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Agile Training in the new Gift Economy

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An Agile trainer in the Boston area is offering free training in Test Driven Development. Dubbed Pay-What-You-Can, the training is a free gift, unless and until you decide to pay for it. Even when you decide to pay, the amount you pay is something you decide. Welcome to the new gift economy.

Michael de la Maza of Heart Healthy Scrum is a well-known Agile community member in the Boston area. He is fond of wearing pink pointy hats and playing agile games. He pioneered the use of Agile games in the Boston area, is the leader of the Scrum in Schools project, and is now offering training in Test Driven Development-- for free.

Pay What You Can is the training program in TDD where you show up, experience the class, learn TDD, and pay what you are willing to pay AFTER the class is over. You pay by putting whatever you can in an envelope.

According to de la Maza,

Pay-What-You-Can training events focus on keeping costs low by taking place in free or low cost venues and asking participants to bring their own supplies and laptops. Participants are asked to pay what they can for training at the end of the event. The typical language used is: “At the end of the course the instructor hands out an envelope to every participant and the participant pays what they can. ”

There is no explicit obligation to pay even one dime for the training.

The Pay-What-You-Can policy conceived and promoted by de la Maza displays unmistakable features of a gift economy, first popularized in modern terms in Eric Raymonds pioneering Open Source writings. In The Hacker Milieu as Gift Culture , he writes:

Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business and among the very wealthy. Abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.

Are we moving towards a gift-economy economic structure in the Agile community? Is this the ideal way to spread Agile ideas? Are positive derivative effects like reputation enhancement much more valuable in the long run than here-and-now cash compensation?

Are Agile user group meetings a free gift, similar to Pay-As-You-Can? Is paying-it-forward a Lean idea that optimizes the whole?

Gift economies exist in primitive cultures where scarcity is not a problem. There are few primitive cultures left on the planet, and gift economies are not the norm. In systems-thinking terms, the act of gifting a community with a free service is an act that  "optimizes the whole"- a very Lean idea.

de la Maza is known as a brainy, creative, and quirky member of Boston's Agile community. He holds a PhD from MIT, is an author of a book on rapid chess improvement, and an Agile trainer and coach.

When InfoQ asks for a quote for this article, he responds as follows:

When you wish to learn
Without financial burn
Make it your plan
To choose Pay-What-You-Can
We believe in reciprocity
Instead of pomposity
Our focus is trust
Not fake gold dust

The class is scheduled for October 25 in Waltham MA. See the sign-up here.

Admission, by definition, is a free gift.

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Community comments

  • Scarcity Still Alive and Well

    by Benjamin Booth,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I disagree with the premise that somehow fundamental economics has been replaced with a new model (Raymond's scarcity vs abundance). I suspect the people pushing this gimmick do so more to attack capitalism as a whole than for any other reason.

    However, things definitely are different and open source ('free' - sort of) thrives somehow. So what gives? How does scarcity still apply?

    What has changed today is the thing that's scarce. Today, it's reputation.

    Reputation (people's ability to trust and do business with you) leads to better economic prospects and, thus, is valuable. Good reputation is an increasingly hard-to-obtain commodity in our networked, anonymous culture where it's difficult to know who you can really trust.

    So, scarcity has always applied and still does - whether you're talking about Open Source software or anything else. Bottom line, everything in life has a limit and, therefore, to some degree or another can be 'scarce' in a fundamental economic sense.

  • Commitment is what we need

    by Julian Holmes,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I agree with Benjamin that reputation is key, and Michael de la Maza appears to have that reputation to create a demand for his course.

    However, it seems ironic that his agile training fails to encourage a key agile premise: stakeholder commitment.

    My experiences of providing free education, seminars, and advice is that the stakeholder rarely has the commitment required to make the most of the opportunity.

    When the stakeholder lacks financial commitment up-front, they have less of an imperative to ensure that they take responsibility for making the most of that investment.

    What's also scarce is 'good' advice and experience. That's worth paying for.

    Julian Holmes

  • Re: Scarcity Still Alive and Well

    by Dan Mezick,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Is there a theoretical limit on love? Human creativity? Who caps the supply of joy?

  • Re: Commitment is what we need

    by Benjamin Booth,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I completely agree. Financial investment in training (or anything else) is a form of commitment with the accompanying expectation of a pay off.

    Lowering the level of required risk taking decreases desire to ensure a return on that investment. In this example, it lowers the likelihood that training will pay off in the long run. For example, you'll be less likely to go home and practice doing Test Driven Development so that you really remember what you've been taught.

    But, then, if you pay nothing but your time, who but God or your spouse really cares? The real exchange going on here is the reputation that de la Maza and now, InfoQ, gains in exchange for your attention.

    In the end, it's just good marketing on de la Maza and InfoQ's part. And I have no issue with that. Now, even I know who de la Maza is. And I like InfoQ even more for bringing him to my attention.

    Where I get tweaked is when someone declares that economic math has somehow fundamentally changed because the size of one of the variables has radically increased. 2x will always equal 2 times something, no matter how big that something is.

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