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Piracy and Agile

By Phil Factor,

I was still reeling from the revelation that a New York psychologist had determined that 4% of managers were psychopaths, when I came across Peter T Leeson's interesting paper "An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization" (Journal of Political Economy, 2007).

Peter Leeson's work has influenced thinking in the way that teams are best organized, especially IT development teams that are experimenting with Agile processes. Christopher Novak's book "Lead like a Pirate! Leadership Secrets of the Pirates of St. Croix" has also been taken up with enthusiasm within the IT industry. It has resulted in some interesting discussion on a topic that needs some good lateral thinking.

Essentially, Leeson argues that pirate ships invented modern democracy, being forced to invent very modern structure with checks and balances to power. Whereas the merchant ships of the time were able to enforce a rigid hierarchy with harsh discipline and draconian penalties for disobedience, the pirates, with their labor shortages, had to be more subtle in their ways of maintaining an effective workforce. The systems they were forced to invent have direct relevance today. They were also early experimenters with some of the modern world's most cherished values, such as liberty, democracy, and equality.

As a way of jolting managers out of conventional ways of thinking about group behavior, it is great to use a different analogy, as long as one remembers that we're talking about a romanticized version of piracy; the fairground ride rather than the true history. The Barbary pirates of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, for example, used galley slaves, picked from over a million captives that they sold into slavery. Their short lives as galley slaves were spent being flayed with whips. They were chained to their benches and the insanitary smell of a pirate galley could be detected more than two miles away. These psychopathic pirates, most notoriously Hayreddin Barbarossa, thought nothing of murdering the entire population of a town, just to terrorize the nations they raided. Having just read Roger Crowley's brilliant "Empires of the Sea", I was in no mood to believe that we had anything useful to learn from them.

If we agree that it is fruitful to get inspiration from history to try to find ways of improving the software development process, I believe that it is better to ignore the art of war, and to look instead at every technological breakthrough in history and understand in as much detail as possible how it happened, and the group dynamics that enabled it to happen. Now here there are immediate lessons that every software development team can learn from; and there, perhaps, is a book I ought to write!

Phil Factor

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