Our industry has turned a corner when it comes to Agile adoption, with the practices now allowed and encouraged nearly everywhere I go. Just the practices however, not the culture, and fighting the Agile cultural battle is something that we in the Agile community need to help each other with constantly. This report covers my personal journey to uncovering a source of patience and fortitude when confronting the often daunting conditioned antipathy toward actual Agility in our industry, and the unexpected links between the Fiber Arts community and software. It is my fondest hope that reading my story can help you examine your background and find a similar source of patience.
This experience report was sparked by my dismay at watching people quit as their organization is attempting to transition to Agile. One phrase I heard starkly sums up why; “They can’t be helped”. It’s a real mental and emotional challenge to help an organization undo decades of conditioning and adopt an Agile culture. The frustration when dealing with people who “just don’t get it” can tax the most patient and tolerant among us.
This was a real problem for me until a pair of conversations with my Mother crystallized an idea that had been bouncing around in the back of my head. I found this idea has really has helped me with patience and to uncover how far back in life my Agile education actually goes, maybe even back generations in my family. Agile is the application of something that isn’t specific to software, and is by no means new. Exploring my past and inviting others to do the same has proven more rewarding than I originally imagined.
As you read through this report wherein I share my life long road to Agility please consider your own life experiences from the standpoint of how they may have affected your mindset today.
As one does I was having Mother’s Day tea with Mom and once again trying to explain just what the heck it is I do for work. I found this hard to articulate to people outside of the industry because much of what I do, when I explain it, is met with; “Well that’s just common sense!” A phrase that I’ve come to realize is not helpful because if it were just common sense I would be out of a job, and I can tell you the Agile coaching and training business is not a sleepy line of work to be in.
That past year I’d arrived at telling people on airplanes that I’m more on the people side of software. Not what people do to make software, but more how they go about it in general. What needs to happen for a company to make creative software that is not simply adequate, but great. When I shared this with Mom, an interesting thing happened; she finally started to understand what I do and realized that what she does with her spinning, knitting, weaving, and whatever other amazing thing she is doing this month matches what I am working to teach people who are creating software.
I have always had a hard time with projects like writing (ask me about this paper some time) and thought she might too, given our familial similarities. She had just finished writing her book, and I asked her how she managed that process and other projects.
“I start by making prioritized lists. There are daily lists, and long term lists. To ensure that I finish long term tasks, I often make future commitments that depend on their completion. Early morning is my most productive mental time so I get up early and get to work. It’s a great time of day because no one calls or bothers me.” She said.
“Really? Ordered lists? Uninterrupted time to get into flow? That’s what I teach people,” I thought.
“Where did you learn to do your projects that way?” I asked.
“No one taught me that, I’ve just always done it that way,” she said.
Now here is where we have a bit of disagreement. You see, I don’t believe that people are simply born with what is often called in our industry an “Agile Mindset”, I believe it’s learned. I confronted her on this point with a direct question;
“No no, someone taught you, who could that have been?” I said.
She thought about it and replied; “ I guess it would be my Dad.”
This conversation was where I had my apperception about my apparently uncommon ability to think in an Agile fashion. Apperception is a bit of an archaic word, but when you read the definition you will see why it is so applicable here.
The mental process by which a person makes sense of an idea by assimilating it to the body of ideas he or she already possesses.
The idea I needed to make sense of was that Agile isn’t just “common sense”, it’s something else. The collection of my schooling and professional experiences didn’t account for this strange situation I had been running into.
In the talks on Agility I have given and within the coaching and training I have done folks have asked me questions which I automatically labeled in my mind as “common sense”. Questions I would later pose to people completely outside of the software industry and immediately get a simple answer to. Why would these solutions be obvious to me and people outside of software, yet unthinkable to entire groups of incredibly intelligent people? It was beginning to frustrate me, and in recent days I have met too many people that this problem frustrates to the point of them giving up the fight, quitting with some form of; “these people can’t be helped” declaration.
I couldn’t then, can’t now, and will never accept this. There has to be some reason the Agile mindset and concepts are so readily understood and adopted by some of us. In exploring what I think the answer is I stumbled on something interesting which may just help our industry with another problem: the confusing underrepresentation of women in a line of work pioneered by women.
