Hyperproductive? I don’t know but I’ll take it.

I’ve written about how our agile practice, particularly continuous improvement, has re-organized our product and development group into one, high performing team. How this has resulted in less code, less waste, higher quality and more value.

Jeff Sutherland talks about mature, agile teams achieving what he calls hyperproductivity. At this point, the team output accelerates and they outpace the organization around them.


Performing beyond even our own expectations allows us slack to help our product team and our sponsors define the work we do. As a matter of fact, last week, the dev team accounted for 9 of 15 stories in our backlog including 5 consumer facing additions or changes. Our sponsors have so much trust in both our ability to deliver work and our judgement that we have top down support behind the kinds of necessary efforts companies find hard to justify like platform and framework upgrades.

It is a virtuous circle, performance allows slack, slack allows time for reaching outside the immediate task to understand and optimize work for the next week, to keep up with our training and industry, to get out of the room and talk to the business, to imagine new features, to identify and solve problems.

Team members are allowed an opportunity to express their individual talents and interests: one developer can bring in a prototype of an entirely new implementation of our website, another can research and improve our search engine rank. All while working as a single collocated team that pair programs with daily pair rotation through a weekly iteration cycle and a shared backlog.

It is a synthesis of contradictions: deliver features and create less code, remove interruptions and make time out of the team room, strive for collective ownership and individual autonomy.

It results after years of dedicated practice in the techniques of Extreme Programming: pair programming, test driving, collective ownership, refactoring, iterative delivery — and determined Scrum project management: impediment removing, iterative delivery, retrospection, adapting our organization, earning trust, and protecting the team so that they could get their work done. A team is an organism that needs to close inwards, build strength and discipline before it can open up and expand outwards.

It’s the second time I’ve been a part of a team that’s reached this level of performance and both times it’s taken years to get there. I’ll take it.

Agile’s broad adoption and mediocrity – the fault lies…

I have to admit, I cringe whenever I say “agile” or “scrum” (™?) Even as I practice both every workday and care deeply for the values they represent.

Successful movements take on a cloying “fill me with your knowledge” cast. A perpetual newbie state where new adherents come on faster than existing practitioners have opportunity to develop experience and wisdom.

I really don’t need to have another conversation about how to phrase the first sentence of a user story.

And I definitely feel some of the same heat rising from the attention to lean. Buzz, buzz, kanban, buzz…

But can we blame the thought leaders, the coaches, the industry deriving wealth from a movement for the failings of that movement? Is it the corrupting influence of success or rather broad adoption itself?

I think the latter.

First, let me acknowledge that iterative improvement is a lengthy process and has to start somewhere. That your current state is entirely flawed is a given.

You don’t have to be excellent at what you do at this exact moment to begin improving your own practice and your workplace. A broad swath of not soul killing workplaces is at least as valuable as a small set of shining cities on the hill.

But whatever the starting point, taking on agile practice is dedicating yourself to a mission of fundamentally changing the nature of our work to something both disciplined and highly accountable but also collaborative, creative and sustainable.

And broad adoption means that a lot of people who call themselves “agile” just don’t rise up or even aspire to rise up to that mission.

If you claim you’re doing XP: have 24 hour builds, the developers all work solo and your test coverage is 10% then you’re either at the start of a very long journey (which I deeply admire you for) or you’re lying to yourself and you just plain suck.

If you claim you’re doing Scrum and the developers haven’t talked to a business person in months, can’t articulate what your team achieved in the last month, and you require “stabilization” sprints before you can deploy working code, you are either at the start of a very long journey (which, again, I deeply admire you for) or you’re lying to yourself and you just plain suck.

It’s not one of a thousand consultancies, professional coaches, certification tracks, associations or conferences fault if you suck.

It’s not Jeff Sutherland’s or Ken Schwaber’s fault if you suck. As a matter of fact, they and their peers have done a great deal to give a great many of us a chance at sucking less.

The mentor/mentee relationship is powerful but it’s up to each of us to do our work with courage, integrity and passion. It’s up to each of us to hold our peers to a standard of competence and care.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Antidote to hostile workplaces and the alpha geek

These are notes from my presentation at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) #45.

I’ll link to my full paper when it is available and to subsequent posts as I publish them.

