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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Linda Rising on Visiting Menlo Innovations and Constant Learning

Linda Rising on Visiting Menlo Innovations and Constant Learning


1. Good day! This is Shane Hastie we are at Agile 2015 in Washington, D.C., and I'm here with Linda Rising. Linda, wonderful to see you again.

Oh, thank you Shane. It’s wonderful to be here.

Shane: Because the last time we were together was in Singapore, and we had a really fantastic evening. You and Richard Sheridan were chatting.


Shane: It was great. I was able to just leave the two of you to interview each other.

We were in that beautiful hotel, that Marina Bay Sands. Oh my goodness! What an enormous hotel! Just astounding! And then to spend the evening with you and Rich, and what we both knew at the time, I think, is that we were going to try to get there.

Shane: Indeed.

We were going to try and go visit Menlo, and maybe you had an appointment for a class?

Shane: Yes, I’m scheduled to go and spend the five-day deep dive. And I will be reporting on that for InfoQ. But, you’ll be there in the meantime.

I have. My husband and I do a lot of bike riding, and we haven’t been to the upper peninsula of Michigan in a while. And since we live in Nashville, Tennessee it gets to be a little hot and a little sticky. And we thought, “Why not go to the Upper Peninsula, do a bike ride, and we will go through Ann Arbor?” And that will be my chance to visit Menlo. So we combined the vacation trip and the visit to Menlo. My husband went with me, so he got to see also what I’ve been talking about, because I talk about Menlo all the time. And it was such an amazing day.


2. What stood out? What was great about?

So many things. So many things. And of course, what I was looking forward to was the daily standup. At 10:00, someone will sound a little tiny alarm. It’s a little bit like your phone, goes off in the morning beep, beep, beep, beep. Someone will go over and turn off the alarm, and they all begin to come from their various corners from their various tasks, and they gather in a giant standup. It’s astounding.

I’ve seen pictures of it, but being there in the middle of it, and there were no dogs that day. But normally there is a dog, and there was a baby. And so when the mother of the baby spoke, when it was her turn going around the standup, she said that it looked as though the baby was well behaved. But if anybody wanted to hold the baby, and at that point, Rich Sheridan who is the co-founder, CEO, he went across the circle and picked up the baby. And so he was holding the baby while we were going around the circle. And I have a picture that I’ve been sending to the world. I’m standing there when it’s my turn to speak in the standup and he’s standing there holding a 12-week old baby. That’s Menlo.

Shane: That’s Menlo.

That’s Menlo. So here’s how they do a standup. There’s a Viking helmet. And maybe I should spell that, because there was a little misunderstanding in the Stalwarts section yesterday. I mentioned Viking helmet, and people heard biking helmet. And so that’s been tweeted a lot. So it’s V as in victory, like the Vikings who came over in the Viking ships.

Viking helmet with two horns, and it goes around the circle. And teams will all touch a piece of it. So maybe a couple might grab the horns. Somebody else might touch the rim. But all of the team report together, and they gather around the Viking helmet and say, “I’m.” And introduce themselves, “And we are the X team. And what we’ve been doing is…” And they will report together with the idea of telling the rest of the organization what they’ve been up to.

Sometimes it’s just a single person. And there were development teams, testing, people who were doing training. Occasionally there were business people. HR, there weren’t that day. And then of course Rich gave his, while holding the baby and the Viking helmet. And then it was my turn and I got to say who I was, and what was going to happen that day. I was going to give a couple of talks, and so I was in the daily standup. How awesome was that?

Shane: Absolutely.

That was so exciting. I got a little teary because I had been looking forward to that for so long, and talking about it for so long. And I thought, “I’m here. I’m really here. Wow!”

So, what a wonderful way to start the day.


3. And what else happened that day?

Well, I got to see what was going on. So Rich walked me around, and showed me all -- when you first walk in this giant room and you think, “Okay, it’s a big giant room and people are working.’ Well, no. It’s more complicated than that. There are some glass-walled conference rooms, so there was one involved in training. And there was one involved in a little bit of the start of considering requirements. And while we were standing there, the meeting was going on. The people at Menlo are used to having people just walk by, overhear conversations, drop in on activities.

And during the course of that meeting, someone around the table said, “I don’t understand.” And asked for clarification for something, and Rich nudged me and he said, “Do you hear that? Did you hear that? He said he didn’t know.” And it was okay to say that in front of all these people, in front of visitors. He doesn’t know who the visitors are, but he felt perfectly safe to say “I don’t know”.

