Some Things I Learned While Traveling

May 16, 2011

I’ve learned a few funny things this last week:

  1. All that Spanish that I took in high school and college was a complete waste of time. I should have taken wood shop, metal shop, home economics, anything other than Spanish! At least I would have gotten a cheese board out of it.
  2. When a conference is over, I need to get the hell out of town! There are few things more depressing that lingering for a few days in the conference venue after a conference is over. All the cool kids are gone, and the playground is empty.
  3. Apparently, you really can’t prepare enough for a talk. I kept track of the number of times that I practiced the presentation that I gave and I had done it more than 10 times. For a four-hour tutorial that seems like a lot of practice – nearly 40 hours of explicit practice over many weeks (and yes, I have a day job…and a family). The presentation was pretty good (In my own humble opinion, OK?), but I still feel like I had major flaws in the delivery.
  4. When pairing on a presentation, being a good partner is everything. You can’t make any changes without informing your partner – you need to keep it predictable. You need to update your plans together. I learned this from Mike Sutton at XP2010. Improvising well means that you are a good partner – you don’t do wildly unexpected things – at least without giving your partner some sort of cues. The more you work together, the easier this gets. If the landscape of the presentation is well known, then my partner has an easier time seeing where I’m going.

Actually, let me refine that last bit: perhaps every partnership is different. I have been unpredictable with partners on presentations in the past and completely thrown them off. That usually hasn’t ended well. If you are going into a presentation with someone that you are not very familiar with, you would be well advised to avoid last minute changes and stick to the plan.

However, there are those who feed off each other’s creativity. I’m guessing this works best for those who have worked together fairly often. In that case, a partnership can take a presentation to interesting places, and if they get into trouble, they can pull it out together.

Paired Presentations

May 15, 2011

Often when people talk about public speaking, they are typically referring to an individual speaker. You don’t see much advice for people who present in pairs. When it works out, it is a beautiful thing where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When it fails, usually one speaker or the other takes the brunt of the damage. Here are some things that I recommend doing to insure a paired speaking engagement is successful:

  1. Keep it simple and let each speaker own a portion of the presentation on his or her own. This avoids a situation where one person does all the talking and the other just chimes in from time to time. I feel that both speakers need to be perceived by the audience as experts in their own right. It doesn’t even have to be a large section of the presentation that you own – just some section that is all yours. I feel like this works well with people who are new to presenting – I can include them for whatever period they feel most comfortable. The anti-pattern here is where a second speaker in a pair only chimes in from time to time. This leaves them only offering the occasional comment. This can leave a perception of that second person as interrupting the first speaker.
  2. Rehearse together – I know it’s hard to do, but you will both find weak areas in each other’s material. When I’m working on speaking material, I tend to get these ideas that I think are totally brilliant. We’re talking about genius stuff here. I can’t tell you how often I have shared this brilliant material with my partner only to discover that it falls completely flat. It must be an echo chamber in my skull (it is empty anyhow). Better to have a lame idea shot down by my partner than some poor unsuspecting audience. Often, the idea just needs refinement.
  3. The 3 secrets to a good presentation with a partner? Support. Support. Support. Focus on the other person in your presentation. If they rock, then you both are very likely going to look brilliant. If they suck, you haven’t got a chance. Be there to encourage them when the practice doesn’t go well. Be there to provide ideas and alternatives. Be patient when they are struggling and time is running short. Make them feel welcome and like a key contributor.
  4. Have a victory celebration afterward! It’s not often that I get to share a presentation with someone. Two people qualify as a party in my book, so go for it! Celebrate the accomplishment! It’s a big deal when two people can collaborate together successfully to provide a rich experience for an audience. Not many people can do it well.

I’m sure there is a lot of good advice for people who are co-presenting and I’d love to hear it. These are just a few things that I’ve learned by trial and error (a lot of the latter).

