Open Spaces at the Agile Conference

When I arrived at Agile 2013, I looked at the program and picked out sessions — mostly about improving the front-end of development. In order to do this, I had to pass the lounge area, which had tables, chairs, couches, easels … and lots and lots of white boards. This area was the “open jam”, a collaboration space where anyone could propose anything.

Well, I suppose, nothing vulgar — but there were sessions on “Mob Programming,” “No Estimates,” and even one on “PowerPoint Karaoke.” (More about that later.)

The largest white board of all was the daily schedule.

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Photo Credit: Raje Sirajuddin

I settled into the jam area, running into old friends and talking to strangers, proposing and attending sessions. Over the course of the day, the board slowly filled up, while companies hoping to seed the area with ideas dropped off materials. I picked up a copy of a free, open-source contract for flexible delivery called Flexlite left on a table, a couple of bags of chocolate-covered coffee beans from ESI International, and settled in for a few discussions.

Open Jam Sessions: Agile Coaching and #NoDefects

I ended up proposing my own session on the role of the Agile Coach. To do this, I wrote a time on the board, announced the session at 8:30 p.m., and whoever arrived were “the right people.” The session ended up drawing a few people I recognize, including Matt Barcomb and Markus Gaertner — an agile coach who flew in from Germany. Barcomb defines coaching as a combination of consulting and training, taking some objection to the idea that people have ideas within them, and the role of the coach is to bring those ideas out. He says “Sometimes the answer is not you. Sometimes you need training. Coaches can do that.”

Markus suggests that there are at least three different types of coaching ‘stances,’ and that a coach can focus on individual growth, skills development, or on team dynamics. This means coaches can act in different ways at different times; one coach might not do any technical training, while another might teach unit testing or good programming, and they can both be coaches.

After the session on agile coaching, I talked to a few people about the work Woody Zuill is doing on alternative to estimation, something occasionally referred to as #NoEstimates. Along the way, a few people mention #NoDefects as a strategy — that they routinely release software with no defects found in production. I find the idea fascinating; it’s the kind of thing software developers have been seeking for decades, a sort of Holy Grail.

The problem with #NoDefects is the lack of contacts — most of the software involved is a size of one or two person-months, locked down to a single browser. The few people with success on larger projects generally had batch applications with no user interface. The test strategies I found were impressive, generally a combination of defined scenarios up front (often automated), strong unit testing, and strong exploratory testing at the end, but I am afraid that it’s far away from being a software development holy grail.

Beyond Open Jam

The concept of emergence — of letting the best ideas come out during the conference — was not limited to the Open Jam. It seemed that every time I saw a few feet of open area, someone had thrown on a white board to create and share information. Here are three of my favorites:

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The name of the rooms in the conference space was confusing, so someone wrote directions to the Bayou and Canal rooms in the main hallway. Leaving a marker, it didn’t take long for this to turn into the “Advice for presenters” wall.

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This information radiator takes the fear that agile might fail and flips it, asking passers-by to list why “Agile will fail at my company because …” The applied research here seems to get objections to agile development on the table, combined with, perhaps, a little fun and whimsy.

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Then there was the Agile Coaches Clinic, a chance to sign up for 15 minutes of advice from an agile coach on any reasonable topic. Walking by, I noticed stickies on how to get culture beyond “command And control”, how to organize a team, how to get a culture of heroism to become a team — and even how to become a coach!

The board did more than allow people to reserve a time slot; by making the schedule visible, anyone who has an interest can attend a session.

All of these artifacts — boards, walls, and stickies — were created by the conference participants. This changed the experience of the conference from a consumption experience to a creative one.

Of those, the liveliest experience turned out to be at 7:30 in the morning and not actually on the conference program.

Introducing Lean Coffee

CAST-heusser-agile-lean-coffeeEach morning at 7:30 a.m., Adam Yuret (at left in black) gathered together anyone who was interested for conversation over coffee.

The rules to “lean coffee” are simple. Write down any subject you are interested in on a sticky, then everyone “votes” with two dots. The moderator sorts the list by number of votes, and then we pulled each topic for five minutes until we ran out of time.

Through lean coffee I met Steve Rogalsky, who presented at the conference on user story mapping. Ainsley Niles attended lean coffee; she just finished a new book with Diana Larsen called “Liftoff“on launching agile Teams and projects. Through lean coffee, I learned about the Cynefin Framework, which provides a model for how to approach problem solving in different domains.

After the conference, another friend, Jerry Kirk, wrote a how-to on lean coffee that illustrates the method:

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In the past, I have attended lean coffees at other events. When listening to Adam describe the concept, I realized he uses them as a format for any team meeting and for problem-solving. This is something I vow to try now that I am back home.

In fact, you might say that if you attended the Agile Conference and didn’t get ideas to visualize projects and organize process … well … look around harder. They were everywhere.

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