Why Familiar Was Europe’s First 100% Agile Software House

Why Familiar Was Europe’s First 100% Agile Software House

Familiar was a software house based near Reading UK (some forty miles west of London), which I started and led, along with several ex-Sun Microsystems colleagues, circa 1996-2000.

This post is about why we decided on “Agile” as our general approach to getting things done. It’s not so much about why we were the first.

One Hundred Percent Agile

This refers to the fact that all our work – both client-facing and internal – was conducted in an “agile” manner. Which is to say, the way we worked back then looked something like Scrum does nowadays, e.g. with two week iterations, emergent “requirements” and regular delivery of working things into production.

Of course, this was some five year years before the label “Agile” was to be coined by the Snowbird folks and therefore some years before this way of working began to be applied more widely, by others, in the software house kind of context.

You could also say we were 100% Agile because (what came to be identified as) Agile principles informed our approach to working across the whole organisation – both our own organisation and that of clients – and not just in the software development work we did.


We didn’t call what we did “Agile” or “agile”. We weren’t trying to replicate someone else’s approach or ways of working. We weren’t trying to be agile, we were intent on being great! And for us, great meant “highly efffective”.

We adopted our own approach to work – primarily but not exclusively software and product development work for various clients – because we wanted to better meet the needs of our customers, of ourselves and of our company. And incidentally, the needs of our suppliers, our loved-ones, our shareholders – mostly the folks working for the company – and our channel partners, too. We continuously evolved our approach – which we then called Jerid, now Javelin – both to adapt to changing contexts, and to more effectively meet folks’ needs, as we learned more about what those need were and how to go about better meeting them.

Let me say that again, we chose to work the way we did because we wanted to better meet folks’ needs. I wouldn’t have uses this form of words back then, but with the benefit of hindsight this is what we were intent on doing.

We had all seen enough of the IT/software industry to know that the industry norm was far from meeting anyone’s needs effectively. We knew we could do much better. And we knew the basics of how. We were determined to continue to advance our knowledge in that regard.


We succeeded, I believe, because the whole organisation was geared to the Jerid approach, and there were no discontinuities, such as we see in many organisations trying to “go agile” today. By which I mean, for example, the discontinuities between the “agile” software teams and the rest of the containing organisation, with its raft of decidedly non-agile – even anti-agile – beliefs, principles, processes, policies, procedures and organisational structures.

Put another way, our way of working met folks’ needs, not because of any specific characteristics – NOT because it was, or we were “agile” – but because we wanted to be great at what we did, and took time and effort to understand how we could achieve at least some of that aspiration.

We were building an environment in which folks could come together, work well together, find and grown intrinsic motivation, build positive interpersonal relationships both internally and externally, and excel.

– Bob

  1. You’re speaking in the past tense in this post. What happened to Familiar?

    • Many people ask that question. I left in 2000, Familiar closed its doors circa 2003. I feel others are better placed than I to relate its demise.

      – Bob

      • With such a great gig going on, I’d sincerely love to know the “why”. Someone must have screwed everything up during the 2000-2003 time period and caused the business to cave. I’d be real interested if someone wrote/blogged about the downfall, retrospective style.

        I started as employee #13 in an aerospace & defense startup, Sensis Corp., in 1987. We did well using “traditional”, plan-based, system/software/hardware development methods up until 2009. In that year, our CEO tried to hit a home run with an over-investment in an ego-maniacal idea that led to financial troubles. The company ended up being sold to Saab AB. I’m still at Saab, and we’re doing fine using mostly traditional methods mixed with some agile practices. Of course, it always can be better, but I’m relatively happy and I think I can say the same for most of my co-workers.

  2. It’s fascinating to hear this piece of history, thanks a ton for sharing, things I’m wondering if you might want to share with us:
    What needs of yours did Familar fail to meet in 2000?
    How would you have handled that situation differently (if at all) today?

    • Needs failing to be met: fairness, humanity, lack of distress.

      Today, I might have empathised more, and earlier, with certain people. And surfaced folks’ needs more clearly and explicitly.

      – Bob

      • I, and I speculate many others who follow your blog, would really love to hear your take on how the situation went from heaven to hell in such a short time span. You started and presided over the company from 1996-2000. You left in 2000 and the company dissolved in 2003. Surely you must have at least smelled what triggered the downward spiral and tried to prevent the crash. Please share.

  3. I like how the goal is not to be “agile” but to be “great”. I think all developers should have this attitude in mind. Thanks for sharing.

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