Without fear that people were going to say, “Well, why don’t you know? Haven’t you been paying attention?” Or, “Didn’t you do your homework?” Or, “Are you stupid?” No! He knew that it was important to say that, and he said it. And that’s, I think, what Menlo is all about; that people there know that if they’re going to do a good job, they need to speak up. They need to ask questions, and sometimes they need to say, “I don’t know.” Awesome!

Shane: And it’s safe to do so.

And it’s safe to do so. Awesome! And then we looked at the room for mothers, because they do bring babies in. And they have won awards for that little room where mothers can go nurse their babies. And there’s a little quiet space where the babies can sleep when they’re sleeping, although babies were also sleeping out in the open room. They were perfectly okay with that.

And then we saw two very interesting areas. The University of Michigan has a few students, I can’t remember, maybe a half a dozen. And the space is owned by the University of Michigan. But it’s co-located. It’s part of this giant space with just a glass wall. And the benefit there of course is the students get to see Menlo. They learn about how this amazing company works. They can see it and they can hear it, and they’re involved.

So I went in. I was introduced and my husband was with me. We were introduced to all the students. Rich knew them all. He knew what they were working on. He invited them to just walk through the wall and come in and hear the two talks I gave that day, and many of them did that. They could come in for the lunch. It was a lunch-and-learn, so they just had food in the kitchen and everyone was invited. So they were included.

And then there was another corner, another wall, where local entrepreneurs can rent space from Menlo when they’re just getting going and they don’t have a lot of funds to look for their own area. And again, the benefit they get to see Menlo. Sometimes there’s possible recruiting going on in either direction. The folks in Menlo, of course, can see what the startups are doing. And they have a certain amount of space depending upon how much rent they pay. Again, Rich knew them all. We walked around and he introduced us, and again they were invited to come across, so what an amazing open collection of things.

Shane: Creating an incubator inside the organization.

Yes exactly. And leading by example to say, “Here’s how we believe…” Rich and his co-founder (who was not there at the day I visited) say “Here’s how we believe a workplace should be”, and to teach that by example both to the students and to these local entrepreneurs.” So it was overwhelming really, to see all of that.

And you think well, here’s all this activity. You got the entrepreneurs. You got the students. We got babies. You got meetings. We’ve got training. You got people who are doing work in the middle of the room. But it was not that noisy. That was, I guess, the first when I was writing down insights after the visit, I thought, “I thought it would be chaos.” And it was in a way, but it didn’t’ bother you to be in the middle of that. It was, “I know people are working. I know people are having conversations over here, but it was okay.” You’ll get to see that.

Shane: I’m looking forward to it.

And I don’t know what your expectations are, but that was a very surprising thing, how quiet it was. Even when the baby began to get fussy, and then immediately someone came over, picked it up. Not the mother. Picked it up, walked it around. Life goes on. Wow!

Shane: So babies in workplaces can work.

Why not? Yes. And I did ask, “Well what happens when the baby gets a little older?” And they say, “Well, we consider it on a case by case basis.” Just like the dogs, if people were afraid of the dog, or if the dog wasn’t well behaved and barked all the time, well of course you wouldn’t have the dog there.

But there was also a young child, a little boy, I think he was eight. And he was with a parent. I don’t remember mother or father, just sitting over in the corner playing video games, doing some homework. And his mother had to bring him in for the day for some reason, and it was well.


4. And he wasn’t a problem?

No. It was not a problem. Just like the fact that I was there. They just continued on. I was walking around. I would stand next to teams that were working, and Rich would explain what was going on. And it’s like a movie. It’s like being on a movie set where they know they’re not supposed to pay attention to you because you’re the camera, and they’re just supposed to continue working. It was exactly like that. And everyone there is so open, so willing to share. They all feel the joy. They all said that. And I know you’re going to take… Is it a class on high-tech anthropology?

Shane: Yes, the five-day deep dive.

Wow. So as far as I know, it’s the only company to have high-tech anthropologists. And they’re much more than business analysts, or customer reps, or business people. They do everything, really. And the woman that I spent a little bit of time talking to is a real anthropologist. She has a Ph.D. in anthropology. And when I asked her, “Well, why aren’t you teaching at university or doing research?” She said, “This is so much fun.” And of course she brings all of the skills –

Shane: All of that deep knowledge.

Of anthropology, and how you would examine a culture, and how you would learn about a culture. And how you talk about communication between Menlo’s culture, the clients culture, maybe there would be other cultures involved in development. And who better to try to understand all of that. And of course they all pair. All roles are paired. Every line of code is written by a pair.

There is one exception. Every now and then, a client will come on site and there was one team there that day. The clients, if they prefer to work as individuals, they don’t force them to pair. But you never see Menlonians not pairing. So they all pair.