XP2011 Evaluations

May 14, 2011

If there is one thing that I would add to XP2011 I think it would be some sort of speaker evaluation system. Right now there is nothing and I think the conference organizers are missing a great opportunity for some feedback for the speakers that they invite to the conference. Of course in the absence of any conference organized feedback system, there are still some reasonable alternatives:

  1. Each speaker can gather feedback on their own in their session. That’s what we did in our Silo Busting tutorial this year and we got some constructive ideas out of it. By collecting the feedback myself, I get useful information for improvement, but the conference organizers don’t.
  2. Speakers can use an online evaluation service like SpeakerRate. I noticed at least one speaker using this service and requesting feedback via twitter. I’m going to have to give this a try.
  3. You can try to use social media like twitter to collect tweets about your session.
So why do I care? First, I want that feedback for my own use, and I want it from a source that is relatively unbiased. That unbiased part is a little tricky when you are the one soliciting the feedback – in my experience people often won’t say the really useful stuff to your face (although there have been some exceptions). Now, I’m tempted to say that conference organizers could also use the information for evaluating speakers future conferences but…I’m not so sure about that for the following reasons:
  1. I don’t know of any conference where historical data on speaker performance is used. That’s not to say that it isn’t used anywhere, just not at the few conferences that I speak at (as far as I know).
  2. I’m not sure that a rating that is only updated once a year or less is really going to have any relevance. Sometimes you blow a presentation. The jetlag gets you, your suitcase gets lost, you have a family crisis and aren’t as prepared as usual. Any number of things can happen that really have no bearing on your ability as a speaker on a given subject. Other times you rock the house. Let’s face it: audiences are fickle beasts.
The most well organized conferences that I have spoken at have made some sort of attempt to capture session feedback from the attendees. Regardless, there are things that we can do as speakers to own the responsibility for obtaining this feedback. Perhaps doing it ourselves is most within the spirit of XP. What do you think?

XP2011 Day 4

May 13, 2011


Silo Busting w/Tom Perry and Lourdes Vidueira

Yeah, that’s me. It was our big session. And just for the record, we rocked the house. In fact, the people attending our session made so much noise that people in sessions in the rooms adjacent to us complained about all the noise. What did I think? I think that means I’m doing a good job as a facilitator. Especially given the fact that there were only 10 people in the session. It was awesome! The feedback we received was nothing short of phenomenal. I’m extremely grateful to those who participated.

I was pretty exhausted after running the session. 4 hours seems like the equivalent of running a 220 yard dash. It’s not a sprint and it’s not a marathon. You have to keep things moving fast and you can’t lose your focus. We went out on the town afterward in Madrid and had a grand celebration. I had seafood that would give Louisiana a run for its money, and the people were just as friendly, if not more so.

The conference has been a good one. I’m probably too tired to do a decent recap of everything that happened today, but I’ll give it a shot tomorrow. Signing off from Madrid.

XP2011 Day 3

May 12, 2011


What can I say? The restaurant open bar last night was epic. Actually I wasn’t saying very much at all to anyone this morning…


Keynote: What Forms of Work and Life Make Sense for Us? w/Brian Marick

As usual Brian’s keynote was eccentric, enlightening, and above all else, unique. At about the halfway point he actually had the entire room stand up and he gave a tango lesson (which was no surprise, he had been talking about it on twitter for weeks). Still, there were a lot of European men arm-in-arm dancing with each other. Perhaps not so unusual. The talk itself covered some interesting subjects.

First he talked about gift economies vs. money economies. The way I understood it, he described the agile team as using a gift economy. Favors are exchanged freely with no exchange of money. However outside the team and especially within the corporation at large, it is a money economy. I think the point was to suggest that we need to be conscious of the different economies at work and adjust our expectations and behavior accordingly.

He also talked about the influence of context on behavior, basically debunking using assessments like Myers-Briggs for any predictive purpose. Instead, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that context matters much more when it comes to predicting people’s behavior. So, my take away from that is that we need to create the right environments for people to be successful.

Grumpy Old Agile Coaches w/Rachel Davies

This was a fun session with Olav Lewitz, JB Rainsberger, Kati Vikki, Mike Hill all sitting on park benches and Rachel Davies acting as moderator. While the conversation was good, I have to agree with some of the participants, that the grumpy old agile coaches looked pretty happy for a bunch of grumps! I was interested to hear about the lonely-coaches-sodality google group which I definitely want to check out.

Agile at Scale

Apparently this was another fishbowl – I enjoyed it and jumped right in with the big fish. It was fun to bounce some of my thoughts off the group and get their perspective. Mary Poppendieck was a hoot and provided some lively conterpoint and tough questions of her own. Jutta Eckstein was the moderator and did a great job.

