Agile - The Most Meaningless Word

Agile - The Most Meaningless Word in the Tech Lexicon

Has there ever been a more over-hyped word in the history of technology? A word that has been appropriated by everyone and assigned so many different definitions and book-length explanations and an army of consultants, each with their own medicine show, the word Agile has become meaningless pablum, a badge we all wear making it indistinguishable from any other technological accoutrement.

The word Agile has come to mean what any practitioner wants it to mean, used as a wrapper for the way they think things ought to be done. It has become a meaningless defense for management and delivery practices of all sorts. It has become the industry's magic safe word or imprimatur to sell a variety of process control systems and frameworks, giving rise to eager consultancies readily able to sell the miracle cure to eager executives in need of an enterprise cure that will hide their inability to manage the organization.

When we have exhausted these five simple letters, we will pick a new word and make it meaningless.

 #management #technology #business #agile #meaning #meaningless

Wrapping Up and Moving On

I've been laid off and the reasons don't matter. It's just business. My last official day is tomorrow. My soon-to-be former employer has a product that enterprises need and good people to back it up. Happily the future is bright and there are opportunities in the world of technology for the taking.

I'm excited for the future and know that soon I'll be doing something new, interesting and challenging. The friends and colleagues I leave behind will do well in the technology economy no matter where they go.

It's a prosperous time to live if you have valued technical skills. I'm grateful for all of the experience I've had that has brought me to this point. I look forward to utilizing it to help other organizations solve their technology problems and advance their organizational goals.

I believe that whatever changes the future holds, I will continue to blog from time to time and work on my personal OSS projects. Stay tuned.

Getting Back on the Horse

I grew up on a farm and ranch driving tractors mostly but riding horses to herd cows and to play as often as was possible. It was an idyllic way to grow up. I was more of a farmer than I was a cowboy, but I loved old western movies, especially John Wayne, and idolized the American Cowboy and the cowboy way of life.

This painting by a family friend named Lynn E. Mecham reminds me of all that I love about cowboys.

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I encourage you to visit his Facebook page for his gallery. He does amazing work.

As a young boy one of my favorite pastimes was to saddle up the horse and join a few of my friends in a game of tag on horseback in the cedar and sage brush hills above the small farm on which I grew up. Of course we knew nothing really about the politics surrounding the treatment of Native Americans. For us it was just a game.

On one of these occasions, I was riding my brother's mare Toots, a beautiful buckskin that looked very much like this.

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I was an Indian. One of my friends was selected to be the Cowboy, the guy who had to catch one of us. I had Toots running through the sage brush and planned to ditch the Cowboy in a barrel turn around a large cedar tree coming up on my left. I pulled left on the reins at just the right moment and she juked left around the tree.

Suddenly I was laying on the sand on my back, pain throbbing in my chest and, for a moment, I was unable to breathe. The tree had a large branch sticking out right at my chest height from the saddle. I was not hurt badly. I found Toots looking back at me as if to say, "What happened to you?" I got back on after a few minutes and we continued playing.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. Even when you're in a hurry, be cautious when rushing into a place you've never before been. You might get knocked off your horse, but you'll probably survive.

Fast forward a few decades to this year. After surviving a health crisis in India, I'm now dressing like a cowboy to remind myself to work hard and take better care of myself. And I'm still "playing" with Indians. But in this case real Indians.

I work with two teams of wonderful developers and testers in the New Delhi area. I have spent a little more than a year working with them. I was enjoying myself so much that I forgot the lesson of my youth and traveled in July to work and have fun with my Indian colleagues.

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I nearly died in India after that fun day. I got knocked off my horse. It took several weeks to get back up, but I did. And I may come off my horse again, but like my dad always taught me, I will get back on. I hope you do too.

Be a Better Technology Manager

While browsing the deep space of Alpha Quadrant of the web this evening, I ran into a Forbes article entitled, 6 Fundamentals That Can Make You A Better Manager In 2014 by Victor Lipman. I enjoyed the brief article so much, I decided to refactor it into my own words for the manager we either want to be or want to have.

