I had the opportunity yesterday to attend a local, yet large, agile event in Raleigh. Since I arrived in the area, the TriAgile conference had received plenty of hyped from my co-workers. Well, I am very happy to say that the event lived it and more. The location, the Mickimmon Center at NC State, provided ample accommodations for all the attendees. Many kudos go out to the organizers and vendors that made this event possible. The attendance in its 2nd year doubled from 200 attendees to just over 400; they’re definitely doing a lot of things right. I was a bit concerned about cramming in 5 sessions along with 2 keynotes in 1 day. However, I was extremely surprised how smoothly the presentations flowed into the breaks and back into the next presentations. At no point did I feel rushed.
While I’m still riding the ‘Agile High’ I wanted to summarize the sessions that I attended. This technique helps me soak in all the information along with disseminate some of the great ideas shared. The conference offered plenty more sessions; these were the ones that I was able to view.
How To Build the Wrong Thing Faster (and learn from it) by David Hussman
I’m going to lead this discussion off with a warning: David Hussman was the first speaker that I listened to at Agile West 2013. If you read my bio, you’ll recall that this was my epiphany moment for my career in software product development. You can only imagine how excited I was to listen to David, now that I’m almost 2 years into my journey.
David hit on a variety of topics in his speech. He touched on how organizations are confusing large crowds for collaborating. He referenced how Pixar would allow its team of 200 to make suggestions, but in the end it was a much smaller subset that synthesized all those ideas into stories. As he usually does, David went on the offensive on a buzz term we hear so much in the software industry: ‘Do Scrum/Agile’. In reality, what does that even mean? As he stated in his presentation, Agile/Scrum are just words until we give them meaning. In his ‘Cutting an Agile Groove’ series he replaces ‘Agile/Scrum’ with ‘collaborating’. In reality, that is the true essence of what we’re attempting to accomplish. Organizations and many in the agile community have fallen into the process trap and have forgotten what we’re really doing- delivering working products.
David also invited the crowd to start looking at failure differently. In my generation, like all before me, failure was not an option. David tied it all together with a scientist metaphor. Scientists are wrong 99% of the time, but they never quit. In order to make strides forward, we have to experiment and make mistakes. Its through this trial and error that we make breakthroughs and innovations.
As expected, David kicked off the event with a bang and his discussion led the way for several of the other topics for the day.
The Backlog Refinement Meeting-also a diagnostic Tool by Arjay Hinek
As I warned you in the previous review, I’m going to warn you upfront on this one, as well. Arjay hired me as a ScrumMaster at Red Hat in November 2014. I consider him my mentor in my agile career; he has coached me for several months. Along with coaching, he has been a sounding board for many of my articles and presentations. For the first time, I was the spectator.
Arjay’s presentation contained some very ‘meaty’ material, and his high-energy approach to the presentation kept the audience engaged and entertained. His presentation opened with a continuation of the theme of the opening keynote speech. Arjay encouraged ScrumMasters and coaches to break the monotony of iterations and try new things; sure, some of the activities and twists we try will fail, but we learn from those failure. The premise of his speech took us deep into the artifacts that ScrumMasters and coaches can gather by simply observing the backlog refinement meeting- which I truly hope all teams are holding.
Arjay conveyed how the backlog refinement meeting offers some interesting glimpses of the health of the team. Specifically, the health of the following can be deduced from the backlog refinement meeting: Product Owner, team, stories, and the ScrumMaster. Below are some examples from his speech:
- Health of Product Owner
- Can you determine vision by looking at backlog?
- Has it been prioritized by P.O.?
- Health of the Team
- Team should be comfortable talking about tech debt with PO
- Does team openly negotiate and prioritize tech debt
- Health of Stories
- Stop solutioning
- Is the story about delivering the best solution iteratively?
- ScrumMaster Assessment
- Do they ask the right coaching questions?
- Do they invite conversation or “shoot it down”?
Arjay wrapped up his presentations, by emphasizing the importance of assessment tools, and he encouraged us to use them.
Sustaining Agile Across the Enterprise: An Executive’s Point of View by Andy Diggelmann
Next on the list was Andy Diggelmann’s presentation on agile from an executive’s point of view. I was curious to hear what Andy had to say; in my experience, the executive level has always been the challenge for Agile transformation and sustainability. I hoped to get into the head of an executive and see things from their eyes. This would give me valuable insight into the concerns I can address in the future while assisting organizations that are just starting out their journey.
Andy delivered an impassioned speech about the benefits of Agile at SAS and his company’s journey over the last 15 years. He encouraged the executives and future executives in attendance to allow things to flow organically after a transformation. Andy also highlighted some of the key benefits of an organization’s adoption of a more collaborative environment: change, transparency, and innovation. He also warned us of some pitfalls to avoid during the journey. Specifically, he mentioned that there is no ‘one size sits all’ solution and that there is no room ‘to do things by the book and hide behind agile’.
When the presentation opened up for questions I asked Andy what made him the most skeptical of the Agile transformation as an executive. He quickly referred back to his slides on anti-patterns. The idea that there was no central control and a high possibility of chaos in the organization was the most unnerving feeling for Andy. However, the benefits, such as transparency into product development, heavily outweighed his concerns.
