Mother, I’m a bit of an Agile Addict

Dearest Mother,
You wanted me to describe my new job as an Agile Coach. Well, it’s a little hard to explain without explaining how I got here as that journey helped shape how I do what it is I do. The story starts with who I was when I left to go to America. I was a young introverted electrical engineer, who enjoyed his eclectic music and as your correctly summarized “didn’t suffer fools easily”. I left Australia on what was supposed to be a six-month contract with my company. I was to work on a steel mill automation project, destined for Russia, then return home via England visiting family. The plan never happened as plans seldom do but oh what a journey it turned out to be.

The Australian company didn’t stay in the US for much longer and so I was out of a job. I had to find something else besides electrical engineering to support my new family. I had to start becoming a bit more outgoing. I convinced a company to take me on the gamble that I would work out as a systems admin. This is someone who maintains computers and their operation rather than programming them. It worked out but that tiny medical billing company got sold.

I had to start being a bit more flexible. I was able to convince the railway that I could be a software developer. They took a gamble and I was able to develop an application to help customers submit shipping information via a modem (that same device I used to endlessly take over the home phone line for). That expansion into commercial software development started to ground my technical abilities in something beyond the tools of an electrical engineer.

As the projects I worked on grew, I had to become a bit more open to working with other developers. As software teams grow to handle more complex applications you need more people with different skills. I found I was able to help teams form and find ways they could learn to play well together. I could listen and mediate. Less to do with technology and more to do with people. I still needed to understand the technology to be taken seriously by the “the techno tribe”.

I started to manage the installation of our system at remote rail loading facilities. I had to be a bit more used to reaching to the people I came in contact with and making a connection. Like the time a yard manager at the St Louis rail terminal spent an entire week trying to harass me into losing my temper. I had to learn to b a bit more patient of the fools I had to suffer. Eventually, he admitted he couldn’t get me to bite and we began to trust each other. He went about helping me do everything I needed to do. Collaboration through patience.

To move up in the organization I thought I would need to be a bit more of a manager. The company gave me a semi-manager role. They told me a need to tell this new team to do what the company wanted to them to do. I didn’t like that one bit. When I tried for a manager role I was passed over for some nice chap who fit their command and control mold.

I needed to get out of my comfort zone a bit. I thought around the year 2000 that with the burgeoning telecommunications field of the Dot.Com boom, I would have no problem. Little did I know I was looking while it was collapsing. I had to be a bit to be a little less selective but still was able to get a manager role at a company making bowling equipment in Richmond. I managed their electronics development group. I managed away. I didn’t like how managers had to be like parents. I didn’t like people working for me and expecting me to direct their work lives. I much preferred working with people and collaborating. Sharing and learning from each other. It was at this time I started to hear another way of developing software that aimed to connect software development teams more to their customers while making it a more collaborative experience for the folks doing the development. I started bringing in these ideas of “Agile Software Development” (Agile for short) into how we worked. Pity the company when into receivership before I could do much with it. I was let go. Dark times.

Richmond was more of financial services town than an electrical engineer’s heaven. I had to reinvent myself a bit. I canceled a trip to visit you and put the money towards a Project Management Professional certification. That seemed to be the close match to what my resume spoke to. After six months out of work, I found a financial software company willing to take a gamble on me as a project manager. It was a small company but fully engaged in doing Agile software development.

Agile combines small teams of developers, testers and people who know what they want in the software product. Instead of working to a long term plan, they work in short spurts of maybe a week or two. They focus on producing high-quality working software, a few features at a time. At the end of these spurts, they expect to have a new version of the software that they could offer their customers. It is very different from what project managers typically do. They work on long projects that produce nothing until near the very end. These long projects work on big chunks of software, laboriously documenting what it should do, developing all the computer code in one lump, then rushing to test it before the delivery date.

They call this Waterfall software development, from the analogy of large buckets of software flowing from one stage (gather the needs, develop the computer code then test like crazy) to the next. Late into a project of maybe several months to a few years, you often find the product no longer meets the customer’s needs. You rush to finish what they no longer want and end up leaving defects that make the product less usable.

By developing a bit at a time on one of these Agile teams, you have time to course correct and deliver something valuable sooner. By making it all less rushed you can focus on making sure you don’t leave defects in as you go from spurt to spurt. There are even tools that help developers automate lots of boring tasks so they can focus on making more and learning more. This making more and continually learning more skills makes the whole thing seem more like a guild than a software factory. Developers and folks who test the software work closely together. They learn each other’s trades. They learn more about their own.

You would think companies would love this approach. However, it does require a company lets go of the teams they previously kept under their thumb. Not many companies can embrace Agile without changing their culture. They have to change their culture bit by bit. Those that can benefit from having more of a community feel, anchored by these guild-like teams. The leadership has to convert from being one based on command and control of people through a fixed hierarchy to one based on servant-leadership. That is, first focus on meeting the needs of teams rather than directing them. Every bit of me wanted to do a lot more of this. It felt more like being on a team, much like my soccer days, than managing a team.

