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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Improving Technical Skills and Agile Practices

Improving Technical Skills and Agile Practices


1. This is Ben Linders with InfoQ and I’m at QCon London talking to Ruud Wijnands.[...] You talked about things that can and do go wrong with Agile transitions. Can you give us some examples for what you’ve seen in organizations?

Ben's full question: This is Ben Linders with InfoQ and I’m at QCon London talking to Ruud Wijnands. It’s great to have you at QCon Ruud. You gave the closing talk in the evolving Agile Take about taking back Agile together with Tim Ottinger well you talked about things that can and do go wrong with Agile transitions. Can you give us some examples for what you’ve seen in organizations?

Sure, some of the things that we see is that there is a lot of focus on just the process, just following the rules. As a result of that we see that particularly with Scrum implementation, we see that it tends to blow up with lots of meetings where developers actually start wondering if there is actually a point in time where I’m allowed to code. What we also see is that there is a drive on measuring productivity, it’s a result of for example velocity charts, I’ve seen that some companies want to see an increasing velocity all the time and somehow it’s not really clear to everyone that there is a gap.

So that it’s actually funny to see with also a little bit trustful for the people that need to work in a team where the expectations and the bar gets higher and higher. Symptom that you or someone will see is if you have a company like that you get story point inflation, it becomes easier to earn story points for user stories because developers are not stupid, they also know that if we need to make a certain level of story points every iteration, then we just become more conservatives in our estimates. So it’s working against what companies really want.


2. I’ve see more people emphasize the importance of technical practices in Agile and you are certainly not alone in this. Do you feel that the things are changing, are more people getting it?

I’m not sure if more people are getting it, what I do see is that there is fortunately an increase attention for it. I’m not sure if is due to SAFe, SAFe is becoming the next popular Agile framework I would say. What is part of Safe is the Extreme Programming Practices, so also managers are asking more questions about it, if we are already at the verge that anyone gets it and at these technical practices are maybe even more important than some of the other things, I’m not sure about that yet, I’m not convinced.


3. Do you have some examples of teams that have successfully improve their technical skills and practices, how do they approach that?

One of the things that I’ve seen with teams that are successful with these things is that that is already a certain natural intrinsic drive to become better at Software Engineering, they just want to become really good at what they do, and as a consequence of that people have a natural tendency to try and find new things to learn. Now the organizations that I’ve seen that are so successful with this somehow support learning, so they are to buy the books or provide time or they do both or they set up small projects where people can play, and as a result of that people can actually gradually improve all the skills, and one of the things that I think is most successful if just create room for learning and that is also the biggest challenge I think for many companies.


4. Why is such a challenge?

Learning is not so visible, so how do you know that people are really learning something and there is a lot of focus on, still I think on productivity and learning isn’t tangible productivity, is something where there is a delay between the moment where people do something, they are learning, and where the effect of the learning is actually visible, and that is I guess a little bit scary sometimes.


5. What are kind of things that organizations could do to support people in learning and to support that they make time for that?

What I’ve done myself, I can say what I’ve done myself and what I think works pretty well is brown bag sessions, pizza sessions, support the books, do the projects, small projects where you just buy toys like Raspberry PI for example and just give them a certain amount of time to play with these things and what I do with teams is I tell them to accommodate for that in their estimations, so during the weeks that they need to do something for either a client or for a project, just make sure you don’t utilize yourself up to 100%. I’ve see an actually during QCon one of the presentations where I think was Rachel also mentioned like we build this in, we build in that, we need time to play and to learn and to do these things, so it reflex in velocity if you are still doing velocity measurements of course.


6. [...] Are there any differences in how you have been and working with people in teams in these different roles?

Ben's full question: That’s right, Rachel mentioned this in her talk on the XP experiences that they have time building in at Unruly for people to do learning and that they make sure that the time is there and they take it into the velocity to have time available for people in there. We’ve known each other for quite some years, I noticed you’ve been working in different roles, you’ve been an independent consultant, later you’ve worked with a consultant company and now you are a department manager. Are there any differences in how you have been and working with people in teams in these different roles?

Yes and no, the no part is I always bring myself and for those people who know me I have a certain way of working and pretty direct and that is something I’m always taking with me. I think I’m very good at showing people a mirror and that’s what I always do in all those contacts. What has been different is as an independent consultant it’s easier to say no to a client. If the client is already at a point where I think this is dead on arrival, then I’m just not stepping into that, it’s a pitfall I think. As a consultant, as a hired consultant you get into this framework of the company where they want to make money because they are selling your hours, so some of those more challenging transitions that I would otherwise not have taken, you still try to make the best out of it.

In my role as manager, I try to not do the things that I’ve been trying to tell other people to not do, I’m not sure if that’s clear but there just create a room for people to do what is needed and not do any micromanagement. I’m also very fortunate with the team I have right now, I don’t need to do any micromanagement, I just step in if they require my help and the rest it’s up to them, they know best how to do their job.


7. Ok, how do you feel as a manager about Agile, what is the value that you would like to see Agile bring to your organization?

Of course I’m a little bit biased because I’ve been in Agile for about 15 years, so I feel good about Agile, at least the type of Agile that I grew up with, I don’t feel that well with the type of Agile I see nowadays in many of the organizations, where it came really through I hope in our talk where there is a lot of focus on the processes and tools and these kind of things, so I think that it’s still not of importance. The value that I would like to bring to the organization is that we can deal with the ever increasing change in market.

It’s harder and harder to actually get something out and that has a reasonably life time expectancy, so it really requires that if we want to do something as a company we need to be able to it fast and also be able to get back the return of investment. The only way I think we can do that is be able to respond to changes really quickly and in an effective way, and I still believe that Agile methods, methodologies, practices are helpful, are not necessarily believe that we need all of them and I think some also need to change or not that relevant anymore.