My personal introduction to Agile proper came when I was hired in 2007 by Victor and Laszlo Szalvay, coowners of a little company called Danube. They needed another person in support for their Agile Project Management tool. My professional life up to this point had involved tech support jobs, QA, and generally whatever I could find to do. I tend to get bored doing the same thing, and bouncing from job to job every couple years gave me a profound distaste for many of this industry’s management and human resources practices. A distaste that I believe primed me for Agile adoption, and dare I admit a little bit of of Agile zeal.
I’ve met a lot of people since I started in this industry and one common trait among the more Agile folks seems to be a history of professional wanderlust, or the tendency toward it. In my family this tendency seems to be quite strong, and I am glad for it because if I had just settled down in one job I would have never been where I am now. My mother has moved from passion to passion my entire life, but I think I need to take it one step back to her father, my grandfather Norris.
In an era where the thing to do was to work for one company until retirement, he was a bit different. When the war broke out he and his brother Alton jumped on their Knucklehead and rode from Minnesota to California to work on airplanes until he was old enough to enlist, get into the Army Air Corps, and train to fly. The war ended before he ever deployed and he wound up in Spokane Washington managing a surplus depot, then it was carpentry, followed by a return to Minnesota and buying into a machine shop, and a soft water treatment business, plumbing, pest control, and whatever else he could find to do. Later in life and through his retirement he engaged in his passion for wood carving and teaching wood carving to others.
I have no doubt that the propensity toward moving onto the next thing was passed on by him to my Mother, and both she and my grandfather passed it on to me. Getting past the sunk cost fallacy isn’t easy when it comes to a job. Walking away from something you invested your life in takes effort and without that Exploring your familial influence I don’t think I would have been able to make the jump out of Tech Support, through sales, and into coaching and training for Collabnet.
Today in that coaching role I find what they taught me to be helpful when coaching people to identify when they need to make that painful walk away from something they are heavily invested in. It’s hard enough for me to do, and I have a family history and maybe even a bit of a genetic propensity to just move on. I know that my apperception would have never occurred without this trait, but it’s only the first piece that that brought me to a place where this experience report was possible.
My first proper job was installing phone and network cable in ‘99 in Redmond, Washington. I never fit in and ultimately had to leave the job because I couldn’t simply follow directions. My supervisor informed me that I “thought too much” and just needed to do it like I was told.
Coming to terms with Agile being a set of values and principles that guide decision making, and not a set of step by step processes and best practices was vital for me in understanding why this was so hard for the people I was working with. To me it’s natural that there’s always a better way to do things. Ceaseless improvement isn’t discipline to me, it’s simply how I counter boredom. Anyone who likes a nice set routine, or has been conditioned to accept a set of processes and practices as “just the way it is”, has a lot of work to do to come around to this Agile way of decision making.
Thinking back on where this came from I must agree with Mom that some of it has to be congenital, but I also believe that the homeschooling from 6th-8th grades also taught me something more valuable than what I actually learned in my schoolwork; how to sit down and figure something out for myself. Getting a jump start on self direction far before college ingrained the concept a little too deeply in me I think, or maybe just stoked the fires of something that was already there, possibly from an earlier time at Craft Shows.
Mom is always busy making something and selling it, quite successfully as a general rule. Many of my early memories are of playing under tables at craft shows where people got together to sell the many different things they had made. Never getting an allowance, I had to find spending money myself, which naturally meant making things to sell at craft shows. This taught me all about trying what I thought would sell, like a school science project concoction which made a flexible, cross-linked polymer or “Slug Slime” as we called it. Some stuff sold, some didn’t, and I learned that the important part was to refine the winners to make them better, and to decide if a loser was worth fixing, or walking away from. A hard thing to do when heavily invested in or attached to an idea. I never really knew how valuable this training in overcoming the sunk cost fallacy we all fall prey to was until much later on.
As a kid a great passion Mom instilled in me was bargain hunting. Be it at thrift stores, garage sales, swap meets, or any place large amounts of junk was piled up and haggled over. I learned to identify the value in things that others might not see, to spot the treasures. How to show a seller I was really interested in what they were selling, since most people love their junk they may give you a better deal if you clearly love their junk too. Maybe most importantly I learned to enjoy the hunt, the process of getting a deal on the treasure so I could move onto finding the next treasure.