Around this time I was also coaching my kids on their soccer teams. Rec league soccer consisted of the unpaid coaches and the kids. Some of the kids wanted to be there and some didn’t. Some were at a stage that they could play a physically demanding game and some were still developing. I had to become a bit more of a teacher and realized that coaching was more about helping kids find better ways to play together rather than to win. That started with me becoming a bit more playful. I called myself Coach Goose. I was assisted by some really great coaches with their own unique styles. Coach O’Mallard was a saint with my oldest’s team. Coach Loon was willing to be silly along with me, with the younger ones. I probably had the worst record of any coach but it was not about winning a season but how the kids enjoyed themselves and being with each other. In that light, we won every season we played.

On the professional front, the financial software company took a bit of a tumble during the financial crisis of 2008. I moved onto consulting. Consulting was the first time that I experienced being measured by the hours I worked rather than what I bought to the table. It’s a bit like being a cow hooked up to a milking machine. Your billable hours are measured by the buckets they fill rather than the creaminess of their taste. You have clients. Your herds of developers are guests on their farm. You serve your time and then are dispatched. I worked hard to protect the herd. I could not do the sort of Agile I wanted to. I could not make it a great experience for the folks on the team. Learning was as limited as we could not experiment on the client’s dime.

Experimentation is a big part of Agile teams. They take the time to “sharpen the saw” and improve how they work. Just like guilds. On the last consulting job I worked, it was less like a dairy farm and more like a slaughterhouse. No sense of team. Despite the increasing misery, I learned a lot about how people quietly suffer at work, in an endless drama of conflict, suffering a less visible form of violence. Agile is a bit fragile. It can easily be co-opted by management wanting a fancy title to their form of command and control. That is what consulting became for me and I was a bit sick of it. I did, however, get to experience teaching and mentoring teams on how to adopt these Agile practices and I wanted to be able to do more of that.

I had to have a bit more faith in myself. I have found a company that does have faith in me. I’m rolling the good and the bad of this journey into my version of an Agile Coach:

  • I teach and mentor teams how to do Agile software development.
  • If they don’t want to play the “Agile game” I don’t force them.
  • I am not their manager. I don’t tell them what to do.
  • I coach them how they can make their software a bit at a time, with higher quality and deliver it sooner so they can delight their customers.
  • I show them different ways of playing together as a team.  I help the stronger players to work with the weaker players. They don’t hold each other accountable, a catch phrase hiding command and control thinking, but hold each other up.
  • I take an interest in the person I’m working with. What else on going on them. I’m not their therapist but it helps to know something about therapeutic techniques.
  • I listen a lot. I ask questions. Sometimes to learn more and sometimes to prod at their thinking.
  • Change is hard. I try to make it feel safe for folks to get out of their comfort zone if they want to. I call it making it Safe-to-Play. Adult play is a lost art. I hope I can add some back into the workplace.
  • I don’t follow a plan but lay out a journey for the folks I coach. Sometimes we follow it.
  • I don’t lecture. Sometimes the answers to my questions are not what I expected. That doesn’t mean they are wrong. It just means we are going to learn something new.
  • I spend more time learning than I can remember with maybe the exception of University. The Agile community is always finding ways to incorporate ideas from other fields and it is hard to keep up.
  • Agile Coaches often feel like they are imposters and don’t know enough. I read, listen to audiobooks, read and write blogs, and watch videos online to keep up.
  • I help the organization finds its way along a path of change so that the Agile teams can flourish while the leaders can become more like servant-leaders and less like command and control managers.
  • All these changes can become sources of conflict. I manage that conflict. I don’t always resolve it. Changing the way a software organization works requires diversity in thinking – good conflict – in order to grope their way through a complex cultural jungle.
  • Not every day is about winning some battle over Agile vs non-Agile worlds. I don’t need to win the game. I make new friends by helping them. I get a bit of a helper’s high when I do and it’s addictive.

Each coach has his or her style. I have been able to connect with a more open and playful side of me. You remember way back when I was briefly involved with bringing the New Games movement to my school. I was recently able to connect with one of the original  founders of the movement. He confirmed that all this  learning I was doing has me on a path towards finding ways to make work more playful. More engaging and more guild-like. Less of an industrial factory. Being an Agile Coach is a stop along that path and I’m enjoying what it allows me to be and people I’m working with to become a better coach.

But I have not really answered a burning question I expect you might have. How did that annoyingly nerdy, introverted, eclectic lad become someone who enjoys connecting with everyone he meets? How is it, he now enjoys quiet conversations in which his whole aim is to bring out the wonder in the other person. To make them feel special by paying such attention to what they have to say. To take such an interest that the simple act of being in conversation together becomes a state of flow where time passes unnoticed. It’s quite simple really. Each day I practice becoming a bit more like you.


About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
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