In our agile quest to improve our software and our processes, we may sometimes overlook the nuances of management. In shops with empowered agile teams, it is possible for managers to make management an afterthought, allowing the self-organizing teams to pick up the slack. It is my opinion that this false sense of security and resulting dip in the quality of management can lead to fundamental and long term organizational and cultural debt.

To avoid accumulating this management debt, team members should encourage, perhaps even require, the following from their managers. And certainly managers should strive to focus on these fundamentals even while riding on the success of an empowered, agile development team.

  1. Be open to suggestion. Seek out and embrace ideas and opportunities to improve your management practices. Be a good listener. Take regular one-on-one’s with your direct reports. Conduct “town hall” meetings with your direct reports and their teams. Encourage honest and open feedback. Don’t allow the “way it’s always been done” to overshadow your improvement courage.
  2. Expect excellence and reward it. Set high but attainable expectations. Communicate them clearly. Be gentle but firm and require regular accountability and reporting. Openly recognize and praise success. Privately discuss under-performance and obtain solid commitments to improve from under performing members of your team.
  3. Use your time effectively and efficiently. Be generous but measured with your time. Spend small amounts of planned time socializing with your team members. Be careful not to impinge on their time or waste yours. A thirty second conversation can do wonders for interpersonal rapport but a five minute chat session can degrade efficiency. Protect your schedule. Insist on well run, timely meetings. Focus on your priorities while making a top priority of maintaining a personal connection with your team. If they know you care, they will care when you need them.
  4. Communicate feedback in realtime. Your team needs regular and immediate feedback. This includes public praise for a job well done. It also includes private and direct feedback on unfulfilled expectations with an immediate call to corrective action or a resolution to an expectation that has become unreasonable. DO NOT do negative feedback by email. Back up any positive emailed feedback in person. Real words from a real person mean a thousand times more than an email.
  5. Embrace conflict. Don’t run away from or duck conflict. Hit it head on, in person, and resolve it. Don’t dwell on blame but fairly examine cause and effect and then focus on actions required to resolve the conflict and move forward. Don’t be afraid to apologize or accept responsibility for creating conflicting expectations or misunderstandings. Invite others to suggest ways to improve. Listen and see step #1.

Now go be a better manager. And if you want a better manager, share this or the Forbes article with her or him.

Choosing a Content Management System

Growth in the content management system (CMS) market is strong as more and more companies look for software to help them manage their burgeoning coffers of content. This growth is partly fed by the growing temptation to use these systems for purposes far beyond managing content with CMS vendors tacking on every new feature they can dream up to feed this frenzy. The result is often a bloated, unwieldy, unmanageable, complexity induced bug-infested mess.

I have a relatively high level of interest in this space given my brief professional experience in this market. So I read with interest a post today on the subject by one of my favorite software development authors, Martin Fowler. In his post entitled Editing Publishing Separation Fowler discusses the advantages of separating the editing data and experience from the publishing experience and published data. I invite you to read his article as he makes a very cogent argument which should be taken into account as you consider choosing a CMS.

Before he makes this point, he sets up his theme with this preamble:

"...a regular theme has been the growing impact of content management systems (CMS). They aren't usually seen as helpful, indeed there is a clear sign that they are becoming a worryingly invasive tool - used for more than their core purpose in such a manner that they hinder overall development."

It is precisely this thought which accurately represents my own limited experience in the CMS market. So here are my recommendations for consideration when choosing a CMS for your content management purposes.

