Monthly Archives: January 2013

My First Computer

In 1977, when I was 12, I was in the gifted program. I’m not sure exactly what you had to do in order to be “gifted”, but I assume it had something to do with having an higher-than-average IQ. It was a special class you took every so often that was supposed to help gifted students engage their minds more — stay challenged in the school system. Each year the teachers tried to come up with something to expand our little minds but it never seemed to work out the way it was planned. The teachers didn’t hit on much and we probably weren’t the best students either. But we all went through the motions anyway.

I remember one year we had a creative writing class with Mrs. Woollery. Mrs. Woollery had a bit of a mustache, so behind her back I gave her the nickname “Mrs. Wookie.” We were truly dreadful little writers, but the teachers were troopers and did as much as they could to encourage us. The highlight of the creative writing class for me was tearing apart all the girls’ fiction, which was almost as bad as my own (One short story I remember writing was about a moose that gained self-awareness and became a genius as a side of effect of an alien invasion. The aliens were the size of insects. Sort of a “Flowers for Algernon” meets “Independence Day.” Lets just say I’m not waiting on any awards for that one.) On a good day you could tear apart the saccharine and overly-described heartfelt efforts of 2 or 3 girls while genuinely trying to help them, and in the cruel world of Junior High where girls weren’t the most friendly of sorts that was something.

Mrs. Woolery never knew what to make of my strange short stories. But she kept encouraging me anyway. This was the way of the gifted program.

So I didn’t have my hopes up at the beginning of 7th grade when they asked us what we wanted to study, but I had to admit that this was something new. They had never asked us what we wanted to do. Instead of deciding on what to give us, they were going to let us decide!

I knew in an instant what I wanted.

A computer.

So I lobbied our teacher to get a computer that we could program.

I won, and this is what showed up a couple of weeks later.

Computer kit from the Radio Shack 1977 catalog

I still remember the little wires, light bulbs, and other assorted trinkets

Let’s just say that although I tried diligently to get as much as I could from the kit, the gifted program didn’t make me a computer expert that year, no matter what Radio Shack promised on the box. I also did not diagnose any illnesses or predict the weather. My fun with computers didn’t begin until a couple of years later in High School.

But Mrs. Woolery told me I did a good job anyway.

Congrats to the Radio Shack fan site for the catalog image! I could spend hours over there looking at all the things I envied growing up. Radio Shack was like Nirvana to me growing up; the Kingdom of the Gods. They had everything that was cool.

The Radio Shack guys at the local strip mall should have gotten a medal. I loved that place. Every day after delivering the papers I would be there programming on the TRS-80. Truth be told, my after school hours at Radio Shack a couple of years later was what really started me on the road to being a programmer.

Funny thing, I can’t remember them saying anything especially encouraging to me. They just kindly and graciously put up with my constant presence.

I sure miss Mrs. Wookie though.

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San Francisco Memories

Several years ago, for many months I had a client in downtown San Francisco. As part of that job I had a corporate apartment located right at the top of Nob Hill.

I have really found memories of living there. I’d walk the long walk down the hill into the financial district in the morning, stopping at 24-hour fitness for a workout. In the afternoons I’d hump all my gear back up the hill. San Francisco was a beautiful city, and, except for the bums they kept around everywhere, my stay there was pleasant.

I understand the word “bum” may appear insensitive or demeaning, but after many months of watching the same folks camping out in the same places, and being accosted dozens of times on each of my walks, my sympathy for these folks has waned. Considerably. Certainly many should be hospitalized. Many are in need of half-way houses, and many simply choose to make a living by begging. I guess “urban campers” might be a more acceptable term. Don’t know.

All I know is that during the first month of schlepping my gear all around the city, I grew an envy of those healthy folks that ditched the system and expected me to help them deal with the natural consequences of those choices. Especially once I learned that the city, each month, had police go around and give each homeless person over four hundred bucks. No wonder they were everywhere.

But I digress.

My fond memories of San Francisco was watching Chinese New Year, or the fog rolling in off the bay, or the view at the Embarcadero. On Saturday mornings all the sailboats would venture out into the bay, play about, only to return later.

Some of the things that you would think I would remember fondly I do not. Like the sound of cable cars. At first, I found these quite pleasant, but, since my apartment was right off their track, they got more and more annoying. There’s nothing like the DING! DING! DING! of a cable car at 8am on a Saturday morning when you’re trying to sleep in.

After a while, I gave up walking up and down the hill and started taking the cable car. What the heck. How many other times in my life will I be able to say I took a cable car to work? So I guess we made our peace.

When I say nothing is so annoying, I misled. There was always the fire department. Somehow or another my apartment was almost directly over a fire department, and I swear those guys would get tanked up on the weekends and go riding around in the firetruck around 2am. I’m sure it was great fun for them. Not so much for somebody trying to sleep.

There were a bunch of touristy things to do on the weekends, and I tried to do them all. Tour Alcatraz. Tour wine country (Wow! What a great adventure! Especially when you go with somebody who knows what he’s doing.) Drive up the coast to see the Redwoods. Visit some of the wonderful museums.

