Agile 2015: DevOps and Craftsmanship

Agile 2015: DevOps and Craftsmanship

In my last post, I talked about the interesting Agile 2015 sessions on team building that I’d attended. This time we’ll take a look at some sessions on DevOps and Craftsmanship.

On the DevOps’ side, Seth Vargo’s The 10 Myths of DevOps, was by far the most interesting and useful presentation that I attended. Vargo’s contention is that the DevOps concept has been over-hyped (like so many other things) and people are soon going to be becoming disenchanted with the DevOps concept (the graphic below shows where Vargo believes DevOps stands on the Gartner Hype Cycle right now). I might quibble about whether we’ve passed the cusp of inflated expectations yet or not, but this seems just about right to me. It’s only recently that I’ve heard a lot of chatter about DevOps and seen more and more offerings and that’s probably a good indication that people are trying to take advantage of those inflated expectations. Vargo also says that many organizations either mistake the DevOps concept for just plain operations or use the title to try to hire SysAdmins under the more trendy title of DevOps. Vargo didn’t talk to it, but I’d also guess that a lot of individuals are claiming to be experienced in DevOps when they were SysAdmins who didn’t try to collaborate with other groups in their organizations.


The other really interesting myth in Vargo’s presentation was the idea that DevOps is just between engineers and operators. Although that’s certainly one place to start, Vargo’s contention is that DevOps should be “unilaterally applied across the organization.” This was characteristic of everything in Vargo’s presentation: just good common sense and collaboration.

Abigail Bangser was also focused on common sense and collaboration in Team Practices Applied to How We Deploy, Not Just What, but from a narrower perspective. Her pain point seems to have been that technical stories that weren’t well defined and were treated differently than business stories. Her prescription was to extend the Three Amigos practice to technical stories and generally treat techincal stories like any other story. This was all fine, but I found myself wondering why that kind of collaboration wasn’t happening anyway. It seems like doing one’s best to understand a story and deliver the best value regardless of whether the story is a business or a technical one. Alas, Bangser didn’t go into how they’d gotten to that state to start with.

CaptureOn the craftsmanship side, Brian Randell’s Science of Technical Debt helped us come to a reasonably concise definition of technical debt and used Martin Fowler’s Technical Debt Quadrant distinguish between different types of technical debt: prudent vs. reckless, and deliberate vs. inadvertent. He also spent a fair amount of time demonstrating SonarQube and explaining how it had been integrated into the .NET ecosystem. SonarQube seemed fairly similar to NDepend, which I’ve used for some years now, with one really useful addition: both NDepend and SonarQube evaluate your codebase compared to various configurable design criteria, but SonarQube also provides an estimated time to fix all the issues that it found with your codebase. Although it feels a little gimmicky, I think it would be more useful than just having the number of instances of failed rules in explaining to Product Owners the costs that they are incurring.

I also attended two divergent presentations on improving our quality as developers. Carlos Sirias presented Growing a Craftsman through Innovation & Apprenticeship. Obviously, Sirias advocates for an apprenticeship model, a la blacksmiths and cobblers, to help improve developer quality. The way I remember the presentation, Sirias’ company, Pernix, essentially hired people specifically as apprentices and assigned them to their “lab” projects, which are done at low-cost for startups and small entrepreneurs. The apprenticeship aspect came from their senior people devoting 20% of their time to the lab projects. I’m now somewhat perplexed, though, because the Pernix website says that “Pernix apprentices learn from others; they don’t work on projects” and the online PDF of the presentation doesn’t have any text in it, so I can’t double check my notes. Perhaps the website is just saying that the apprentices don’t work as consultants on the full-price projects, and I do remember Sirias saying that he didn’t feel good about charging clients for the apprentices. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that the “lab” projects, which are free for NGOs and can be financed by micro-equity or actual money, don’t get cross-subsidised by the normal projects. I feel like just making sure that junior people are always pairing and get a fair chance to pair with people they can learn from, which isn’t always “senior” people, is a better apprenticeship model than the one that Sirias presented.

The final craftsmanship presentation I attended, Steve Ropa’s Agile Craftsmanship and Technical Excellence, How to Get There was both the most exciting and the most challenging presentation for me. Ropa recommends “micro-certifications,” which he likens to Boy Scout merit badges, to help people improve their technical abilities. It’s challenging to me for two reasons. First, I’m just not a great believe in credentialism because I don’t find they really tell me anything when I’m trying to evaluate a person’s skills. What Ropa said about using internally controlled micro-certifications to show actual competence in various skill areas make a lot of sense, though, since you know exactly what it takes to get one. That brings me to the second challenge: the combination of defining a decent set of micro-certifications, including what it takes to get each certification, and a fair way of administering such a system. For the most part, the first part of this concern just takes work. There are some obvious areas to start with: TDD, refactoring, continuous integration, C#/Java/Python skills, etc., that can be evaluated fairly objectively. After that, there are some softer areas that would be more difficult to figure out certifications for, though. How, for example, do you grade skills in keeping a code base continually releasable? It seems like an all-or-nothing kind of thing. And how does one objectively certify a person’s ability to take baby steps or pair program?

