Growing People on Agile Teams

Episode 10

April 06, 2011



The Agile Weekly Crew discuss growing people on Agile teams.

Derek Neighbors: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Scrumcast. I’m Derek Neighbors.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

Elvis: And I’m Elvis.

Clayton: Elvis is new to the studio.


Growing People on Agile Teams

Derek: That’s how powerful Agile is. It can bring back Elvis. So, recently attended the AgileOpen Northwest, in Portland. There were a number of really great topics. One topic that seemed to come up in a couple of different formats was the concept of growing people or mentoring people or deliberate practice to get better. I think that that’s kind of one of the tenants of Agile is continuous improvement and really trying to get better and inspect and adapt.

I wanted to talk a little bit about deliberate practice in areas that aren’t technical. A little bit about what it takes to mentor and grow people. And a little bit about how do you facilitate developers who care?

Clayton: [chuckles] Easy topics.


Derek: It would hard to find a five minutes’ worth accounting time.

Clayton: OK. What was the first one?

Deliberate Practice On Intangibles

Derek: I think they’re all one and the same. How do you deliberately practice things that aren’t really tangibles? I think you could say, “How do you practice becoming a better coder,” because it’s fairly easy to say, “Here’s what code. Code has an output.”

But if you say, “How do you deliberately become a better communicator, or a better estimator, or better at intuition, or better at leadership,” those things have a lot more difficult outcome to predict. How do you go about deliberately practicing them? The second part of that is, how do you mentor good team members? How do you facilitate developers that really care about the work they’re doing, not just the code?

Practice Outside Work

Clayton: I think as far as deliberate practice for some of those scenarios that you described, it’s hard to do as part of your work day, because the chances for doing that are pretty limited.

One that I’ve tried to do is really take it beyond my work, and look for opportunities in general life, where I can say, “OK. I’m going to sit down and I’m going to estimate the difficulty of doing this particular task or whatever it is. I’m going to sit there, and I’m going to actually measure it. I’m going to see how accurate was I at predicting how long it took me to do that or how difficult that was,” et cetera, et cetera.

Same with communication is how am I facilitating communication in my personal private life. Am I using that techniques that should make me a good scrum master, a good scrum coach? Am I using those things to talk to my wife or talk to my kids? I think there is plenty of opportunities if you can think outside of the box on ways to practice and exercise those skills.

Explaining Things To Others

Derek: I think I agree that code is an easier one because there’s some output and stuff. I like Clays idea of trying to take some of that stuff, what you’re learning, and trying to do that in your normal, everyday life.

One thing that I found that’s kind of interesting is get home from work and wife and I talk about our days and stuff, and a lot of the stuff that I do is of a very technical nature and what’s kind of fun every now and again is just kind of to humor me, she asks me, “Explain that thing.”

So I think it’s interesting to some degree to try and challenge yourself to say, here’s this person who doesn’t know anything about this technical thing I’m talking about, but I’m going to try to explain what the goal is and what the purpose is and all those things.

And I think that when we take that for granted because we come across, it’s like you go home and you are like, “My wife doesn’t know much about this technology, but I’m going to explain it to her,” and you’re a nice guy. But then you go to your client and you’re like, “What a jerk that guy doesn’t know anything that he’s so stupid [laughs] .” So I think that’s a good opportunity just in your daily life.

I’ve got these friends that, they’re curious, how’s work going and things like that. And they don’t understand anything from a technical perspective that I’m doing, but it’s kind of fun time to be able to like, “We’re working on this cool project and here’s the point of it and what we’re trying to do.”

I think seizing those opportunities probably first. It’s hard to realize when those come up, as far as communication, improving your communication. I think just any opportunity you can to speak in front of people or even just answer a question or just anything like that is just kind of finding those opportunities and then doing something with them. I think that’s a really good way to improve on those intangibles.

Using Experiments

Clayton: I think those are good ways of casual practice. I think experiments are really where you going to able to have deliberate practice, so whether that’s taking a different approach to solving a problem within some work problem that you’re dealing with, or lots of people have a side project or things like that, can you apply these things to your side project or test out new theories in those ways and measure the results that you’re seeing against that?

To me, that’s working a little bit more towards a deliberate practice of trying to improve your skills in these areas.

Being Deliberate

Derek: Yeah, I agree that everyone has their side projects and I think sometimes we get to a point where we have too many side projects. You go out and say, “I’m going to try all these new things and see what they’re like,” and then you’re not really doing deliberate practice at that point, you’re just kind of goofing off.

