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InfoQ Homepage Articles Why Agile Is Critical for Attracting Millennial Engineers

Why Agile Is Critical for Attracting Millennial Engineers

Key takeaways

  • A new generation of engineers is not being trained in traditional software development methods, nor are they interested in working for businesses that use them.
  • Young hires have demanded that employers swap legacy development tools for the latest and greatest Agile tools, and some major corporations have complied to the tune of million-dollar investments.
  • As the country's largest generation, Millennials are influencing Agile transformations in their workplaces.
  • We see at least 11 ways that Agile is a perfect fit for Millennial generation workers.
  • Businesses that adopt Agile sooner will gain a competitive advantage in recruiting as well as productivity.


A Fortune 100 enterprise software company recently got schooled by a social media business it acquired. The young engineers there refused to use their new owner's legacy tools. They revolted, demanding access to world-class planning and development tools. The corporation spent $1 million overhauling their ALM tools with best-of-breed tools.

My company facilitated that integration, and it's just one of numerous examples we've seen of established organizations—including big banks, major credit cards, and brand-name publishers—being prodded by a new generation of developers to adopt more innovative tools and processes, namely Agile. As Agile recruiters, we also see Millennial (age 19-35) engineers consistently passing up job opportunities at shops that either are not Agile, or are known to be not truly Agile. (They know the difference between those who just talk Agile and those who walk the talk.) They'd rather take a lower-paying position working in a true Agile culture working with the best ALM tools.

Millennials reject outdated standards, bureaucratic processes, and antiquated tools. They've grown up with easy access to state-of-the-art-technology, and they don't hesitate to ditch cumbersome tech and slow networks in favor of user-friendly interfaces and speedy systems. They're accustomed to instant feedback, sharing information, and having a say. And they're used to knowing more about technology than the older people around them. The Agile work culture speaks to the soul of the Millennial generation, and customized Agile work tools allow them to connect and interact the same way they grew up engaging with their friends.

To be sure, Agile is embraced by knowledge workers and software developers of all ages. A bunch of Baby Boomers birthed the concept, after all. It's a humanistic philosophy with universal appeal to creative, innovative people. And, as our Agile Practice Lead Kevin Thompson notes, "Agile transformations aren't driven by Millennials; they're driven by business needs."

True. But as a company of Agile trainers, recruiters, and product distributors, we see every day how Agile wins not just the most favor from Millennials, but also their best work.

A Millennial-generation developer who works on JIRA Software at Atlassian told me, "I chose to work in an Agile environment because our industry moves fast, and I don't want to sink time and energy into something that doesn't matter, or won't help me move forward." Agile development, he said, "goes beyond the technologies we use or the processes we follow. It's an attitude, and it needs to be present throughout the entire organization."

For some Millennials, working with less-than-pure Agile methods is a compromise. A 27-year-old project manager told me he left a Big 5 Consulting Firm after nearly 5 years because the architecture-driven version of Agile practiced there was "too constrained by governance." He made a lateral move to a job with a software developer focused on small, private customers.

"I wanted to be in a position doing Agile without as much regulation, where I could get users' feedback, be able to iterate on that where you don't need your own team's approval before you can release, and have that cycle going continuously," he said. He finds developing software for his new employer "more euphoric and effortless because there's not as much friction in the process."

By virtue of being larger than either of the two preceding generations, Millennials will soon have a lot more clout in the workplace. Considering the stiff competition for tech talent, it's easy to see how companies that embrace Agile will gain competitive advantage over those that don't. Here are 11 reasons we see Agile methods as a perfect match for Millennial engineers:

