Leading with the Team
Think of a waterfall, and you picture serenity: calm, pristine waters rushing down a magnificent cliff, splashing into cool waters below.
In software engineering, a waterfall refers to a sequential design process, where progress ‘flows’ steadily through the phases of conception, analysis, design, testing, and finally, implementation.
But is this the best way to execute software engineering projects today?
According to Mr Joshua Kerievsky, CEO of Industrial Logic Inc, ‘agile’ is an umbrella term for lightweight methods of working that are alternatives to the waterfall method.
“During my talks, I encounter companies and organisations that have really outdated versions of agility, like this old, fat laptop,” he said, gesturing at a picture of a year 2000-era HP laptop on the presentation screen.”
“It makes me sad because now, we have much sleeker, simpler, sturdier laptops like the Macbooks of today.”
Mr Kerievsky was speaking at the recent Agile Singapore Conference 2016, which was held at Hotel Fort Canning on 6-7 October 2016.
Modern agile methods can be distilled down to four simple guiding principles, which time and time again have proven to be effective, he noted.
They are: making people awesome; making safety a prerequisite; experimenting and learning rapidly; and delivering value continuously.
World-famous organisations like Google, Amazon, AirBnB and Etsy are living proof of the power of these four principles, he added.
Modern agility is elegant in its simplicity, in that companies move beyond the specific agile rituals to focus on results.
Lately, it seems as if companies that practice agile methodologies have become very ritualistic, which takes the focus away from what’s really important, Mr Kerievsky cautioned.
One such ritual is the sprint: where work is confined to a regular, repeatable work cycle.
“As the sprint goes on, you realise there’s all sorts of issues around completing the sprint. You may potentially decide to cut some corners. By the end, you may get it done because you are committed to your client, but the code really doesn’t look good,” he explained.
While some might think it’s the fault of the team not understanding how to work well in a sprint, it is more likely that the sprint mechanism itself tends to lead to this problem, with continuous deadlines every week or two, he said.
Look Ma, No Training Wheels
After identifying the problems with existing agile methodologies, Mr Kerievsky’s company stopped working with the fixed-length time boxes which characterise sprints, and simplified things further.
They shifted their focus to: ‘Find important work, do it, ship it’.”
As an analogy, he shared how he was recently teaching his youngest daughter how to ride a bike at a park, where another father-daughter duo was doing the same thing.
The other little girl had training wheels on her bike, and not getting very far; her father was constantly hovering around her, anxious.
Mr Kerievsky, on the other hand, was inspired by push bikes—essentially bikes without pedals—to rejig his daughter’s bike by lowering the seat. “I told her, ‘Don’t pedal at all, learn to balance,’” he recounted.
Within 24 hours of trying to glide around, his daughter was more or less able to ride her bike.
By using a push bike, his child learnt the most important skill of biking: balance.
Similarly, with agile methodologies, people always think there’s only one way to learn something, Mr Kerievsky remarked, when that’s simply not true.
“If you’re going to learn agile, you start with sprints, standup meetings, story points—those are the training wheels. But there are newer simpler, safer, faster easier ways to do things.”
“When you are being trained, you learn the rituals but you don’t necessarily learn the essence of agility. You don’t learn the balancing,” he argued.
Making Lemon Tarts from Lemons
In fact, the four principles behind modern agility extend beyond the software engineering world.
In a story Mr Kerievsky recounted, the chef of a three Michelin star restaurant, Massimo Bottura, certainly demonstrated as much when one evening, sous chef Kondo ‘Taka’ Takahiko accidentally smashed a lemon tart meant for a dinner guest.
“As Taka was going out of his mind with worry, Massimo looked at the broken shards of the lemon tart and said, ‘Taka, it’s beautiful! We can make a new dish!’”
Massimo invented a new dessert on the spot—and of course, named it ‘Oops! I Dropped The Lemon Tart’.
It is now an iconic dessert at the restaurant, and is served on a dish that was designed to look it had shattered.
Analysing this instance from a modern agile perspective, all four principles are present. Massimo helped Taka feel awesome by including him in the making of this new, now iconic dish.
They delivered value continuously; they did not stop and try to bake a whole new tart from scratch, at the risk of making their customers wait.
To see if the dish will be a hit, they had to experiment and learn rapidly.
Finally, for the staff, they learnt it was safe to make a mistake in Massimo’s kitchen. “You will not be fired for doing so,” Mr Kerievsky joked.
On this particularly sweet note, Mr Kerievsky said, “After observing the industry and clients, doing agile projects, and being inspired by a lot of great minds, it all helped me realise how agile is really just these four principles.”