Agile2016 is Coming!

July 9, 2016

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“This is where the Agile tribes meet.”

Agile2016 is swiftly approaching. I’ll be there in Atlanta doing a couple of talks this year. If you are going to be there you should definitely come check them out:

The Self-experimentation workshop is something that I originally developed a few years ago for XP2013. It is very hands-on, each attendee contributing their own experience to the workshop. To date it has been very popular. Some attendees have described it as one of the most invigorating talks they have ever attended. That’s pretty high praise – it’s probably my all-time favorite workshop.

If you are interested in getting a bit of a sneak preview of what this self experimentation stuff is all about, you can check out the experiments that I have run on the onestandardman blog. There is also background material here and here.

On the impediments front, there is a lot of material that you will find right here in this blog. For example there is this, and this and this. And then of course there is The Little Book of Impediments. There will be copies of the book at the bookstore for purchase at the conference. Catch me and I’ll be happy to sign one.

There will also be an Agile Management Conference meetup that will be held in the Open Jam area (time & date at the conference is TBD – check the Open Jam Board) so please join us for that if you are interested.


A Violent Introduction to Self-Experimentation

August 18, 2013

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It’s early on the morning of December 12, 1954 in the desert near Edwards Air force base. Colonel John Stapp is surrounded by men who are in the process of strapping him to a large metal chair. A warning klaxon sounds and the men retreat. Within a nearby bunker, a switch is thrown and electricity courses toward the man in the chair.

9 rockets fire simultaneously and 20,000 Kgs of thrust are delivered to the sled that the chair is attached to in just under 0.07 seconds. The sled, the chair, and the main lashed to it, leap down the 1000 meter track.

The initial acceleration was so severe that Stapp was slammed with a peak acceleration of 25 G’s – double the pressure that the Apollo Astronauts experienced riding atop a Saturn V

Over the nearly 20 second period of acceleration, Stapp’s face was distorted as the flesh tried to pull away from his skull. His eyes were forced back into his head, and the blood was drained from them, causing him to black out. Particles of sand that he hit as he accelerated to nearly 632 mph pierced his flight suit and his body, leaving burns and abrasions throughout.

He was blind, completely immobilized, and there was no way to steer the sled as he ripped down the track. It must have been like riding one of the four horses of the apocalypse. He set a land speed record that held for many years of mach 0.9. He was traveling at nearly the speed of sound on the barco-lounger from hell.

But that wasn’t the interesting part.

In this case, it was the abrupt stop at the end that was the whole reason for this explosive little journey. As the sled reached maximum velocity, scoops dropped out of the bottom and dug into a trough of water beneath the rails. The sled went from the speed of sound to a dead stop in under 1.5 seconds. The violence of this event for Stapp is still hard to comprehend.

The biomechanics of rapid deceleration were poorly understood at the time, but nevertheless gruesome. The deceleration forces exceeded 43 G’s. Stapp’s eyeballs deformed as they were forced forward and out of the eye socket and there was concern that they would be torn from his head if he didn’t keep his eyelids firmly closed. All the capillaries in his eyes ruptured. His brain sloshed forward within the confines of his skull, knocking him unconscious and leaving him with a severe concussion. He suffered an abdominal hernia and a series of minor bone fractures.

He was severely bruised and battered, but the amazing thing is that he survived the test. So what were they testing? Why in the world would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to this sort of injury?

Stapp was a pioneer in the exploration and discovery of restraint harnesses used by jet fighter pilots for use when ejecting from high speed jets in combat. Stapp was so dedicated to his mission to discover the safest harness for pilots that he used himself as the guinea pig.

He was famously quoted as saying that the only way of determining the point of injury is to go beyond that point. In other words, you don’t know how well it works until you break something – in this case: yourself.

It reminds me of the quote from Mario Andretti, “If you feel in control, then you aren’t going fast enough.”

Stapp’s pioneering work led not only to safety innovations for fighter pilots, but also to the introduction of seat belts in automobiles and passenger planes, in addition to child harnesses and restraints.

So what does this have to do with the way that we work in software? Pioneers like Stapp, whether they are in the air force or software development have always sought the limits of human capacity and endurance. They test the boundaries of human performance using the best subject that they have available – themselves. In fact, many wouldn’t dream of inflicting their wacky hypothesis on their friends, colleagues or grad students without first trying it out on themselves.

To me this reflects a few important things: People like Stapp are passionate almost beyond reason about discovering answers to the problems they are trying to solve. They experiment on them selves for a variety of reasons:

  1. They have courage: they would not ask someone else to take a risk they were not willing to take themselves.
  2. They crave immediate feedback: they are unwilling to accept second hand experience when they can experience the phenomenon themselves.
  3. They are leaders: they will go where no one else would dream of going

That’s nice, you say, but what difference does this make to my team?

First, all too often I see Agile coaches, self-proclaimed experts, and managers all too willing to proscribe how someone else should achieve high performance. My first question for them (and myself) is have you tried this? What direct experience or evidence do you have to support your assertion that we should all do things differently? Why would you experiment on your friends, but not on yourself?

Second, self-experimentation offers us the opportunity for the kind of rapid feedback and resulting learning that can dramatically improve our own effectiveness. Experimentation with groups takes time and persuasion. In the time it takes me to persuade a group to try out a single experiment, I can run dozens of experiments on myself. Why waste the groups time with untested ideas?

Thirdly, we are too satisfied with meaningless incremental progress. We are too comfortable going slow. We have forgotten what it really means to push our limits.

I am fascinated by self-experimentation. The more I look around me, the more I realize that there are endless opportunities for us all to explore the boundaries of human performance.

