panel by AgileTD & the Agile Alliance

In February 2021, the Agile Manifesto celebrated its 20th year of existence. To commemorate these two decades of the Agile Manifesto, the organizers of the Agile Testing Days / Agile Testing Days USA and the Agile Alliance teamed up for a virtual panel discussion on the role of women in the development of Agile. Some of the most influential women in the field shared their experiences about the early and current contributions and challenges of women in agile. 

The wonderful round was moderated by Janet Gregory and Ellen Grove, and their guests were no other than the thought leaders Linda Rising, Esther Derby, Rebecca Wirfs-Brock, and Ash Coleman.
The panelists shared their thoughts on the evolution of Agile then and now, starting off with Linda looking back at the early agile developments in 1998, mentioning Scrum and the iterative developments and Esther mentioning the implementation of retrospectives etc. Some of the panelists are beknown book authors and thus helped build the foundation for following generations to step into this “humane methodology in producing software”, as Ash Coleman describes it. 

Our panelists look at current developments too, also pointing out the challenge for organizations to juggle with “discovering [their ways] versus following the book” (Esther) and “Why patterns don’t tell you how to do it” (Rebecca).

The time ran out very fast, so many topics and aspects were touched, many of them worth a deep dive itself. One of these topics being an outlook into the future development of women in tech and in agile, which thus became the topic of a second panel discussion (see bottom for more info).

The audience sent many questions during the panel, but only the first four questions could be addressed by the panelists. However, they did answer the other open ones afterwards. Please find all the questions and applicable answers below.



  1. What would you do differently if you could go back in time (20 years ago)? And to piggy back on that question; how do you envision the agile space 20 years from now?

Linda Rising: 

I mentioned earlier that I went back to get a PHD in computer science because I felt like I had to do it. I didn't know enough, I didn't have the credentials. I mean I had a lot of other degrees but if I was going to have anything to do with this world of software development I thought I better have some professional credentials. And so I went back in my late 40s to get that PHD. And I thought it was up to me to learn all this stuff so that I could tell other people how to do it.

And what I wish I had known is what I know now, which is: This is not so much about what you know and what you want to tell other people. You need to spend more time listening and trying to figure out what those other people are going through and learning what they do and how they see the world. And I just didn't understand that at the time. In fact, maybe I didn't even understand that until 2016, when the election in the United States forced me to join an organization called "braver angels" where I had to sit down in a workshop and have a conversation with somebody who did not have the same political beliefs I did. And I really had to learn how to listen. I wish I'd known that 20 years ago.

Esther Derby: 

When people ask me questions like this I always think about Sansa at the end of Game of Thrones. She went through some terrible terrible things that no one should have. Married to three different horrible men and married off against her will. 

And someone asks her at the end of the series: Do you regret that you went through all those things? And she said, paraphrasing: If I hadn't gone through them I would still be that fragile little bird that I was, at the bench you know when this whole thing started. And she ended up being incredibly strong and incredibly brave and decisive. 

So, I tend not to deal in regrets. It's all sort of made me who I am, me to where I am.


  1. What do you think the next 20 years will look like in the Agile world?

Ash Coleman:

Oh heavens, that's a big question. I have thoughts that go way beyond this panel, of which folks are welcome to pick my brain on at another time. However, to speak to this question I am sure we can afford more diversity. We can afford more faces of agile. We can afford more individuals living their real truth within agile. We can afford more safety and trust in agile. 

And I'm really looking forward to us really seizing that moment and understanding where does agile exist right now. And seeing that pivot opportunity to grow in a way that is really being called for when we think about what technology's capacity is at this point. There is a lot in front of us as far as an opportunity to build a new world technologically.

And I think that agile can join in that journey by being the frontrunner in creating that change and creating the space for folks to show up as they are and create those products the way they need them to be. Very aspirational, clearly.


  1. It seems that sexism is still prominent in tech companies, including those that say they are "inclusive" and "embrace the agile mindset". What do you think will be needed to help/encourage men in our culture to welcome more voices when working together?

Esther Derby:

Rewards, people do what is rewarded. So, if companies change something, some aspects of their reward systems and their job descriptions and deal with what we know is true about the way men and women respond differently to job ads. Everybody knows that, you know, if a guy has waved an article in front of his face he’d say "Oh yeah, I know how to do that", but women, unless they have 10 years of experience they won't, well I don't know, no qualifications for that. So, if companies change their reward structures that behaviour would likely change.

Rebecca Wirfs-Brock:

I have one thought on that. In actual fact, people have said: "Well, if you have blind rehearsals for orchestras and musicians, that you will get more diversity in the people there."

Which is kind of saying that somehow we have to get to a place where we don't look at first impressions, in order to become inclusive. Nor do we have a set of tick boxes that we kick off. 

There was an experience report, a couple of years ago, by Avraham Poupko. That was great, because he talked about super solid models of diversity. If you want a soup you want to mix in the ingredients, have the right numbers and there it is. But it's pretty bland. As leaders, people have to think about, well salad could have certain spiciness and differences and we should embrace that. But that's actually a big change that has to come. It's not just ticking off the boxes. And we have to some way just like get over first impressions and biases because they are there.