After Hours

It’s a quiet evening for me. I have to give my Silo Busting tutorial tomorrow morning, so it’s early to bed.

XP2011 Day 2

May 11, 2011

First a brief note on the important things:

  1. The breakfasts: While I don’t think anyone is going to beat last year’s xp2010 hotel in Trondheim for its extravagant breakfast buffet, it’s hard not to love having a churro and coffee for breakfast. Mmmm…churros!
  2. The timing: Just for the record – having your presentation take place on the last day of the conference sucks. I know, somebody has to draw the short straw, but I hate all the waiting. I just can’t relax and enjoy myself until I get it done.


Met some of my favorite coaches again – you know who you are…and Nils I owe you a beer…


Keynote: Still no Silver Bullets – Esther Derby

In multiple sessions this conference Esther has been talking about a model for finding and managing polarizing behaviors in organizations. It seems to be a way of visualizing and identifying ways of managing based on a systems thinking approach (a la Peter Senge). One of the failure modes that she identifies is the oscillation between polar behaviors or states in the system. This oscillation can disrupt the flow of value through the system. The solution seems to be to put in feedback mechanisms that serve to mitigate the oscillation. That’s really a lot of four syllable words to toss around (which is usually an indication that I don’t understand something well). I think I like the model she uses, but I need to try and put it into practice and see how it plays for me. Then maybe I can explain it using one or two syllable words…

One other model that I took away from her talk was that there are two kinds of knowledge that need to be shared in an organization: Contextual Knowledge – the kind of knowledge that CEOs and management have, and Day to Day knowledge – the kind of knowledge that teams have. I think there is a lot of focus on making the knowledge that the team have transparent, however I think there needs to be an equal focus on making the contextual knowledge that executives have transparent too. I’ve realized that I may have been focusing on only one half of the equation. Thank you Esther!

No Silver Bullets. Now What?

This session seemed to be an effort to explore different polarities and examine how to put appropriate feedback mechanisms in place for them. I didn’t feel like it went very well though. I personally found it hard to identify polarities. Furthermore, I wasn’t really all that familiar with the model, so I felt like I was having difficulty making a contribution to the discussion. Still a little thrashing can go a long way toward understanding, so perhaps it was useful in the end.

The Purpose of Leadership and Governance – Jurgen Appelo

Wow! I’d heard good things about Jurgen’s book and I’m here to tell you that they are all true…

Decision Making (Lightning talks)

Man, leave it to xp2011 to make even lightning talks boring. Congrats guys…

After Hours

Conference Dinner

I saw things no sane man should see. After I describe what I saw I will promise to poke my own eyes out with broaches. Or at least have a beer before getting on the plane…One or the other. Right now I’m leaning toward the broaches. Send me email if you feel differently…

XP2011 Day 1

May 10, 2011

The first day of XP2011 got off to a good start today. As your roaming reporter I think I will break down my experience of day one into the following categories: Conversations, Tutorials, & After hours.


Starting your own conference – Beer in hand, I stumbled into a conversation about holding a future XP conference in Vienna. What a fabulous idea! I’m currently playing a small role in helping with site selection for a conference in the pacific northwest, so I’m particularly interested in this topic. Setting up a conference is a very complicated affair. It involves many different factors that I’m only now coming to appreciate: site location, catering, services (wifi, etc.) atmosphere, organization type, and the list goes on. The more I get to know people who take on this challenging task, the more I respect them and the work that they do.

On a related note, I see small conferences as a critical part of the overall conference ecosystem and a vital source of originality for the overall conference system. I see ideas get introduced and developed (0r killed) in small conferences that then evolve into the new ideas that pop up in the larger conferences. So I think we need to encourage more small conferences.

ALE Network – Those crazy Europeans are at it again! Being an American I didn’t participate, but I really like the energy that I feel behind this movement. I wasn’t in the super secret meeting, but I wholeheartedly support whatever those wacky Europeans come up with! Apparently they are going to take over the world with LEGOs. Let’s see if this movement has momentum. I know my kids are on board.

Vegetarians starve in Madrid – Yes, this is my exclusive scoop for the conference. I spoke with a few vegetarians tonight. Apparently there are no vegetables in Madrid. None. The poor bastards are starving. It’s quite sad. A moment of silence for the vegetarians please. The good news for the rest of us carnivores: vegetarians are really very tasty.


