Monday, May 30, 2016

Being a scrum master is about struggle.

This is what struggle looks like.
Some careers are prestigious.  Others people have high paying careers.  Finally, there are plenty of people who define their careers based of the daily struggles they give.  This week after a long three day weekend I want to talk about struggle.  

When I hear the word “struggle” it sounds like a cliche.  I have heard pampered athletes use it to describe contract negotiations.  I have seen interviews with escaped murderers talk about their “lives of struggle.”  I have even witnessed a teen-ager user the term “struggle” to describe efforts to find a liquor store to sell him beer under age.  Struggle can get to be pretty meaningless because it has so many different meaning to so many different people.   Describing struggle seems just as futile as describing “love.”

My definition of struggle requires personal sacrifice in the face of indifference and hostility.  The example I use to illustrate struggle is the lives of ballet dancers.  For years, they toil in obscurity.  A dancer can spend hours practicing and in rehearsal.  They contend with abusive instructors, self-doubt, eating disorders, and injury.  All of this pain and sacrifice for a chance to be on stage and hear the applause of the crowd.  Dancers also suffer a physical toll for this life and it is clear to see when you look at photographs of the feet of dancers.  To me, that is struggle.

A scrum master’s life is to be in a constant struggle with the organization, colleagues and the status quo.  You are like Don Quixote in Man of La Moncha jousting with windmills and upsetting the authorities.  It is not the kind of career which allows quick advancement up the corporate ladder.  A scrum master must listen like a minister, inspire like an apostle, and be ostracized like a martyr.  They should have good technical skills and social skills good enough to act like a therapist to the people around them.  It is not an easy job. 

So to be a scrum master is to live a life of struggle.  You don’t go into it for fame and fortune.  You do it in order to make a difference in the organization and if that is not why you are their then you need to be doing something else. 

Until next time.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Failure is the starting point for success

I grew up during Morning in America
I am a scrum master which always raises questions when I talk about it at family gatherings and dinner parties.  People ask me what I do for a living and when I tell them I am a scrum master they look perplexed.  “You mean like a project manager,” they ask.  I have to assure them that it is more than just being a project manager.  I am a servant trying to solve problems for the team members.  I lead and participate in countless meetings.  I know the current weather in Chennai and know some great people half a world away who happen to build web sites.  I also spend most of my time dealing with failure.  This week, I wanted to discuss with you failure and how it will make you a better scrum master.

Growing up in 1980’s America is a difficult time to describe to others.  Ronald Reagan was the president.  Instead of random acts of terrorism, young people like myself were worried about civilization being destroyed by nuclear weapons from Russia.  Gay people were dying of a disease known as AIDS and government didn’t care until the epidemic could no longer be ignored.  At the same time, music was alive with energy from punk and the New Romantic Movement became television friendly with the birth of MTV.  Deficit spending and a military build-up spawned an economic boom and as a teen-ager you were sold a bill of goods which said if you said no to drugs, worked hard in school, and pushed yourself you could be a successfully person.  As Dickens said, “It was the best of times and the worst of times.”

This cult of success infected everything in the 1980’s.  If someone wasn’t succeeding then it was because they were not working hard enough or smart enough to succeed.  If you failed you deserved to fail and you deserved the shame that accompanied it.  It is no surprise that when the economy fell apart in the early 1990’s that sales of anti-depressant drugs sky-rocketed.  It was a bitter pill to swallow because the bill of goods we were sold was phony and shallow.  Confronted with failure on such a huge scale an entire generation decided to go a different path.

Today, I look back on that period of time not with any nostalgia but rather as a profound learning lesson.  The economy failed on a scale unseen and countless driven and hard-working people were forced on the side lines.  Rather than giving up we made due the best they could carving out a cultural niche which will quickly get swamped by the millennial generation.  My generation taught to worship success learned to cope with failure and how to bounce back.  It has taken me twenty six years from when I marched out of college to the present day.  I have worked in radio, the casino business, and technology.  I have failed numerous times knowing that it will prepare me for future successes.

Failure is natural and instead of shunning it we should embrace it as the learning opportunity which it is.  Failure helps you avoid common mistakes.  Failure helps you weigh risk and know when to take a chance and when to let an opportunity pass you by.  Failure inspires success because it forces you to focus your energy and time on what you need to do to succeed.  Failure is just as important as success we just don’t recognize it as much as we should.   So if you are a scrum master, embrace failure because it is the ultimate learning tool for you and your team.

Until next time.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Keeping it simple.