Agile values, product innovation and the shortage of women software developers Part 5 of 7

(29) Antidote to hostile workplace and the alpha geek

“Alpha male techies have minimal social skills and can be awkward around women, but this awkwardness coexists with enormous arrogance[45].”

(30) Problem statement

As an example, at a recent Ruby on Rails conference, a presenter contrasted using particular document oriented database to performing like a porn star: In reaction to the controversy Martin Fowler wrote: “The nub is that whatever the presenter may think, people were offended… It doesn’t matter whether or not you think the slides were pornographic. The question is does the presenter, and the wider community, care that women feel disturbed, uncomfortable, marginalized and a little scared.” 63% of women in tech report they experience sexual harassment

(31) Value statement

Agilists should be a voice in opposition to the alpha male in their midst and here’s why: “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” Not chest thumping individuals.

(32) Description of self organization

Self-organization is a fundamental value in Agile. A performing Agile team organizes itself around the work collaborating in high trust according to a set of mutually arrived at expectations and norms of behavior.

(33) What does self-organization feel like?

Another quote from Jeff Sutherland: “Team members share a sense of purpose, vision, and passion for their work. Teams that recognize that we are not simply individuals working in close proximity, but a team where we must all be engaged with one another’s work. (Jeff wrote He) tells teams looking to achieve amazing results that each member of the team must care as much about their neighbor’s work as they do their own.”

(34) Enterprise support for self-organization is also an Agile value

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

(35) Practices that support self-organization

In emphasizing Agile values, I’m not saying the practices are not important. They support the values. A company instilled with the value of self-organization should: keep team size between 5-9 people, provide communal workspace, rely on the team to do its own estimates and form it’s own iteration commitments. The team must frequently and consistently reflect on what it can do and what it must ask of the organization to make itself more effective. They must drive incremental improvements into the organization based on this.

(36) How is self-organization an antidote to alpha geeks?

A self-organized team will not tolerate a hostile or demeaning attitude towards co-workers or the business people upon which it depends for work. They will deal with each other with respect and a great deal of honesty. They have difficult conversations with each other and they address their own bad behaviors in order to fit into the norms of the team in order to maximize team performance. So, the ultimate answer for the alpha male who breaks the cohesion of the team, is he either modifies his behavior based on frequent and regular feedback from his peers and coaching from his leads or he is off the team.

Next: Antidote the diving catch culture of heroics and privileged roles…

Previous: What Agile principles demand we confront this problem?

All slides published to date.

There is abundant research on the problems women face in our field. I would love researchers to jump in on whether Agile principles and Agile practioners can really make a difference.

I’d also love any suggestions of organizations, institutions and individuals I might reach out to for more information, collaboration, or to take up the cause.

The full citation list for my paper.

Do Agile principles demand we confront the shortage of women developers?

These are notes from my presentation at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) #45.

I’ll link to my full paper when it is available and to subsequent posts as I publish them.

Agile values, product innovation and the shortage of women software developers Part 4 of 7

(23) Agile Software Development

Now let’s incorporate Agile Software Development into this. What unites the different agile methodologies is a shared set of values and a shared cause to change the way software is made and delivered to customers. These values are declared in twelve principles and summarized in a four line manifesto…

(24) High level principles

We value: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Working software over comprehensive documentation. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. Responding to change over following a plan.

(25) Agile values are the foundation of agile practice

“These values are not just something the creators of the Agile Manifesto intended to give lip service to and then forget. They are working values. Each individual agile methodology approaches these values in a slightly different way, but all of these methodologies have specific processes and practices that foster one or more of these values.” – Jeff Sutherland

(26) Agile values as a standard of conduct

Agile principles and the ongoing discussion of them form the basis for a normative standard of conduct informing how practitioners should behave towards our work, our peers, our employers, our customers and our end users. They challenge practitioners not to a narrow definition of success on a task but to craft with quality, to collaborate in high trust, to cede authority to individual contributors, and to work with the customer’s interests in mind, to make predictable progress at a sustainable pace, and to make problems and opportunities visible.

(27) Agile values as a call for beneficial change

Agile principles urge us to inspect our actions, confront impediments, and drive towards beneficial change. And the means to this is, as Alistair Cockburn suggests, we “…value agile principles over the agile practices[38] Or as Bob Martin says, Not simply to execute but to take care.”

