Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Agile and Scrum Prevent You From Cutting Off Your Own Hands

You can learn a lot about software from a table saw.
Over the weekend, my father and I collaborated on a woodworking project for my home.  As I have grown older, I appreciate the time I have with him.  Over the last seventy years, he has acquired plenty of wisdom.  He likes to share it with me from time to time.  This week I want to share my father’s wisdom with you.

We were working with a table saw constructing a gaming table for my house.  I am intimidated by power tools.  I am afraid of injuring myself or someone else.  My father said, that my fear was justified but I needed to get comfortable with power tools because, “It isn’t any harder than writing software,” he joked.

After a few hours on the table saw, my father mentioned, “We have plenty of wood son; you only have two hands,” At this moment, I realized this bit of wisdom also applied to software and Agile.

Too often, software developers are trained in isolation learning to work by themselves.  They do not learn to work with others and once they basics are mastered they develop their own “style” of programming which is often incompatible with other programmers.

You also do not see formal training in Test Driven Development and debugging code.  I realize now this is like not warring safety goggles when you are using a power tool.  The “commando code” style many developers learned needs to go away because when something goes wrong it really goes wrong with that style.

Unit tests make sure that if a class changes and functionality is disrupted a developer can find and diagnose the problem.  Otherwise, it could take hours to track down and fix the problem.  Source control systems such as Git and TFS exist to make sure everyone is working on the same code set.  This prevents one developer from overwriting the changes of another developer.  Finally, design patterns like SOLID, make sure that developers have a common reference point to discuss the architecture of software.

As a junior and intermediate developer, I rebelled against these practices.  Now that I am a senior developer and scrum master, I embrace them.  My career is testimony to this change of heart.  I have broken software builds, destroyed production servers, and over billed numerous credit cards.  The results of this carelessness were long bouts of unemployment and financial hardship.  To put it mildly, I have figuratively cut off my hand more times than I can count.

So to my fellow Scrum Masters and developers.  Slow down there is plenty of wood but you only have two hands.  It is advice, I should have followed years ago.

Until next time.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Postulates of Impostor Syndrome for the Scrum Master

We are not impostors under a mask!
When I think about it, I do not consider myself a successful person.  I have an average home.  I drive an average car.  My one extravagance is my collection of compact disks and the toy soldiers which bring me joy.  I am not one of the rich and famous.  I am just an ordinary person who when I die will have my name forgotten just like many other people who came before me.  This kind of realization makes me sad.  I am one of the many unwashed masses of people.  These are the facts as I understand them and they are woefully misguided.  I suffer from what authors Pauline R. Clance and Suzannne A. Imes call “impostor syndrome.”  After a week away from work and some reflection, I wanted to write about it.

The best definition of impostor syndrome I can find online comes from Forbes magazine.  In short, a person with impostor syndrome feels like they are going to be exposed as not being smart, talented, driven, and competent enough to be doing what they are doing.  It is that little nagging voice in the back of their head which says, “Who are you kidding.” It undermines your self-confidence and your ability to do the work you are doing.  It is what David Foster Wallace would call a Darkness which is following you around.

In the business world of continuous improvement, six sigma, and agile impostor syndrome is about as common as post-it notes.  The reason why is that for many people in that world we are open to and provide criticisms and critiques of each other’s work.  We can always be faster, smarter, and better communicators.  Sometimes, this generates soul crushing moments of frustration and futility.  Nothing is worse than being told you could have communicated something better when you send out 10 e-mails daily, speak to people personally twice in a day, and have a white board filled with information for upper management to read.  It is almost like they want me to sit on their chests like a hungry cat wanting to be fed on a lazy Sunday morning.

I think something deeper causes us to feel like we are impostors.  Human beings are pretty complicated things.  Over the last four hundred years we have done a pretty good job understanding how bodies work, but we are still struggling with understanding how our minds work.  We are not computers who all run code the same way.  We are complicated puddles of emotions, memories, and experiences who if we try hard enough can be rational thinking beings when the need arises.  This is why it is hard for me as a scrum master to be upbeat and positive all the time; sometimes the Darkness wins.  After some thought, on the matter I broke this down into four things which foster these feelings of being an impostor.

Consider these to be Wisniowski’s four postulates of Impostor Syndrome.

The Outside Image

As early as middle school, a professional is taught to dress and act a particular way.  While other young people get tattoos, piercings and are looking to have hair colors that do not occur in nature; the larval professional is told that they must act, dress and behave in a certain way to be credible for others.  This learning process creates what is known as a mask of command which other see but hides your true self.  This personal branding and quest to build leadership presence is not a natural process for most people so it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance where professionals are afraid that someone will penetrate their mask.  The situation is still not as bad as during the mad men era of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s but it is still there.  Just ask yourself when was the last time you saw a banker without a neck tie at the local branch.

The Inner Turmoil

Every human being is the sum of their experiences and not all of these experiences are good.  Each of us have suffered from failure, heart break, frustration, and disappointment.  This undermines your self-esteem.  The trouble is that in the business world you cannot be emotional because being emotional is a sign of weakness.  Thus, these feelings are buried and over time if they are not addressed they can manifest themselves in harmful ways.  In the quest to be strong, we undermine our own health and mental well-being.