Key Skills for Managers and Leaders in an Agile World by Devin Hedge
Devin Hedge’s presentation intrigued me. As he dove deeper into his topic, he started hitting a topic that has been a bad rub for me over the years. His message paralleled my views that employers still value content/technical skills over core/soft skills. This makes sense for new employees, but does not fit for leadership. I used to agree that a professional should place no responsibility on the employer for growth. However, after spending 6 months at Red Hat, that view is quickly changing. Red Hat explicitly encourages its employees to stretch beyond their job titles and professional capabilities. In many cases, Red Hat will provide the means to build their employee’s professional careers. As a result, it has built a loyal, diverse workforce that knows their employer recognizes the daily sacrifices they make in order to make the company successful. This is contradictory to what Robert Martin states in his book Clean Coder:
“It is not your employer’s responsibility to make sure you are marketable. It is not your employer’s responsibility to train you, or to send you to conferences, or to buy you books. These things are your responsibility. Woe to the software developer who entrusts his career to his employer.”
I cannot claim that Martin is incorrect; to expect these ‘perks’ from an employer is unrealistic. However, I firmly believe that a company that truly cares about its workforce will provide these to its employees.
How does this tie into Devin Hedge’s presentation? Devin talked about how organizations have lost the ability to development and provide professional development plans. He went into detail about Transdisciplinarity- the ability to bridge the silos. Siloing is a symptom of old hierarchical structures; quite frankly, its old world thinking brought into the new world of software development. Though its great to have a specialty as you progress in your career, there is a need to generalize in other aspects of the team. Devin wrapped up his discussion with a short exercise that emphasized the need for building core skills as leaders.
Agile Transformation: It’s as Easy as Riding a Bike by Laura Smyrl
As I highlighted in my user story tune up: ‘Sometimes you have to go back to basics and remember where you came from’. I intend to closely work with organizations undergoing transformations, so I wanted to remember what it was like to sit in the room and have all these career-altering ideas revealed. I was not disappointed with the material or Laura’s fantastic metaphor.
Laura covered all the stages of riding a bike, from beginner to professional. She made connections between these stages to our agile journey. Her presentation emphasized the importance of ensuring our teams have the right equipment, experience, and trust. She also emphasized that the team should understand the individual roles and make sure that one person isn’t getting slammed with all the work. I also want to give a virtual ‘high five’ to Laura for finally saying what many keep wavering on: ‘Scrum teams need dedicated ScrumMasters’. ScrumMasters are like a coach in professional sports. They’re surrounded by athletes that have been playing that sport their entire life; can they go out and compete without a coach? Likely. Will they compete and WIN? Probably not. A coach provides insights and makes tweaks by constantly observing the team. A ScrumMaster doesn’t have the same direct authority of a coach, but they can make the same recommendations and tweaks to help the team.
Laura did a fantastic job taking the crowd on the journey from beginner to professional. It was an excellent reminder of where I was on my journey 2 years ago, and where I am now.
A Model For Agile Coaches And ScrumMasters To Do Great Things by Jason Tanner
I finished off my break away sessions with Jason Tanner’s model for coaches and ScrumMasters. This presentation felt very relevant to where I am in my career- 2 years a ScrumMaster and on the journey to either becoming a coach or trainer. When you commit to becoming a ScrumMaster, your trainer goes into details about the inner workings of Scrum and the team. If you have a good trainer, as I did, he/she will introduce you to the coaching aspect of the ScrumMaster. I have had the opportunity to sit as a ScrumMaster/Supervisor and solely as a ScrumMaster. From my own experience, the ScrumMaster/Supervisor was quite easy; however, I later realized that my authoritative title stunted the team from pushing back and growing. Working as a ScrumMaster for a high performing team has been a challenge, but in a good way. Jason framed what we do as ScrumMasters and coaches nicely. He first outlined the roles that we take on a daily basis: counselor, coach, partner, facilitator, etc. Next, he explained how adopting these roles for a particular scenario could prove beneficial to the team. Specifically, he laid out a pattern to follow:
Observation => Hypothesis => Design => Intervention => Reflection
For years I have been flowing through this model without really knowing it. I intend to incorporate Jason’s model into my daily routine. After going through some exercises during the presentation I realized that I need a lot of practice; but I also realized how much better I can be as a ScrumMaster and coach with this model in my arsenal.
Introducing the GROWS Method: An Anti-Agile Framework by Andy Hunt
Last, but certainly not least, we all gathered back in the main hall for Andy Hunt- one of the founders of the Agile Manifesto. Andy finished the long day off with a strong, entertaining, and very informative talk. I was slightly taken aback by his offensive on agile frameworks along with one of the bullets in his presentation- ‘Agile methods are not Agile’. His comments were a hook to explain that over the course of almost 15 years, not much has changed. Seriously, how contradictory is that? It was a point that felt like a punch in the gut, but so necessary. Andy went on to introduce the 4 pillars to GROWS: Dreyfus skill model, directed empiricism, inclusive, and self determined adaptation. As he continued on with his talk, I kept reflecting back at how stagnant agile frameworks have grown over the years. Then, I started to think about how many practitioners have introduced variety into the frameworks, and we HAVE experimented. The theme of looking at failure as a step to innovation and growth continued to resonate all the way through the final keynote.
I’ve been gushing on and on about the presenters and their material. Overall, the location, parking, food, vendors, rooms, etc were exceptional! Though its only in its second year, TriAgile feels like one of the larger, nationally established conferences. The organizers mentioned that their aim next year is to attract more out of state participants. I really do believe they will be able to achieve this. I can only imagine the stories I will hear from presenters and participants in 2016. If you’re looking for an affordable, informative conference, I highly recommend putting TriAgile on your radar.
Martin, Robert C. (2011-05-13). The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers (Robert C. Martin Series) (Kindle Locations 602-605). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.