Don’t talk to me about tango…

“Agile is like tango - it’s about the passion, not about the steps” (Jeff Sutherland, tweeted by @jaredrichardson)

Wrong on many levels, Jeff. Oh, it’s a neat soundbyte, and if you don’t know tango and are feeling enthusiastic but anxious about agile it might give you a bit of a buzz. But saying tango is “not about the steps” is like saying music “is not about the notes”.

Imagine, if you will, a conversation with an experienced, maybe professional tango artist. They’ll talk about passion, sure, but also of the hours spent practising, with or without a partner; the months of frustration when a routine they’d been working on just didn’t come together; the fierce discipline of their last coach; the sore feet and aching legs. You really don’t want to watch an inexperienced tango artist, however passionate.

I’m reminded of an interview with a former Olympic gymnast. She’d stopped telling people about what she did, because of the standard reaction - “oh yes, my son/daughter (mostly daughter) does that”. Invariably the child would be in a school or local gym club, maybe on Saturday mornings: what exasperated the gymnast was the assumption that on the basis of that tiny exposure people assumed both a bond with the more experienced and a right to talk as if they knew what gymnastics really is - hours of training and coaching, long coach journeys to distant schools and sports centres to compete, the missed school and social life, seeing more of your trainer than your parents and friends.

You earn passion by virtue of technique, and you acquire technique through a fervid combination of desire, discipline and dogged will-power. Add a generous helping of experience (and how about a sprinkle of the humility that comes with real experience) and then - only then - can you start saying “it’s not about the steps”.

Though I have concerns with the software craftsmanship movement, it seems to me that the focus on technique and discipline is absolutely spot on. As Alan Kay memorably wrote:

…there are thresholds that have to be achieved before one can enter various conversations and processes. “Air guitar and attitude” won’t do.

Don’t get me wrong - you need passion (though it’s surely not only passion that carries you through the hard times in acquiring any body of technique). Technique and discipline without passion is a recipe for boredom and mere routine: I’d no sooner want to watch an unpassionate tango dancer than a technically incompetent one. But to pretend that passion is all you need is misleading, irresponsible and disrespectful.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

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