I had a blast living in San Francisco. After a while, though, the memories for me got dimmer and dimmer. I would tell people about my time there, but it didn’t seem so real.

So I was very happy to find a video a couple of weeks ago shot from my apartment. Somehow having the pictures or the video makes the experience much easier to remember.

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Agile Video Series Kicks-Off

A month ago I was talking to a client when the subject of Agile reporting came up. There was a lot of discussion around tools and meetings and all sorts of complexity that might occur in a large Agile program.

Feeling a bit flustered, I walked away and started drawing on a nearby whiteboard. What’s the maximum amount of visual indicators you would need to run a large, complex Agile program? It’s a small, finite number, and maybe by just getting it all out on the wall it would be clear that the real work is in running the program, not all the tooling and pretty displays. You should be able to capture, report, and analyze program status in just a few minutes per day. The rest of your time should be spent, well, working.

Took about an hour to draw it all up, and folks liked it enough to put a big “Don’t Erase!” on the board. Last I saw it was still on there.

But what really sucked was that I could see myself having the same exact conversation with another client in a month or two’s time. And having to draw it all over again. Was there some way to capture these kinds of whiteboard chats so they could be reused and shared more easily?

Turns out yes, yes there was. Using a graphics tablet and some software, I could capture a whiteboard chat and not have to repeat it. Way cool.

So then I thought, what’s the most helpful question I could answer for folks on the net? Something that they would have a difficult time getting from others?

I felt the answer was “How to prepare for Agile Adoption” because there are so many opinions, it’s tried so many different ways, and vendors have a conflict of interest — many times they’d much rather take your business and hope they can straighten things out later than tell you up front you’re doing it wrong — especially if you’re willing to sign the contract with somebody else. By being a talking head I could offer up my years of experience and not have “skin in the game”. I’m just sharing what I’ve seen.

Well this was getting to be a lot more fun than electric cooking, so, of course, I had to do a few more. After all, what would be the fun in just two? Today I finished up “Scrum Vs. Kanban”, which is a look at the two methodologies and how to apply them in your organization.

I have a list of a dozen or so topics I’d like to do, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do all of them. This is a new format for me and I like it because it combines teaching, movie-making, and technology development.

For those of you interested in the business side of things, the videos provide a calling card for me, they point traffic at my micro-publishing site, Tiny Giant Books, and since they’re about management in general and not some specific technology, hopefully they should hang around on the web for a long time.

But the biggest reason to do these is that all the pieces just came together. I had the tools, the material was already put together, I had deep knowledge in an area that many might find useful, and it looked like an opportunity to help lots of folks. It was just a no-brainer kind of moment.

If you have any ideas for topics or feedback from the videos you’ve watched, let me know! I’m enjoying learning this new media, and it the more feedback I get the better the result for everybody.

If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.

How Can I Help?

I’ve decided the most important conversational phrase in the English language is “How can I help?”

I don’t come to this decision lightly. There were several others that almost made it.

“I love you” was a top contender, but it says more about my own personal feelings than my relationship to the world.

“Let me help” also didn’t make it. It focuses more on my taking control of things.

“Try this” was big, but it was more of a plea for validation than anything else. I know more than you. Listen to me and you’ll do better. Nope, at times this might be true, but it’s backwards. My relationship to knowledge is nowhere near as important as my relationship to the person I’m talking to.

“We can do better” was also easily in the top ten. I think I’ll put that at #2. It reminds me that we are all in this together, and that there is always room for growth.

Nope. “How can I help” says it just the right way. If you will tell me how you think I can help, I’m willing to give it a shot. I subvert my own interests to yours. Tell me what you’d like. How can I help?

I do a lot of things — write, speak, train, consult, coach, manage, and so forth. I find most all of them are some version of “How can I help?” I also find that when I start drifting to any of the other phrases, such as “Let me help”, or “We can do better”, I always start drifting away from the true core of what I’m doing. I become a lesser person.

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Franklin’s Defense of Religion

I’m not a religious person, but I am interested in history and especially in how ideas play out in history.

I came across this today. In it, Benjamin Franklin responds to one of Thomas Paine’s essays against there being any sort of providence.

It’s well-known that many of the founding fathers were deists and were skeptical of religion. Jefferson, for instance, edited his own bible. Paine took the idea of questioning to its logical extreme and advocated atheism.

Franklin was quite a character — he made a lot of money on preaching various forms of common sense morality but was also quite a bit of a party animal, especially when he got to France.

So it’s interesting to see folks from the age that founded my country discuss the role of religion in social affairs.


[Date uncertain.]


I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence, that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion, that, though your reasonings are subtile and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject, and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face.

But, were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion; you having a clear perception of the advantages of virtue, and the disadvantages of vice, and possessing a strength of resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common temptations. But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue, and retain them in the practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great point for its security. And perhaps you are indebted to her originally, that is, to your religious education, for the habits of virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent talents of reasoning upon a less hazardous subject, and thereby obtain a rank with our most distinguished authors. For among us it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots, that a youth, to be raised into the company of men, should prove his manhood by beating his mother.

