Scrum Gathering: Scrum Odyssey 2014

Cape Town
20-21 October 2014

Report-back by Duke Coulbanis

Since first attending the Scrum Gathering last year, I have come to consider this annual event an invaluable tool for all practitioners of Agile Methodologies, and a versatile one at that. For those who have not experienced or heard of the Scrum Gathering, it is an annual convention that takes place in October, where Software Development Professionals who make use of Agile Methodologies such as XP, Lean, Kanban and Scrum get together to share with, and learn from each other about methods and techniques that makes us deliver great software, on time and within budget. Software that is used by its intended users, and adds value to everyone involved in the process!

This year’s gathering was quite different from last years. Not better or worse, mind you… but definitely different. Whereas last years what more structured and had more talks with an audience taking notes or engaging in various interactive learning activities aimed at illustrating points, this year saw the addition of an Open Space segment which was an open, safe, collaborative, and utterly democratic discussion forum where there was an exchange of ideas and practices among industry peers.

As this years theme was “Scrum Odyssey”, many — if not all — of the talks focused on the journeys we engage in during the application of Agile Methods. We experience these journeys within ourselves, our development teams and with our customers and their (our) users. Attendees were encouraged to introspect on their own Agile Odysseys and learn from those of others. We were encouraged to experiment when necessary; not to be afraid to evolve as we learn from our experiments, and use our experiences to grow ourselves and our teams to be the best we can be. And, as with the Odyssey, there will always be obstacles… Always, there will be some monster lurking around the next corner, ready to derail our best efforts and to send us off course. One such monster could be in the form of a lack of a project vision. Another could be the use of the incorrect methodology on a particular project over another, more suitable one. Yet another could be spending effort and resources on good practices such as TDD, but in areas where the ROI for the entire Project Team does not justify the expenditure. The list of monsters goes on, making it necessary for us, at all times, to be vigilant and test our ideas and notions for their soundness and validity within every new situation we face. Experiment, Evolve, Experience!

I would have loved to attend each and every talk, but alas, there were 3 tracks running in parallel and choices had to be made! Thankfully, many of the talks were recorded and will be made available online. Some of the topics I did attend were already alluded to in the previous paragraph, but here are some more details on my experience.

The Opening Keynote Speech was delivered by Steve Holyer, who spoke of the ‘dances’ we engage in within projects. These dances are within the project team or at company level between service provider and customer. He suggested how we continuously need to make these dances more coherent, through dialogue in its highest level, where everyone’s point of view his held fully, equally, and non-judgmentally, always focusing on and delivering value.

In Angie Doyle and Dillon Weyer’s presentation, the topic was “Vision: Making a Good Team GREAT”. My favourite take-away from that talk, and the engaging exercises, was that of the Vision Box. At Polymorph we constantly utilise Jonathan Rasmusson’s Project Inception Deck when kicking off projects. In that deck, one device for helping the project team focus on the Minimum Viable Product they need to produce is designing the product box — with the assumption that our MVP would be sold as shrink-wrapped software on a reseller’s shelf. That same exercise was done, but we produced a Vision Box instead. The outcome of that is a 3D, tangible box that can be taken to any project-related meeting and help the team to always stay focused on the project vision. Additionally, the project’s vision box can be used to ensure that the project vision and the company vision are also aligned.

The Cynefin Model was presented by Dave Snowden (its proponent) at last year’s Scrum Gathering, and this year there was a relating talk titled “Exploring Cynefin and Agile”. The basic premise of the talk was that the Cynefin model can be used to understand the environment within which a project exists, and knowing that, a suitable methodology or process can be chosen. Essentially, the message is, Scrum (or any other Agile methodology) is not always the correct answer for all software projects. Cynefin helps us decide where we are, so that we can plot an appropriate course, through the use of correct processes, to where we want to be.

Scrum Trainer — among other things — Peter Hundermark gave a talk on Scaling Agile, and presented arguments as to why it should be avoided. A Scaled Agile Project is one were the development team is so large that it cannot function as one Agile Team. Instead, the project is broken up into smaller sub-teams, each with a specific area of focus. This adds logistical and complexity issues in the running of the project, but there may be instances where it cannot be avoided. Peter’s suggestion is that we proceed with caution in such instances.

Aslam Khan, in his talk “TDD is not Cheap, Mostly” gave some compelling evidence in support of his argument that TDD is not always cost-effective, as is the case with refactoring or rewriting code. There is a place and time for each one of those courses of action, and we need to be vigilant about our expected return on investment whenever undertaking TDD or any other code code improvement strategy.

“Problem Solving in Complex Environments” was a topic that spanned 2 consecutive slots, and challenged the mind in many ways. It was, essentially a simulation of complex environments, in which the attendees had to find solutions to given problems. What made the environment complex was a list of characteristics such as vague requirements, short time-constraints, dubious building materials (technologies), the unpredictability of humans and other elements. Even getting the simulation started was a problem that had to be solved… but once it did start, it was one mind-boggling activity after another. Teams were formed that were comprised of leaders, implementors, information gatherers, testers and observers. Each of them different in their outlook on the problem at hand, and each one of them with something to contribute. A Fish-Bowl discussion followed and many insights were shared. I am convinced that this experience will continue being unravelled in my mind for days, if not weeks and months to come!

Another talk I attended by Steve Holyer was titled “Transforming Addicted Organisations; Serenity, Courage, Wisdom!” and it was based on a presentation co-authored by the speaker with Nancy van Schoonderwoerd. The attendees were asked to share addictive behaviours experienced in their respective companies, past and present. What makes a particular behaviour addictive? Why do we engage in such behaviours, if by their very definition as addictive, they are harmful in the long run? How can we transform the organization from using them, to rather using healthy behaviours. Indeed a thought-provoking talk around Weinberg’s Addiction Model and Weinberg’s Prescription for breaking harmful addiction cycles. The talk referred mostly to Gerald Weinberg’s book titled “Quality Software Management, Vol. 3”.

Karen Greaves delivered the convention’s closing keynote speech, which she titled “Two Journeys, 3 Tips”. The first of the 2 journeys was her own account of past sojourns through jobs that led her, one step at a time, closer to Agile methods, and her current work as an Agile Coach. Many of these events resonated with members of her audience, and illustrate the bumpy road that Software Development have taken towards Scrum and other Agile methodologies. The other journey was that of Cape Town’s vibrant Agile Community. A remarkable observation was that when we started out with Agile, we lagged 10 years behind Europe and the US. After a few years of growing Agile in South Africa, participating in events where we share knowledge with our industry peers, and continuously seek to improve ourselves by experimentation and shared experiences, we have evolved rapidly and now lag only 2 or 3 years behind. Karen suggested that we may well be world leaders in a few more years! Following the account of these two journeys, Karen concluded with three profound tips for each one of us to apply in our own journey. The first tip revolves around Entropy — without continuous attention you will decay. The second tip touches on Learning — find a way to prioritise this above everything! Finally, she urges us to “JOIN IN”. Participate, contribute and continue to experience and evolve. It all starts with you.

I started off by saying that this convention was an invaluable tool… I have to admit that I also consider it a celebration of the work that I do, and a justification of my beliefs formed, gradually, during 2 decades in the industry of Software Development.

I can’t wait for next year’s event, but will have fun trying out new things leading up to it!