Agile Software Development with Distributed Teams w/Jutta Eckstein

This topic isn’t a new one for me. In fact, this session was one of those where you come to realize that you know quite a lot on the subject. Then the hard part is to balance letting the speaker talk with your own desire to contribute your own point of view. I also felt like there were some key points that I really needed to explore in much more detail, but perhaps that wasn’t as relevant to others in the room. I think Jutta did a great job in presenting a comprehensive overview of many of the key issues to address in working with distributed/dispersed teams. She obviously has a lot of experience in the domain and has written two books on the topic.

However…this topic is insanely complex and I think it deserves even more attention than it currently gets. The real questions that I encounter with distributed teams are wicked hard and they don’t give way to simple, stock agile answers. Strangely enough, when she addressed trust the conversation started to sound a lot like the introduction to my Silo Busting tutorial – so I invited her to come! I think trust is a very important and under appreciated topic for inter team communication.

The Other Session

I have a confession to make. I saw myself in the second session today and I felt more than a little uncomfortable. The speaker was skilled – he really had a talent for speaking to a crowd, but you could see that the ideas were still being worked out. I saw a bit of myself in that speaker today and quite frankly, it made me feel awkward. I will not criticize – to do so would only be to criticize myself. But at the same time I wanted so badly to jump up and help out. Sometimes the hardest sessions to attend are those where the potential of the speaker and the subject are the most obvious. I’m still processing my feelings on this one. Perhaps this is more about me and less about the speaker. Hmmm…food for thought.

So I took a nap.

After Hours

Welcome Reception

Well, after the obligatory speeches from boring people you’d rather not listen too, the beer poured freely and the tapas kept coming. It was a relatively small crowd as these things go, but it kept going for a good three hours. It was nice to drift in and out of some very engaging conversations. I talked about everything from basketball, to ice hockey, to Madrid weather, to sessions held today, to the future of the Agile Manifesto (I think we agreed that after 10 years those particular stone tablets should be smashed). All in all, not a bad way to spend an evening with a drink in each hand.

Walk Away

May 9, 2011

During the bullfight, the matador faces off against 1,000 pounds of seriously pissed-off beef. He is confronting disembowelment, dismemberment, and death – on the hoof. So what does he do? He challenges it! He yells at the bull, stomps his feet, flourishes his cape and draws the deadly charge. The bull’s horns pass within scant inches of his ever-so-tightly-packed pants (taleguilla) and the pass concludes with a dramatic flourish! Momentarily confused, the bull spins seeking his opponent again. What does the matador do? With a disdainful sneer, he turns his back on the raging beast with nary a backward glance, strides boldly away from the bull and demands the approbation of the crowd!

Now you know it has to take nerves of steel to turn your back on that monster meat train. It’s a dare. Go ahead and charge. I know you will not do it, his posture states. I have what you want – his chin juts. I am what you want! And the crowd inevitably goes wild…

It is a dramatic moment of raw, unadulterated ego. However, it’s also a pause in the dance of death, a conscious moment where the matador controls the attention, not only of his opponent, but the crowd as well. The sprint is ended and the matador has performed well. He looks to his stakeholders – the audience, to check and see if they approve or if they are screaming for his head, or worse yet, bored. It’s a pause to catch his breath before the next deadly sprint begins. It’s a brief moment to plan his next moves; an instant in which to bolster his own courage for the next sprint.

He curls his lip, as if to say, “That was nothing! Watch this!” and turns to face the bull. They continue their dance, each pirouette, each encounter more daring than the last – equal parts sweat and blood. Each is fully committed. We are pretty sure we know how this will end. Mostly sure – more or less. You never really know. Otherwise, none of the spectators would show up.

Again, the pause, another deadly iteration is done and both combatants are still standing. Again, our brazen matador turns his back on the horned demon and walks away raising his chin to the crowd, “Wasn’t I magnificent? Yes!” Again, the bull, for reasons I simply can’t fathom, doesn’t take the golden opportunity to eviscerate this silly bastard while his back is turned. Again, the crowd indicates their acceptance of the last iteration. Time to move on. The matador looks at the crowd one last time and his expression says, “You could not do this. Only I can do this.”