The first two postulates of impostor syndrome cover what can be controlled by the individual.  The last too are outside of an individual’s control.

Our Public Reputation

Every professional is concerned about his or her personal brand and how others see them.  Around the office we all know people who are the ones who drink too much, who over share their lives, and who smell like feet.  To be a successful professional, we want to be perceived as the one who is hard working, knowledgeable, and able to take difficult projects and succeed.  The trouble with this is, try as we might to cultivate a positive reputation, it is out of our control.  Other people control our reputation because it is a product of our actions and the perceptions of others who see our actions.  One person’s hard worker is another person’s suck up to management.  The person who is fashionable to one co-worker is another person’s dressed inappropriate for the office.  Because of this lack of control, we try even harder to influence those opinions because a negative reputation could affect our career.

Our Personal Misconceptions

Finally, human beings are evolved creatures with emotions and an unconscious mind.  Cognitive science has shown that our unconscious mind can deceive us.  It has been shown that people suffering from Anorexia look at themselves in the mirror and have very different perceptions than people who do not suffer from the disease.  People with impostor syndrome reflect on their appearance and achievements through the same kind of distorted lens.  We did not graduate from school because we worked hard.  We did not earn the career success we have.  We see it as luck or the intervention of others.  Thus, even though the facts of our lives may say otherwise; our unconscious minds and emotions trick us into thinking that we are somehow faking it through our careers.

So those are my postulates about impostor syndrome.  I have been thinking about this lately because being a scrum master is to live with self-doubt.  You could always be better, more efficient, and able to handle more.  The reality is that sometimes you need to accept yourself warts and all and do the best you can.  I look forward to hearing what you have to say about this and how it applies to your work as an agile practitioner or scrum master.

Until next time.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sharpening the Saw for the Scrum Master

Even a chain saw needs to be sharpened.
Being a scrum master is a calling.  It isn’t like being a catholic priest but is certainly is a calling because you are leading change in your organization.  It is not easy and it requires a bit of missionary zeal.  Because, if you are part of a business reformation it is going to require a level of commitment not typical in most cubical dwelling workplaces.  Having priests and nuns in my extended family, I always wondered why they went on retreats.  This week, it dawned on me why and I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject.

In the book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” one of the seven habits they suggest is known as sharpening the saw.  This is what author Stephen R. Covey calls the opportunity to take a break, train and learn new skills because if you do not you will be like a saw which is over used.  After a while the blade will dull and it will be unable to cut anything.  So highly effective people take time to read, learn new things, and relax.

Since working as a member of a religious order requires incredible people skills, hours of listening, and zero compensation; the risk of burn out is very high.  This is why I think the retreat came into being.  It is a chance for priests and nuns to be among their own kind.  They share stories.  They pray.  They spend time away from the people they are supposed to be serving.  It is not just about the religious mission of these people.  It occurs to me that it is a necessary survival tool in order to do their jobs.

Being a scrum master is one of the hardest jobs in technology.  You are a servant leader of software developers who are notoriously hard to lead.  Contemporary business culture is still struggling to integrate the message of the Agile Manifesto and the principles of agile.  Business leaders expect agile to work in organizations without training their people or hiring people to work full time as product owners.  It is exhausting.  For every success, there are countless failures and you are always expected to be upbeat and willing to continuously improve.

So this week, I am going to take some time to sharpen the saw.  I am going to clean my house, read a trashy pulp novel, and go to a museum or two.  I might even binge watch a few episodes of Dr. Who in order to prepare for the new season.  I am taking my retreat.  I suspect that it is just what the doctor ordered.

Until next time.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Scrum and the Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Teamwork is not about Dysfunction.
From time to time, the vice-president of your organization wants to speak with you.  In my experience, they usually ask me to pack up my desk and leave the company.  Currently, that has not happened at my current firm.  So I am sure you can imagine what I felt when I was called into the vice-presidents office for a brief discussion.  After the heart palpitations subsided, I was given a homework assignment and it has been one of the nicest things an executive has ever done for me.  This week I want to share with you what I learned.

Patrick Lencioni, and his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” wound up on my reading list thanks to a healthy recommendation by my vice-president.  In the book Lencioni talks about a mythical tech-company and a mythical CEO with some very real world problems.  The executive leadership is fighting, they are not making many sales and the corporate culture is toxic.  Something has to be done.  This is when the mythical CEO steps in and starts training the executive team.

During this training the CEO outlines the five dysfunctions of a team and how to cure them:
  • Absence of trust
  • Fear of Conflict
  • Lack of Commitment
  • Avoidance of Accountability
  • Inattention to Results

What makes Lencioni’s book so good is that he treats the training of this mythical executive team in a realistic way.  Some people do not buy in and others pay the dysfunctions lip service.  It is only when people start quitting and getting fired that things start to get real and behaviors start to change.  The pressure of working in the tech-industry also helps mold these people into very different leaders by the end of the book.

I really like this guide book about the dysfunctions and what can be done to cure them.  I highly recommend them for my fellow scrum masters.  Still I could use some help, how do I trust people who have violated my trust?  How do I work with those who avoid accountability?  Finally, how do I work with people who refuse to show vulnerability when it comes to work?  I do not know the answers but at the very least Lencioni’s book helps me understand some of the questions.

Until next time.