(28) What Agile principles demand we confront this problem?

So if Agile practitioners recognize the shortage of women in our shops is an impediment to value delivery – that it is an obstacle to our mission as agilists – then we will work to remove this impediment. The question becomes “What Agile principles demand we confront this problem?” In the interests of time I’ll highlight two hostile cultures described in the literature and the agile values that challenge them.

Next: Antidote to hostile workplaces and the alpha geek…

Previous: Can women devs help software better address the needs of women end users?

All slides published to date.

There is abundant research on the problems women face in our field. I would love researchers to jump in on whether Agile principles and Agile practioners can really make a difference.

I’d also love any suggestions of organizations, institutions and individuals I might reach out to for more information, collaboration, or to take up the cause.

Please comment on my proposal to Agile 2012.

The full citation list for my paper.

An outlier to the outliers, observations of an agile practitioner at an academic conference

Molokini viewed from the Grand Wailea HotelI presented my paper “Agile Values, Innovation, and the Shortage of Women Developers” at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences #45 (HICSS) on Thursday, January 5th. I’ll publish out my presentation notes in this blog over the next week. I’ll also link to the published paper when it is available on the IEEE website.

A puzzling experience

I’ve presented papers at HICSS before. Mostly in the Agile track chaired by Jeff Sutherland. I did present once in a more purely academic Ethics track.

In this case, HICSS had two “Agile” tracks. And the one I submitted to was actually not Jeff’s track. Kind of amusing. But also kind of NOT as the real reward of this conference has been the mix of educators and practitioners. By having two tracks, HICSS split the audience. I was in an academic track with an academic audience.

I am a digression

As the whole topic of Agile is a minor footnote at this conference, I found myself an outlier to the outliers. Or as the chair of my mini-track at this conference called my paper, “a digression”.

I will admit it. My paper is a digression. It was off topic here. It would be off topic at a professional Agile conference. That doesn’t make it irrelevant and I’m grateful for the reviewers who allowed it into the conference and the people who attended my talk.

It is about what our industry and our peers do to discourage and drive away women from software development and how Agile values can help practitioners find the courage and focus to fight this. Like I said, I’ll start publishing out my notes this week.

Just another process

I should have realized I wasn’t proposing into Jeff’s mini-track just based on the title: “Agile Software Engineering“.

Just the use of the word Engineering will inflame the passions of many very good Agile practitioners. I am not one of them. I understand “craftsperson” and “engineer” are freighted concepts. But I am the son of an Engineer and spent over ten years working in theater while becoming a paid software developer. I know that both terms imply a love of disciplined execution, a dedication to excellence, a sense of personal responsibility, and a society of peers.

However, in this case the phrase Agile Software Engineering spoke to an overall tone of the day I’d summarize as, “Really, agile isn’t so different from everything else. It’s just a process framework. Just some practices that apply in some cases and don’t apply in others. A good developer will do good work in spite of the process they use.”

The heart of my concern

This is entirely true if you focus on the practices but this characterization of the Agile movement gets to the heart of my concerns about widespread Agile adoption. Agile adoption isn’t about the practices. It’s about the principles behind the practices.

If you don’t have those values instilled into your team and aren’t working incrementally to install those values into your organization. You can call yourself agile but don’t characterize your understanding of what that means as the sum total of what Agile practice represents.

I don’t claim “Agile” is the one answer

It is clearly possible to build a team oriented, collaborative organization without calling your values, Agile.

It is also possible to get through life without wanting to work on a team or to collaborate with anyone. Not every software professional can or wants to embrace these values or would be successful if they tried. And you can build decent software in such a work place.

I also know there are now a plethora of shops that promote their “agile” process that wouldn’t acknowledge an Agile principle if it stood in front of them naked. They don’t give a rat’s ass about their coders — they consider team formation an org chart decision and wouldn’t tolerate self-organization for a second.

My path

But I know after years of hard won experience that Agile principles are my path to an empowered, humane workplace capable of producing work I am proud of that delivers for the business and addresses the needs of end users without exploiting and disposing of talented individual contributors along the way.

So, yes, some agile practices may be a prescription that can be applied selectively. But “Agile” as in the set of values I go to work with each day and come home with each night? That is me. Not my toolbox.