My first agile project

By Brian Lucas

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” -Lao-tzu

I have received so many emails and phone calls (how did all these people get my cell phone number) since I started this blog.  The majority of them are from people who are in their first agile project.  They are struggling with various issues, many of which most experienced agile practioners have faced at one time in their careers.  These problems are generally easily corrected with advice and mentoring.  Some of their problems were absolutely fascinating and truly unique requiring a lot more thought.  Fortunately, these were only a handful.

A common theme has emerged.  It a fact that agile has been around for quite a while.  Agile is also highly touted as a buzzword that everyone (who is anybody) is expected to know.  This has led to a certain hesitation of expression in those beginning agile for the first time.  They don’t want to sound ignorant by asking basic questions.  I have a very Socratic view of interrogatories of this nature which is the wisest person is the one who knows what he doesn’t know.  So abandon your fears and ask away with confidence.

Unfortunately, the experience of too many of these agile novices who have recently reached out to me is one of constant struggle with organization politics, resource constraints and fixed “non-agile” Machiavellian[1] mindsets.  This has left them confused about agile, bewildered why others are successful and they are not and generally feeling like walking wounded.   Even some experienced practioners have adopted the attitude of not advocating agile until someone comes to them (usually in deep trouble) and asks them about agile.  This is not a stance I can condone because it is not proactive.  So many leaders like Jack Welch advocate change before you have to.  Remember no one has ever led by following![2]

I am not going to recount my first agile project here.  Suffice it to say it was so long ago, I was not even aware I was working in an agile fashion, since the term had not yet been popularized.  I worked on the project in an agile fashion out of necessity much in the same manner that Mike Cohn developed his User Story concept.  It seemed natural to me at the time because I was being pressed for rapid results; not because I was following a prescribed methodology.  So much has changed since then that my recollections would have the flavor of a “when I was your age” story that I suspect would make some of you feel it lacks relevance to your current situations.

So this post is for all you novice agile practioners!  I want to hear your problems and questions which I will try to address with specific and detailed advice.  I would also like to hear when you are successful, whether you followed my advice; someone else’s, learned from a book or tried something on your own.  Asking your questions can benefit others so fire away.  We can always go offline if you need to be discreet.  The most important lesson I can impart to people learning something new is not to let silence mask their ignorance.  So till next time, remember to keep agile!

[1] Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, 3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527) was an Italian historian, diplomat, philosopher, humanist and writer based in Florence during the Renaissance.  He was one of the founders of modern political science.  He was a true renaissance man being a diplomat, political philosopher, playwright, and a civil servant of the Florentine Republic.  He wrote his masterpiece, The Prince, contain the following famous quote: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

[2] An original quote, humor intended.

About Brian Lucas

In his life, Brian Lucas has been a coach, farm worker, forester, health care advocate, life guard, general contractor, mechanic, mixologist, musician/singer (in a rock group), salesman and teacher. Brian has worked as a project manager, technical marketer, methodologist, manager, software architect, systems designer, data modeler, business analyst, systems programmer, software developer and creative writer. These efforts include over a hundred hi-tech initiatives in almost every business and industrial sector as well as government and military projects. Among them, he designed and developed a quality assurance system for the first transatlantic fiber optic communications network, a manufacturing system for a large computer manufacture’s seven manufacturing centers, a data mining system for steel production, an instrumentation system for cable systems, defined requirements for government’s information systems and designed and developed human performance management systems. Brian has educated and mentored many over the years, designing programs to discover and develop talent. He has also lectured extensively to a variety of audiences. Brian is currently devoting as much time as possible to the innovation of business agility and human capital management along with the next generation of agile software development. As an amateur theoretical physicist he is working on joining general relativity and quantum mechanics through a multidimensional time corollary on string theory and negating the uncertainty principle with Louis de Broglie’s wave/particle hypothesis. He is also an avid blue-water sailor and wilderness backpacker. He enjoys billiards, boxing, chess, cooking, famous battle reenactments and war gaming, fencing, flying, gardening, horseback riding, martial arts (particularly Ninjutsu), philosophy and psychology, playing musical instruments (7 so far), poker, rapid-fire target shooting, reading (he tries to read a new book every night), painting with oils, scuba diving, skiing and recently writing novels.
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26 Responses to My first agile project

  1. Eliane says:

    thanks for this, i find it very important.