Administering such a program also presents me with a real challenge: even given a full set of objective criteria for each micro-certification, I worry that the certifications could become diluted through cronyism or that the people doing the evaluations wouldn’t be truly competent to do so. Perhaps this is just me being overly pessimistic, but any organization has some amount of favoritism and I suspect that the sort of organizations that would benefit most from micro-certifications are the ones where that kind of behavior has already done the most damage. On the other hand, I’ve never been a boy scout and these concerns may just reflect my lack of experience with such things. For all that, the concept of micro-certifications seems like one worth pursuing and I’ll be giving more thought on how to successfully implement such a system over the coming months.

I used to attend Agile conferences pretty frequently, but at some point I got burned out on them and the last one I attended was a 2007 conference in Washington, DC.  This year, when the Agile Alliance conference returned to the DC region, and I decided it was time to give them a try again.

It’s interesting to see how things changed since I last attended an Agile conference.  Agile 2015 felt much more stage managed than in previous years, with its superhero party, the keynotes making at least glancing reference to it (the opening keynote, Awesome Superproblems, appears to have been retitled for the theme, since all the references in the presentation were to “wicked” problems instead of “super” problems), and making one go through the vendor to get to lunch.  It also seemed like there were mostly “experts” making presentations, whereas previously I felt like there were more presentations by community members.  I have mixed feelings about all of this, but on the whole I felt that my time was well spent.  Although I didn’t really plan it, I seem to have had three themes in mind when I picked my sessions, team building, DevOps and craftsmanship.  Today I’ll tell you about my experiences with the team building sessions.

Two of the keynotes supported this theme: Jessie Shternshus’ Individuals, Interactions and Improvisation and James Tamm’s Want Better Collaboration? Don’t be so Defensive.  I’d heard of using the skills associated with improvisation to improve collaborative skills, but the Agile analogy seemed labored.  Tamm’s presentation was much more interesting to me.  I’m not sure he’s aware of the use of the pigs and chickens story in Scrum, but he started out with a story about chickens.  Red zone and green zone chickens, to be precise.  Apparently there are those chickens (we’re outside of the scrum metaphor here, incidentally) that become star egg layers by physically abusing other chickens to suppress their egg production.  These were termed red zone chickens, while the friendly, cooperative chickens were termed green zone chickens.  Tamm described a few unpleasant solutions (such as trimming the chickens’ beaks) that people had tried to deal with the problem, and ended up by describing an experiment whereby the the red zone chickens were segregated from the green zone chickens, with the result that the green zone chickens’ egg production went up 260% while only the mortality rate went up for the red zone chickens (  Tamm then went on to compare this to human endeavors, pointing out the signs that an organization might be in the red zone (low trust/high blame, threats and fear, and risk avoidance, for example) or in the green zone (high trust/low blame, mutual support and a sense of contribution, for example), while explaining that no organization is going to be wholly in either zone.  He wound up with showing us ways to identify when we, as individuals, are moving into the red zone and how to try to avoid it.  This was easily the most thought provoking of the three keynotes, and I picked up a copy of Tamm’s book, Radical Collaboration, to further explore these ideas.  The full presentation and slides are available at the Agile Alliance website (

In the normal sessions, I also attended Lyssa Adkins Coaching v. Mentoring, Jake Calabrese’s Benefiting from Conflict – Building Antifragile Relationships and Teams, and two presentations by Judith Mills: Can You Hear Me Now?  Start Listening Instead and Emotional Intelligence in Leadership.  Alas, It was only in hindsight that I realized that I’d read Adkins’ book.  In this presentation, she engaged in actual coaching and mentoring sessions with two people she’d brought along specifically for the purpose.  Unfortunately the sound in the room was poor and I feel like I lost a fair amount of the nuance of the sessions; the one thing I came away with was that mentoring seems like coaching while also being able to provide more detailed information to them.

Jake Calabrese turned out to be a dynamic and engaging speaker and I enjoyed his presentation and felt like it was useful, but that was before I went to Tamm’s keynote on collaboration.  I did enjoy one of the exercises that Calabrese did, though. After describing the four major “team toxins”: Stonewalling, Blaming, Defensiveness and Contempt, he had us take off our name badges, write down which toxin we were most prone to on a separate name badge, and go and introduce ourselves to other people in the room using that toxin as our name.  Obviously this is not something you want to do in a room full of people that work together all the time, but it was useful to talk to other people about how they used these “toxins” to react to conflict.  In the end, though, I felt that Calabrese’s toxins boil down to the signs of defensiveness that Tamm described and that Tamm’s proposals for identifying signs of defensiveness in ourselves and trying to correct them are more likely to be useful than Calabrese’s idea of a “Team Alliance.”

