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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Rebecca Parsons and Phil Brock on Agile 2015 and Agile Alliance Programs

Rebecca Parsons and Phil Brock on Agile 2015 and Agile Alliance Programs


1. Hi. My name is Craig Smith, I'm an Agile editor at InfoQ and we're at Agile 2015 in Washington, D.C. and it's my great pleasure to have with me Rebecca Parsons who is the Chair of the Agile Alliance and Phil Brock, the Managing Director at the Agile Alliance. Welcome. Here at Agile 2015, is it fair to say this is the biggest conference we've ever had?

Phil: Oh, no doubt. The conferences continue to grow over the last -- well, ever since I've been working on it with in 2007. But in any case, we have over 2,300 people here this year, so this is far and away the largest event.

Craig: Excellent, and it's been growing year on year, It's fantastic to see so many people and so many new faces I guess to the conference.

Phil: Absolutely. Well, we often times have around sixty percent of the attendees are new attendees at the conference. I don’t have those final numbers yet, but I would anticipate that's probably the case here. But with 2,300 people here, that's a lot of new folks. But it also means that there are quite a few of the Agile Alliance members that are continuing to attend the conference year after year.

Craig: Absolutely. A lot of the people I'm talking to are saying they're on their third, fourth and people like me on the sixth or seventh year.

Phil: Is that all?


2. Yeah, I missed a couple of years. So what's the theme of the conference? What are the trends that you'll be seeing here this year?

Phil: The theme I think is actually a similar one to what we've had in the past, and I'm not quite certain how it's been articulated. But it really has to do with looking back and also looking forward. So parts of the conference are really designed to look at what has worked and what hasn’t worked in the larger Agile world but also to look forward to what is on the bleeding edge of development.

Rebecca: And that's one thing, the Alliance takes very seriously that we want to spread the adoption of Agile and so there's a lot of Agile 101 that needs to go on. But we also do feel as the big tent of the various Agile disciplines that we want to support the people who are trying to push the envelope and move Agile techniques into different parts of the software development life cycle as well as fine tuning some of those practices and understanding a bit more what the right levers are and how you know how to specialize Agile for a particular team or for a particular application.

Phil: And the whole Agile movement is by its very nature not static. It is a very dynamic community and a dynamically developing thought process. So we really encourage that and try to foster that at this event.


3. And there is 16 or 17 odd streams here, so I assume putting this whole thing together is a massive undertaking of chairs and stream leads?

Phil: Yes. There is an army, there's a huge army of volunteers and they are all volunteers both at the level of track chairs, reviewers, staff involvement, et cetera, et cetera. There is a massive group of people that are working on this for a very long period of time and we thank them.

Rebecca: And we do try to get input from the community as well so this is an open reviewing process so that we can find out what members are interested in seeing as well. So one of the things that is quite important to us as the Alliance is to get the most participation, have it be an open and egalitarian process so that we can encourage new voices as well as make sure that we're providing quality content to the attendees.


4. And as someone who's been part of that for a number of years, I think one of the interesting things about this conference is you're not afraid to try or experiment new things. We practice what we preach. So every year there's new things like, for example, there's a stalwart stage this year which is a little bit different. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how that's operating?

Rebecca: Well, it's really set up more as a conversation and so it's done in a fishbowl format. We've again at various times experimented with how we can bring some of the stalwarts into the fold. There was of course a couple of years ago in the big anniversary celebration where we had several of the original signers of the Manifesto there. But this is to allow attendees to engage in a more informal conversation with some of these people that they perhaps only know by reputation.


5. But the Agile Alliance is so much more than the conference. So it's great to be here with these 2,300 people but I think people don’t always understand what the Alliance is actually all about. Can you just perhaps for someone who's watching this on InfoQ who doesn’t really understand what the Agile Alliance is, could you give us a brief explanation?

Rebecca: Well, one of the things that we try to do in addition to the conference, this is obviously one of the major events, but we try to encourage members to submit program proposals for work that they might do that's relevant to our mission of spreading the adoption of Agile and making the software development industry more humane, sustainable and --

Phil: Productive.

Rebecca: -- productive. I always forget one.

Craig: You rehearsed that one haven’t you!

Rebecca: And so we have several programs around creating different kinds of content. We've recently been experimenting as well with a couple of new event formats. A couple of months ago we did a fully virtual event called OnAgile which was a great success, then we hope to try to do one of those again next year. We are also looking to put on a purely technical event. One of the things that we've heard from our members is that it's gotten a bit process heavy here at the conference, and although we've made significant strides in terms of putting special tracks together for the technology community, they don’t feel that we are addressing their needs. So we're looking to put on a purely technical event that will be happening in Raleigh in early April of next year, I believe, 7 to 9.

Phil: I think that's the correct date, yeah.