  2. withheld by request says:

    My first and last agile project was a total disaster. Our company was in big trouble. We had software products that nobody wanted to buy that we invested huge amounts of effort in and I assume money but I was not in a position to know exactly how much. We go no up front training. The project manager ran everything as dictators. If you criticized anything you were fired or demoted. They never had any idea what they were doing. Of course the company cut back most of us got fired. Then they went out of business. I am now with a company that does some projects using scrum but only with a special team. They all seem very happy and the stuff they produce looks good. I would like to participate but they only hire experienced agile developers so I am left out. My question would be is there any training that I could get that would be worthwhile and not cost too much?

    • Brian Lucas says:

      I will post a recommended reading list that should help you out. Good books are worth their weight in gold! -Brian

  3. name withheld by request says:

    Thank you for creating this stream Brian. It has given me the chance to vent. My first agile project was a dream. They brought in professional trainers we went through 2 weeks of training. Then they brought in a highly experienced scrum master, a phenomenal developer and a good GUI designer that worked with us through the first project. It was a whirlwind that was unnerving because of its speed. It was the most problem free project I ever worked on…
    I was then transferred to another division and expected to implement agile there. My second project was an absolute nightmare from hell. The manager did not understand agile and was not engaged. All his direct reports felt their jobs were threatened by agile {and they definitely should have been}. The project manager I had to work with was someone who bounced around for many years for job to job always a failure, but she was very political so she survived. She was one of the worst parts of the nightmare. She was a control freak at heart that always hid it to anyone above her. She refused outright refused to take many of the suggestions I made and buried the others in inertia. She made mistake after mistake and declared them all victories. The whole development staff was heavily influenced by her prejudice and refused to buck her on any issues because she was so self-protecting and vindictive. Since this was an existing product we had to deal with some very poor development work done by another development team that was run by a really lousy manager that was untouchable because he was a senior management favorite. After the success of my first project this was a crushing experience. I left the company 18 months later and went to a small shop where I have been happy since. Agile seems to just come naturally to these people.
    The lesson I learned and upper management should take to heart is that if you don’t have a 100% commitment to agile particularly from the top and the authority to bull doze the blatant self-interest of some worthless people agile can be a disaster. Name withheld by request

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Dear Reader, agile as a highly encapsulated software development project can be successful even without executive management or support. It is difficult, but it can happen. I have seen it first hand. Agile as an enterprise posture will not happen without complete support from executive managment to culture change. Thank you for sharing your lesson.

  4. Sandra says:

    My first agile project was over nine years ago. It was such an awful experience I thought I would never recover. I was working for a project manager who had been at the company for a long time. She was completely unfamiliar with agile and a closet control freak who was politically savvy and a backbiter. That was how she survived because she was not very competent. The users had no idea what they wanted or how to begin. The analysts were all old guys who were just waiting out their time to retirement and didn’t want to do much work or make any waves. This was a shop that worshiped process for process sake. The MIS director was the nastiness person you would ever meet. He constantly interjected ridiculous orders and directives into the development teams that were twenty years out of date.
    The project failed miserably. Everyone blamed agile and said it didn’t work. Shortly thereafter another opportunity came available for me and I ran out of that company so fast I left a bunch of stuff on my desk. It took 3 years for me to get back into agile again. My second agile project was fantastic. It was with a manager (scrum master) who you remind me of. He was very knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects, a great communicator and really super intelligent. The team was a mix of experienced and inexperienced agile developers. Our scrum master ran all of us through a series of educational sessions about agile concepts and how we would specifically work. He emphasized what were the critical points and what were areas that we needed to adapt to our own comfort levels.
    This guy was great he sometimes stepped outside of what I now know to be the traditional scrum master role and made brilliant and inventive suggestions that saved us work and made the product better. It was a shame when he left the company for a better offer, because their agile effort languished. I ended up leaving that company on good terms and went to a small development shop that was very agile. My experience since then has been mostly very positive.
    This was a great opportunity to vent! I am somewhat surprised that there has not been more venting here. Just make this comment something more than a whining vent on my part, I would say the biggest lesson that I learned in agile is one which you seem to be preaching and that is agile is about adaptation. My second manager taught me that when I saw him help all of us do our work but in a very teaching mode. He was adapting to the needs of our agile team. I also found out later that he acted more in a role of a project manager to the company’s executive sponsor since that was what that person understood. So as you said in your first post which I didn’t comment on agile is about adapting to the demands of the environment not following a specific method. Thanks for your blog. I am enjoying reading it very much.

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Sandra the important thing is that you survived your first bad experience and had a very positive follow on one. More kudos to you for sticking with it a learning valuable lessons from a person who must have been a master agilist.

  5. Angelina says:

    I am still waiting to do my first agile project Brian. I feel so left out! Do you have any suggestions on how to get one started?

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Angelina – use the power of the internet to send articles, posts, websites that talk about the positive aspects of agile to your bosses. Make it a campaign over time. You’ll get there.

