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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Linda Cook on Management Debt and Diversity in the Workplace

Linda Cook on Management Debt and Diversity in the Workplace


1. Linda was the Agile Practice Manager for General Dynamics Information Technology and she is a member of The Agile Alliance board. Linda do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself please?

Sure Shane, and thank you for inviting me to this interview today. I’ve been in The Agile space probably since before it was really going and before I knew it even existed and was thrilled to find what I now refer to as my tribe. I felt that the Agile Community is one I fit very well in, I like that it is very open and sharing community. I’ve done several years’ worth work as an independent consultant doing Agile coaching for firms - various types from entertainment to finance organizations and most recently, a fair amount of experience in the health care space. For the last couple of years I’ve been acting as the Agile Practice Manager as you said for General Dynamics Information Technology and for a product segment within General Dynamics and we deliver health care products for Fraud, Waste and Abuse and medical management.


2. Great, while we were chatting a little bit earlier on, you mentioned a concept, a term that I have not heard before that really sounds like it’s something we should be investigating, the concept of Management Debt, do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Yes, I’d like to. It’s actually a term I’ve sort of coined myself. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last several years working with software engineers, talking about how do they get work through Technical Debt, and I also host a lot of retrospectives, especially ones for large programs. We might have a huge annual retrospective and one of things that occurs to me is often times there are organizational impediments, or what I’ve kind of termed Management Debt, that gets in the way of organizations really taking that next step and truly taking their Agile transformation to the next level.

So to give you an example of something that might be considered Management Debt, might be situation where while you still have a lot of involvement from your executives and they are hiring coaches to help you through your transformation and you’re learning about the various skills and techniques that are needed, everyone still leaving in 1980’s Cube Farm. And as we know those old Cube Farms really do hamper good collaboration and while I can appreciate that there could be a significant investment to transition and organization from the old Cube Farm to a much more open one, having experienced that type of change, I can tell you that I know it really does help truly change the way the teams work together.

So that is just one example and I’ve been talking with some colleges and we’re getting some interest around starting a larger conversation around what are the aspects of Management Debt and what does a team do about it. Because often times, in my experience, folks would come up with organizational impediments and they feel helpless to do anything about it, is like: “Oh, well, we are kind of stuck with this, we are not allowed to (fill in your favorite thing) that organization prevents”, because of some very valid reasons in some point but I want to start encouraging people to challenge those norms within their organizations that really are getting in their way of truly getting to the next step of a much better organization with better delivery and just a better life for everyone all around.


3. How we create an environment where we can challenge those norms, have the discussion with the Furniture Police about changing the Cube?

Right, very good question. So I think it’s going to take some real leg work, there are some very good studies that have been done around the value of different techniques, so I think if we could start at least raising awareness of what are the techniques that we really can’t do because of an impediment and talk to the organization in sort of “executive speak” if you will, the dollars and sense of what’s it costing us not to make this change and what it will cost us to make the change to give the execs all the information they need to make the right choices. I think it’s really a matter of not having all the information to the hands of the right people. Often times you can hear teams in their little pods talking about problems but often times they don’t even raise some of that issues just to their Scrum Master much less up the organization to their executive. I think we probably would want to do things like build a resource pool of information that folks could use, “If you’ve got this impediment here is some data that you might find useful” and then just take it from there.

Shane: Pulling together that resource pool?

I think pulling together resource pool’s probably is going to happen at different events like this conference here this week where we have gatherings of folks that we can talk, first about the problems and then start tying well here’s some possible information that could be helpful and perhaps even creating some sort of a web resource that provided a catalog of that data.

Shane: Perhaps something for the Agile Alliance website?



4. We are here at the conference, what have you found this week that is been interesting, inspiring, exciting?

Well certainly this conference and it’s sheer size and all the energy of the people always kind of draws me in, I’m just sort of atuned to that sort of thing and we’ve got lots of great involvement, the sessions here have been choc-a-block full really and just talking about how much people are interested in the topics that we have here to talk about in all ranges. One of the things that I find unique to this conference as opposed to many of the other Agile XX-conferences that I’ve attended is that the audience seems to have changed a bit in their Agile acumen. I’ve talked with many, many folks here this week and what I’m finding is that many of the folks that are here now are at least practicing Agile or trying to practice in some form. As opposed to several years ago I would meet lots of folks who are more Agile curious and sort of interested and managed to get themselves to a conference to learn more about it. So now we’ve got people that are really kind of already involved to some level and they are looking to kick their level of practice up a notch.


5. And any particular sessions that you [liked]?

You know Shane I attended a very interesting session today talking about Agility, the values and how that really relates to women in the work force. In the Software Engineering Industry we’ve really seen a decline over the last fifteen years or so of women participation in true technology fields, and Ken made some very good points there about some studies that have been supported by IBM and some other organizations looking at what are some of the factors that are causing women to either leave software engineering once they’ve got into the field or why aren’t they even making it to the work place with computer science degrees. Unfortunately, I have to say that we still suffer with some true discrimination issues and sexual harassment was cited - things of that nature.

But one of the things that was interesting to me it that we have some amount of young women who come into the field, spend a number of years and then of course they start having family commitments, take some time off to commit to their young family but when they re-enter the workforce they are not returning to software engineering and I’m curious to take that conversation further and understand how we could attract those people back into the workforce, because they’ve already had lots of training, they’ve got some solid experience, it’s a shame that they don’t return back to our industry.

So, who cares whether we have women in the industry or not, besides me, and all the other women like me, but it really plays into how do women contribute to the design and the implementation of all of our products? The influence of women in our industry overall would impact the nature and the style of products that are delivered and should help really target a very important audience and an audience that has a very high purchase rate both on the web and in the retail space; women represent more than fifty percent of that purchasing value. So it be good for us to have women then contributing, maybe we could even get that number higher, not to even mentioned the fact that just having skill workers is important and any available work pool is something that should be considered to improve diversity overall in teams.

We know that ties to our Agile principles, right? And we would have good collaboration, respect among our team members and including women in the workforce should only help that cause.


6. As an Agile Alliance board member what are your aspirations for the Alliance, what should it be doing?

Well I think it should be doing a lot of what it is doing. We are apparently very good at delivering this conference as our attendance shows this is a very successful event for both the attendees, the sponsors are thrilled with the event, and our speakers also get a lot of good value out of participating in this event. But for me I think aligning with really our mission right now is to expand our reach and our presence more into the other countries around the world, it’s something as you know Shane, we are working on that and I’m very interested to see how we could actually add value in other countries and continue some of the great work we do at this conference and perhaps consider that we might have other conferences that could be held internationally.

Shane: That sounds good to me!

And I look forward to it, I love to get to go to other countries and visit the home lands of some of my friends that have lived here and worked here for so many years so I find that very interesting.

Shane: Linda thank you for taking the time to talk to InfoQ today, we really do appreciate it and good luck and Godspeed in your future!

Thank you Shane, it was my pleasure!

Nov 14, 2012