Agile 2018

Agile 2018
Speaking at Agile 2018

Monday, June 26, 2017

Developing the professional scrum master

If you think this is ugly try
hiring an amateur plumber to fix it. 
The business world has a saying, “If you think hiring a professional is expensive, wait until you hire an amateur.”  The obvious meaning being a poorly trained amateur will cost the company more money than someone who is more expensive but better qualified.  This week I want to talk about the minimum standards of professionalism you should expect from a scrum master.

I am a big believer that with enough time and training anyone can develop a useful skill.  If I devoted ten years of my life learning to be a plumber I could become competent.  Unfortunately, I know myself well enough to know that I need to call a professional when my water heater breaks.  A bonded plumber is worth the time and expense for me to have hot water.

When you get into other activities training is only a small part of the equation.  You can practice piano for years and still not be good enough to entertain an audience not composed of parents.  Jazz musicians refer to the quality of being able to improvise and perform in front of an unpredictable crowd as “chops.”  The idea is that anyone can learn to play the notes, but a real musician has chops.  Hard work, combined with talent makes a jazz musician successful.

I feel the same way about scrum mastery.  Everyone can be trained to do the job, but only a minority can do the job well.  It is the difference between having a high school student perform at your night club and having Elton John setting up a residency.  Fortunately, there are plenty of good programs to train scrum masters.  I am particularly fond of the Scrum Alliance Certified Scrum Master certification because it teaches the basics of the job along with the more touchy-feely skills which come with the job.

Once they have received some training, they can then lead a scrum team.  I recommend putting a rookie scrum master with an experienced product owner. This way the scrum master can gain experience with someone who can show them the ropes of the business and the particulars of a project.  With a year or two of experience, a scrum master can help a product owner learn their trade.  Much like the ideas proposed in extreme programming an experienced veteran should partner with a rookie so they both gain from each other’s experience.

With a little luck, you will find someone who is outgoing, a good communicator, empathic, has grace under pressure and can act as team therapist.  Then and only then do you have a scrum master with chops who can take your team to the next level.  So take the time to train your scrum masters.  Next, pair them with experienced developers and product owners, so they gain confidence and experience.  Finally, make sure you find people who possess the talents which will make them successful in the job.  If you do this, you will not have to pay extra for an amateur managing your scrum teams.

Until next time.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Beware the Temptation of "Dark Scrum"

Avoid the temptations of "Dark Scrum"
I have been an agilist since 2009.  I began collecting certifications for Agile and Scrum since 2013.  I even finished up my master’s degree studying the differences between waterfall and iterative project management processes.  I have some skills.  What I find most challenging as an agile practitioner is a disconnect between those of us doing the work and the business people who depend on us.  When this happens, it creates a situation Ron Jeffries calls, “Dark Scrum.”  As a scrum master and agile coach, it is your duty to avoid this situation.  This week on the blog avoiding the temptations of “dark scrum.”

In my formulation, "dark scrum," is when the business users of Scrum use the methodology to enforce control over software development rather than use it to improve quality and customer satisfaction.  Jefferies gives plenty of good examples on his blog, but I would like to provide two more.  I consider them to be pathologies of a dysfunctional organization.

Dark scrum pathology – shoehorning arbitrary deadlines on to sprints.  

One afternoon, I was in the office of a Vice President.  I had been raising concerns with him that a project was going poorly and that I would need his support and intervention.  The meeting did not go well.

“I promised the board that this project would be done by X date,” he said.

I told him based on the stories we had and a three-week sprint cadence we could deliver by a later date.

“You are agile, figure it out,” the VP said, “I need it by X date.”

The executive violated the social compact of agile, and we removed stories and features to meet the arbitrary date.  The customer was disappointed, and the Vice President looked bad.

Dark scrum pathology – why do I have to meet with the off-shore team.

Product owners write stories, but because of the time difference between the onshore and offshore components of the project, did not participate in the stand-up meetings.  We had created a situation where the developers would ask questions, and it would take over 24 hours to get them answered.  Product owners also complained that the team was not understanding the detailed requirements to get the work done.  When prodded to attend the stand-up call with the off-shore team a product owner indignantly said, “I am not waking up that early to talk with India!”

We were able to correct these pathologies.

To address the arbitrary deadline problem, bring in executives and product owners to level set expectations.  In the world of Scrum, the product owner is the person primarily responsible for the success or failure of a project.  The executives outside the team are responsible for funding and helping to remove organizational obstacles.  Knowing financing and deadline commitments provides the product owner a framework to write stories.  The scrum master can then use team velocity and the sprint cadence to let everyone know when a deadline is realistic and when it is not.  This way the social compact of agile is respected, and there are not secrets for all the parties involved.

We solved the next pathology by moving up the stand-up meeting by thirty minutes.  The product owner could take the call from home when they got out of bed but before they came into the office.  Product owners answered questions quickly and user stories improved.  Also, automated testing got better as product owners relied on the offshore QA professionals to streamline acceptance testing.  What was once a burden, became a win-win for the entire team.