Rebecca: And to be focused on technical practices, technical content so that we can again broaden the appeal of the programs that we're offering to that group.


6. It's interesting where we come from the software development background and the Manifesto was written all around and we've diversed now into so many different areas. So this is sort of a return back to the Extreme Programming type conference with the practices or does it also include the coding side of the equation as well?

Rebecca: It will definitely include the breadth of it. We’re looking to try to get a broad range of architecture, dev ops, actual software engineering, testing, maybe some things around data. But one of the interesting things having been involved in Agile for quite a while, we've watched as initially it was just developers. And then now we know about business analysts and then the QA folks were brought into the fold. At every step of the way, well, it's okay for that group but as an architect or as a DBA or as a user experience person, that doesn’t work for me. I still have to do all my stuff up front.

So one of the things that I think is quite interesting is the extent to which we do have things like Agile user experience design. And just like it took a different mindset to say how can I decompose a huge problem down into manageable stories, you can have that same kind of guiding vision when you're thinking about databases or user experience, et cetera. So I think that's one of the things that's quite dynamic about how Agile is being used is how it is moving across that life cycle. But this particular conference will be looking at dev ops and continuous delivery, engineering practices, data, testing, et cetera and really trying to focus on that. We're just now putting the program committee together so what it will specifically look like we're not sure yet, but we do want it focused on that technical community.

Phil: And I would just like to add one thing regarding that specific event. We are targeting a 300 to 500-person event, so nothing on a scale of what we're experiencing here at Agile 2015.


7. You guys sold this conference out just on that scale, do you think there is a point where, it's all about conversation and collaboration, is there a point where this conference gets too big?

Rebecca: Well, we have as a board set the upper limit of this size for this conference for exactly that reason. We do want to be able to engage and as conferences get big, they feel different. One of the things that we will be discussing this, is we haven’t sold out in a few years. This was the first time at least in the last several years that we've actually sold out. We need to think about do we continue to try to grow and what that might mean for the conference, is it time to start thinking about other kinds of venues as we're doing, for example, with the technical conference or the virtual conferences. Because Agile is becoming mainstream, we've got more and more organizations coming to the conference, many sending larger numbers of people and how do we address that need without compromising what it is that we're trying to do with this conference which we'd still want it to be highly collaborative, things like the open jam sessions, et cetera? What is the right balance there? That's going to be something that the board will be discussing over the next year.

Phil: And I would like to add on to that. It is really an interesting question about what will transpire in terms of demand for Agile Alliance events. Obviously, this year, as Rebecca has stated, we have a sellout here. Adding these additional more targeted, possibly smaller, events, the virtual event could scale certainly to almost any size, but the actual smaller events such as the technical conference, it's going to do one of two things or at least it may peel off some of the pressure from this event, which is one possibility. The other possibility, however, is that that will actually stir additional interest and cause the demand to grow even more rapidly. So we don’t know those answers and it is an experimental thing we have to inspect and adapt.


8. Absolutely. And you mentioned the OnAgile virtual conference before. I guess that being the first year was an experiment. But how did you deal with the things that we always deal within Agile teams, the distribution and that people are collaborating over a distance? Were those sort of things you saw at that particular conference?

Rebecca: Well, one of the things we did in partner was the first time we were working with this vendor, the team that was supporting the event actually got together in Florida so that they could do the troubleshooting. But all of the program development, that was all done remotely and working with the vendor they taped in various locations to create the content. So there was really good interaction in some of those distributed forms. We certainly consider the experiment a success from that perspective and one of the reasons we're looking at doing it again.


9. So that's the interesting thing. All the speakers were in essentially different set of locations, correct?

Rebecca: Yes.

Phil: Absolutely, yes. Yeah.

Rebecca: Yeah. And they taped their content in advance which helped some of the logistics. Obviously, trying to do something like that as a virtual event, you never know what's going to happen and so those were all recorded, but we still had the opportunity for the people who are attending the conference to engage in Q&A with the speakers as well.

Phil: Right.

Craig: So one of the other things I guess about the Alliance is it is a portal or a way to represent the Agile community in not any particular one flavor, that's sort of the way you organize it. One of the ways is through your website. What sort of things are happening in that space? Because there’s lots of really interesting content when you go there.

Rebecca: You want to take that one?

Phil: Sure. So the website really is the -- I guess the right word would be portal into the way the Agile Alliance deals with it, the world apart from its physical events. Yes, we have been adding content to the Agile Alliance website for years. This is the year -- this happens cyclically I think but this is the year where we are doing a complete from the ground up brand new web presence, and that is all in progress now. We're working with a firm called 352. They are based in Florida. So we are creating a new web presence that will have additional interactivity. All of the content will be searchable. There will be a whole new membership system so people will be able to actually track what they do throughout time. We're really looking forward to having that increased engagement with constituents on a global basis. So that's all in progress now. We hope to roll that out in November of this year.


