Scrum + Hip Hop: Vol. 2

The Fundamentals of Rhythm

Run DMC performing on “Graffiti Rock.” Photo by Martha Cooper.

Two turntables and a microphone. If you’ve never heard that phrase before, let me be the first to school you. From hip hop’s earliest days in the 70s and 80s, those were the fundamental tools you needed in the rap game.

“In the beginning, there was me. I was rhythm. Life. Two turntables, one mic.” — The Roots & Ursula Rucker

Agile has a set of tools too. They come in flavors like XP, Kanban, and Scrum. But before you drop cash on turntables (a.k.a. the 1s and 2s), and microphones to start your own hip hop crew (or agile teams), there’s something else you need to understand.

The beat.

Janet Jackson started off the song “Nasty Boys” with the phrase “Gimme a beat!” It’s like a pulse. It’s how we keep time. Music is written in short pockets of time called “measures.” Time signatures indicate how many beats are in each measure. The most commonly-used time signature is called 4/4 time, or common time. It means there are four beats per measure. It’s like counting off the boom-boom-baps of a hip hop joint.

“With a kick, snare, kicks and high hat. Skilled in the trade of that old boom bap.” — A Tribe Called Quest

When it comes to beats, there’s nothing like the 808. Though initially a commercial failure, devoted, loyal fans elevated it one of the most-popular drum machines on the market. You simply had to have one. It showed up on music tracks left and right. Though it only came with a limited number of percussion sounds, it let users program entire drum tracks. You could throw in a wide array of drum techniques, and suddenly, hip hop beats became anything but common.

Following the beat is all about rhythm, or cadence. Sound familiar? Don’t we talk about cadence in Scrum? Though we tend to think about the frequency of agile ceremonies when we bring up cadence, if you start to think of sprints in terms of musical measures, a burndown chart can help to visualize rhythm.

Alarms should be going off when you’re way off the beat.

Ever hear a song that’s off the beat? It sounds like a awkward, clunky mess. An unhealthy sprint is exactly that. When actual work deviates too much from what you committed to in sprint planning — your planned work — your rhythm is off.

What it looks like when you’re “in the pocket.”

When the actual work completed is closer to what you planned, the better you are at sticking to the beat. Congrats on your understanding of cadence, and rhythm. If you imagine each measure of a music track as a series of sprints, how close would your teams fare in staying on the beat?

In hip hop, staying on the beat is a fundamental. The same is true of software development. Waterfall is like a beat that lasts for 6–12 months straight. Scrum is like releasing short audio clips, getting direct, instant feedback from hip hop fans about the beats you’ve created. Isn’t that the point of developing software in sprints?

In Scrum + Hip Hop: Vol. 1., I talked about the importance of building an agile mindset. Keeping pace with your sprints — staying on the beat — and being open to the shift away from traditional SDLC is a fundamental place to start.

The Next Track: Who’s Down With Your Crew?