I think that is really challenging to say, “Here’s something that I want to deliberately practice and it’s of some value to me and my normal day or whatever, I’m really going to focus on that, I’m not going to start this project and then two weeks from now hear some new other new hotness and then go strike that one in.” You know then by the end of it, you’ve got like five projects that you haven’t actually done anything on.

I think it’s very important that you stay focused if you’re going to try and use a side project or experimentation as a way to practice or learn newer things.

Expanding Your Horizon

Elvis: I think there’s a couple of pieces to this that are interesting to me. One is that I think that when I look at really high performers, they’ve learned that, to get more performance, they have to start looking at different things. If I’m a highly functioning developer, I’m really good coder, I do really well with software development, to take it to the next level, I probably don’t have to practice code.

I have to practice other skills, listening skills, problem solving skills, communication skills, different pieces. I think that, kind of to me, step one is if you’re already a high performer is you have to start saying, “What can be a big boon for me that’s not just like a new way of doing the thing that I’m already doing.”

I moved from Java to Ruby. Yeah, you’re going to get a lot of performance potentially out of that, but I would argue that if you’re already really proficient at Java, you’d probably get a lot more performance at learning how to better deal with customers or better understand value of product or do other things that are going to get you a bigger bang for the buck.

I think how do we start to get developers to realize that being the best coder or the best at a particular language or a tool, why not an all‑bad thing isn’t always the best way to succeed. I really actually loved Andre Agassi’s book called “Open.” He really talked about this and one of the big things that one of his mentors really pushed on him is, “You only have to be as good as the guy on the other side of the court.”

I think sometimes when you talk software development, you only have to be as good as necessary to really succeed more than whatever the competitor is and I think sometimes as engineers, we focus on being perfect instead of being well‑rounded enough to beat the other guy.

In his case, the thing that he really lacked was physical stamina. He would pretty much crush everybody through the first two or three sets in a match and he would fall apart in the fifth set. The other thing is mentally he would give up. Mentally, the opponents knew how to get underneath his skin and basically pull him.

For him, to win all the titles that he did, he really had to overcome those two things. It really wasn’t about tennis. He was proficient enough at the game of tennis. It was the other two things.

I think, within a team, part of that is how do we identify the deficiencies in our team and say, “You’re a really good Java programmer. You’re a really great Ruby programmer, but that’s not what’s really holding you back. What’s really holding you back is not understanding the value in product or you’re not understanding how to communicate well with other team members or you’re not testing well or what is that thing that’s really keeping it.”

So that’s part of it, and I think the other part is, in deliberate practice I think that knowing is half the battle, to kind of go GI Joe on it is, I think that if you know what you’re lacking, you can deliberately practice against it. If you just say, “I’m trying to get better,” you don’t. And so I see people all the time with a side project, “I’m going to do a side project and I’m going to try this new technology and blah, blah, blah,” and they have no intent or no purpose.

If you took a project you already had and you said, “Hey, I have been testing, but my tests always run really slow.” Over the next week, I’m going to try a bunch of different things to see if I can get my test speed up by 20 or 30 percent, and then you successfully do that.

Now, you’ve created a skill set for yourself that now you know that say [inaudible 00:10:00] environment enough to know what gets performance and what doesn’t get performance, which is going to add to that if that’s one of the things you’re looking at doing.

I think we’re too much of a generalist when it comes to wanting to get better and we just say, “Oh, we want to get better, so let’s just do more of what we’re already doing.” As opposed to saying, “What’s a very specific thing that I can measure, I can do, and I can say, ‘Did I get better at doing at after I practiced it?’?”


Elvis: I think you touch on a couple of key things. One is mentorship, and I think that’s something that we forget, is people who are professionals, they have coaches, they have people who are helping them every step of the way to see the things that they can’t see within themselves.

I think the next logical step from that is trust. If we don’t have trust on a team, even with our mentors, we’re not really going to listen to what they’re saying, and we’re not going to get better, because we’re not going to do what they say, because we’re just going to blow it off.

I feel like, as an engineer in particular, is we are really bad doing that, anyway, listening to people. So how do we build the trust up between peers and our supervisors, or whoever it is that we’re interact with? How do we build up that trust level to say, when you come and tell me, you’re really doing a bad job communicating with the rest of the team.

It’s like, “Oh man! OK. What can I do? Instead of getting offended, teach me some techniques, tell me what did I do that made this bad, so that I can start to learn from those things.” I think we’re really bad at recognizing those opportunities.

