Agile software development in the 1970s

Here is Dee Hock’s own story of the development of VISA’s first electronic authorization system (BASE 1) which was launched in 1973.

We were determined that the needs of our members and cardholders would be served, not the needs of technology or vendors. That required internal responsibility. We decided to become our own prime contractor, farming out selected tasks to a variety of software developers, then coordinating and implementing results.1

Swiftly, self-organization emerged. An entire wall became a pin board with every remaining day calendared across the top. Someone grabbed an unwashed coffee cup and suspended it on a long piece of string pinned to the current date. Every element of work to be done was listed on scraps of paper with the required completion date and name of the person who had accepted the work. Anyone could revise the elements, adding tasks or revising dates, providing they coordinated with others affected.2

Each day, the cup and string moved inexorably ahead. Every day, every scrap of paper that fell behind the grimy string would find an eager group of volunteers to undertake the work required to remove it. To be able to get one’s own work done and help another became a sought-after privilege.3

Leaders spontaneously emerged and reemerged, none in control, but all in order. Ingenuity exploded. People astonished themselves at what they could accomplish and were amazed at the suppressed talents emerging in others. Position became meaningless. Power over others became meaningless.4

A few who could not adjust to the diversity, complexity, and uncertainty wandered away. Dozens volunteered to take their place. No one articulated what was happening. No one recorded it. No one measured it. But everyone felt it, understood it, and loved it. The dirty string was never replaced and no one washed the cup. “The Dirty Coffee Cup System” became legendary—a metaphor within the company for years to come. The BASE 1 system came up on time, under budget, and exceeded all operating objectives.5

1 Dee Hock, One From Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization, (Berrett-Koehler, 2005), p. 172.
2 Ibid., p.173.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., p. 174.

Related posts:
Dee Hock in his own words
Dee Hock on control
Dee Hock on rules


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