Agile 2008 – Alan Cooper keynote


Alan Cooper, author of “About Face” and Visual Basic, asks what programming is and isn’t. It isn’t art, science or engineering. It is craft. Programmers are smart, hard-working and eager to please.

The most important part of software are the interstices, the interfaces. Using existing libraries and API’s is alluring, like taking a highway through a swamp. But the library or tool may not be really suited to the task.

We regularly throw away our tools and jump onto new toys. Agile is the new toy. But there’s is no silver bullet. And we have to consider the context to define ‘good’. Agile is unique because it’s the first time developers create a revolution based on people and process, not technique and tools.

The problem with waterfall isn’t only the handoffs. Even worse is the abdication of responsibility and accountability. All roles must remain involved and responsible throughout the four stages of software development:

  • Big ideas
  • Design
  • Engineering
  • Construction

Alan posits that mixing the four stages is the most common source of failure. Agile intends to fix the broken process. Programmers feel surrounded by incompetence. Programmers like Agile as a defence against that incompetence. Agile is a coping tool. Coping with unreasonable clients, incompetent designers, documentation and process excess, foolish managers (who are mostly well-intentioned but use obsolete, industrial-age tools based on command-and-control). Managers have come to expect failure. Success seems random.

Interaction designers and agile programmers are allies. Both of them are craftsmen, work hard and build tangible, testable deliverables. Interaction designers can help programmers to understand business goals and users.

Cooper’s thesis: we can know what users need. Interaction designers are the ones who can discover this.

As expected the slides are gorgeous. They are available at Alan’s Journal.

I’m left wondering a few things:

  • Are Interaction designers the only people who understand customers? Are sessions like the ‘Nine Boxes‘, which help everybody to understand customers, useless?
  • Do developers and interaction designers have to be allies against incompetent managers, or can we work together with competent managers?
  • Will Alan’s 4 step process (Big Ideas, Design, Engineering, Construction) be misunderstood as a sequential lifecycle? Talking about this keynote, I heard some people say that they got the impression that Alan advocated going back to a waterfall-like sequential process?
  • Can we really talk about ‘construction’ in the software domain? If the job is predictable and repeatable we will automate it.
  • There is more to time than being first on the market. Money now is worth more than money later; we can invest our early income in more projects.

SimBlogging: Agile 2008 Toronto Visit

SimBlogging‘ offers a his and hers viewpoint where Pascal and Portia timebox-blog as a pair on the same topics simultaneously

Rough Guide to Toronto

We visit Darwin, one of my heroes, at the Royal Ontario Museum. The Casa Loma fairytale castle on the hill with its stunning library and conservatory put us in the right mood for some agile fairytales. Fred the friendly busdriver took us to the quaint, quiet rivertown of Niagara Falls so that we could buy bells in the Santa shop, where it’s christmas 364 days a year as they’re closed on christmas. The ‘Maid of the Mist’ is a natural thrill-ride: up close and personal with the power of the Niagara Falls you get extremely wet.

Agile 2008

Coming across ‘Bimbo Slides’ is really confusing: the slides look great, like a super-model, but the accompanying text doesn’t fit. Playing with the Leadership Legos, we experienced a few ‘Lego moments’, where you realize that someone else has lived some experience that we can never experience in the same way.

Chilling Out and Staying Cool

After Gino offered us an excellent improvised lunch, Portia thinks that all Belgian boys know how to cook, but she’s only seen 2 out of 5 million, so her conclusions may be premature. Our other Torontonian friend, Allison, told us 400 years of Canadian history in the time it takes to eat a Japanese lunch. We can share our passion for Agile by extending it in ways that were never envisioned (or intended) by the originators of Agile: test-first, paired, iterative and incremental, timeboxed clothes shopping. Consequently, we look sharp as we go out to dinner with Ben, Allison and Gino to discuss scary ideas in English with a funny French accent.

Looking into the Mirror

The “Mirror, Mirror on the wall… Why me?” session contained an agile retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to help the participants find actions to improve their collaborations and to be more aware of team composition. The Snow White Kanban cards we handed out to everyone we talked to where a hit: the dwarves sparked everybody’s imagination and the cards spread across the conference.

Les Neuf Cases aka The Nine Boxes

We subtitled the French-speaking “Neuf Cases” session in English to create the first and only bilingual session of the conference, so that participants learned to interview and improved their English/French skills; now that’s value for money! The preparation for the session, writing the subtitles in pair with bemused conference participants passing by, was almost as much fun as the session itself.

Value-Driven Presenters

As the conference went on, more and more people came up to us to talk about our games and to tell us how they had extended and used our games. Unfortunately, Vera couldn’t be here to share in the talks about the XP Game and to see how well the first tryout of our new “Business Value Game” went. In between all the talks and fun, there were some sessions that presented techniques that we will apply from now on, like the Conflict Resolution Diagram presented by Christian and Christoph or the 4.5 techniques to assign Business Value and prioritize out backlog presented by Mike.

To relax and reward ourselves for all the “hard work” and to keep the pace sustainable, we built in small treats and celebrations to the hectic touristic and conference schedule.


Agile 2008 – Friday pt. 1


Friday starts off with Corey Ladas’ “Starting a Kanban System for Software Engineering with Value Stream Maps and Theory of Constraints“. The talk contains practical techniques and steps to move to a more Lean, flowing software development system. Typical issues are highlighted. Many of the techniques are familiar to me and I’ve seen almost all of the techniques in use. Teams at different levels of maturity use different techniques. The important thing is to constantly strive to to better, to reduce cycle time. Corey recommends cumulative flow diagrams to quickly highlight problems.