Lack Of Self-Awareness

Clayton: I think, if you ask anyone, “Do you want to get better? Do you want to improve?” they will say, “Yeah, sure. Of course.” But then, if you say, “OK. What do you need to improve?” It’s like, “Gee, let me think about it. I’m pretty good at everything.”


Clayton: I think, when you’re a freshman at high school, the seniors seem totally awesome, and you want to be just like the seniors. But then, when you get to be a senior, you’re like, “Wow, this is nothing special!” Then the same thing happens in freshman college. It goes on through life.

I feel, sometimes, people get to a point where they lose sight of the fact that there are people that are better than them, but at some point in time, they just forget about that, like the mentor thing. There’s a guy that’s probably 10 years older than I am. I talk to him all the time about software development stuff, and it’s funny, because there are things where I think I totally have it figured out, I go talk to him, and he’s, “Oh, ha, ha, ha! Let me tell you about 1987.”


Clayton: It’s like, “OK, I didn’t know about that.” There’s all that stuff. I think that half of it, like knowing [inaudible 00:12:37] , just knowing that there’s a lot of stuff out there that, one, you’re probably not very good at, or, two, you can always be improving. I don’t think anyone’s a total expert on everything.

If you are, then you’re so far beyond anything, but as far as I’m concerned, people in my position, there’s always something you could be learning for something else, and just having an open mind and not talking that as an offense. I don’t feel like I have to know everything by the time I’m 30, or something. I’m not worried about that.

So I’m not going to be offended if someone says, “Hey, you’re not very good at XYZ.” That’s just an opportunity of, “Hey, you did half the work for me of figuring out what I’m not very good at, so now I can go do something to improve,” but I know people who have that knowledge, or whatever.

Being Open To Feedback

Derek: Going back to the sports analogies a little bit, I think one of the things that’s interesting in sports, where you’ve got a coach. I’ll go to the Agassi example again. At one point, he stated, “All that’s not true,” when somebody comes up to him and says, “You need to change your game.”

Then, when that person can say, “Remember when you lost the US Open to me. I’m telling you right now you’re a better player than I am, and you lost that game because I got into your head.” That was a point that he was able to say, “A, you’re right, and, B, I want to win a US Open, so I’m willing to listen.”

One of the things I hear all the time in the software development world is we really need to be intrinsically motivated. I believe in that to a large degree, but I have to ask, is some of our struggle saying our people what’s the motivation for somebody to say, “Why should I improve?” Meaning, if there’s not a world cup to win, a gold medal to win, or something, what do you tell a developer who is really competent and pretty good, but they’re not excellent?

How do you get them to move to that excellent point? What’s the driving factor where you say to them, “If you just did these things, Clayton, if you’d really think about how you communicate a little better, if you understood product development a little bit better, what’s on the other end of that for you if you do those things.”

What’s Your Motivation

Elvis: What’s my motivation?

Derek: Is this one of the things we struggle with?

Elvis: Yeah. I think that’s true. What is my motivation? Is it I’m going to get more money, I’m going to get a better job? I don’t know. I don’t know what that is at that point in time in my life. Can you even really picture those things?

Derek: Is it to get on the Google team? Is it to get on the Facebook team? We don’t have the gold medal of programming.

Elvis: The XP Open.

The Effects Of Culture And Environment

Clayton: I think the reality of it is that there are a lot of programming jobs out there right now, and, if you’re someone that has something like Java or .NET experience, and you’ve got some, maybe, enterprise or corporate experience doing that, you could go make a pretty good living and not really have to extend yourself very much.

I think a lot of people just say, “You know what? I’ve got a family, and I really love playing golf and fishing, so I’m going to go to work and do my 9:00 to 5:00, and that’s fine. I don’t need to improve.” I think the reality of it is that there are a lot of people who are in a position where they have to really stretch themselves.

Now, if you’re some factory worker, you worked on the assembly line in Ohio making brake pads, and you’re future is in question. You’re going to think, “Gees, I really need to pivot and do something different,” but I don’t think a lot of people in the software development industry are in that position right now.

Derek: I definitely think that is an excellent point. The number of open positions compared to the number of people able to fill them is…I think people fill jobs all the time that are not qualified for them, and they’re able to hold them for years at a time because companies just don’t have a choice.

So what could we do in our industry to change some of that? What changes need to be made or what can you do as an organization to attract, because money only goes so far. At a certain point, throwing more money at somebody is not going to make them be more motivated.