I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it. I intend this letter itself as a proof of my friendship, and therefore add no professions to it; but subscribe simply yours,

B. Franklin

Paine, of course, went on to author The Age of Reason, which totally skewered religion. Then he went to France — which was fertile ground for the kind of meals Paine was dishing up. Franklin was known for his prominent role science in the colonies, the almanac, bifocals, the harmonica, the Franklin Stove, and so forth. The flamethrower, over-the-top rhetoric of Paine led to him personally attacking George Washington, conspiring with Napoleon on how to invade England, and widespread hatred from his fellow Americans when he returned home, just as Franklin had predicted.

The letter is a very interesting insight into how Franklin’s mind worked.

But still, perhaps Paine got the better end of the argument.

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The Making Of Agile Program Management In 15 Minutes

Yesterday I finally got around to doing something useful with one of my Christmas presents, a Wacom Intuos5 digitizer tablet. For a sample project, I created a 15-minute video about #agile program management — “Agile Program Management in 15 minutes

I bought the tablet because I found myself doing a lot of training using the whiteboard, and I’d like to re-use some of that training instead of having to sketch things out over and over again. (Videos and pictures of whiteboards work, but they’re far from optimal)

So this video came straight from a talk I gave to some Agile program managers (RTCs) a few weeks ago — all the material was on photos on my cell phone. I re-sketched the diagrams using Photoshop and the digitizer — while recording with Camtasia Studio

Later, using CS, I sped up the drawing (you don’t want to watch me draw) and added the narration. Of course, there’s a lot more I could do once I get this format down — callouts, hotspots, loops, user input, adding web cams, etc. But for now this was just a proof-of-concept.

The original diagramming took about two hours. Doing it all for the first time like this took about 8 hours, with another 2 or so spent in video editing mode. Fair warning: video editing uses a freaking lot of HD space and memory. I think for the 15 minutes of video I produced (around 15MB) the raw footage was over 70GB.

Fun stuff, though! Can’t wait to do the next one.

If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.

It’s the Small Things

One of the things I’m noticing with some of my fellow coaches is their desire to work at the program and enterprise level. It seems there’s nothing like coaching a bunch of teams at once to really get your feet wet. Things look better at scale!

Well yes, and no. I’ve been fortunate to have several work experiences with teams and organizations of all sizes. Last year I worked with a team of two guys in a broom closet. A couple of years before that, I worked with an organization that had over 20K IT folks working almost a thousand projects. On six different occasions I’ve had the pleasure of helping to set up and run programs — teams of teams. A couple of times more than one program at a time.

I’m not trying to brag, just let you know that I have had the relevant experience to talk about this. I’ve been there, done that. While yes, it’s kinda cool working with groups of teams, it’s also very easy to make a lot of mistakes that you never realize you are making. Here are the most common ones.

  1. Premature optimization. The first thing large groups of teams want to know is: what’s the standard? Because you can’t manage a lot of people without processes and standards. (At least in their minds)

    Coming from Agile, many of us know better than to focus too much on process, but clients insist. They want job aids for everything from stand-ups to sprint closings. They expect coaches to all deliver identical advice on any topic.

    This is a really bad trap, because the entire premise of Agile is that individual teams and situations are so varied that we must push a lot of process decisions onto the individual teams. The purpose of our Agile rituals and delvierables is to identify the work and possible paths for solutions: what problems do we face? What types of actions might help the most?

  2. Us versus Them. One of the worst things that happens, often without the coach even knowing it, is that they begin to fall into an “us vs. them” attitude. Who are these teams? How come they keep doing stupid stuff? Why won’t they listen? Over time, you subtly stop being a servant for the teams and start wondering why the nincompoops just won’t do what they’re supposed to do.
  3. Tools will fix anything. Once we get sufficiently detached from the actual problems the teams are facing (and this can happen inside the team, you don’t need a program for it) we start buying into the idea that the tool can fix the behavior problem. Need folks to start making comments when checking code in? Just force it to happen! It’s magic — because you’re not actually dealing with the problem, just the symptom. You’re using a hammer that’s close-by to pound on a problem that’s close-by. Many times the thing you are pounding on is fitting a square peg into a round hole.

The more I work with both large and small groups, the more convinced I become that the vast majority of problems organizations face are at the team and individual level. If teams don’t provide timely and accurate information to people outside the team who need it? You’ve got junk. If teams don’t manage their quality and testing? You’ve got junk. If teams don’t communicate and problem-solve effectively? You’ve got junk. If teams keep trudging along punching the clock without creatively re-framing their problems in order to make life easier? You’ve got junk.

So yes, it’s lots of fun to be helping and working on a 100,000-hour+ program. It’s even more fun to be helping set enterprise policy. But those things are way less important — and way more likely to actually hurt things instead of helping — than the small things that the teams and developers do everyday.

Trust me, it’s the small things.

Note: One of the things most people fail to understand about groups of people is how naturally decentralized they are, even in highly-centralized organizations. People think “We’ll just make a policy to do X” without any idea of how it actually is going to play out. People think if somebody is in charge of a large group of people that they can just tell folks what to do. There’s a ton of myths about how large groups of people are actually led — enough for another entry!

If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.