There are some questions about the apparent conflict between reducing waste and increasing flow on the one hand with prioritizing to maximize value delivered. Not every story has the same value, unlike the production environments where flow originated. Aha! A conflict. Can we dissolve it with a Conflict Resolution Diagram?

Read more at Corey Ladas’ blog.


Agile 2008 – Thursday

Putting the team’s heart in the game

Jim McCarthy gives an overview of the commitments and protocols of “The Core“. The Core provides us with tools to enhance team communication and alignment. When we want to achieve collective greatness we need to aggregate the strengths of the team members. If we want to achieve mediocrity, we can just let each person’s weaknesses nullify another’s strengths. The same message is also at the core of the “Mirror Mirror” session Portia and I organized.

I’d give this presentation a 6/10

What I liked was:

  • The personal anecdotes Jim told
  • The relaxed presentation style
  • Jokes

To make it perfect I would:

  • Use less of a preaching tone, but talk about the simple, practical tools and their results in terms that engineers and managers understand
  • Take the audience through the tools and gradually build up towards the synergistic effects of the tools
  • Adopt a consistent stance and style during the presentation
  • Always talk clearly, directly to the audience and avoid asides
  • Show more, tell less

I’ve been to Bootcamp and have used The Core tools for years. They work.

I’m afraid that the material (the book, the bootcamp manual, this talk) does not do the tools justice.

I’m In.

Business Value Game

We organized a tryout of the new Business Value Game, the first public outing of the latest game Vera and I designed. A group of us grabbed two tables in the Open Space room and played the game with two teams. The game went quite smoothly and the participants gave me a lot of good feedback to improve and extend the game.

Vera and I will publish the game soon, after the next tryout. As usual, the game will have a Creative Commons license, so that you can remix and reuse the game. If you want a pre-release copy of the game, contact me.

Gino showed us some more of Toronto and offered us an impromptu but excellent lunch. We really wanted to go to the “Seeking to Perceive more than to be Perceive” by Emmanuel Gaillot and Bernard Notarianni, but we had to prepare for our session in the next slot.

Les Neuf Cases / The Nine Boxes

Les Neuf Cases pour mieux comprendre son Client” presents the “9 boxes” interview technique from Solution Selling in the French language track. Because some English speaking participants expressed interest in the session, we decided to make this a bilingual session, “V.O. en français sous-titré en anglais”.

The session worked really well. The participants were really engrossed in interviewing each other and learned a useful technique. The discussion at the end was even more interesting, as we looked at the bigger picture:

  • We have a systemic problem with sales compensation, if the bonus is only tied to selling the project and not to delivering the project. Selling fairytales is easy. Implementing them is hard. I’d rather see bonuses tied to succesful delivery. This gives us two bonus features: salespeople have an incentive to sell short projects that deliver quickly and company cash flow improves as the bonus is paid upon payment by the customer.
  • The consulting model of Solution Selling is really useful in lots of situations. The 9 boxes are a technique to perceive more.
  • A customer who knows what they want is extremely dangerous. If we don’t explore the problem, we will likely end up building a solution that does not solve a problem. Where’s the value in that? Solution Selling gives us the “Re-engineering the Vision” tool to bring our interviewee back from box 9 (“I know the solution”) to box 1 (“If that’s the solution, what is the problem?”).
  • The Nine Boxes can be used by everyone who wants to know what we need to make, from the salesperson to the developer. The salesperson is our first analyst. The Nine Boxes provide most of the information you need to write epics and stories. Dave Nicolette explains how to write User Stories with the Nine Boxes.

We got a lot of good feedback from the participants. Doing a bilingual session was really fun.

I wonder about the “Chansons Françaises” stage for French-language sessions. Some of the sessions on this stage only had a low number of participants. This track seems a bit ‘ghetto’, apart from the rest of the conference. Bilingual sessions help to cross the language barrier. You do need bilingual session presenters, though. Portia and I are available 🙂


There’s a bit of buzz about techniques like Kanban, Real Options, Lean and Theory of Constraints. People will exclaim things like “Oh, I see! That’s creating an option!” or talk about bottlenecks and flow. Chris Matts keeps popping up everywhere like a one-man marketing machine spreading the word. Portia and I have met many people who’ve heard about these concepts and want to know more. Watch out for more news about our “Real Options Space Game” to experience Real Options while playing an SF board game.

Reception and dinner

The evening ends with the traditional dinner, speeches and awards. One of the highlights was the “XP song” by the Japanese participants. After dinner, we have several more chats over drinks. I’m really happy that many people came up to us to talk about the XP game and the other games Vera, Portia and I designed.

I’m glad I’m at Agile 2008.

I’m sad it’s almost over

I’m In.


Agile 2008 – Wednesday afternoon pt. 2

How to overcome Pertinent Conflicts

Christian and Christoph presented the Conflict Resolution Diagram (or “Evaporating Cloud”), a technique to (dis)solve conflicts. I’ve been using this technique for a while, but I still learned something new: stating the underlying assumptions in an extreme way is fun and very effective. These statements ask to be challenged.

More about the Thinking Tools in Bill Dettmer’s “The Logical Thinking Processes“. The book is quite expensive, but the tools are very clearly explained. To make it perfect, I would add more “stories”, show how the tools are used on cases, step by step.