The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: ThoughtWorks (page 2 of 2)

Thoughts on OOP2015

I spent the first half of last week in Munich, where I was speaking at OOP Conference 2015. I missed last year when Martin Fowler was a keynote but had presented both in 2013 and 2012.

The conference still seems to attract more seasoned people like architects and decision makers and I am still constantly surprised at the number of suits I see for a technical conference – I do not know if that is more of a German culture difference as well. I felt like there were significantly more German-speaking sessions than English ones, and I sat in a number of them when I expanded my vocabulary.

I was only there for three of the five days of the conference, and was lucky enough to be invited and attend a special dinner on Monday evening where Dr Reinhold Ewald (a former German astronaut) gave a presentation about what it was like being an astronaut, what they do in space and some of the interesting challenges.

I saw a number of the keynotes and talks which I’ll briefly summarise here:

  • Challenges and Opportunities for the Internet of Things (IoT) by Dr Annabel Nickels – A relatively introductory session on what the Internet of Things actually means. The talk explained the IoT well, why it’s not possible and what people are experimenting with. It was clear that security and privacy aspects had not advanced and that there was still a lot of work to go, as there were lots of questions from the audience, but no clear answers in this space – more “it’s something we’re looking into”-sort of answers
  • Coding Culture by Sven Peters – Sven is an entertaining, engaging and obviously well-practiced presenter who knows how to engage with the audience with pictures and stories. His talk focused on coding culture – but more particularly the coding culture of Atlassian, the company Sven works for. An entertaining talk about how they work inside the company, but was not particularly surprising for me since I know already a lot about that company.
  • Aktives Warten für Architekten by Stefan Toth (Actively Waiting for Architecture) – A nice introduction to the Last Responsible Moment or what is more popular in the Agile community these days, Real Options.
  • Ökonomie und Architektur als effektives Duo by Gernot Starke, Michael Mahlberg (Economics and Architecture as an effective pair) – From my understanding, the talk focused on bringing the idea of calculating ROI on an architectural front. The pair spent a lot of ideas introducing financial terms and then a number of spreadsheets with a lot of numbers. Although well-intentioned, I wasn’t sure about the “calculations” they made since a lot of it was based on estimates of “man-days” needed and “man-days” spent/saved – it all looks very good when calculated out, but they didn’t really spent much time eliciting how they get estimates. They spent a lot of time introducing Aim42 which I wasn’t familiar but will now look into.

I ran two talks that had both good attendance and great feedback (like the one below):

OOP2015 - Best Talk

The fist was “The Geek’s Guide to Leading Teams” where I focused on exploring the responsibilities and remits of what a Tech Lead does and how it’s quite different from being a developer.

The second was “Architecting for Continuous Delivery” which focused on the principles and considerations for when people build systems with Continuous Delivery in mind.

I had a great time visiting the conference and had an interesting time expanding my German vocabulary as I tried to explain what I and what my company do in German – something I didn’t really do a lot of when I was living in Berlin.

Looking back at 2013

Although we have a bit of time left in 2013, my work for the year is almost done. Next year brings a completely different adventure. First though, are some reflections for this year.

A bit of a blur

My year was punctuated with many short engagements and events. I definitely did not have a regular schedule, but I did have a good amount of restorative time. My consulting engagements came dotted through speaking engagements, the latter which I had tried to reduce to a good level compared to 2012. The short consulting engagements often involved navigating a new organisation, collecting enough information to provide advice most suitable for their context.

I appreciated these engagements as it often meant working with really experienced people I don’t normally get to work with during other engagements, and I really enjoyed the debates about what might be the “next steps” that organisation could take to address their problem effectively. At the same time, I less enjoyed building relationships with a lot of new people for such short periods because I found it really drains me (and my memory for names seems to get worse and worse). It makes it worthwhile though, if I know that their environment could improve for the better.

Lots of travel

Naturally with so many different shifts both for clients and for conferences, I found myself travelling a lot this year. One week I remember being in London, Manchester, Hamburg and Rome before returning to London. With another client, it was three cities across three weeks back to back. I found myself returning to Dublin for a client, only to be impressed by how much more “continental” the city felt but you are still guaranteed an Irish pub around the corner.

I also found myself in Brazil for the first time (twice!), a beautiful country but one where the lack of public infrastructure is staggering. Fortunately the reliance on taxis for transportation was definitely made up by the friendliness of the Brazilian people.

The Retrospective Handbook in Print

I have been very happy with the reception to the book, “The Retrospective Handbook”, I published last year. People told me how it’s really helped and improved their retrospectives. Totally worth the time.