The light switch should be our inspiration
One of the most important principles in Agile is simplicity.  I work with plenty of clever people which means we come up with plenty of complicated ways of doing things.  True innovation and progress happens when we find simple ways of doing complicated things.  This week we are covering the virtues of simplicity.

When we talk about simplicity, we are not talking about something which is simple.  We are talking about something which is simple to use, simple to work with and simple to understand.  The example I like to use most, is the electrical power grid.  When we need to put a light in a room we plug in a lamp and turn on the switch.  The technology and work that goes into getting electricity to that lamp is very complex to but to us it is simple.

Technology like smart phones, web sites and accounting software should be like the electrical power grid.  Sadly, it is not.  Microsoft technologies are great for PC’s but in order to write web applications for a phone you need Xamarin or understand HTML5 to write Windows 10 applications.  Those applications do not work on Android and iOS devices.  This is just a sample of some of the technologies which do not play nice with each other for either market or technical reasons.

The blame for this trend is very smart people who, instead of working together to create simple and elegant solutions, have split into warring tribes.  It would take an entire book to discuss the history of why this has happened.  So to the average consumer we have a layer of complexity to everything we do and it needs to stop.  Even Apple has made music players a colossal mess making it impossible for people to manage the thousands of songs in their music libraries.

I do not have any magic bullets to fix this but is up to everyone in the agile community to try and reduce this kind of complexity.  It will not be easy but neither was setting up the national power grid.
Until next time.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Reputation is not licence to be a jerk

We know lots of people like this.  A few of them 
 set the conversation of the technology world.
 Image courtesy of
The world of technology is filled with plenty of smart, talented and colorful personalities.  This dynamic was one of the reasons why I was drawn to the business.  This week I want to talk about of these colorful personalities and how he represents some of the worst impulses in the technology business.

There are plenty of stereotypes in the technology business.  These are reinforced by popular culture in productions as diverse as James Bond movies, the Fox series 24, and the HBO program Silicon Valley.  Having over 18 years’ experience in the business, I have seen many of these stereotypes in real life.  I have also met plenty of great people who are unique and innovative in every way.

By any standard, Alex St. John should be seen as one of the leading minds in the technology field. He was self-educated and self-taught.  He created the DirectX technology which powers Xbox and just about every PC game on Windows.  His work helped make Microsoft the power house it is and he earned further accolades founding his own company.  This kind of achievement should make St. John a good will ambassador for the technology field instead, he is coming off as a colossal jerk.

I can provide numerous examples which have already been articulated elsewhere on the web.  These offenses break down into three categories.

  • He does not see the value of women in technology.  Exhibit A.
  • He thinks that exploitative work conditions in the software business, particularly, the game business are acceptable.  Exhibit B.
  • Finally, anyone who disagrees with him is a “whiner” of not willing to work hard.  Exhibit C.

I have stated repeatedly, technology needs more women.  The fresh perspective they provide to technology is essential to improving product quality.  It also makes the office less like a Mongol raiding party and more like a 21st century work place.  The less testosterone in technology the better.

Next repeated studies have shown that long hours are a hindrance to productivity rather than a boon.  Notions of “crunch” time and working eighty hour work weeks are exploitative and boarder on the illegal practice of wage theft.  Additionally, the twelve principle of Agile discourage this mindset stressing development should sustainable.  To St. John and others developer burn-out, turnover, and alienation are the cost of doing business.  Technology workers are not different that sweatshop workers and they should be grateful for the conditions.

Finally, St. Jon has ridiculed people who disagree with him about issues of diversity and exploitation of tech workers by claiming they are not ambitious enough or smart enough to understand his arguments.  In St. John’s world, I would have died of a heart attack because I would be living on steady diet of caffeine, pizza, and stress.  The technology world has undermined two of my marriages because of high stress, turn over, and uncertain employment conditions.  It is hard to keep good employees if they don’t see or sleep with their significant others.  I consider myself a valuable professional to any organization, but to St. John, I am just a pencil to be ground down into a nub to be replaced by someone else just as disposable.

Bottom line, if you do not agree with St. John, then you are neither smart nor talented enough to work in technology.  This may explain why he is spending more time coaching CEO’s and HR professionals on how to recruit technology talent than actually managing technology talent.  I have worked for people like St. John who are convinced of their intellectual and moral superiority. It is not fun and I consider those periods the low points of my career.  Technology is changing thanks to agile and efforts to improve diversity.  Faced with the changing environment you can, lead, follow, or get out of the way.  I think that St. John is about to get trampled to death.

Until next time.