  • As Martin suggests, look for a separate editing and publishing experience including separation of data and the advantages that can come from that.
  • And pay close attention to Martin’s opening quoted above. When looking at a feature, such as e-Commerce, consider whether you should be looking at a full featured e-Commerce platform rather than a feature that may have been cobbled onto the product as an afterthought. Remember that your primary purpose should be the management of content.
  • Whether you choose open or closed, open source or commercial, be sure that your own development team can understand and use the system with alacrity.
  • If you have a PHP team, don’t buy a .NET based CMS. And vice versa.
  • Take your time in evaluation. A quick, under-informed decision can cost you far more than you can imagine in future headaches.
  • Give your development team time to find the real problems with the CMS being evaluated and determine whether and how they can live with the problems they encounter.
  • Be sure to test the support and services teams of the vendor if you are going commercial over open source. Or if you are going open source, look for a proven and reliable partner who can guide you through the rough patches. Because no matter which CMS you choose, there will be some of those.
  • Consider licensing and support costs but don’t fall into the trap that open source is free. The efficiency of your own development and content management team using the CMS over the long haul will have a far larger impact on your overall cost of ownership.
  • Ask someone from Missouri to join your evaluation team. In other words, NEVER just accept the word of a sales representative that the CMS she is selling has the feature that you want and that it works as advertised. Like all software, there is a HUGE amount of advertising fluff and endless feature lists. Make sure that you have the sales team “show” you and then make sure that your own development team can make it work without their help and without having to contact support before you accept the claim, “Oh yes, our CMS does that.”
  • And last but not least, do your own research of satisfied and dissatisfied customers. Make some calls. Ask to speak to someone on the evaluation team where another product was chosen over the one you are considering. Ask if they evaluated the product you have your sights set on. Chances are that a few phone calls will land you a gold mine in helpful information.

Of course, you can apply these same principles to purchasing any enterprise software. And you should.

Situational Intelligence Leads to Certainty and Confidence

I like this quote from General Stanley McChrystal on crisis communication:

“I think when any leader faces crisis, this is true on the battlefield but I think it's also true in other areas as well, one of the things you fear most is not understanding the situation. And I think it's that uncertainty that actually is most unsettling to many leaders and causes them to be undermined in their confidence.”

Understanding the situation. If you lack context. If you lack critical knowledge. You cannot effectively lead. First, seek to understand. Listen and absorb. Contemplate. Then, and only then, act.

Goal Oriented Meetings in Software Development

I’m fascinated with the subject of meetings. It is a topic of discussion across the wide webbed world. There are nearly as many opinions on this subject as there are stars in the sky. So adding my own here cannot possibly disrupt our little corner of the multiverse, nor will it likely establish a new or even affect an existing trend. But before I bore you with my own opinion, let me share with you some links to some very cogent resources that have helped me, in addition to my own years of experience, to form my opinions here.

  • Firemen, donuts and meetings – Seth Godin: “Don’t bother to have a meeting if you’re not prepared to change or make a decision right now.”
  • Reduce Meeting Time by 30 Percent – Max Isaac: “Prior to the meeting, send an email with the proposed Purpose, Process and Preparation, and attach documents that should be reviewed.”
  • Meetings frustrate task-oriented employees – American Psychological Association: “…people high in accomplishment striving, who tend to be highly task and goal oriented, were most negatively affected by meetings...
    ...people who participate most in meetings, such as those who identify themselves as upper-level management, tend to view them most favorably...solely because they get to talk a lot, they inevitably miss other key pieces of meeting effectiveness, including their ability to successfully lead the meeting.”
  • Why Goal-Oriented Requirements Engineering – Yu & Mylopoulos: “The identification of goals naturally lead to the repeated asking of "why", "how" and "how else" questions... Stakeholders also become more aware of potential alternatives for meeting their substantive goals, and are therefore less likely to over-specify by prematurely committing to certain technological solutions.” (This paper is not about meetings but contributes to the opinions expressed below.)
  • Goal-Oriented Idea Generation �� multiple authors, taken from summary of results: “The goals obtained from the ideas have high quality. During the activities for grouping ideas, it was frequently observed that the stakeholders could find their misunderstandings and tried to resolve them. As a result, the obtained goals were based on the consensus and the agreement of all of the stakeholders.” (Again, this is not about meetings but contributes to my ideas on the subject.)

It has been my experience that any form of software development, including my personal favorite: behavior driven design/development first introduced by Dan North, generally requires more than one person in the process. There is at least a user and a programmer, at least for any software that one might be paid to produce. And where there is more than one person in a process, there is the inevitability of a meeting.

The real question is what is the nature of the meeting. And by nature I mean how will it be planned and conducted, and what if any follow up will occur as a result of the meeting.

Bad Meetings: Vague, Purposeless, Meandering Time Wasters
The world of software developers could fill terabytes of hard disk space with examples of meetings that were a complete waste of time, ineffective, resulted in no change to the status quo nor the discovery of anything that was not already immediately discoverable in an issue or project tracking system.