I spend time making the electronic copies available as print, and I can now physically give away copies (or you can buy them here on amazon!) There’s still time to gift it to someone before the new year 😉

Keynote for Agile Brazil

I also felt very humbled to give the opening keynote to Agile Brazil, a 1000+ person conference this year held in the country’s capital city Brasilia. It warms my heart to see the ideas prospering around the world. I wrote a new talk, “Agile: Unlocking our human potential” with the goal of inspiring people to engage for the rest of the conference.

The video was recently published online too:

Unlocking the human potential – Patrick Kua from Agile Brazil on Vimeo.

Plans for next year: Berlin in 2014

As I hinted previously, 2014 will be completely different from previous years. I intend on taking a break from work, partly because of a (generous) 12 week sabbatical period ThoughtWorks offers employees after a long tenure. My plans are to move to Berlin for year, with my only goal being to speak/write German fluently. I depart British shores early next year where I will start with an intensive language course involving at least 30 hours a week of study.

For people who I know in Berlin (Hallo!) but I hope to avoid speaking too much English for the first part of the year.

Dafür wir können uns treffen wenn wir nur auf Deutsch sprachen.

I intend to write less on this blog, and to spend more time (deliberate practice!) on a German one I have set up here.

The ThoughtWorks Anthology, Volume 2 Released

I’m pretty excited to announce the release of The ThoughtWorks Anthology, Volume 2, a varied collection of essays in the field of software development.

The ThoughtWorks Anthology, Volume 2

Alistair Jones and I contributed a chapter titled, “Extreme Performance Testing” that I have talked about in the past. In this chapter, we discuss how we apply over decades of agile experience (particularly Extreme Programming) to the field of performance testing. We describes techniques and approaches for faster feedback that you can immediately apply to performance testing.

Looking back at a year with a client

Over the last twelve months, I’ve worked with a client to rebuild a digital platform and a team to deliver it. It’s now time for us to leave, and a perfect time to reflect on how things went. The digital platform rebuild was part of a greater transformation programme that also involved the entire business changing alongside at almost all levels of people in the organisation. The programme also outlined, before we arrived, outlined a complete change in all technology platforms as well (CRM, CMS, website) to be rebuilt for a more integrated and holistic service offering.

Our part in this program turned into building the new web digital platform, working against a very high level roadmap, and a hard marketing deadline. We ended up building the site using Ruby on Rails serving content driven by a 3rd party decisioning platform (much like Amazon recommendations) guided by the business vision of better tailored content for end users. We didn’t have much input into the final choice of several products. I’m very proud of the end result, particularly given the tense and short-timed framed environment in which we worked. Here are some examples of constraints we worked with:

  • 4 Product Owners over the span of 11 months – From January this year, through to the end of October, the business was onto its fourth Product Owner for the digital platform. Building a consistent product is pretty much nigh impossible with changing product hands, and trying to bridge work from one Product Owner to the next was definitely a challenge.
  • Constant churn in the business – The 4 product owners is one instance, but we would often be working with people in the business to work out what should be done, only to find that the following week they were no longer with the business.
  • 3 Design Agencies engaged resulting in “reskinning” approved by the board before the 6 month public launch – We saw several “design changes” done by firms well stocked with people capable of generating beautifully-rendered PDFs that were signed off. However often these would imply new functional work, or be impractical to the web medium.
  • Marketing deadlines announced well before the development team had been engaged – A common pattern in the business was marketing launching a press release announcing a date, well before the people involved in delivering it were made aware, or even consulted on it.
  • PM Explosion – At one point, it felt like we had more Project Managers on the group planning out work with budgets and timelines that would be approved well before the development team had been approached.

Even with these constraints we’ve been able to deploy to production 37 times in the last three months and more since the original MVP go-live in July. Part of what I’m particularly proud of is the team where we were able to achieve the following:

  • Building an Evolvable Architecture – We questioned the original choice and need for a CMS but with a constraint that a decision had been made on buying these tools, we architected a solution that would hide the implementation details of the CMS via a content service. With our TW experience and pain dealing with CMSes that are shadowed by business need, we wanted something that would not constrain what the business could achieve (hence the decoupling). We even had a chance to prove this out when the business requirements quickly hit the limit of the CMS’s built in categorisation module.
  • Responding to Change – The business roadmaps seems to change on a daily basis, and our team was able to quickly tack to accommodate these business changes. We changed the team structure as the team size increased, changed the team structure as we went live, and again as people in the business changed. Whilst our process felt similar, it would look nothing like a textbook XP, Scrum or Kanban process.
  • Improving the Process – Our team has been constantly trying to change the process not only internally to the development team, but also helping people in the business find ways of improving their own way of working. Progress has been slow as the change that starts falters as people leave. Retrospectives have been a key tool but also has the ability for the team to feel empowered with recommending and pursuing improvements they see fit.
  • Setting an example of transparency – Showcases are key to the business, and we would offer fortnightly showcases to the features built to the entire organisation. Huge numbers of people came along and I found it fascinating that it was one place where people had an opportunity to talk across silos. This sometimes slowed down our ability to show what we had actually done, but I felt exposed missing communication structures that people still needed.