Elvis: No, and, a lot of times, it has the opposite effect. I don’t know. I think that’s a really great question, and I wish I had an answer. What could we create that would motivate people to do better? I don’t know.

Clayton: I think culture and environment, it’s probably the big one. I think you would be surprised that people that maybe have a comfortable job that’s in a corporate setting, but, if they had something that had a more lively, robust culture and wasn’t the same old…everything’s a color of gray and beige in the office kind of deal, I think that’s really motivating.

People don’t realize that until they’re exposed to it and they compare, “Hey, this is what I used to have, and this is what I’ve got now,” or whatever. I think culture is a big deal.

Elvis: I think even that still only goes so far. If you look at the culture of our company, it’s pretty progressive and pretty far‑out beyond what most people are doing, yet we still struggle with the same problems, or maybe struggle with them a little bit further down the road. We might have people who are a little bit better than a Joe Corporate guy, but it’s not going to take us all the way to the next level.

Just Showing Up

Derek: I think, sometimes, it’s even detrimental. In the sense of, I see a lot of young vibrant companies, radically change culture, in order to attract people. Some of that culture is, working 10 hours a week, and you’ve got a ton of play time. A bunch of things, that are great for the individual, and they may not even be all that bad for the company, but, ultimately, they are not really doing things that are pressing that individual to become better.

Really, what they are saying is, “We’re rewarding for being a really great player, so we’re bringing you over to the Pro Bowl. Come, and play, and hang out with some other really great players, and we are not really going to ask you to stretch yourself.”

Elvis: You just have to show up.

Derek: Correct.

Clayton: I think, if you go back to. Some soccer team, from Europe, that plays in the World Cup, or in the Olympics, those guys I think are motivated by the love of the game, and they really want to be there, and they are a great team. But then, you go back to 1990’s Iraqi national team, I get the impression, that they were pressured. Those guys I’m sure, love soccer, but they were pressured into it.

There’s some level, what you were talking about [inaudible 00:19:08] . We have this culture, and we are getting there, but you still need to have that unified front. The team aspect, and trust, and all those things, still need to be there, even if you have a fun culture, and video games, and flexible schedules, and all that stuff. You still need some fundamentals, I think.

What Is The Goal?

Elvis: I think part of that is a goal. I think that’s what you’re driving at, Derek. Really, what is the goal behind doing this? If I’m working at Google, or Apple, there is a goal that I can get behind, that I might be willing to push myself, above and beyond, what I would normally do on my own.

So, how do the average, small companies, out there, create goals that are motivating to people that are inspiring enough to say, ” Look, I recognize where I’m at, and to accomplish this goal, it’s going to take more than where I’m at. How do I get there?”

Derek: I think we are hitting it right on the head. When I look at Facebook right now, today, look at the number of people that have exoduses out of Google, and jumped over to Facebook. When you look at that, Google has been treading water for the last three or four years, and Facebook has really got world domination on their mind.

I think, salary, location, everything. Environment’s almost identical between the two companies. So people are really jumping, not for opportunity, but for the vision of where one is going, versus the other. Even as a small company, it really is about, really stretching yourself towards goals that people envision, that people can get behind, and can get excited about.

If I go to this company and I pour my heart, and soul into it, and I stretch myself, that we’re doing something amazing. When we reach that, something amazing, that’s the reward. The reward is not the culture. The reward is not the money that I made, making it. It’s the, “I was part of the team.”

If you look back at Olympic teams, if you look back at soccer teams, basketball teams, that win championships, what they talk about, is that shared experience of, “As a unit, we walked through, and we achieve this.”

Elvis: I think you even see that in software teams. I was on the OS2 team, or I was on the Unix team, or the C team. That exists in software, as well.

Derek: Right. I was part of Xerox Parc. I was part of the original C team, and I think, that that’s what you have to create. You have to create the, “We’re the sense of team, and, this is the purpose that our team has.” As we achieve these purposes that we put out, that every single time, those purposes get bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

First, maybe it’s that we have a million users, or that we’re affecting this kind of change. Each step along the way, just snowballs in momentum, and you get more, and more buying, and there’s more interest to say, “I’m willing to stretch, not because I necessarily want to get better, but I want to stretch because I want to reach that goal.” I think that’s really what it’s about, setting goals that require people to stretch, in order to reach those goals.

Elvis: I think that’s a good set up for our next podcast.

Derek: Yeah. Sounds good. A little stretching.

Elvis: [laughs] . All right, thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you guys next time.

Derek: See you next time.

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