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Q&A with Michael Ong on Cycling and Agile and the Value of UX

| by Shane Hastie Hugo Messer on Jun 16, 2017. Estimated reading time: 7 minutes |

Michael Ong is a product and user experience expert based in Singapore.  He spoke to InfoQ about his shared passions of cycling and agile and how they are complimentary, the importance of good listening skills in user experience design, the tech industry in Singapore and Indonesia, and his talk at the upcoming Agile Indonesia conference.

InfoQ: Michael, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Michael Ong: My name is Michael Ong and I'm a Product Team Coach at The Collab Folks. I started programming at 7, enjoyed building virtual worlds with lego and cycled growing up. I have a background in Computer Engineering and consider myself someone who is always learning and enjoy problem solving.

I’ve worked across a number of industries and currently work with companies to help design their learning organisations. My work allows me to travel and I often take the opportunity to cycle and see the countries I visit. My goal in 2018 is to ride the TransAmerica Trail (East to West coast).  

InfoQ: Is there any link between cycling and Agile? You seem to be either spreading agile or cycling all the time, so there must be something to it?

Ong: My journey into coaching teams in Agility and getting back into cycling started about the same time. I’ve been reflecting on this more but haven’t come up with a good answer but it’s mostly because I enjoy the time for cutting out the noise of our digital life while on the bicycle. This usually provides me with time to reflect on the work I’m doing and also sometimes generates some of the better ideas I’ve had!  (A good book I’ve just read “Einstein & the Art of Mindful Cycling – Achieving Balance in the Modern World by Ben Irvine seems to describe it best).

If I had to give a mapping for why this seems to work in sharing to people about Agile & Cycling (not usually at the same time):

Doing Agile (or the practices) maps to cycling activities like Leisure, Touring, Mountain or Road Biking. Some people get stuck too much about the practice/activity and not enjoying it when they are just starting out.

Being Agile (internalising the mindset) maps when a cyclist just gets out and ride, no matter the weather conditions or day/time. When this happens, any cycling activity becomes enjoyable as long as one is riding.

I’ve found through many conversations that the word Agile itself like Cycling seems misunderstood by many people. Some folks equate Agile as speed and Cycling as racing whereas the more immediate benefits are seldom realised or well understood before people give it up. It seems to help put this in perspective of a non technical activity when explaining to some people so likely why I like to speak so much about cycling!

InfoQ: What makes you a good trainer and a good coach?

Ong: I adopt a listen first, adapt to the team needs and customise the learning experience approach. Helping the team I work with understand the value of the conversation and learning that is generated helps steer away from rote learning and worrying about certifications. I’ve also been fortunate to observe many good trainers and coaches at their work and bring the best habits into my practice.

InfoQ: What are some of the biggest mistakes you have made in the past years and what did you learn from them?

Ong: I love new ideas and working with new teams to explore them during the ideation to commercialisation stage. When immersed in this, I sometimes forget my own coaching advice which is to focus on the team first especially when I play the product owner role!  I’ve run into occasions when I’m running too far ahead and forget to slow down or others are running in different directions and we don’t take the time to stop and reflect what is working and not working.

InfoQ: Your approach to agility is product and UX focused. What makes your approach unique and why do you choose product and UX as your main topics?

Ong: I started with technology for the first 10 years of my career and quickly discovered while I enjoyed the craft, technical excellence itself has no bridge to conversations with many people who are not trained in software engineering or engineering principles. My conversations with many small business owners to people who work in MNCs made me realise that bridging people is often overlooked and that many specialist roles have risen to fill in the gap like business analysts or product managers / owners. While this has been useful, it still shifts the work into specialised areas and silos which requires even more communication and handovers.

When I got introduced to the field of User Experience Design, it made immediate sense since I was already doing this but with different labels. Product Ownership topics was similar, more business minded but ultimatelythe  same type of work I was doing in first 10 years. I realised that giving people a common understanding across our roles should be first and foremost in team settings instead of rushing into delivering work.  Agility itself is a mindset; if someone can’t map it to their personal view, there isn’t much more that I can do. I prefer a show, not tell approach and demonstrating all the values and principles via our practices.

InfoQ: When you train a UX or product team, what are some of the key things you try to teach them?

Ong: I emphasize a lot on listening skills and facilitation. The root of most of our issues tend to be communication related, especially in multi-cultural teams or new teams. Most of the early activities I design are driven towards knowledge acquisition – how best to work together, what skills the team has (or lacks) to solve the challenges, what do we not know about our users (internal and external)?

InfoQ: You also visited the business agility conference in New York a few months back. What is your view on ‘business agility’? What are some of the differences between IT and business agility? What were some of your takeaways from that conference?

Ong: The first Business Agility conference in New York was really interesting. I had voted for holding it in Asia but it seems the conversation has much better awareness in the US. The good thing was quite a few folks travelled from all over to attend and it was great to meet folks from Europe who work like in a collective similar to how I like to work.

The majority of the audience didn’t seem to come very much from actual business side or units but rather from consulting and coaching. While this isn’t a bad thing, I didn’t get a very good perspective about what American companies thought about Business Agility as a topic.

My take is that Agility is something that an organisation as a whole needs to be working towards and not separated into different silos. Where it has now crossed the threshold for some companies outside of IT, the same challenges remain in not using terms to make it seem like this is different across business units but rather a set of shared values and principles to ground our conversations in.

Some of the talks I really enjoyed dived into this more like Steve Denning’s “What is Business Agility”, Stephen Parry’s “Designing organisations that work for Lean and Agile thinking people” and Renee Troughton's “Reality bites and stranger things”.

InfoQ: How do you see the difference between the agile landscape in Singapore compared to Indonesia?

Ong: I joined the Agile Singapore community in late 2010 and have been a part of it either as a volunteer, participant or speaker at the conferences. I was also in Jakarta since 2011 and observed that the conversation for Agile topics has only recently started to bloom and grow exponentially in the last three years in Indonesia.

Both communities were sparked by passionate individuals like Stanly (Agile SG) and Ivan (Agile ID) and we have them to thank for helping everyone get unstuck from their day jobs into a vibrant community!

Singapore’s journey was largely driven by the finance industry back then and now by government and some SMEs. Indonesia’s journey is similarly driven now by the finance industry and some SMEs. Scrum is often brought up as the first exposure to an Agile way of work and frequently in both communities the only way of work most people know. There are however in Indonesia some bright spots like KMK Online with folks who have worked for example in Pivotal leading teams and showing that there is much more to the practices and how to work across an organisation beyond IT. With a larger market and high growth in some companies, we can expect to see even more companies pay more attention to what it means to be Agile in this VUCA world.  

InfoQ: What can visitors to Agile Indonesia expect from you?

Ong: I will be sharing about Agile & UX for Engineers as a personal story into how one might transition into listening more to users before diving into the wonderful world of code. I’ve spent some time also in Jakarta and Bandung to learn more about the challenges software engineers face today and discuss how we might think about this in the future of work ahead.

 

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