At a technical level, I’m really proud of some of the principles I wanted to achieve at the start and that the team lived throughout (I’d love to hear what their experience is). Some of these include:

  • Fast developer setup – Getting started on each new machine should be fast without complicated installation processes
  • Developers rotating through operations – There’s nothing like supporting the code you wrote to help developers understand the importance of logging, test cases that are missed and just experiencing what production support is like
  • DevOps culture – Everyone on the team is capable of navigating puppet, knowing where to look for configuration changes and ensuring that applications are configurable enough to be deployed without special builds across environments.
  • Continuous Delivery – Our second product owner (the first transitioned out the day we went live) actually asked for us to release less often (i.e. it is a business decision to go-live) so that they could work with the rest of the business to ensure they had their non-IT dependencies in place.
  • Devolved Authority to Feature Leads – I blogged previously about Feature Leads who could help shape the technical solution and drive the knowledge for the project.
  • Metrics Driven Requirements – Though not completely successful, we were able to stop the business from implementing some feature by showing them production metrics. In this case, we were able to avoid building a complex search algorithm to show that we could achieve the same result by adding to a list of synonyms on search.
  • Everyone grows – If I look back at the project, I think everyone on the team has experienced and grown a significant amount in different ways. I think we struck a good balance between being able to work towards individuals goals and find ways they could help the project at the same time.

Other particular things I’m proud of the team:

  • Taming the Hippo – Worthy of its own post, Hippo CMS has been one of the least developer friendly tools I’ve had to deal with for some time. The team managed to work out how to run an effective functional test around its poor UI as well as deploy and upgrade the beast in different environments without the 12 step manual process outlined on their wiki.
  • Rapid team size – Management wanted the entire team to start at the same time. Even being able to push back, we ended up with a very aggressive ramp up and we still managed to deliver well.
  • Diverse but co-operative – We had something like 17 people and 14 different nationalities and it’s one of the strongest teams I’ve seen who were able to work through their differences and forge ahead.

Things that I would like to be different:

  • Find a way to code a lot more – Due to the circumstances, many elements drew me away from coding. At best, I can remember pairing with someone for at most two days a week (for a short time) and I would like to find a way to do that more.
  • Implement more validated learning – Although dependent on a product owner willing to do this, I would have liked to work more on trying to build and experiment a lot more.
  • Have a stronger relationship with decision makers with authority – I believe development teams work best when they are connected to people who can make decisions, not just organisational proxies who provide answers. Unfortunately I felt most of this cascaded very far up the organisation and due to the constant flux and organisational change, this wasn’t possible in the timeframe. I’m hopeful that as the business matures and more permanent people find their place, this will be more possible.

8 years at ThoughtWorks

Friday marked eight years since working at ThoughtWorks and thought it’d be a useful exercise to reflect on it. During that time, I’ve seen the company grow and the number of opportunities grow with it as well. I was at the pub last night (one of those ThoughtWorks UK traditions) and was trying to explain my role to someone. On my business card, it’s the title of Generalising Specialist. I’m a developer most of the time and although as a Technical Leader you don’t develop 100% of the time (who does?) I still get to do a huge amount.

Reflecting on the past
I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do a lot of public speaking and was proud to be invited to speak at Øredev, QCon and this year to Goto Aarhus (formerly JAOO). I see it as a great way to share knowledge and contribute back to the development community and to continue to spread great ideas. As I always tell people there is a lot of value in being a meme-carrier and helping introduce memes into newer communities.

At the same time, I’ve worked as a trainer, facilitator and an advisor doing some short term pure consulting engagements working with CTOs and CIOs on how they run their software organisation, how they’ve architected their software systems and helping them build a roadmap to a better pace. My passion for Systems Thinking, Lean thinking and the belief of constantly being open to new approaches and ideas helps me see and explain things that others often get stuck on.