10. You've touched on the fact that members are really what makes the Alliance, that it wouldn;t exist obviously. You guys represent the board but the members are there. I suspect a lot of the people who might be watching this video who aren't at the conference may be asking the question, what is the Agile Alliance and why would I want to join? Is there a simple answer to that question?

Phil: Simple answer. There is probably many simple answers but they probably add up to a complex one. Certainly, I would simply start at the point that I would encourage anyone who has an interest in Agile to join Agile Alliance simply to engage with a larger community. Agile Alliance, especially with this new website that will be rolled out, will provide additional methods for engagement and conversation with a larger community. That, in and of itself, is worth the price of admission.

Additionally, members specifically, as opposed to subscribers, who can have access to much of the Agile Alliance content, we are a membership organization and it is an organization that promotes continuous education throughout time. We want people to continue to explore, grow and learn. As a membership organization, some of that content is reserved for members. That, in and of itself, once again is a tremendous resource we want people to engage with the community, take advantage of that content, as well as over time contribute content. For each individual there are going to be specific motivations but any of those things are great reasons to join the Alliance.


11. You mentioned some programs before, Rebecca, but it's more than just conferences and that content. There is lots of other things that the Alliance does behind the scenes to either assist the community or to build some of the areas that need some focus like in the past, for example, areas like QA and dev ops, for example. So what sort of programs are going on right now which you're supporting?

Rebecca: Well, there are some long-running programs, the conference sponsorship for new conferences that are coming up in different parts of the world. We provide some support for that; sometimes media, sometimes financial support. There's a speaker reimbursement program to provide support to user groups who want to bring in Agile Alliance speakers. We also have the Agile open program which provides support for open space conferences. We also have some more content focused programs. There was, in fact, a meeting just before the conference here to look at issues of technical debt and how we might approach that. There's a program that's been running for a couple of years around larger scale Agile adoption which is created a fair amount of content for the website. Also, one of the things that we do try to encourage is for practitioners to talk about their experiences. So there is a program specifically to work with people who maybe are not as confident about their writing capability to get some of those voices out, those stories about successes or challenges that people have had in applying particular techniques. So those are some of the programs. We would encourage people if they have an idea on something that they would like to do for the Agile community to get in touch with us. Declan Whelan is currently our sponsor for the program shepherd, and he works with members to try to put program proposals together. And then, of course, one of the long-running programs is the translation program, which is translating the Agile Manifesto into numerous languages. We're over...

Phil: Over 50 now.

Rebecca: Over 50 now. And I think one of the interesting things about the way that program has been managed is rather than individuals translating it on their own, we try to encourage a group of people to form a community in that location and do the translation so they can have the conversations about, okay, well, what does this really mean in our culture? What does this really mean in our language? I think that's also quite an exciting outreach program as well as a way, as I said, to encourage more local communities to develop.

Craig: I think that's the important point there is that sometimes because the conference is here and, I have two North American voices talking at me here, the Alliance is far more than a North American organization. Is is a true world wide organization.

Phil: Oh, it is a global organization, absolutely.

Rebecca: Yeah. And one of the things that we've been working on over the last couple of years is trying to make that international presence felt, for example, we have a partnership with Agile Alliance Brazil which has been putting on Agile conferences in various cities in Brazil. They have one coming up in November.

Phil: October.

Rebecca: October? Thank you.

Phil: Of this year, yes.

Rebecca: Yes. And we're looking at what other possible expansion models in terms of different kinds of partnerships so that again we can engage in a more meaningful way with the broader international community.

Phil: One other point on the note of internationalization. One of the things that we're currently working on in terms of our new web presence is multilingual support. So we're hoping, not promising, but we are hoping that we will have that available when we do roll out in November.


12. Excellent. What about the future for the Alliance moving forward, what does 2016 and beyond look like?

Rebecca: Well, I think we're looking at obviously continuing our partnership with the folks in Brazil but also seeing what are the kind of potential models there are for how we could engage in different communities. Obviously, the technical conference is going to be a big focus for us for next year and putting that together and seeing how successful we can be in engaging with that technical community. We are trying to explore different ways of how we engage with our membership. There is engaging with the broad Agile community and we're very committed to advancing the breadth and depth of Agile. But also, how do we engage with our members and how do we ensure that we're serving their needs as both Agile practitioners and as members of the Agile Alliance.


13. Well, it sounds like the future of Agile is in good hands. If people want to know more about the Alliance and all those upcoming programs, where is the best place for them to find more information?


Craig: Thank you so much for taking the time and congratulations on such a successful conference here in Washington, D.C.

Phil: Thank you much.

Rebecca: Thank you.

Sep 14, 2015