The hard part about being a scrum master and agile coach is you are forced to come up with solutions like this each day to prevent your organization from falling into “dark scrum.”  Any situation where those in power ignore the input of the people doing the work is going to add darkness to the organization.  It is why the agile reformation is so important.  By beating back the pathologies of “dark scrum,” we can be successful software developers and professionals.

Until next time.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Leading by example for the scrum master

Any good scrum master will tell you the hardest part of the job is servant leadership.  Each day you need to sublimate your wants and desires for the good of the team.  It is a difficult road to travel, and I want to discuss it this week on the blog.

I find plenty of inspiration from the United States Marine Corps.  They were into servant leadership before the concept had a name in the business world.  All Marine Corps officers learn the phrase “Ductus Exemplo,” which is Latin for the phrase “lead by example.”  That means Marine officers are expected to be an example to the troops they lead and each other.  They eat last.  They make sure their appearance and equipment are “squared away,” so that other troops will follow along.  They don’t rest until everyone come back from patrol.  Finally, they don’t ask anyone to do something they would not do themselves.

The scrum master has plenty of other responsibilities.  They are making sure the team is improving each sprint.  They train product owners and hold them responsible for their work.  They are learning new techniques to keep up with the latest technology trends.  It is late nights doing production pushes with the release team and early morning working with offshore developers.

The reason for many of these sacrifices is simple.  Someday you are going to need developers to work late or a product owner to go above and beyond the call of duty.  That is when they will follow your example and come through.

In short, servant leadership is leading by example and something you will have to do if you want your team to succeed.

Until next time.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Scrum Master Dragon Slayer

This is a typical agile implementation
Growing up in the 1980’s, when you set aside the prospect of the United States and the Soviet Union having a nuclear exchange, it was an excellent time to grow up.  Dungeons and Dragons were part of the popular culture and the movies reflected this trend with films like “The Sword and the Sorcerer,” “Conan the Barbarian,” and the cult classic “The Beastmaster.”  For a nerdy teenage boy, it was beautiful escapism.  It was also a way to learn a few serious lessons about life.  "Excalibur" showed the cost of infidelity to a thirteen-year-old who had not started shaving.  The most significant lesson came from a dark Disney film entitled “Dragonslayer.”

The film had a simple plot.  A dragon is terrorizing a local kingdom, and a wizard and his apprentice must slay the creature. The mission has additional urgency because the king’s daughter has arranged to sacrifice herself to the dragon.  The story has all sorts of threads woven together.  It is the sixth century, so Christians are using the dragon to recruit converts.  The pagan king sees the Christians and their desires to undermine his legitimacy as more important than the life of his daughter.  There are an aging wizard and impetuous apprentice along with a princess and a fire-breathing dragon to round out the cast.

Late one night in a moment of insomnia, it dawned on me this movie was the perfect metaphor for an agile implementation.  The wizard and apprentice are consultants hired by the king to help him solve his dragon problem.  These consultants discover the depths of the political and social rot in the kingdom which threatens to consume them.  Finally, there is the climactic moment where the dragon has to die.

People behave certain ways and do certain things because people have behaved that way for centuries.  Everyone is looking out for themselves, and the dragon is always in the background ready to bring destruction from the air.  I cannot describe a better way to explain a contract engagement with a client if I tried.  

The most galling portion of the film is after the dragon dies; the local king stands over the corpse of the beast with a sword and stabs the dead creature while his Chamberlain proclaims the king a “dragon slayer.”  Countless people have died in the process, and the Christians use the death of the dragon as a recruiting tool.  It almost makes a person wish the dragon could win and turn the entire kingdom into ash – almost.

Like someone who has had an agile practice for the last eight years, I identify with the wizard and his apprentice.  I am training others to be better developers, product owners, and scrum masters.  I am also looking to help develop my skills to make myself better and more useful to my clients and employers.  Often, I encounter internal rot in organizations and have to focus on the dragon flying overhead instead of the more long-range problems.

As a scrum master and coach here is what I do.  Considering I have hired to slay a dragon, the first thing I concentrate on is killing the dragon.  A common phrase in business is “…first things first; last things never.”  Fix the dragon problem.  I expect that the king will take credit for my work.  They did not become King being kind people.  Next set an example so that other villagers will aspire to be wizards.  The practice of agile will only grow if it spreads person to person.  Certifications and trade shows are necessary, but the only way it is truly going to take over the business world is when conscientious practitioners make the agile manifesto and principles work for companies.

Finally, know when to ride off into the sunset.  An agile coach and scrum master are often a threat to the executive leadership because they are more interested in getting work done than the political niceties executives seem to give more priority.  When this happens, tip your hat to the king who took credit for your job and ride off into the sunset.  It may explain why many of the better wizards of literature wander or are hermits.  Working for the King is a sure road to stagnation.

So as one sorcerer apprentice to another; always slay the dragon, recruit more apprentices by your actions, and ride off when you are not needed or wanted anymore.  It certainly beats winding up in the belly of a dragon or the king’s dungeon.

Until next time.