Work wise, I’ve now worked in many places. Last year I spent a significant portion of that time in Germany, Berlin to be exact. It’s not the best place to learn German, but my passion for learning drove me to self-learn enough that I can hold a conversation in a bar reasonably well. I’ve got plenty more to go before I can start writing any blog entries or immerse myself in a completely German speaking work environment but pretty happy with the progress so far. Overall I’ve worked in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom for my clients with travel for conferences to many more.

I continue to appreciate the different opportunities and the continuous mix of people that I get to work with. As an example, we have a project of about 15 people all representing about 12 different nationalities. We have four females on our project (2 of which are developers) and so many interesting approaches and conversations with a consistent focus on trying to do the right thing for the client. I have to always remind myself other companies or contractors do not stand for the same values and I constantly appreciate.

Thinking about the future
Although I’ve been published in a book before, my goal is to finish a book, The Retrospective Handbook some time this year. Leave a comment to let me know what you think or tell me about your interest.

I will continue to write code, although this year I plan to specifically deepen my javascript and ruby skills. I will continue applying systems thinking but deepen its application into the software realm and how it can be made more appropriate.

I plan on cutting back on the number of speaking engagements. Last year it was almost one or more every month and the variety proved rather stressful at times when trying to balance life and work.

We’re not trying to be rude, honest!

I got included in on a twitter conversation by Mark responding to Brian talking about how ThoughtWorks people at a particular conference huddled around together. It’s not the first time people have observed that. A natural reaction by people outside of that circle is to comment on this, such as, “You’re not very inclusive,” or “Crowding around together is so rude.” Having been part of these circles before, and being told this judgement (with accompanying observation), I can tell you where it stems from.

ThoughtWorks is a distributed company
Though I can only observe consultants I interact with from other companies, I feel ours is definitely very global. We encourage people to travel from one country to another, frequently rotating projects and encourage each other to present at conferences. Being located pretty much all around the world, it’s natural you don’t get to meet everyone face to face. Even here in London, I am now used to turning up for a new office event only to meet several new people. We work on different projects, so it’s natural not to meet anyone.

Our electronic-social ties are extremely strong
Internally we have, at least what I like to think of as a very active mailing list. When I post something on there, I generally get some pretty good responses particularly from the largest community of software developers. Over time, you get to know someone’s online persona. You have a picture of them in your head, and start to see the nuances of how they express themselves. Even things like twitter help to do this. It’s not uncommon for me to feel more strongly attached to people actively participating in email conversations than some people in the same office of who I rarely see or talk to.

Conferences are attended by ThoughtWorkers from around the world
As I briefly touched upon before, as a global company we try to encourage people to travel and present at conferences. This naturally leads to opportunities for people to meet in person for the first time. It’s strange meeting people you feel like you’ve known for a long time in person for the first time. I still remember, for example, my first day in the London office where I finally met Liz Keogh and Tim Emiola for the first time after conversing with them electronically for 18 months before hand, and them now inducting me into the whole Britishness of “buying rounds” and the way that it all eventually works out.

People have a need for connectedness and belonging
Having just recently talked about it at the XP2011 conference, I noticed that we weren’t the only people to congregate into small circles. For instance, I remember a whole bunch of people from Brazil hanging around together for almost the entire conference. Likewise for a small group of people who worked for the same company in Sweden. It’s a natural thing, particularly in new environments, for people to stay close to those they already have relationships with.

It’s less about you than you think
It is all of these effects combined that lead to ThoughtWorkers aggregating at events. Perhaps it’s also because we tend to be quite loud/opinionated/noisy that it’s more noticeably. Gravitating towards each other isn’t a conscious act trying to exclude everyone. In fact, I know ThoughtWorkers like hearing other opinions, particularly if they’re even more different and based on strong experiences and though happy to contribute to conversation will be welcomed with open arms.

We can get better at this
I know it can be hard approaching a loud, opinionated group of people. I know we can do it better. Being aware of how we’re sometimes perceived, this is how I go about trying to break the perception:

  • Invite others in – If I know someone standing at the edge of a group, I’ll introduce them and explain my relationship to them to others. It helps break the awkwardness and creates more opportunities for everyone to talk about similar interests.
  • Randomly break away – If groups get too large, or hang around too long, I like to break away and meet some new people. I also try to encourage other people to do the same. It’s not only a good way of getting different perspectives, but helps address some of the above issues.
  • Explain to others the contributing factors and perceived effects – By talking people through the above elements, it helps others understand why perceptions come up the way they do. More importantly it lets them decide how they’d like to deal with it

Whilst I can only speak for myself, I do hope that other people can benefit from this by being more inclusive where possible in these sorts of situations.

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