Whether it is accelerated learning, increased productivity, or enhanced skills, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of what we are capable of doing in software development.

“Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simple facts of flight-how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.

This kind of thinking, he found, is not the way to make one’s self popular with other birds. Even his parents were dismayed as Jonathan spent whole days alone, making hundreds of low level glides, experimenting.”

This is the experimental mindset we need to have in order to grow to our fullest potential. It is reckless, it is personal, and it is passionate almost beyond measure.

I have a confession to make: I crave the day that someone comes up to me, hands me a helmet and a mouth guard and says, “Strap in Tom, we’re going to do some pair programming”

So Bolt me to the chair

Light the rockets

Hang on tight and lets find out what we are really capable of!


Be Like Beaker: Experiment on Yourself

January 31, 2013

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“Bunsen Honeydew here at Muppet Labs where the future is being made today.”

As a kid, as soon as I heard those words from the good professor I just knew that something awful was going to happen to his poor hapless assistant, Beaker. Beaker knew it too, that was the really hilarious part about this Muppets skit. His pitiful, terrified protestations to whatever sadly misinformed experiment the professor was going to inflict on him kept me rolling on the floor laughing. Being able to see the inevitable outcome a mile off just made it even funnier. You could see it, Beaker could see it, and Honeydew didn’t have the faintest clue.

Even as an adult, watching Beaker on the Muppets makes me laugh so hard I avoid milk for fear of being caught spraying it out of my nose.

Of course that’s why you have a trusty lab assistant isn’t it? You need somebody to experiment on, right? When you have a truly brilliant hypothesis – we’re talking real genius here, what you really need is a willing subject to perform your tests on. What could possibly go wrong? After all, how else do we expect science to progress? I’ve seen a lot of Bunsen Honeydews in software development. Shucks, I’ve played one myself. For 50 cents and a cup of coffee I’ll teach you how to be a Honeydew too.

Unfortunately, for almost every professor Honeydew there is a corresponding poor schmuck playing the role of Beaker. Maybe it’s just one person or maybe its a whole team (If you’ve ever experimented on an entire team, you are hereby entitled to call yourself an “agile coach”). Sometimes it seems as though every lead, manager and coach has to go through a Honeydew phase, blindly inflicting their experiments on others.

Let’s face it: having your very own lab assistant to experiment on is great if you can manage it (you lucky dog). But what do you do if you don’t have a Beaker handy – or the wily creature keeps running away. What then? Well there is still one test subject available: You.

Yeah, you.

“What? No!” I can hear you exclaim. Who in their right mind would experiment on themselves? Well, as it turns out, there is a rather curious and rich history of the famous and infamous who have performed experiments on themselves. And we’re not talking about trivial stuff here either. Many of these experiments represent real and substantive contributions to the body of scientific knowledge.

Benjamin Franklin is an early example of someone who performed self-experiments. He tracked how well he was able to dedicate his full attention to the “Thirteen Virtues” for an entire week. Anybody want to try to dedicate their attention to the 12 Principles of the Agile Manifesto for a week? I tried once and learned some very interesting things about myself and the manifesto.

Another example, Dr. Albert Hoffman accidentally discovered the psychedelic properties  of LSD and then subsequently experimented with it on himself. Wow! Me too!

Of course fiction is full of less fortunate examples of self experimentation. Take for example, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Invisible Man. One hopes we are not so unfortunate in our own efforts!

One of my professors in college was an advocate of self experimentation. He tried sleeping each night with the head of his bed tilted toward the ground so that the blood would pool in his head as he slept. He reports that it gave him a tremendous headache.

You might laugh at that last example, but it highlights a very important point that I want to make: When you test out ideas on yourself, you can get rapid feedback on what may pay off and what won’t – all without inconveniencing anyone else! It’s brilliant! That’s what my college professor realized. He could perform dozens of tiny experiments in the time it took to set up a single experiment with a population size much larger. Its that ability to try multiple small experiments in order to gain rapid feedback that lies at the heart of all the agile methods!

So why would you waste your time trying to persuade a recalcitrant team to try out your latest hare brained process, when you are perfectly capable of proving it much more rapidly yourself? Not only can you quickly validate your ideas, but you can also refine them much more rapidly by yourself, so that when you do finally reveal them to the team, they have had some refinement prior to being inflicted on others. Hell, they might even work!

Aha! You pounce, you can’t possibly achieve statistical significance with a population of only 1 can you? Well, I’m not necessarily looking for rigorous statistical significance here. I’m keeping things simple and using simple statistical tools (time plots, etc.) to capture just the information I need to discover if I’m “moving the needle” in the right direction. Also, repeated measurements and an ABA design can go a long ways toward validating these simple assumptions.

What about your objectivity? Phah! I don’t need no stinking objectivity! In fact, because it is just me, myself and I, we can take advantage of subjective measures much more readily than you would in traditional large population experiments. Questions like “How do I feel today?” have easy, subjective answers that can prove just as useful as traditional objective measures.

Furthermore, with the advent of mobile devices with rich applications and interfaces we are now starting to see the development of an entirely new class of self-measurement devices. Nike has the “Fuel” bands, my iPhone has mood trackers, workout trackers, pulse monitors. The list of applications is growing with astonishing speed. It is actually leading to a movement of sorts that labels itself the “Quantified Self” movement.

In this new ecosystem of rapidly evolving new tools we have a new wealth of opportunity to experiment with ourselves. With the combination of agile methods we have the ability to rapidly iterate through many tiny experiments on ourselves and help to refine the techniques that we can use not only on ourselves, but on our teams.

Now is your chance to make yourself part of science. Explore your inner Beaker!