8. In general do you think that managers have a good view of what Agile can and can’t do, how is that level of understanding?

Limited I would say. Unfortunately I still think that there are lots of managers that buy in to following what’s somehow flows down from the hierarchy, down words. Most managers I’ve worked with are in middle management, not so much at the top, and they are usually in execution mode, so this is the next process for them that they need to do and they start doing that. As a result of that I think part of that also leads to the type of symptoms that we talked about before, that we get very poor implementations. If you look at the Agile Manifesto, we have a set of values and we have a set of principles, and I strongly believe that maybe even more the principles are of importance than the values in the Agile Manifesto.

Trying to really understand what these principles are, there are managers that have intrinsic motivations to really understand this and to try and experiment and have the courage to do stuff that they haven’t done before. There are also tons of managers that don’t have that type of courage, they are just afraid to lose their job or to have things go wrong, and I think one of the major things that would be tremendously helpful, that it would be ok for managers to allow people to make mistakes. In order to learn and become better in what you do, you have to be able to make mistakes and unfortunately I think sometimes the position is more important than the end result that we actually have in mind.


9. So what could be done to give managers more insight to the possibilities of Agile, so that can get more value out of it.

What I would say is try to, if you are a manager listening to this, I think what I want to tell you is try to really understand what this is about, and also look at the values, say we like people and interactions over processes and tools, what does that really mean? Now what we see still, what I still see is that are unfortunately still a lot of attention for the things on the right side of the Manifesto, those things that we actually value less. Why? Because it’s easier, it’s tangible, processes are tangible, we can control whether people do that or not, we can check that, we can measure, all these kind of things and that is what Tim actually usually says is really a side effect of Taylorism, and that is still very much embedded into our society I think especially in big companies.

So it’s really getting the courage to explore what it means to do the things on the left, what does it mean to do people in interaction, how can I contribute as a manager to help people to do interaction, and what type of interaction. One of the things that I try to encourage is, in the organization if we have multiple teams that need to do something, the Scrum answer is to do Scrum of Scrums. My answer is I want to know who are the people that know about the content, who do I need to talk to in order to get a certain problem solved and I would like people in the teams to really search and have direct contact with those people, so instead of having Scum Masters in between who are basically man in the middle, just do the organic growth of communications lines between people and just create the opportunity for people to really address and talk and work with each other.


10. [...] Can you elaborate what Lean means for Software Development?

Ben's full question: As a group leader for system engineering at Philips Innovation Services, you are helping the organization with change management towards a more Lean way of working, so can you elaborate what Lean means for Software Development?

I’m not going to give a definition out of the book, at least I hope I won’t. What I like to refer to is actually Dan North's talk this morning, it’s about creating a business impact with the least amount of Lean time, so what we are doing, what we are trying to do is understand what is the business impact that we need to make and surprisingly this is more often something else that actually as software engineer think, and there is also still a lot of short term impact that is requested. What we are trying to do right now and I don’t think we are there yet, what we are really trying to do is actually make sure that we can make that impact as quickly as possible by understanding Continuous Delivery, understanding Continuous Deployment, understanding who should talk to who, who are the people that actually can solve problems if they are handed to them, and take away as much of the ceremony I would say that is in the way of getting things done.


12. And what would be the value of this for the business?

Well the value for the business is feedback of course, one of the things that we try to get is feedback as early as possible and getting feedback as early as possible is not always easy, we are not always, not all the products that Philips built can be updated every week or every day or whatever. So we try to do this with internal people who know the market, who know what is really necessarily for Philips to make an impact in the market.


13. What are some of the things that you are doing to help teams to increase their Agility?

At the moment it’s I would say, trying to get back to the basics. Agile has evolved a bit over the years, not a lot if you ask me, and what sometimes happens is that people find after inspecting and adapting a way of working that works in the context that they have at the time, and surprisingly they get stuck in that as well, so something that used to work is not necessarily the best way to work right now. If we look at where we came from 15 years ago there is already a tremendous shift in technology that people nowadays need to learn and need to use and the complexity has only increased.

So in order to be able to handle that, I believe that we need to take a step back and look back at what are the principles behind the Agile Manifesto, which ones are the ones that we really believe will support our business and will support us in delivering early, and by making that step again I think we can kind of reinvent what are the things that we need to do, and it doesn’t necessarily means that we end up with the same practices and the same tools and the same ceremonies that we adopted 10 years ago.


14. What kind of advice would you like to give to other the managers in the organizations that will do an Agile transformation?

Get help.

Ben: Can you elaborate on that.

Yes, I really believe that if you are really new to all this stuff, it’s extremely hard to get to an Agile implementation that really works for you. What I’ve seen also because I’ve been a consultant, is that having an outsider who can look at what you are doing without any bias, without any other reason to not say something can help tremendously in speeding up the process, but can also speed up your learning. There are tons of stuff that you can of course learn, but the question is can you afford it?

And the speed of learning can be significantly impacted if you hire someone who actually has been through all those mistakes, who have seen the patterns of things that will let you fail or will let you succeed, and that is something that you, if you are really new to this, there is no way that I know that you can get it anywhere else, just get professional help someone who’s known in the field preferably, and I would even say don’t look at the hour rate, having a more expensive consultant with a serious track record is really worth it. There are tons of people out there that claim that they have all the certifications but they have never done a real proper transition. Be careful with that and it’s very hard, I have to admit it, is very hard if you are new to this to actually know who are those people that could really help you, that’s difficult and I’m not going to say any names here.

Ben: Ok, thank you very much Ruud for this interview!

Ok, cool, thank you for asking me!

Jun 04, 2015