The two presentations by Judith Mills that I attended were a mixed bag.  I thought the presentation on listening was excellent, although there’s a certain irony in watching many of the other attendees checking their e-mail, being on Facebook, shopping, etc., while sitting in a presentation about listening (to be fair, there was probably less of that here than in other presentations).  Mills started by describing the costs of not listening well and then went into an exercise designed to show how hard listening really is: one person would make three statements and their partner would then repeat the sentences with embellishments (unfortunately, the number of people trying this at once made it difficult to hear, never mind listen.  The point was made, though).  We then discussed active listening and the habits and filters we can have that might prevent us from listening well and how communication involved more than just the words we use.  This was a worthwhile session and my only disappointment was that we didn’t get to the different types of question that one might use to promote communication and how they can be used.

Mills’ presentation on Emotional Intelligence in Leadership, on the other hand, was not what I anticipated.  I went in expecting a discussion on EI, but the presentation was more about leadership styles and came across as another description “new” leadership.  It would probably be useful for the people that haven’t experienced or heard about anything other than Taylorist scientific management, but I didn’t find anything particularly new or useful to my role in this presentation.

Notes from Agile 2015 Washington, D.C. 

Having lived in Washington DC area for over 25 years, my experience caused me to presume that the majority of the audience at the Agile 2015 Washington DC would primarily consist of people working in the public sector, given our geographical proximity to a long list of federal agencies. It was not unrealistic for me to expect that the speakers at the conference might tailor their presentations and discussions to this type of audience. The audience actually turned out to be quite diverse, rendering my assumptions inaccurate. However, I could not help to feel somewhat validated after listening to the first key note speaker.  Indeed, the opening presentation by Luke Hohmann entitled “Awesome Super Problems” focused on tackling “wicked problems” such as budget deficits and environmental challenges. Wicked problems, as described by Mr. Hohmann, are not technical in nature and cannot be solved by small Agile teams of 6-8 people. These problems deal more with strategic decision-making that may result in long-term consequences, intended as well as unintended. They impact millions of people and they require broad consent as well as governance. Hailing from the San Jose, California, Mr. Hohmann discussed how implementation of Agile methodologies helped the city tackle some “wicked problems” such as a budget deficit of 100 million dollars.

Planning and Executing
Solving major problems such as budget shortfalls generally require a great deal of collaboration between stakeholders with competing priorities. Mr. Hohmann stressed that the approach should focus on collaboration over competition, or in Agile terminology, “customer collaboration over contract negotiation”. Easier said than done? Maybe… To help facilitate this collaboration, Mr. Hohmann assembled a conference of public servants such as city planners, police and fire chiefs, and other community leaders. There were several discovery sessions where people could get answers to questions like how much money would be saved if the fire department removed one firefighter from their teams and what impact to safety that may entail. The group was broken down into small tables of no more than 8 people and one facilitator provided by Mr. Hohmann. The group was presented with the list of major budget items and subsequently was compelled to engage in budget games  in which participants were basically bidding to get their high priority budget items included in the next budget and negotiate cuts by trading these items. Afterwards the players had a retrospective and offered feedback.

Retrospective and Outcome
Feedback provided by the participants showed that competition was replaced by collaboration. Participants tended not to get into heated arguments because the games inherently encouraged compromise. Small groups helped cut down on distractions and side conversations. The participants also reported that the game was fair since every player possessed equal bidding power. Interestingly, the final outcome resulted in surprising consensus over the budget items, as the majority of the participants actually ended up prioritizing their items very similarly after the competition aspect was removed. The “democratic” aspect of the collaborative approach helped eliminate animosity and partisanship which are not uncommon, as have been witnessed in the U.S federal budget negotiations. This experiment seemed to yield the desired outcome of tackling the imbalanced budget and was touted as a success, attracting attention of more San Jose residents.

To tackle other public issues such as school overcrowding and water shortages, Mr. Hohmann attempted to repeat the process, but the number of participants has increased to the point where a large conference hall was needed. In order not to upset the budget by renting a giant conference hall, Mr. Hohmann and the local government set up an online forum that accepted a virtually unlimited number of participants, yet still assigning them to groups of about eight people and increasing the number of groups. The participants played other games such as Prune the Product Tree which basically involves prioritizing the list of problems the public wants to tackle. The feedback was even more positive as the majority of the participants actually preferred the online setting even more. They reported even less distractions. The data was easier to collect and aggregate, giving the participants almost an immediate view of how the game was progressing and how the priorities were moving.

One main takeaway I got from Mr. Hohmann’s presentation is one of encouragement to be creative. Mr. Hohmann stressed the importance of focusing on what he described as “common ground for action”. The idea is to focus on generating a list or backlog of actionable items. The process or exercise to get to the desired state can vary, and Agile methodologies can help folks get there, even when tackling wicked problems.

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