Rather than go through any of these bad examples in detail, I will simply summarize that these meetings most typically include in the email invite only a vague subject line, a time and place, a dial-in number for remote attendees, and by virtue of the most commonly used tool to send the invite, a list of attendees, most often the entire team. Too many of these meetings and your organization has fallen hopelessly into the “Meaningless Meetings Machine.”

Goal Oriented Meetings: Purpose Driven, Limited, Action Packed
The very best meetings I have ever attended or conducted (yes, I’ve conducted my share of bad meetings too) have had the following qualities:

  • Goal oriented – the agenda focuses on stated goals. (See Mark Schiller’s cogent treatment in Fixing IT Productivity Destroyers.)
  • Limited scope – the time and agenda are limited to specific related goals.
  • Parking lot – good but unrelated ideas go into a “parking lot” to be discussed at another time and often in a different forum.
  • More listening (less talking) – participants listen carefully with their full attention and speak only when they have something relevant to contribute or need clarification in order to make a decision or understand an action item being assigned to them. And NEVER, NEVER, NEVER do participants rudely talk all at once.
  • Previous action items related to goals on the agenda are reviewed in summary fashion – discussion is limited to reporting outcomes and/or impediments that require attention by the group. This does NOT mean that the group attempts to resolve these impediments during the meeting. They are noted and may generate an action item for a participant, but under NO CIRCUMSTANCES will the meeting get side tracked to solve the problem in the moment.
  • Goals drive actions – starting with diverging opinions and working toward consensus in these steps:
    • affirming the goals are properly stated
    • identifying actions required to achieve the goals
    • identifying (or getting volunteers) to take those actions
  • Decisions are made – work toward a consensus but have a meeting leader who can make a final decision right there, right now, after having considered the input of meeting participants. Perfect consensus is not the goal. Decision and action from team input and reasonable discussion is sufficient. (And as Seth points out, don’t bother having a meeting unless you are prepared to change your mind. If you have already made your decision, just announce it, assign the tasks and follow through—don’t waste your team’s time with a meeting to maintain the illusion that you care about what others think—they know you don’t.)
  • Minutes, including action items and commitments, are recorded and published post haste. They are also maintained in a team public place such as a wiki or project portal for reference and follow up.

Goal Oriented Meetings Foster Better Software Development
I included some links already that talk about goal oriented requirements engineering and behavior driven development (BDD). In Dan North’s treatment of BDD, he presents two single sentence templates for defining each of the requirements of any software system. With my own explanations, they are:

To define a feature or user story:

As a [X], I want [Y], so that [Z].

Where [X] is the role of a user, [Y] is the feature, and [Z] is the benefit or value (the goals) of the feature.

And to define the acceptance criteria for that story:

Given [some initial context—the givens], when [an event occurs], then [ensure some outcomes].

The outcomes to be assured also define the goals of the user specifically within a certain behavioral or system state context.

When the goals of stakeholders are clearly understood and can be codified in a manner such as the BDD form, the development team can move forward more quickly and with greater confidence. And when meetings are equally focused on goals and achieving them, meetings will be an asset rather than a liability. And your team will have a much greater opportunity to succeed.

Enterprise Content Management for the Win in 2012

December was an interesting month with multiple pieces on the chess board moving all at once insuring an interesting and exciting new year for me. And that new year is upon us. I picked up my copy of CIO Insight magazine, the November/December 2011 issue, this morning and read with delight the article entitled Where the IT Dollars Are Headed in 2012.

One passage in the study mentioned in the article (included in the print version and linked to online) caught my eye:

“Elsewhere in enterprise applications, collaboration, and content and project management are rapidly gaining popularity, which makes sense given the new mobile opportunities for these categories. Collaboration and content management are seeing increases in 2012 over 2011 of roughly 10 percentage points in the number of organizations budgeting; and among those that already were spending in these areas, budget growths are averaging 14.6 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively—both significantly higher than 2011’s growth.”

I have a recently renewed and very keen interest in the potential growth of the enterprise content management market. And I will blog more about this in the coming weeks which are sure to open up new opportunities for personal and professional growth.