  1. Teamwork. Millennial job candidates we meet with want to know what the group environment is like and whether they will enjoy being a member of the team. Agile done right is about far more than daily standups and scrum. It creates a culture that supports teamwork and values individuals. At the same time, best-of-breed Agile workflow tools do away with time-wasting meetings and unending group email chains, for which fast-moving Millennials have even less patience than the rest of us.
  2. Trust. The Agile approach shares fundamental information with team members—"why are we building this and what is its value to the organization?"—and empowers them to make decisions. These features speak directly to the Millennial demand to understand their contribution in a greater context and to their desire to be trusted to execute on their knowledge.
  3. Ownership. Perhaps more than other generations, Millennials are said to demand work that gives them a sense of purpose. In classic waterfall development, engineers merely follow specs that have been written by someone else. Agile developers are the planners, not the recipients of the plans. Agile teammates are involved in discussing project requirements, ideating, debating, making recommendations, and estimating their own timelines. Each member has a purpose and ownership of the product.
  4. Input. There are no parent-child relationships on an Agile team. Teammates are more like sibling with complementary skills and equal value, and they put their heads together to solve problems. The Millennials we talk to want to be valued and heard. They're not interested in having their work and deadlines dictated to them or just following orders, even if the pay is better. They want to invest their time in work that makes the most of their skills and lets them grow.
  5. Communication. Millennials don't use email and a desktop computer to interact with friends and family; they use mobile messaging. Communication tools being implemented today as part of the Agile process allow users to collaborate and share information online with a team faster, more efficiently, and more securely than email ever did. The bonus: They mimic the way Millennials are accustomed to communicating—all the time and anywhere. Specifically, Atlassian's HipChat facilitates real-time group and private chat, video calling, screen sharing, file sharing, and searchable messaging, while Confluence enables team to capture, organize, and discuss project documents and notes in one accessible place with social sharing features.
  6. Feedback. When you've grown up seeing "likes" and comments on all of your social media posts and instant responses to your text messages, you thrive on feedback. Annual or even quarterly performance reviews don't satisfy Millennials. They need continual reassurance. With its built-in feedback loops, Agile is designed for them. In Agile's standup meetings, teammates share their successes, describe what they're working on, and discuss their challenges every day. 
  7. Instant gratification. Not only is the pace of development faster in Agile, but the iterative process of working in sprints satisfies the Millennial need for instant gratification. In Agile, there's no waiting to find out if you're right. Developers get to see their product taking shape in real time and to see that it works. Atlassian's JIRA workflow tracking tool gives teams and individual developers real-time, actionable insights into how they are performing sprint over sprint.
  8. Quality of life. At its core, Agile is about building and maintaining a healthy culture. A 2016 Fidelity Investments survey found that Millennials would take as much as a $7,600 pay cut for a better work-life balance or a better company culture. Agile methods have balance baked in. Burn-down rates let developers see where they stand and when the next break is coming. And with tools like JIRA, customizable scrum boards and flexible kanban boards give developers a sense of control over the details and pace of their own work as well as a clear view of the big picture and what's coming next.
  9. Reduced risk. Agile embraces failure, but practically prohibits catastrophic failure. The iterative process catches failures while they're small and ensures that the product remains aligned with the customer's goals and needs. The promise for Millennial engineers who will only ever work on Agile projects is that they will experience small, fast failures, but possibly never know huge ones.
  10. Mentorship. Agile values decentralized power and a flat organization. We move faster that way. The traditional manager is more mentor. The scrum master doesn't presume to know more than team members, but listens to their ideas and problems and coaches and guides them. The approach resonates with Millennials, who want to feel engaged with leadership.
  11. Career Development. In traditional waterfall projects, developers might focus for as long as three years on a single assignment. That's as long as most Millennials stay with any one employer. Agile gives developers more freedom to hone their skills on work they're most interested in, and to shift focus more frequently. No member of an Agile team gets stuck with monkey work, nor do they waste time acquiring skills in a method they consider the old way of working.

My colleague Kreisler Ng, a cPrime Agile Coach, told me that he recently asked a room full of young engineers at a startup how they compared waterfall to Agile development. They couldn't, they said: None of them had never worked in waterfall. They didn't use it in college—academia already views it as an outdated method. They all sought their first jobs in Agile shops. 

As Millennials flow into the workforce, Agile engineers will far outnumber the traditionalists. In our view, companies that want to compete in the marketplace and for talent would be wise to set the wheels in motion for an Agile transformation.    

Or you could stick with traditional project management. It's possible that the post-Millennial generation of engineers will be attracted to working in organizations where they just need to follow orders. But not probable.

About the Author

Zubin Irani is co-founder and CEO of cPrime, a full-service consultancy that implements Agile transformations and delivers Agile solutions for more than 50 Fortune 100 firms and many of Silicon Valley's biggest employers. Irani's previous experience at Deloitte and DirecTV included management of a wide variety of application deployments with complex back-end integration on projects ranging from 5 to 400 team members and $100,000 to $120 million budgets. He holds an Executive MBA from Columbia University and University of California, Berkeley, and a Bachelor's degree from University of Southern California. He grew up in England and California.

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