And so the final iteration of the release begins. Sitting in the crowd I ask myself, did he know it would take this long when he started? Probably not. Each bull is different. Each bull has its own temperament, its own stamina, its own beady-eyed intelligence. The forms are the same, the structure of each pass, each iteration is the same. But the matador doesn’t know how long it will take. Oh, he has a plan no doubt. But his plans are no better than yours or mine. All he can do is take his passes and check, take another set of passes and check. And make each one more beautiful than the last. And the goal, after each pass, and in the finality of the entire encounter, is to simply walk away.

Watch Out for the Horns!

May 8, 2011

I saw my first bullfight today in Madrid. It was an impressive spectacle with all of the pomp and circumstance, blood and cheers that I had expected. Much of the work done by the matadors and toreadors was a game of distraction. Watch my bright red cape! Seeing the matador dancing inches from the horns of the bull reminded me of a few projects I’ve been on where it seemed my job had been to distract the bull too.

Now don’t get me wrong, you’ll never see me in those Spanish tight pants the matadors wear (pause now, while the world breathes a collective sigh of relief). Nevertheless, there have been a few different metaphorical project bulls to face:

  1. Product Owners
  2. Architects
  3. Other Project Managers/scrum masters

Each is deadly in its own way. We all like to think of Product Owners as an integral part of the team. In the consulting world, this is often not the case. The product owner can be someone who is hostile to the team and looks upon them as a fall guy to be beaten whenever expectations aren’t met. It’s dysfunctional as hell, but it happens. In that situation, the role of the Scrum Master can very quickly look like that of a matador – It’s your job to distract the product owner from the team. This way the team gets their work done unmolested.

A similar thing can happen with Architects who try to micromanage the teams development work. Again, your role as Scrum Master is to distract these sorts of people away from the team, “Hey, can you show me your brilliant UML diagram again?”

It can even happen when dealing with other project managers. Scrum Masters can get very good at defending their teams, sometimes even too good. After all, we give them that mandate. Most of the time it works out well, but there have been times when I’ve set off the defensive reflex in a scrum master and found myself saying, “Dear me, where did those sharp, pointy horns come from?”

Like the matadors, sometimes we manage these situations well, and other times not. Eventually we all get lots of practice. It’s a thing of beauty to watch an experienced project manager handle a crowd of rabid stakeholders and walk away unscathed. But you need to be wary – watch out for the horns!

Living in the Information Vacuum

May 7, 2011

Today I got direct experience with what it must be like to live in a world with no information radiators at all: Heathrow Airport. When I got off my flight from the states there were no signs, no people to answer questions, no monitors, no papers taped to the wall, nothing. Passengers had to navigate literally miles of passageways and empty corridors, shuttle buses and escalators without any information displayed to guide them. Nothing!

At first I was completely appalled by the situation. Electronic monitors were present, but they were just blank, or worse yet, inaccurate! How could anyone expect to navigate one of the largest airports in the world this way? Especially in a hurry!

But here’s the thing: I think we all (more or less) managed to do it. We all got to our destinations. So obviously, despite the apparent lack of information, there must have been enough of the right kind of cues for use to make the right decisions. It’s really quite remarkable that anyone gets to their destination at a place like Heath row when you stop and think about it. I’ve actually worked on rat mazes (how many people can say that?) and I can tell you that we never made a maze for rats that was anywhere near as complicated as Heathrow! Escalators, elevators, shuttles – literally dozens of different mechanisms to guide us off our desired path, and yet we still make it.

So what is it that gets us poor beleaguered travelers through the airport without any obvious cues? Thinking back on it, there were a few things I relied on:

  1. We had been given one instruction, follow purple for continuing flights and orange for domestic. All the sign-age, and in some cases the floors were using these color cues. You didn’t know if you would actually find your flight, but it kept you on track until you could get enough information to actually do so.
  2. There was the occasional surly employee whom if confronted would give you a clue (Zenda anyone?).

So to put a positive spin on it, the color information gave you just enough information (and certainly no more) to get you to the next step in the process. Perhaps giving us information that early in the process, before we had made it through immigration, etc. would actually have been a waste of time. It was also further validation that, for those of us who chose too, we could use face-to-face communication to far greater effect than just about any other mechanism.

Now I’m still not sure I enjoy walking for miles without any information about where my next flight is – and I know I would hate it if I was in a rush – but it looks like the system works pretty well, if only producing some additional anxiety.