Cockburn obtained his degree in computer science at the University of Cleveland in 1975. In 2003 he received his PhD degree from the University of Oslo.
Cockburn started his career in the field of communication technology and OO -Software development at IBM operates from 1984 to 1991. He then moved into an advisory role at IBM, in particular the methods of OO software development. From 1994, "Humans and Technology" in Salt Lake City .
The methodologies in the Crystal family (e.g., Crystal Clear), described by Alistair Cockburn, are considered examples of lightweight methodology. The Crystal family is colour-coded to signify the "weight" of methodology needed. Thus, a large project which has consequences that involve risk to human life would use the Crystal Sapphire or Crystal Diamond methods. A small project might use Crystal Clear, Crystal Yellow or Crystal Orange.