  6. Joey says:

    What a mess my first agile project was. No one had any training. Our project manager was assigned to us because she failed at everything else, but was astute enough to kiss up to executive management. And to top it off the USER was a favorite crony of the CEO’s that didn’t know anything. OMG!

    • Brian Lucas says:

      Joey – check out the latest post A Certification does not an Agilist Make and see what I have said about user knowledge. They have a more difficult job than most imagine. Still there is no room for cronies today.

  7. Jason says:

    Machiavelli would have run screaming from the insane asylum I am locked into. CEO is crazy and hires only yes men around him. I can’t wait until my pension is fully vetted then I am out.

  8. Mike Faux says:

    Very fine blog! Not a lot of glitz and whizbang formatting, just knowledgeable substance and great writing. I’ve been in the IT industry for over 30 years and 90% of the blogs are pure trash. I am a late comer to agile, but a definite believer since I have seen and been a part of some unbelievable successes. Your take on agile is refreshing and dead on target! I’ll be following you regularly from now on.

  9. CamoGurl says:

    My first agile project was the biggest cluster f**K you could imagine. I just got out of army and my first civilian job was a C# developer in a small shop trying to do agile. every time I tried to get things more organized I was told I was acting like a control freak. I haven’t done agile since. I have to admit though you are very persuasive Brian and would like to attend your next lecture. What is your speaking schedule for next year?

  10. Ulna says:

    I wish I had a mentor like Brian when I started out in agile 3 years ago out of college. My experiences were so it seemed as if everything I did was wrong and everyone resented me. Now I know that most of the managers were just incompetent and the more senior developers were threatened by me. Brian you write with such gentle understanding, wisdom and humor that I feel I have missed much in not knowing you before. At least now I have your blog and hopefully we can run into each other at an event some time.

  11. JenniferCee says:

    The problem with everyone’s first agile project is there is not enough of Brian to go around! I am a new reader and I just love your blog Brian! Wish I worked for you! 🙂

  12. Everard says:

    My first was my last. No discipline, too little control, management lacking. No thank you!

  13. Pamela Hewson says:

    How long does or should it take you to become comfortable with agile Brian?

  14. Sharon Applebe says:

    I agree Brian is the one person I would like to work with in an agile project. I believe it would be a super learning experience.

  15. IzzyG says:

    My first shot as a ROR developer in an agile project was pretty cool. They had several experienced Ruby developers on the team and the Scrum Master was a professional consultant who ran our orientation/training in agile for our company. We have one of the better PMs from our company as the assistant Scrum Master who knew the company and the way things worked her. While we ran into a few technical issues and had to run 3 spikes (I think) to solve them everyone was very happy with the results. It was a great experience, I got another job offer at more than double my salary after my third agile project there. I was sorry to leave, but the money was just too good. Agile is definitely the way to go.

  16. Gregor-I says:

    Much better blog then [deleted by administrator] or [deleted by administrator] and they get such great press. Keep posting man!!!

  17. Ray Baldwin says:

    My first agile project was a terrific learning experience and went very smoothly. An experienced team was brought in and worked to understand our company for several months before actually running a project. During this time we all received agile training. I was assigned to the first project along with two other employees. We worked directly with an experienced consultant that was assigned to us full time. It was probably, very expensive, but we hit all our dates and the sponsors and users loved what we did. We used a simple tracking tool XXXXX (deleted by administrator). We completed 4 releases of software that year. For each release we changed our process slightly to address needs and issues. I ended up being made a team leader and agile trainer. I was then stupid enough to leave for more money and go to a company that implemented scrum in a very rigorous, controlled fashion, with lots of tools, documentation, project managers and oversight. I was sold a real bill of goods by HR and the CEO about how progressive the company was. WHAT A DISASTER! We were late with everything and what we produced was only marginally better than their previous development history. The CIO and the project managers had no agile experience, other than books, and would not listen to my suggestions. I quit and on my final day went into the CEO’s office to explain what I felt was wrong with their agile implementation and the management team in general. He had an answer for everything. He was so convinced in his mind that he was a brilliant manager that he twisted every fact. That was 8 years ago. The company is still in business and that’s sad because it is so mediocre. The lessons I learned are 1) that agile is flexible and needs flexible people to be successful and 2) seriously investigate a company with sites like glass door before accepting an offer. Fortunately, my current and two other work experiences were all positive.

  18. Annon says:

    Ray, sounds like a company in A’town I know…

  19. Jerdan says:

    Seems like everyone has a bad experience somewhere due to bad managers on a project. Good exchange in a great blog!

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