5. All of these things that we talk about in terms of the Agile practices, it’s just deeply embedded and it’s part of the way of work?

Indeed. Although, what was interesting they don’t do retrospectives. I was surprised at that. Now, in the standup, once a week they do offer appreciations, which is a retrospective exercise. And they say they appreciate either each other on the team. Somebody who helped them on another team and it could be anybody.

But, they added that little exercise after a visitor said, “Oh, you don’t do retrospectives. Well, you’re missing a chance to...” And then one of the things they mentioned was offer appreciations. So they now include that just once a week, so they don’t do it at every standup. So they were doing that at the day I was there since it was a Friday, so no retrospectives. And I said, “Hmm. I don’t know.”


6. Perhaps it’s the constant learning culture?

Yes, because I did give a talk at XP this year on continuous.... We’re doing continuous whatever now, and why not do continuous retrospectives. And maybe, in a sense, they’re already doing that. They added a practice to their pairing. When they come to the end of a pairing a day, if they want, they can ask -- each partner can ask the other, “Do you have any feedback for me?” And it was the idea of the team to try that as a little experiment, because they felt, “I could learn more about how to do this.” Especially newcomers.

That’s how they bring newcomers up to speed is by pairing, of course. That they felt they needed some way of saying, “I’m okay.” Or, “I could do some things better.” So they can ask for feedback after a pairing session. But otherwise, interesting.

Shane: So, even the sacred cows are up for questioning.

Here’s the deep insight. I’ve been talking about Menlo for so many years ever since I met Rich on a bus going from Boston to New York. Or maybe it was the other way around. And I’ve never been there, so I’ve just read the books. I’ve gone to their website. Looked at all their white papers, and I began to believe that they had it all nailed down. They had all the problems solved, that they were perfect.

And of course we know, at least you and I, we know there are no perfect people. And of course that would be true at Menlo as well. They’re going to have some struggles, and I heard about some of them and that’s why they’ve changed some things. And I thought, “Well of course. Of course they are people. They’re going to have issues.”

It seems so obvious now that I say this to you, and you’re looking at me like, “Okay Linda, that was your deep insight? Well, thank you very much for sharing that with us. We really appreciate it.” But feeling that I had carried Menlo around with me as this golden idol, and that yes Menlo does this, Menlo does that. And to really have somebody knock me in the head and say, “But wait!”

Rich would tell me about struggles. I thought, “Well yeah, I guess of course.” And then to come around full circle to say, “It doesn’t matter. You are going to have problems. Even the best teams, even the perfect marriage, the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet, they’re all going to have struggles. They’re all going to have issues. And it will never end.” And that doesn’t matter. What matters is, can we get through it together, and can we learn from it? And that’s what retrospectives are all about. And it seems, at least from what I hear, they can do that.

Shane: There’s learning in the process, somewhere.

They learn it somehow, and they have struggles somehow, and things don’t always go well and that’s okay.

Shane: And that’s really important the “that’s okay”, because in so many organizations, it’s not.

Yes. So there is a difference at this conference this year. I don’t know what the statistics are. I know we have a lot of people. There are over 2,300 here, 2,337 I think, or something like that. And I don’t know what percentage are brand new people, or who are C-level, or who are managers. But I try to go to a session every block of time, and in a lot of them there is a search for perfection. There is a search for the answer.

And I got some of that, and I sat in on Jeff Patten’s Stalwart session. And they didn’t say that in so many words. But it was, “How should we do this.” Or, “Here’s my problem. Solve it. Give me the solution.” Looking for the perfect way.

Shane: The recipe.

The way it is to be done. And the danger, of course, is that’s a fool’s errand, and that we’ll never find it. All we can do is say, “Well, this works best for now.” And that’s what Menlo does. When you read the Menlo books you can say, “Well, I understand how they do everything.” But then if you go there, you’ll say,” Oh, they’re not doing that anymore.”

There’s a difference, because they had little struggles or they found some things that didn’t work so well and they changed it. And they learned and they moved on. And that’s really what people who come here for the first time, need to realize is that we’re not handing out stone tablets with answers. It’s some ideas, and that’s what I’m going to talk about on Thursday, ideas for experiments. And then you should go away, and in your context you should try it.

Shane: And see if it works.

See how it works, and learn. Learn from that and adapt it, and that’s what Agile is all about. So I had to relearn that myself, I guess, because that’s a good thing.

Shane: It’s always a good thing. Linda, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. It’s always a pleasure.

It’s my pleasure Shane. Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

Shane: Look forward to seeing you again soon.


Oct 14, 2015