Author Q&A: Portia Tung on The Dream Team Nightmare
She takes a very different approach to presenting the topic: rather than writing a dry business book she has written an “agile adventure” where the reader is expected to make decisions and guide the story line. In the style of interactive adventures, this format lends itself to electronic books and takes advantage of the ability to hyperlink and navigate within the content.
She has made an extract available for InfoQ readers to get a taste of the style and experience the beginning of the story here.
She recently spoke to Shane Hastie from InfoQ about the book.
InfoQ: Firstly Portia, thank you for taking the time to talk to InfoQ. Your approach to writing this story is unusual in today’s business book landscape. Please could you explain for our readers the style and format of the book.
Sure, Shane! Growing up, do you remember those wonderful "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" stories as a child? You know, where you find yourself at the entrance of a deep, dark cave and you have a choice to make? Do you a) wake up the dragon or b) go to a nearby village for extra reinforcements or c) wait until help arrives? "The Dream Team Nightmare" is just like that. Only it's set in an office populated with a bunch of colourful characters and you, the reader, get to play the agile coach. It's basically a mashup of a business novel and an interactive story where the reader's decisions determine the outcome of the story. There are 8 possible endings, each a subtly different combination of lessons to be learned. “The Dream Team Nightmare” is the first in a brand new series of business novels called “Agile Adventures: When the journey matters as much as the destination”.
InfoQ: What inspired you to come up with such an unusual format for the book?
Can you keep a secret? As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. In order to keep writing, I had to figure out how to make it fun to read and write. For me, "The Dream Team Nightmare" is modelled on the game of life, love and the little things that make a big difference. Life because to live a meaningful life, we need to play and try out new things to keep growing. Love because I wish to show people it’s possible to do worthwhile work and have fun in the face of adversity. Little things because it's surprising how, all too often, it's the seemingly insignificant decisions in our lives that alter the course of our destiny.
InfoQ: What is the underlying problem you are addressing with this book, why did you write it?
Those are two very interesting questions, Shane. Having worked in a variety of organisations in the past 13 years, both large and small, I noticed that when it comes to project delivery, similar problems and issues keep coming up. What's more, the biggest challenges are usually connected to what I call the 3Ps. People, Processes and Projects. It just so happens that I love working with people to improve processes in order to maximise the value of our collective efforts, from the individual and the teams, to the organisation and, ultimately, to society itself. I'm also a big fan of sharing and self-sufficiency. That's why I set out to create a book that captures many of my hard-earned lessons and observations to help others overcome some of those challenges themselves and, better still, prevent certain terrible situations from happening in the first place.
InfoQ: What makes you qualified to write this story – are you drawing on your own experience and history?
In "The Dream Team Nightmare", the reader plays Jim, an agile coach, who's given 5 days to come up with a plan that will get a failing agile team back on track or else the team gets disbanded while their project gets outsourced. In many ways, writing the book was like taking a stroll down memory lane, chatting with old friends, remembering the good, the bad and the ugly. Jim and I share many professional and personal experiences as a developer, a manager and an agile coach, as well as as an employee and a consultant. Every tool and exercise Jim attempts, I've done in real life and witnessed similar reactions. Like Jim, my attempts have been met with a mixture cynicism, surprise and even joy. One of the many things that Jim and I both agree on is that failure is often the teacher who teaches the more memorable lessons. And that's why I encourage readers to explore at least two or more possible endings to get the most value out of the book.
InfoQ: You wrote it as a story about an agile coach coming in to help a project team – why did you take this perspective?
It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to become a published writer. One piece of advice that's always stuck in my mind is from my dad who told me, "Write about what you know". And that's what I've done. It’s taken me sometime to gain enough experience worth sharing. But that's not all. In true agile tradition, I didn't want to waste my time writing a book that would simply gather dust on the shelf - even if lots of people were to buy it then claim to have read it but sadly find it too dull to continue reading. Instead, I set myself the challenge to capture what I know in a fun, meaningful and memorable way so that the information is useful and, most important of all, gives readers the confidence to try out the tools and techniques in real life and release the value of what they’ve learned. This is my twenty-first attempt at writing an interesting book in the past 5 years and it’s worked for me as a writer. I hope it works for you as a reader!
InfoQ: What are some of the key challenges the book’s hero faces, and are there some key messages he needs to learn to resolve the problems facing the project team?
Being an agile coach is a strange and wonderful experience. It’s comes down to the magic number 3. One, you need to be knowledgeable and experienced in both agile and coaching. Two, you need to have a toolkit that resembles Mary Poppins’ magical bag because you can never be quite sure what you’ll need to bring people together to solve difficult problems. Three, you need to be confidant yet humble so that you do a better job than you did yesterday every day. All this may sound simple, yet it’s anything but easy in practice. As the hero of the book, your personal agility will be tested to its limits and this isn’t just limited to making the right choices to reach the single designated “happy ending” of the story. For those who are truly adventurous, the key questions to be asking yourself as you read are, “What would I really choose to do in real life? And why? How can I walk more of the walk of agile instead of only espousing the theory?”
InfoQ: The book was a lot of fun to read. Can you share with us what it was like to write such a novel?
One of the most rewarding things about writing the book what that I found myself doing pseudo-programming again! Only this time, it was in prose instead of a computer language (I used to be a Java developer back in the Dotcom days). Weaving the multiple story paths in parallel kept me up late at night, tweaking, testing and re-testing decision points to ensure coherent journeys. O! The number of times I wished I could implement automated regression testing on the book instead of rely solely on manual testing. Working with PragProg as a publisher meant I could also wake up a few of my sleepy developer habits such as setting up a repository on my laptop, doing frequent check-ins, checking the results of my automated builds and fixing bugs I created. All this made writing the book more challenging and a lot more fun!
InfoQ: What can we look forward to in the next Agile Adventure?
I’ve got enough ideas for at least the next two adventures, so hopefully it won’t be long before we all go on the second Agile Adventure together! Meanwhile, I’ve learned that one of the most important tricks to becoming a published writer is to minimise work-in-progress so that I can increase my focus and my chances in getting stuff done. For me, 2014 is all about doing a spot of Enterprise Gardening (www.enterprisegardening.org) to transform our workplaces into somewhere we belong. I’m sure that’s going to be one heck of an agile adventure! Happy Agile Adventure, one and all!
More about Agile Adventures and “The Dream Team Nightmare” can be found here.
About the Book Author
Portia Tung is a consultant-coach, storyteller, and games maker who combines business strategies with play to bring about positive organizational change. Portia is an international speaker, and the creator of concepts such as Agile Fairytales and Enterprise Gardening. She shares her insights and experiences as a coach and parent on her blog Selfish Programming.