Monday, November 24, 2014

Work to do in the shadows.

Change takes place when we work together in the shadows
Illness and the grey rainy weather of November in Chicago have put in a philosophical mood.  I have been contemplating a few things.  Today, according the United State Census Bureau there are 7.2 million people on the planet earth.  That is twice the population of when I entered this world pink and helpless in 1968.  How have we been able to double the world’s population without famine, war, and the complete collapse of civilization?  It struck me that what keeps the world civilized are many people working quietly in the shadows to keep it that way.  I am one of them and I am sure some of you are too.

When I was born the big intellectual book of the time was Paul R, and Anne Ehrilch’s “The Population Bomb.”  The book argued convincingly that as world population grew it would be harder to feed and provide for additional people.  What the authors did not count on were the smarts of scientists, engineers, and common people like me to solve problems.  The green revolution spread through the developed and third world during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  This gave the world enough to eat.  What started the green revolution?  Scientists and farmers who realized there needed to be better yield out of crops and figured out a way to do it.

During the 1940’s the biggest killer of children in the United States was polo.  Countless children died or were forced to breathe with iron lungs.  The March of Dimes was founded because they were looking for a means to wipe out polo.  It took huge efforts from science and government but the first vaccines began to appear in 1952 and polo was eradicated in the United States. 

The March of Dimes continues its efforts today but instead of polo they have focused on birth defects.  Again to the rescue, stubborn and determined people who worked quietly doing the necessary work.  People like Clair Patterson who determined the age of the earth but also found the link between leaded gasoline and lead poisoning in humans.  With opposition from the petroleum industry Clair proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that lead levels were rising.  With the help of congress and international treaties, leaded gasoline was banned.  As the level of lead in the atmosphere declined, we also saw the decrease in birth defects and problems caused by lead poisoning worldwide.

Again not glamorous work, but necessary to make the 7.2 million people of earth happy and healthy.  It is work being done be civil engineers to make sure that sewers keep our drinking water safe.  It is the work being done by infectious disease specialists tracking bird flu and Ebola.  This is the work of software developers helping build logistics systems which move goods and services across the country. It is doctors, janitors, clerks, nurses, and ordinary people making hospitals not only more effective but more efficient.

Some of you may be asking, where does agile come in to this picture.  For too long, the world of business has been dominated by too many damaged, neurotic, and just plain mean people perpetuating a cycle of abuse kept alive by the threat to take away living wages.  It is why investment bankers didn't leave their steakhouses and join the occupy Wall Street movement.  Agile and the agile movement, which I am proud to be a part of is not a revolution but rather an evolution of the business world so that it is more humane, sustainable, and satisfying to the people doing the work.  In other words, work is changing from toil serving unnamed shareholders or executives to a craft where people can take pride in what they do.  We have so much work to do but in just thirteen years since the creation of the Agile Manifesto the face of business is changing more of them are “doing” agile.  It is my hope that someday soon they will “be” agile as well.

This is because people, like me, are quietly working in the shadows to make it happen.  Please join me.

Until next time.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Expectations in a Age of Magic

Sometimes it is rocket science.
One of the funniest social criticism ever made came from comedian Louis CK.  In his discussion with late night host Conan O’Brien, he talks about how fantastic technology has become and no one is happy with it.  I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws of predicting the future the most famous being, “Any sufficiently advance technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  This week on the blog I wanted to discuss expectation setting and getting your business partners to have realistic expectations about technology.

I was thinking about this topic this week as I was watching the coverage of the Rosetta space probe and it placing a lander on the comet.  The technical achievement was astounding.  Over ten years and one and a half billion euros we not only got to see the surface of a comet but we actually landed an object the size of a consumer dishwasher on the surface.  What made this more satisfying was how the science press and the main stream media covered the event. Both seem to admit that success or failure, the European Space Agency’s did the best it could do and that whatever happened it was a big achievement.

Wryly, I joked on LinkedIn that I was looking forward to some of my business partners saying, “If we can land something on a comet why can’t we do X with the web site.”   My mild cynicism hit a nerve because people began to comment and tweet me saying they were expecting similar answers.  This is when it hit me.  Numerous people who work with technology really do not understand how that technology works.  They just take it for granted.  It really is “indistinguishable from magic.”  They can get the weather forecast in Toronto, schedule a truck to deliver products to the city and electronically communicate with Canadian customs to avoid the truck being stopped at the border.  They do it with technologies like the internet, EDI, and Java but they really do not understand how these technologies work.  They just take it for granted that they do.

