On Turtle Time

For the past three years we have vacationed at Emerald Isle in North Carolina. Each year we wander the sandy miles in search of turtle nests ready to hatch. We then spend a few hours each night in the company of patient turtle patrol volunteers hoping we will see the nest hatch. We have never seen one hatch but spending moonlit evenings with the waves washing their soothing sounds ashore has it benefits. You get to see another other species demonstrating that too long at the top of the chain leaves them devoid of an understanding of the objective realities of Nature. They are the vacationers quizzing volunteers on the schedule and status of the reptilian release. Each time the answer is the same, when the turtles are ready, but the answer is never enough.

Trenched Turtle Nest

Turtle nest with a trench dug for the turtle to follow

My big crazy software project has been lumbering along like a female loggerhead crawling up the beach to lay eggs, thinking it would be nice to be Agile but surviving adequately as is thus avoiding a compelling reason to evolve. It claims to be doing some form of Scaled Agile but has struggled to make a dent in its own analytical organizational mindset. The most telling vestigial behavior is that of date driven decision making and strict release schedules. The stock analytical hierarchical Project Manager mindset has seeped in and solidified in the layer of management above the teams, not surprising called the Program Layer. A large legacy codebase with inadequate code quality has been a struggle to wrangle. Releases are done in batches called Program Increments. Despite endless data on code quality and a backlog of production defects, the mindset remains fixed on releasing on schedule and fixing the failures later. What is most disturbing is the assumption of the Project Manager types that they believe they can force the software to be ready to release through endless pressure on the teams.

On the beach it’s funny to listen to the volunteers answer the same questions:

Vacationer: “When will the turtles come out?”

Volunteer: “When they are ready.”

Vacationer: “Will that be after dark?”

Volunteer: “Maybe, but sometimes they come out before dark”

Vacationer: “But it is a full moon and high tide, won’t that make them hatch?”

Volunteer: “They can’t see the moon or the water when they are buried but high tide will make for a shorter crawl.”

Vacationer: “Will they hatch after 9 tonight? I need to know when to come back to see them hatch.”

Volunteer: “We don’t know.”

Not much different from status hungry Project Managers who think the more often they ask the more likely some developer will admit to having fixed a defect blocking the release, as if they felt the need to hide that fact. Eventually a defect will be fixed and the PM will assume it was mainly because of her management of it.

Project Managers have spent too long at the top of the project food chain. Humans don’t spend as much time eating lesser lifeforms as trying to demonstrate how they in control of them. On the beach it is charming to see Nature ignore this silliness. There is no benefit to turtles coming out on schedule. They first hatch and then spend more time in the nest absorbing the yolk as the first and maybe last ever meal. Even if they do make it past the waiting predators, only 1 in 1000 survives to maturity. With a little over 100 in an average loggerhead nest, it was likely none would be a part of laying a future nest. I expect the numbers for software applications are similarly disconcerting.

When turtles leave the nest more or less all at once, they are then a few days old. The nest is said to boil. This video is from one of those patient volunteers. Coming out all at once is a good survival strategy against the first line of predators. Overwhelm the predators will all those little crawling morsels and maybe some will escape the waiting jaws. When we release software, we do the same. It’s not a good strategy due to the risk of other things becoming broken and the release date causing regression testing to be trimmed. The only boiling going on is the sea around the struggling teams.

Patience is a must on the nightly vigils. Every so often, a volunteer will shine a red light on the nest to see of any sand has moved. White lights are a no-no as it may cause the turtles to try and leave the nest on their own. At some point if the sand has been steady for a few hours, they call it night. Volunteers are there to make sure the environment of the babies is ideal and unimpeded, much like say the ScrumMaster role, not to babysit. They tend to the chute-like trench dug between nest and sea. They build fences between spectators and the trench to make sure the turtle’s path is clear. They never dig the nest early. If PMs were running the show they probably put a great white arc lamp in place and scream at the nest demanding sand moves morning, night and weekend. If the turtles didn’t come out on time they’d dig them out stick them in a bucket and toss them into the sea, claiming a can-do attitude is a winning attitude. They’d be on to the next nest before the little bodies washed back on shore.

Turtle Nest about to hatch

Turtle Nest about to hatch

On this our third year there was a bit of excitement on the fourth morning. A cold front and thunderstorms had triggered a few turtles to come out the previous night. The storms kept all but the local lead volunteer inside, checking a few times during the evening. On the second check he counted two turtles and later at midnight another two. With the coverage gaps, no one knew how many escaped to the sea. Maybe twenty was the guess. He had covered the hole to protect the remaining nest guests. For my last two nights we waited but none came out. The day after we left the nest was to be excavated in the evening. This must be standard practice for hatched nests to see if any turtles were stuck. No one knew the number of eggs as the mother had laid the nest close enough to the dunes that it did not need to be relocated as many nests have to be.

Luckily we had a friend who was staying another day and she sent us pictures of the excavation. The result? The nest was empty. All must have left on that stormy night. They needed no help and no permission, attracted to their destination by the light of the moon and the ocean’s phosphorescence. The volunteers were ecstatic. Nature doesn’t need nurturing. It manages itself according to the rhythms that suit it best. If only project managers could also see their role as one of stewardship, they might also discover a new way of being with the teams instead of over them and find similar joy.

A Note on Finding Nests

The nests themselves are well marked but the data on their location and hatch dates is kept deliberately vague. My technique is brute force. On arrival my wife and I pick a direction and walk as far as we can and find as many nests as we can. We note the nest numbers and save the GPS location of whatever we find on Google Maps. On the first night we compare it to the map on the seaturtle.org site. We match the features on the Bogue sound side of their map with the one we created from our tags. The nests seem to be number in the order they were laid. Nests tend to hatch from 50-60 days after they were laid. Nests are “trenched” at day fifty and the vigils commence. Correlating the map gives you other locations to survey. If no nest is there then it probably has hatched. Comparing to the nest numbers you found gives you an idea of which nest in the sequence is next. We have been lucky in that a trenched nest has always been within a nighttime walk along the beach.

Turtles will get confused by other light sources when the start crawling. Flash photography is frowned upon so figure out how to turn it off on your cellphone before you settle into the dark. If you are lucky enough to have a place on the beach near a nest, see if you and those around you can turn off their outside lights.

Take a backlit e-reader with some appropriate music and enjoy the evening whatever the outcome.


Turtle Nest

Turtle Nest


About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
This entry was posted in Agile Anthropology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On Turtle Time

  1. Andrew Lopresti says:

    I stumbled upon this via LinkedIn. I did some volunteer work on loggerhead nests in Florida during my high school years. I really enjoyed the calls for biomimicery in releases. Somethings seem to never change. Keep fighting the good fight.

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