Linda Rising:

Things have gotten better. And I have seen it. I can remember my first job interviews in the early 60s. And I was asked questions like "Are you on birth control?". That would not happen now. And when I would go to work in a given company, there would be hardly any other women there. Maybe none. That was also true for most of the classes I took in university. I started out as a chemist and then I became a mathematician. There were no other women there. Now, look at this! We have a whole panel of women. Things are getting better, they really are. It is just hard to see if you haven't been out there for decades so that you can say: "Wow, I remember in the 60s things were really grim." And now we have made progress. So, we should be a little more optimistic, I think.

Ash Coleman:

I want to plus one on that Linda. I think that the progress absolutely is identifiable. The fact that we are all here having this conversation today is very indicative of change that has happened and continues to happen. I want to also just emphasize that as we continue to progress the length and the speed at which change comes about can afford to be better. And we can continue to be overly optimistic at what capacity humans have to change in regards to their inclusivity and regarding the voices that historically have not been heard or seen in these spaces. I think it is one of those two-sided coins where we've done a lot and we have got miles to go.

  1. What advice would you give to people who have just started working in the industry and who are not familiar with Agile yet?
    What would you recommend especially to young women?

Ash Coleman:

Don't always be the person who takes the notes. That would be my sole advice. Be the person who's making the moves. Don't make the contributing voice. Don't make the coffee. Don't take the notes. And that's a call out to those who are participating in the men arena here. They shouldn't always be suggested as being those to do it.

Rebecca Wirfs-Brock:

Or clean up things that need tidying.

Linda Rising:

Or planning the birthday parties, that's what I got stuck with. 

Janet Gregory:

Or clean the kitchen. Do the dishwasher. Any of those things.

Esther Derby:

Don't assume that one workplace is like all workplaces are. If it doesn't bring you some joy and some satisfaction, you can go work somewhere else. And just don't assume that because one workplace is the way it is that it is inevitable that that's the way things have to be.

Rebecca Wirfs-Brock:

So one thing that I think that people shouldn't do is to put up with the: "I can't ask if I don't know something culture. I have to be the tough one to figure it out on my own." I never did that [...] Just ask.


  1. If you were asked to write an Agile Manifesto. What would be different?

Janet Gregory: 

We would include something about testing and quality.


  1. I feel like I have to prove my technical skills over and over again - every role changes, every new project, when team members change. Any tips for avoiding burnout while trying to prove yourself? Maybe this is better phrased as how do you improve your technical confidence?

Janet Gregory:

I would give up trying to prove myself, and just bring the goods. The best way is to show what you have to offer and how you can contribute. 


  1. Ash how did you get into tech? Love your background!

Ash Coleman:

By accident. A friend of mine knew I did "nerdy computer things" and so informed me that the company that he works for was looking for contractors to do some light FE work. I had learned to code as a kid and so comfortably stepped into the 2 week contract. Come the end of the contract, the CTO approached me because he liked that I was curious and from there offered me my first full-time quality engineering role.


  1. What doors did the Agile Manifesto open that you did not expect?

Linda Rising:

The Agile Manifesto resulted in the agile conferences, which enabled a host of diverse attendees, offerings, activities, and helped me develop ideas, presentations, and classes, I know I would otherwise not have been able to create. I still look back on the last 20 years in wonder.


  1. Our field has managed to waste an extraordinary volume of human effort and human potential. Are we making progress? What are the biggest wastes left to reduce?

Janet Gregory:

I had to think about this, but .... how do we share the really good stuff that is out there with the world and eliminate the snake oil ... I find myself repeating the same message - for 20 years now. I guess we just keep doing what we are doing and hope that people can sift through the garbage. Focus on the positive and quite wasting energy on tearing others down.


  1. As businesses go through Agile transformation how can HR support that process?

Ellen Grove:

It's really important for HR to become aware of how Agile approaches to thinking about people and teams will change thinking about hiring, performance, team and employee well-being, and even compensation. I've seen transformations struggle because legacy HR policies and practices sometimes get in the way of promoting the kinds of behaviours that help teams succeed. Fortunately, there are a lot of great HR people thinking about these problems and offering guidance and real-life examples of how to transform HR along with the org.


  1. What gives you the most hope for the future given what you see in today's workforce?

Linda Rising:

What gives me hope is the enormous amount of progress I have seen in my lifetime. Things have continued in a forward direction for decades. That doesn't mean that future progress is guaranteed, of course, but it does mean that continuing in this direction is possible. I believe it will happen. 


  1. Do you feel women and women's leadership in the agile environments lends itself to bringing emotions, thought process, creativity into the workforce

Linda Rising:

Some of the nicest, kindest, most thoughtful bosses/managers/leaders I have worked with have been men. Some of the most un-feeling, thoughtless, abrasive, and inconsiderate have been women. I think our goal should be diversity, not only of gender, but of educational experience, culture, and outlook. We need to bring out the best in everyone. That hasn't always been the practice in the past but I believe we are moving in that direction.


  1. Unfortunately, some countries have lots of "machismo" in the workspace. What advice would you give to women who sometimes feel that they're looked down upon by some of their (very narrow minded) male co-workers?

