New blog location

I’ve moved my blogging activities to its own domain. You can find recent blogination at:


The Tool Trap

As a life long fan of technology and one privelaged to work within a high tech industry, it’s easy to get distracted by the shiny…

Technology is nothing but tools. When you consider that the people who are usually most passionate about technology are the ones in the agile camp, the proliferation of agile tools in the market place has a sense of inevitability.

It is also the most common mistake we make as practioners, certainly when we start down this agile road. Agile = Cool so we want all the shiny cool new tools. Preferably one written in Ruby (or Python or Haskell). With many rounded corners and buzzword compliance.

I think the reason why we fall into this trap, why we find it so compelling is because we’re technologists. At our core, we believe that given the right tools we can change anything for the better. This unflagging optimism is why I read too much sci-fi. On my first real scrum job, I immediately went straight for the throat and tried to find the right tool to get this scrum stuff embedded into our development process ASAP. I believed that the tool would help us ‘do it right’. Turns out there is a word for this belief: Technicism

And I got it precisely wrong.

Agile adoption is a change process, and change is hard. We all too easily use technology to hide from change. My problem with most electronic scrum tools I’ve seen, is that it is all too easy to use them to hide the valuable stuff that help us to manage the change. (Maybe if we had the technology where all our walls were display screens that were also touch-sensitive it might be different.)

Change is also about humans. People. We’re complicated beasts and slow to change. So the best thing to use to bring that change about is the base instincts. For example, we’re social creatures. That means that the most important influences on our behaviour can be found in our peers. This is a function of our evolutionary history. So use the peer pressure to help drive behaviour. A visible example of this is the daily stand up.

In a recent conversation with a much wiser man than myself, Peter offered the not entirely surprising insight that most agile teams which move from a physical (cards, sticky notes, scrum boards) to an electronic one, usually go back to the physical. I believe that there is a sinister conspiracy at work: Scrum is in fact a 3M marketing ploy. The insight that I get from this is one that is easily lost in a cubicle farm. Making software is a social activity, and the technology we use to communicate is a poor analogue for our evolved communication patterns. Alistair Cockburn has a graph which illustrates this wonderously. In fact go read his talk while you’re at it.

So what I have learned is that this agile stuff, works a whole lot better when I step away from my identity as a tool user / maker. In fact I get a warm fuzzy feeling whenever I see my team in front of our scrum board…

Hero-Driven Development

I feel like I may need to start this post by paraphrasing a song: “You’re so vain, you probably think this post is about you.”  I have had the privilege of working with some remarkable technologists during my career and the danger is that they misinterpret what I’m about to write about. Steve McConnell calls them “10X Developers“. They’re the ones who can produce code at a rate of 10 times that of the average. Every software company would like to employ them, and some believe they do.

What I’ve started to notice is what amounts to an organisational anti-pattern.

Anti-Pattern: Hero-Driven Development

Captain Squarejaw to the rescue

Problem: Whenever some gnarly problem raises its head, the Hero is sent to fix it. The team sit back and let the Hero work, maybe watch what The Hero is doing. The Hero fixes the problem (slays the dragon) and the team gets back to doing what ever it was they were doing till the problem was discovered. The Hero flies off into the sunset.

Context: The team has hit an impediment which is within their theoretical skill base but without the experience or resources to fix the problem. The person accountable for delivery is panicking. The team is thrashing and seem to be getting no closer to a solution. Someone lights the signal for The Hero who swoops in to save the day.

Forces: Every software development project is a hostage to budget and schedule. In this context it makes sense to solve the problem as quickly as possible. But this is inevitably a short term fix; depriving the team of the opportunity to learn from failure and pain means that their growth will be stunted. The team’s ownership of their work diminished. In the worst case scenario it can lead to a loss of confidence and morale. There is also the danger that over time, the threshold of what is considered a problem will decline. The perception could evolve that the Hero gets all the interesting work. And worst of all, that any work done by The Hero is immune from scrutiny.