In 2012 I was given the opportunity to become the Product Owner for one of Collabnet’s products. The team in the Seattle area moved onto another project and ScrumWorks was moved to Chennai India. After some shuffling about we ended up with a team of 3 contractors and a just out of college tester for a ScrumMaster. By the next year, even with the half sized team and no marketing support the product had well over doubled in revenue.
I get a bit worked up whenever I hear anyone disparage the abilities of Indian teams. My team of 3 developers and a ScrumMaster produced almost too many features at a very high quality level, with cheerfulness and pride. There were a couple things I did on becoming Product Owner that I like to think contributed to this, but I cannot discount the near decade of sound Scrum practice that laid the foundation for my team’s success.
The first thing I did was simply scheduling meetings when the team was awake, after all if I were developing complicated software on a tight schedule I’d be pretty annoyed if someone was making me stay late at work so they could tell me how to do my job. As much as I would like to claim that I am altruistic, a deep search on the topic has revealed that the roots of what appears to be altruism in my behavior probably stems from an early understanding that treating people well means they are more likely to sell their junk (treasures) to me cheap.
As a trait it’s proven to be a valuable one In Tech Support and Sales. In companies with an Agile culture where the principle of building projects around trusted, motivated individuals is in place I am again served well by putting others first, whether it stems from altruism or deal hunting. My team certainly responded well to it, and I would expect altruistic behavior is in place in every high functioning Scrum team, whether they have identified it or not.
I used this to build strong personal relationships with nearly our customers in my time in Sales and support. I called each one of them up and put together a backlog of all the changes they wanted. Then I would again use a bargain hunting skill I picked up: haggling. I would shop potential features between the different customers and negotiate until I had identified which small features that would make the biggest impact for the most users.
At that point the only trick I had was expressing the feature or change in a way that I could relate to my team, which happened to be on the other side of the planet, didn’t exactly have the greatest telephone connection, and didn’t really like telling me No unless I pressed them. One stand out XP practice came into play here:
When I was a kid my Dad taught me to fish and instilled my lifelong love of it. I was fascinated by what was going on under the water but out in the Pacific Northwest there are very few opportunities to actually see what the fish are doing in those kelp beds, or streams, or lakes. So to catch the fish you have to put yourself in their place. You have to think like the fish.
I know that some fisherman pay someone to bring them to where they can catch fish, but I find that boring. For me it is always a question of where the “fishy water” (as my Dad puts it) might be. Where would I be if I were the fish? What would I want to eat? What motivates me?
As a new product owner I very rapidly discovered that my default mode was to tell the team how to make each feature, and knowing this to be wrong I turned to the User Story to help me stop. It wasn’t until I started writing this paper that I realized how much I pull on what I learned putting myself in the place of fish to write useful User Stories.
The thing I found about User Stories is that I have to not only consider the User, but also the team that is constructing what I am describing along with anyone else who may have a stake in the outcome. I’ve found the hunter/prey empathy I picked up from my Dad while fishing really helps when trying to balance all these different and often conflicting perspectives. After all, the fish doesn’t really want to be caught just as the User doesn’t want to give up explaining exactly how their bit of product should come to them, but that’s exactly what we need to have happen to create a valuable User Story.
All my professional life if something needed saying I’d say it, consequences be damned. I’ve generally had great results with it and I am ever more firmly convinced that Agility needs people to cultivate a phlegmatic courage tempered by a bit of political restraint, to allow us to surface and confront the really difficult problems no one wants to talk about.
I’m not entirely sure where this trait came from in me. I think it stems from a lie I told as a teenager about someone I was angry at. I did in an offhand way, in a way that came too easily and I realized afterward I had done something someone close to me often did, and I hated. I made a decision not to do that again, in sticking to that decision I soon found that lies of omission were just as problematic to my conscience. It means I don’t fit into some cultures, but with Agile? That’s been a different story.
