Lean or Agile: Lessons Learned from a Tech Startup


By John Johnson, PMP

Co-Founder, Second Nature Software LLC
Chief Technology Officer, Softek Enterprises LLC

Graduate Masters of Systems Engineering
Clarke School of Engineering
University of Maryland

College Park, Maryland, USA



“Lean or Agile” provides a model of how any businesses can discover, develop, and deploy innovative solutions under extreme uncertainty. This paper evaluates project management techniques by using a technology startup case study to explore the extreme conditions which clarify when Lean and Agile management are most successful at achieving the organization’s goals. The paper presents insights on the indicators of when and where it is most appropriate to use Lean or Agile project management techniques, and how to transition between the two. The case study uses real-world examples of success and failure in applying these techniques to enrich its proposed theory on Lean and Agile. The paper’s subject is a startup, Second Nature Software LLC, that began with neither a product nor a target market and that, within one year, developed a cutting edge application piloted by five large research institutes, including two institutes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Influences and project management theories referenced include: Lean Startup, Customer Development, Product Development, Design Thinking, Theory of Constraints, Scrum, Disciplined Agile Delivery, Kanban, and Total Quality Management.


Which method is the best for managing uncertainty in startup-like environments – Lean or Agile?

This is the question that Second Nature Software LLC faced when beginning with one goal in mind: start, develop and build a successful product company. The three co-founders had over twenty years of software development experience, and about ten years’ experience using Agile. However, they had no market, no product, and no identified customers – and only a small amount of savings. By the end of their first year, Second Nature Software had built a data science product that was in trial at the largest medical research organizations in the world; including three institutes at NIH (NCI, NIAID, and NCATS), Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

There are many competing perspectives on what works best for success in organizations discovering and building new technology to sell in the marketplace. Startups, especially technology startups, work in such extreme conditions that they have only a 10% chance of succeeding [1]. With so much uncertainty, traditional business plans, schedules, resource matrixes, and requirements specs do not last long enough to write them down. Teams must be willing to change fast and leverage management processes that can ensure order in a chaotic environment.

In the case study of Second Nature Software LLC, both Lean, Agile, and Hybrid methods were used at different stages in the company’s development. The case study offers details of the how the methods were employed, the tools used, the success of employing the techniques, and lessons learned for how to do it better. The Conclusion then judges which method is better for most startup and extremely uncertain project environments, based on these real-world experiences.


To read entire paper, click here

Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English. Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright. This paper was originally presented at the 4th Annual University of Maryland PM Symposium in May 2017. It is republished here with the permission of the authors and conference organizers.

About the Author

John Johnson, PMP

Virginia, USA


Johnson serves as the Chief Technology Officer for Softek Enterprises LLC, a minority-owned small business providing technology solutions to government clients since 2007. Softek specializes in evolving business systems using Agile, DevOps, and Cloud technologies to deliver working solutions faster for the government’s most critical IT challenges. He has 10 years of project management, systems engineering, and advanced analytics experience. Prior to joining Softek, Mr. Johnson co-founded Second Nature Software LLC, a data science products company focused on Life Science Research. He helped design and promote their product “Rocketfish,” a data management tool that simplifies preparing data for analysis while automating data tracking and organization. Rocketfish is currently in an organization-wide trial at NCI and NIAID, as well as major universities in the DC Metro Area. Previously, Mr. Johnson was a Senior Agile Project Manager with IBM, where he led multiple development teams building applications for the National Archives Records Administration (NARA). These applications were built on Amazon’s Gov Cloud (AWS) with cutting-edge cloud technologies to process, store, and search the hundreds of petabytes of government records expected at NARA by 2020. This project won “Project of the Year” across all of IBM globally for its success in project management innovation.  He also worked as a Management Consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, where he led projects for the Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy from optimizing site investments and posture for Reserve forces, to developing award-winning project analysis and portfolio management software to optimize billions in shore energy investments. Mr. Johnson holds a Master’s degree in Systems Engineering and a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Maryland.