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Mitch Lacey on Agile Stalwarts, Hiring is Broken and Agile 2014
Recorded at:

Interview with Mitch Lacey by Shane Hastie on Dec 10, 2013 |
10:46

Bio Mitch Lacey is Author of The Scrum Field Guide, Agile2012 and 2014 Conference Chair, software practitioner and consultant.

Each year Agile Alliance brings together attendees, speakers, authors, luminaries, and industry analysts from around the world in a one-of-a-kind conference. The Conference is considered the premier Agile event of the year, and provides a week-long opportunity to engage in wide-open interaction, collaboration and sharing of ideas with peers and colleagues within the global Agile community.

   

1. [...] Mitch, would you like to tell a little about that track, please? That was an experiment this year?

Shane's full question: Good day, this is Shane Hastie with InfoQ and I am here at Agile 2013 with Mitch Lacey. Mitch is an independent consultant, he is the author of the Scrum Field Guide, which we’ve reviewed on InfoQ, and was the Chair of the Stalwarts track at Agile 2013. Mitch, would you like to tell a little about that track, please? That was an experiment this year?

Yes, so we ran the experiment first last year and it was actually part of the a past experience that I had at Agile 2006 in Minneapolis, so me and a bunch of friends were sitting down stairs in what we called this basementeria, where the food was, and Ron Jeffries and Chet Hendrickson walked downstairs and they’re sitting there chatting and next thing you know we glance over there and there’s ten people sitting with them. So we were sitting there, a group of friends we’re sitting there, saying “this is what we want, this is why we come to this conference”, so the goal was to be able to recreate that environment that would allow people to have those intimate one-on-one interactions with people that they might otherwise not have an opportunity to meet and to ask questions that they want that they might not get through the content of just the standard conference program. So the Track is really designed around allowing people the option to ask questions, listen to informal discussions, sort of like a talk-show host type environment and so far, we’ve only had one at the conference today, the next one is this afternoon and the reviews have been great, so we plan on continuing for Agile 2014.

   

2. So, do people send questions in advance or just raise them at the table?

They just raise them. So, what happens is the speakers, they have a general topic that they want to discuss and people ask questions around that topic, Simon Bennett from Australia is here and he is going to be doing a session on contracting and so people are going to come and ask “how do we do Agile contracts”, “what about this” and “what about that”, “how do we deal with this government stuff”. Jim Newkirk will also be doing one around development practices, so the questions will be obviously more development focused, so Ron and Chet’s session today was also development focused.

   

3. Cool. So, it’s an experiment that’s worked. Now, one of the things that I didn’t say in the introduction is you are going to be the Track Chair for next year’s conference as well. Do you expect to see that one going on?

Yes, we will see the Stalwarts Track at the Agile 2014 conference, I’m not sure it will be called Stalwarts, last year it was called No-bull Know How, so Diana Larsen and I came up with that name and it sort of fit the Texas theme, next year being in Orlando maybe it could be the mouse- something stage, since I don’t want to do any copyright infringements with Disney.

Shane: Makes reasonable sense. Before we came into the interview we were chatting and you said, you made a statement to me, that hiring is broken. Tell me a little bit about that, you’ve been doing work in the hiring space.

Yes. So, there are some companies I’ve been working with around experimenting with some hiring practices and from a traditional hiring perspective what I see in companies worldwide is they put out a job requisite and people then interview for the job and the people that are doing the interview have a standard and questions that they follow and that preps the interviewee to be able to answer questions. So, for example, Microsoft, let’s pick on Microsoft, for a long time had this rigorous hiring process, very rigorous interview process, and they still do. If you go look online you will be able to find a wide variety, a wide range of questions on how to pass a Microsoft interview. Well, that’s sort of akin to slide-ware, you are going to create some vapor-ware that says how great things are and then depending on how well you answer those questions, will depend if you get that job. So, what I am doing instead is I am working with these companies and we’re flipping the coin around and we are adopting the Agile principles and values of collaboration and collective ownership and we’re saying “hey, let’s have this person work within a specific team” and then they do that for a day and the team is actually then screening the candidate based on technical skills but more importantly based on competencies, are they confortable with conflict or are they confortable with feedback, are they open to new ideas or is their mindset more “it’s my way or the highway” and “don’t touch my code” type of mindset, and obviously for an Agile team that is not a good approach. Skills are easy to learn, they take months, competencies are hard to learn; they take years. So, it’s much better, I’m finding, to hire for competencies and a lot of people have been doing this over time, I’m not the first person, but you hire for the competency that allows you to sustain your culture and then you teach the skills where there’s gaps and working in a collaborative team environment allows quicker adoption, quicker ramp-ups for new hires.