Janet Gregory:

Keep your head held high. Be brave and contribute the best way you can. I've found that calling bad behaviour out is a start to change, but it is difficult if you are the only person who sees it. 


  1. Very curious Ash - how do you use Agile to help companies design for inclusion especially in the new remote landscape companies/teams are facing?

Ash Coleman:

Agile as a methodology is very focused on centering people; collecting voices, establishing ownership, being responsive and reflective. If we recognize that at its core, and we are truly invested in taking up an Agile process, it is our duty to genuinely ensure "all" voices are included, all folks have ownership, and process is adjusting responsively and being reflective. Agile is diversity and inclusion, just like Agile is quality. 


  1. What can we do to support more humane behaviour as software people? (And should we)?

Ellen Grove: It's critical that we encourage more humane behaviour, because treating ourselves, our colleagues, and our customers better yields better results for all in the long term (in addition to being the right thing to do). We also know that encouraging diversity -- along many dimensions -- bring important benefits in building better solutions to complex problems. One thing we can do is to actively look around the team room | Zoom window and question ourselves regularly as to "who is in the room?", "what perspectives are not represented here?","who gets heard?", and "what happens when mistakes happen?". And then we need to act for change based on what we observe.

Janet Gregory
I think as human beings, we have a responsibility to be kind to others. It doesn’t cost us energy to be kind. We are horrified when we see an animal abused but somehow people think it’s ok to harass people, or to speak condescending or be just plain mean. Being honest with someone can be done with kindness if we think before we speak. 


  1. Feedback after 20 years... What part of agile should be reviewed in your opinion?

Ellen Grove:

I really like the very first line of the Manifesto that says "we are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others to do it".  We tend to skip past that, but the constant critical learning is at the foundation of Agile.  There's been a lot of commodification of Agile in the past decade or so, because making money is great  -- hey, I like it too! People are attracted to the comfort of buying what they perceive will be a certain solution to their problems. But the commodification has resulted in a lot of rigidity. We need to refocus the conversation on how do Agile values and principles influence our learning, our thinking and what we do, and set aside some of the dogma that has taken hold.


  1. What advice do you have for a fresh African Agilist towards evangelising the Agile Mindset in Nigeria & Africa with the goal to bridge the digital skill gap?

Ash Coleman:

The advice I have is that you be active in your spaces and express your voices in their realness and authenticity. Do not settle and do not acclimate. Be agile with how you apply Agile in your respective areas. There is an unfortunate byproduct of the historical exclusion of diverse voices within Agile and that it is that Agile as a whole is centered around the majority. However, as consumers of technology and creators of it, it is imperative that the overall Agile community and tech community make space for your voices and innovation. 


  1. Did the Agile Manifesto make your job easier? Was it helpful? Was it a dreadful mistake?

Janet Gregory: 

I use the values and principles almost everyday. Not a mistake. Becoming part of an agile team was a very pivotal moment for me, and I learned to love testing again.


  1. How to communicate Agile easier today? Is there value for a new baseline / big picture across different manifestos for testing, DevOps or Modern Agile, ...?

Ellen Grove:

I don't think we need more manifestos. I think it would be more helpful to think about focusing on the problems we're trying to solve and then using Agile principles and approaches to help us learn faster, work more effectively together, and find better solutions. I actually find myself talking about "Agile" less and less because people get caught up on the buzzwords, and I find it's easier to drop the silo walls and align on what we're trying to do when we focus on what outcomes we're after.


Thank you to everyone who contributed to this wonderful panel!
Let's continue to shine a light on all these amazing women who have helped bring Agile to life.

You can watch the recording of the panel here: https://youtu.be/N_sP3RRji_o or within Crowdcast (here you can also read the applicable chat): https://www.crowdcast.io/e/20years_women-in-agile

If you’d rather listen to the audio file only, tune in to the “AgileTD Unplugged” podcast here: https://soundcloud.com/user-21739455/20-years-of-women-in-agile


As mentioned earlier, the high interest led to a follow up panel discussion with the topic: The Future of Women in Agile. This second panel is again moderated by Janet Gregory and Ellen Grove and with our panelists being from four different nations, it will also focus on the differences between the various cultures. Watch the 2nd panel with Johanna Rothman, Faiza Yousuf, Claudia Badell and Alex Schladebeck here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/future-of-women-in-agile

AgileTD also has another online interview format, where Kevin Harris meets two well-known people from the community, asks curious questions and finds out things you most probably did not know before. Next up for questioning will be Linda Rising and Gitte Klitgaard on April 20th. Join here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/agiletd-and-friends-episode2




About Stefanie Mania


Stefanie joined the trendig events team in 2013 and loves engaging with the wonderful AgileTD community and to see the Agile movement develop and grow.

Before jumping into the organizing team, she did many other things, like studying business communications, working as international Key Account Manager, being a nanny in the USA, tending sheep in Australia, working as a graphic designer and doing all kinds of jobs in hospitality.

She loves traveling, learning about new cultures, loves hiking and arts & crafts and tries raising her two little boys to be open minded and polite human beings.