This is when more knowledgeable people need to step in with expectations.  We understand the amount of work which needs to be done and the difficulty of the tasks.  We also understand that most technology problems in a contemporary business are not technology problems.  They are people problems which could be better solved by individuals working better together.  So when someone says, I would love to have “X” on the web site; ask the hard questions and find out if these improvements are necessary.  Ask about technical debt and why the organization tolerates it.

It is the responsibility of technical professionals to act like the engineers we were trained to be rather than magicians carefully guarding our secrets.  Business partners need to understand the trade-offs which are made every day to keep the organization running.  A new feature for the billing system or web site doesn't pop into existence from the mind of the business owner.  It requires work from developers and quality specialists.  It needs to be accepted by the business.  Finally, it has to be accepted by consumers.

This is not an easy road but it is certainly easier than landing a probe on a comet.

Until next time.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Danger signals for the Scrum Master

Stress is not sexy.
There is nothing glamorous or exciting about being exhausted.  This week on the blog I wanted to talk about some things you need to pay attention too when they come up.

You want to throw things at the office: We toss paper into the waste paper basket.  But what I am talking about is much more serious and frightening.  I was on a conference call after less than six hours of sleep during 72 hours of production issues.  I picked up my mouse and wanted to throw it into my monitor.  I did the next best thing which was walk away from my desk.

You want to spend your time insulting others rather than helping them: Lack of sleep and the pressure of the job can transform a saint into a green hulking rage monster.  If you find yourself wanting to insult your staff or belittle them you need a break.  Your direct reports should not have to suffer because you are too tired to think straight.

You let things go you normally would not allow:  When someone says, “I don’t care” it usually means that they do not have the energy to pay attention to the details.  That is a recipe for failure and a bigger accident to follow.

Your staff starts asking you if you are ok:  Being a manager means warring a “mask of command.”  If you drop that mask and your staff starts seriously wondering if you are up to the job; you may need to take a step back.

You are not sleeping: If you can’t lay down and get some sleep at the end of the day.  This is a serious danger sign.  You need to finish up what you are working on and try to uncoil because not sleeping can create situations similar to being intoxicated.

You can’t focus: Leadership and technology require concentration.  If you can’t concentrate you are sunk.  Taking time off to step away from the project or just the office is going to do you a great deal of good.

Each of these things happened to me this week and I knew the danger signs.  I told my boss and he was good enough to let me work from home.  It was very positive and helped me get through a very rough period.  It also protected my staff.  Life is too short to work for bosses who are struggling to keep it together.  

Until next time.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Power of the Pivot

Sometimes you have to stop getting punched in
 the face to realize you need to make a change.
The life of a Scrum Master or Entrepreneur is filled with uncertainty.  Today’s sure thing becomes tomorrow’s dead end.  This is why I wanted to devote to this week’s blog to the power of being flexible.  In the parlance of Silicon Valley start-ups, pivoting is powerful.

According the Agile manifesto, responding to change is more important than following a plan.  This seems counter-intuitive at first but when you work in the software business for a while you understand why agile people say this.  I can’t remember how many times I have been involved in a course of action is a software project where I have been futility swimming upstream.  A slight course correction or change of approach would have sped up the project and led to success.  Unfortunately, project flexibility was not built into the project and as a developer I was doomed to work on a failing project.

If leadership was more flexible and willing to make changes in light of the current situation the chance of success might increase.  This is where we get the term pivot from.  I learned about it from a fantastic article from Vanity Fair about the purchase of Instagram by Facebook.  I highly recommend the article to anyone willing to learn about adopting to change.  In summary, Instagram’s CEO Kevin Systrom had numerous bouts of failure and frustration.  It was only after he pivoted his firm toward photography and filtering that he was able to find the success he was seeking.

I remember reading this article on a plan ride home from a corporate off site meeting.  I witnessed the new organizational chart and saw five people named project managers who I had personally trained to use Team Foundation Server.  I also noticed that I was not going to lead a software team.  I felt humiliated and my career was at a dead end.  I was filled with anger and frustration.  Something had to give, and it was clear to me that it would have to be my career at my old firm.  I got together with a few of my mentors in the agile community including Alan Dayley and they gave me the support and encouragement which I needed.  Within a month I had changed jobs and become an architect and scrum master at another company.  It is one of the few times in my career I can look back and say I did the right thing.

So my lesson is that sometimes you need to pivot to be successful. Blindly following a plan will lead to nothing be frustration and misery.  If something isn’t working try something else.  We invest too much into the sunk costs of our lives.  By pivoting or responding to change instead of following a plan, we gain a fraction of our lives back and learn to find success.  It is not as neat and orderly as we would like but in an uncertain world it is the only thing we have.

Until next time.