   

4. So, how does this work with an HR department that’s putting together a job description?

They put together the job description but what the HR department is focused on is the values of the company, what do we want, what do we look at. Well, we want our people to be open, we want them to have courage. So what we will do is we will write down the technical items that we’re looking for, but we also say “hey, we want people that are team players”. You see that in a million job reqs out there today, but it has no weight, it has no meaning, so in this case what we’re doing is flipping it around saying “look, you as a candidate are going to be great at a variety of different things and the team is going to rank you”, similar to planning poker. What you do is the team will work with a candidate throughout the day and at the end of the day they say “ok, at the count of three let’s put forward our card on where I think the candidate was, say on a scale from one to ten”, so we come up with team work, so we have ten-ten-ten-one. “Well, Billy, why is it one?”, “well, when I worked with the guy…” and then they have the conversation. And the conversation is far more valuable than the numbers, the numbers, like in planning poker, are just a way to reach the conversation so the people have a better understand and a better meaning. And that is what I am trying to drive, it’s that collaboration, the collaborative effort within an entire company to be able to have good hiring practices so you have people that really fit.

   

5. Does this slow things down and make it a lot more expensive to hire people?

I’m not seeing that. When I was working for companies I would have one-two-three day interview and I would meet with anywhere between five to fifteen people, from anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours at a time and this would generally be one-on-one interaction and each interview with each person was designed to filter out specific things. So, what we are doing in this case is lumping those things together, but each person on the team is still looking at individual characters, skills and competencies; so if we have a team of five people, they’re looking at five individual things or potentially more and then they are collaborating at the end of the day. Now, this works with a traditional process as well, what I’ve done in the past is typically we have those responses via email, in this case what we’re doing is seeing it in real time, number one. Number two, a job that you’re going to hire for is not just sitting in a room answering questions, I don’t know anybody that actually gets hired to sit in a room and answer questions; I know people that get hired to do things. So, if you are going to be hired to do things, wouldn’t it be nice to assess the candidate on their ability to actually do things versus answer questions? So, it could be a little slower, but I am not seeing that, it’s about the same. It’s a different way of thinking, for sure.

   

6. And how do the candidates enjoy it?

Well, it all depends on their mindset, right, because if they’re coming in and they’re the lone wolf rockstar, well, they hate it. But, if the job description is worded correctly and people know what they’re getting into, “hey, you are going to do this immersive interviewing process, and we’re going to throw you in and we are going to work with you, we want to learn from you and you are going to learn from us and we are going to see if we are a good fit”, they generally like it, it generally results in really good hires.

   

7. And you’re seeing better outcomes in terms of engagement and hiring?

I see better outcomes in terms of people being adopted into the company quicker, they understand the culture, they understand the technology, they understand their expectations, they are able to assess if it’s not only a good fit for them, but if the company comes back it’s a good fit for us as well, because a job could be considered a family. I have my home family, I have my work family, these are people that I trust, these are people I value, these are people that I spend 8 to 12 hours a day with, sometimes more than with my family at home. So, I want to make sure that we do have a good relationship; that we are comfortable with conflict, that we’re ok raising issues and that we are not going to have problems fester and grow and just be ignored because, like a bad relationship, it always ends badly. Same thing with work. So, competencies and values it’s where it’s at.

Shane: Very interesting thoughts that you’ve been putting out there.

Yes, it’s pretty fun.

Shane: Cool. Coming back to the Agile conference, can you tell us a little bit about what’s happening with Agile 2014.

Yes, it’s going to be in Orlando.

Shane: That’s it?

Yes, it’s going to be in Orlando. We’ve got three great program chairs lined up already, Paul Hammond who works at Skype, Peter Provost who is a continuation from 2012-2013, he works at Microsoft, a wonderful technical guy, and then Bob Sarney, he is currently employed at a company called Big Visible. I’ve known all these guys for a number of years, I’ve worked with them in various conferences since 2007, I believe, in one form or another, and we’re in the process right now of establishing our dates and setting forward the tracks that we are going to be looking at based on this year’s data. We’re in initial assessment right now.

   

8. No themes set for the conference yet?

Rough themes, nothing I’m prepared to share.

Shane: Cool. Well, Mitch, we certainly look forward to what I am sure will be a great Agile 2014 and thank you for taking the time to talk to InfoQ today.

Yes. And if you happen to know anybody that would be interested in volunteering for Agile 2014, they are more than welcome to email me at chair2014@agilealliance.org.

Shane: Thank you very much.

Thank you, sir.

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