I learned that when someone “just doesn’t get it” that it’s not that they are intentionally being obtuse or obstinate, it’s likely that their life experience didn’t prepare them for the move to Agility like mine did. Worse yet their life experience may have indeed prepared them, but decades in our industry conditioned them to dismiss what they deep down know they should embrace. Surviving in our industry with an Agile mindset in past decades often meant a person had to conform, or quit. From my Mother’s contacts in the Fiber Arts community I learned that a surprising number of talented and creative people in our industry chose the latter option and left, sometimes in a heartbreaking amount of distress. People I think we really should be gently trying to get back into our industry. Not with golden cages, but with an Agile focus on individuals and interactions.
In talking with Caleb, I am finally getting a handle on just what his work entails. He would tell me, I’d nod thinking I understood and then realized I couldn’t repeat it to someone else. This has been a great time for us to understand each other and realize how much we have in common as people – not just as Mother and Son.
I’ve always been a “maker”. It’s an irresistible compulsion for me and has fueled many small businesses through the years. Something like that can’t help but rub off on your children. Caleb and his brother were my “testers” when I’d design a new dinosaur sewing pattern or other toy. They contributed to discussions about display and why people are drawn to a product or group of products. I remember using the “stack ‘em high – watch ‘em buy” theory when it came to little stuffed bunnies or toy puppies. We discussed price points and what the consumer is willing to pay for a given item.
Caleb mentioned that he didn’t have an allowance. We felt it was important for the boys to learn the value of work and the satisfaction of earning, saving and then buying what you want with your own money. I’m coming to realize that many of the lessons Caleb learned weren’t even intentional but absorbed by growing up in a creative and entrepreneurial environment.
As a creative person, I identify with software programmers.Their work is also creative and I believe their needs are similar to mine. Creative people need uninterrupted time to work. Each person’s most productive time of day may not coincide with the 9-5 workday. My best productive time is generally from 4am to Noon. Giving a person control over their working hours could boost productivity and workflow in an amazing way. I work with all sorts of people in the Fiber Arts community and you would be amazed how many people in this community have backgrounds in computer, medical or scientific fields. In just one hand spinning class this past April my students included three IT professionals, a molecular biologist, a programmer/analyst, a microbiology professor and a particle accelerator operator. I only know this because I was thinking about this presentation with Caleb and I asked the class about their backgrounds. When you stop to think about it, knitting is binary. Most knitting is comprised of two stitches (knit and purl) and variations thereof. Spinning is also binary. Yarn can be spun in 2 directions (S or Z) and the different constructions of yarns are just variations. Weaving is totally mathematical and appeals to the technical and the creative person. Fiber arts are much more than the crocheted toilet paper cover in your Great Aunt Ida’s bathroom.
In undertaking this I asked Mom to reach out to her friends in the fiber arts community. Looking through these replies I see something of myself here. I’ve long been an outsider at work, for reasons that should be obvious if you have read this far. Reading through some of these I see phrases like “80 Hour Work Week”, mentions of PTSD like symptoms and extreme burnout.
I’ve pulled some of the happier quotes because I’d like to keep this report positive:
“The designing of software is actually quite a creative skill — I hadn’t realized this when I was in software, but that creativity shows up in spades when I apply myself to fiber arts — I’m always turning patterns over, figuring out modifications and what they would do to them, trying things out both in my head (simulations) and in my hands (with real fiber). I think that’s why we also see alot of engineers who are musicians — a similarly detailed and creative skill.”
“Then we head out to the field and test with the sheep doing that task. Invariably no software survives first contact with the sheep.”
I’d first and foremost like to thank my Mother for taking the time out of her packed schedule to write this paper with me, and for all the wonderful things she has done in my life. I’d like to thank Linda Rising for helping me focus this experience report where it needed to be, and caused me to go further down this road of identifying the contributing factors to my personal agility that I never would have uncovered without going through this process.
I’d like to thank all the people in my professional life who so kindly guided me into the ever expanding Agile corner of the software industry. Victor and Laszlo Szalvay, Petri Heiramo, Michael James, Luke Walter, Jimi Fosdick, and Tamara Runyon have all taught me so much about Scrum and Agile, none of this would be even remotely possible without them. Also I must thank Tony Farinaro, my boss here at Collabnet for the past years for allowing me to pursue knowledge and growth in my career, especially when it fell outside of whatever my official job title happened to be at the moment.