Solution: Trust the team. This is their problem, their mess. Support them where needed, get them expert help, but make sure that the team does not lose ownership of the solution. The Hero can still step in to help the team solve the problem, but the difference is in how the help is evaluated and used by the team. This is an act of collaboration and not an act of salvation. It is vital that the Hero be seen mainly as a ‘consultant’ to the team, whose output should be mainly advice. If The Hero is writing code, it needs to be dealt with in the same way as any other developer’s code. It should meet the team’s “Definition of Done”. And ideally, it should be reviewed publically so that the team can learn from the event and hopefully improve (Inspect and Adapt). It is better as a longer term strategy to have a team of heroes than to depend on a single person to solve all your problems.

Note, I am not concerned in this post with primadonnas or those who don’t share their knowledge. This is not the true Hero. If I had my druthers, I would fire those people from any organisation I was working for. In my experience someone who is trying to make themselves indispensable in an organisation deserves to be shown the door; they are acting for their benefit and not of their team mates or company.

My Ada Lovelace posting

I promised to write a post about a woman in IT whom I admire as part of this campaign.

The woman I admire happens to be my wife, Karen Greaves.

She has been my mentor and inspiration. She has made a reputation for herself as a superb boss (although I hesitate to allow her to be my boss, at work). Her people are fiercely loyal and she is loyal to them.

She comes from a technical background, having worked for Microsoft. I think she enjoys shocking developers by understanding their technical challenges and being able to suggest solutions. But it was really in product and project management that she discovered her true calling.

She has long been a supporter of agile methods, and has worked passionately to make it part of the environment where she has worked. I learn every day from her experiences with scrum in her environment.

For me, she has been an inspiration for how I would like to be, and perhaps a large part of the reason that I got into this business.

So today,  I salute her accomplishments in the software world, but I didn’t actually need a special day to do that.

Orlando Gathering

For those of us not lucky enough to be in Orlando right now, the Open Space findings are being captured at:

Presentations are also being published to the Scrum Alliance site at:


There has been some vigorous discourse about the state of scrum in the past few months. I’m not going to refer to them specifically.

What it feels like is that scrum has reached a level of acceptance and recognition that it has now become mainstream enough to warrant the kinds of attacks that can build your reputation. Everyone loves the little guy; this is why it is useful to frame arguments as a battle between the little guy and the big guy. The insight to take away from this is that rising to the bait will only encourage more baiting. There is no right way to do this.

At the moment I feel a bit like scrum’s bulldog.

I think Martin Fowler probably has the right insight. The baiting, criticisms and misunderstandings will be an inevitable aspect of the growth of scrum. what we as a community need to do is emphasise the technical aspects of a scrum implementation that will ensure success.

Nothing succeeds like success; which means that in order to be successful, we need to do more with regard to practices like continuous integration, automated regression testing and test driven development and refactoring (especially in the architecture area).

The one area where I will usually reply to percieved criticisms is where I think it is founded on a misunderstanding of a practise or role.

The Nokia Test (reloaded)

I’ve published a little TEST for those of you brave enough to find out what level of scrum you’ve implemented. It is based on Jeff Sutherland’s presentation on ‘Money for Nothing, Change for free’. In it he describes an updated version of the Nokia Test.

I’ve taken the liberty of turning it into a very basic quiz running on googledocs. (Please let me know if you experience any issues with taking the test, I’ve tested it but you never know)

I suspect that even this test is still too basic, it does give you a somewhat better feel of whether you’re doing scrumbutt or better. I found it useful as a focus for a review session. It draws attention to the basic practices that you should have in place. And until those basics are in place, you don’t really begin to feel the full benefits of what scrum has to offer. Jeff puts up some empirical evidence in his presentation that suggests that an excellent scrum implementation can make a difference of 400% in your productivity as a team (however that is measured).

You owe it to yourself and your team to make sure those things are there, and if they’re not figuring out a way to get them there.