The construction of the transcontinental railroad was made managed in segments, scouted by horseback. Agile

To know the current state and possibly the future direction of project management, investigating the past can be instructive. On The Guardian Podcast with Ryn Melberg this week, Ryn describes “a brief history of project management” to reveal where project management came from, the present situation, and where it could go. The Guardian Podcast can be heard on iTunes, or Soundcloud.


Historically there have been plenty of big projects like the construction of the pyramids, the trans continental railroad, the Manhattan Project, the Salk vaccine and even going to the moon. What each shared in common was that they were big and successful. “The pyramids were not carved from a single stone, and the transcontinental railroad did not only progress from a single point of origin,” Ryn said. “For the railroad construction, riders on horseback scouted to make sure that ultimately the tracks would join from the east and the west, breaking this big job into smaller ones. Breaking jobs down like this was one big lesson.”

Project Management. The construction of the transcontinental railroad was made managed in segments, scouted by horseback.

The construction of the transcontinental railroad was made managed in segments, scouted by horseback. A big step in project management.

Twentieth Century

In the 1950’s ‘modern’ project management techniques began to evolve. Refinements like ‘staging’ were adopted. “Many lessons were derived from the construction industry,” Ryn Said. “Staging is a technique to make sure that the foundation was ready, followed by the wooden frame, roof, walls, etc. Staging in construction involves a lot of pre planning and execution. Not completely waterfall, but close.”

The perception of project management as a formal methodology and discipline began in the 1990s with the advent of the PMI. This was a watershed moment in the history of project management. “PMI had a lot of best practices that could work for project managers, “Ryn said.

Y2K & The Internet

The Y2K scare and the sudden evolution of the Internet for business were likely the catalysts for Agile and the Agile manifesto. “The Internet became a tool for commerce as people were able to buy things for themselves on line,” Ryn said. “The demands for programmers and coders involved with the Internet and Y2K were certainly important as they happened at the same time, as all of this happened in this very short 3-5 years.”

Pressure on programmers accelerated, as they needed to deliver more in shorter cycles to keep up with demand. Combined with technical changes and the pivot away from main frames to desktops, laptops and ultimately the cloud, taught programmers that work had to be thought about and conducted differently. “Agile borrowed from many different project methods, all of which were knit together and transformed into what we recognize now as Agile,” Ryn said.

The Future

The future of Agile will likely be a further refinement of the types of business that use it for project management. “We will need to decide what we mean by a product, do we mean software or software as a product,” Ryn said. “And what will we call it when Agile is used outside of software, will it remain Agile or will the nomenclature evolve?” The future of Agile will be interesting and likely even entertaining as it evolves during the 21st century.


With a better understanding of the background of all types of project management mangers are in a better position to advocate for Agile and talk intelligently about its advantages with those who scoff at its uses outside of code writing or dismiss it as merely a fad. Agile was born of centuries of experience managing projects and represents the centuries long refinement of those going back to the pyramids and through to the Internet.


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