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Highlights from Agile2017: Gender, diversity—and lessons from the agilists

Em Campbell-Pretty Founding Partner, Context Matters
Spotify presentation at Agile2017

The themes of the Agile Alliance's Agile2017 conference earlier this month can be summarized as gender, diversity, and the impact of cognitive biases and how to overcome them.

The week kicked off on Sunday, August 6, with a Women in Agile workshop hosted by Natalie Warnert, and diversity was an important topic throughout the week. Of course, there was also a lot of agile discussed at Agile2017, from the so-called Spotify model to the "no estimates" approach.

Here are some highlights from the show.


Astronaut Abby sets the tone 

The workshop was keynoted by Astronaut Abby. Now, I had no idea who Astronaut Abby was, but all the pre-conference buzz led me to believe she was someone very special. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but I was expecting an astronaut. You can imagine my disappointment when a college-aged woman was introduced. I felt robbed—she wasn’t a real astronaut; she was a twenty-something dressed in a flight suit, someone who merely aspires to be an astronaut—specifically, the first astronaut to walk on Mars. Foolishly, I had sat in the front row—there was no escaping now.

Then Abby—Abigail Harrison—started to tell her story, and I went from disappointment to a state of awe. In 2015, at only 18 years of age, Abby founded the Mars Generation, a nonprofit with the mission of “making STEM cool again.” In the last two years, the Mars Generation has helped 25 million people and provided 20 full scholarships to space camp. (This got me thinking that I may have seriously underachieved in my early 20s.) 

The underlying message, though, concerned the support Abby has received in progressing her dream to become an astronaut from the women and men from previous generations of the NASA space program. That should serve as a reminder that we all can have a positive impact on girls and young women in underrepresented fields such as STEM. We just need to act.

The highlight of the open space that followed was a session led by Declan Whelan: “How to help men become better allies.” I think asking the question is a great first step, and the advice from the women in the room was loud and clear: Acknowledge there is a problem, leave space for women to participate in discussions, and acknowledge and repeat contributions from women. 

The workshop closed with three seven-minute keynotes from voices that had never had the opportunity to present on a national stage before. The perfect bookend to Abby’s opening challenge to us all to “dream big, act big, and in doing so inspire others to act.” 

Weighing in on the "manifestbro"

On Wednesday morning, Jez Humble shone a spotlight on the issue of women in technology with a 20-minute takedown of James Damore’s “manifestbro,” a.k.a. the Google memo. Humble focused on Damore’s core argument that differences in biology between men and women explain the underrepresentation of women in technology, noting that this is the same sort of logic that was used to justify colonialism and slavery.

Quite simply, he said, biology does not explain underrepresentation of women in technology. The differences between the abilities of men and women when it comes to math are negligible, he noted. Underrepresentation is a product of the perception that women are less capable and the belief that innate talent is the main requirement for success. The problem, said Humble, is compounded when people believe the sorts of things put forward in Damore’s memo.

Women have not always been a minority in technology, he noted. The first computer programmers were women. It was only in the mid-'80s that the number of women majoring in computer science started to decline. What changed was not biology but rather the perception of the work. Computer programming was no longer seen as clerical work, but as something difficult to master and therefore a stereotypical male activity.

One startling fact provided by Humble: When women move into a field, salaries go down, and when they move out of a field, salaries go up. Thank you, Jez, for acknowledging there is a problem/opportunity. 

Lessons from the agilists

On Tuesday morning, Spotify agile coach Joakim Sundén and Spotify newbie Catherine Peck-Phillip presented “You can do better than the Spotify model.” (See slides.) Sundén started by explaining that there is no Spotify model, a message that seasoned agilists may have heard from him and his colleagues before. However, he acknowledged that there is an industry perception that a Spotify model exists, a perception that most likely stems from Henrik Kniberg and Andres Ivarsson’s 2012 paper on “Scaling Agile @ Spotify,” Kniberg’s awesome videos on Spotify’s engineering culture, and numerous conference talks given by Sundén and others over the years.  

Peck-Phillip shared her experience of joining the agile unicorn that is Spotify. To her surprise, agile at Spotify is not perfect and not everyone uses the Spotify model.

One of the most fascinating insights Sundén and Peck-Phillip provided was that the autonomy that is widely understood to be at the heart of Spotify’s approach to agile is also the most frustrating aspect of life at Spotify. Perfect or not, there is no denying that Spotify is an extremely successful company. So what is its secret? According to Sundén and Peck-Phillip, it is never giving up on getting better. That is the real Spotify model.

Sundén's and Peck-Phillip's transparency in sharing the realities of agile at Spotify was appreciated by the audience. It is not often that a company shows its soft underbelly in a public arena, let alone a company as idolized in agile circles as Spotify is.

Turning up the good

Woody Zuill, who is perhaps best known for #NoEstimates and mob programming, presented “How to go from zero to sixty in 19 years: Accelerated learning on the path to agile.” Referencing Leonard Mlodinow's book The Drunkard's Walk, Zuill noted that humans are wired to see patterns in random information.  

This is driven by our need to feel in control and reinforced by a tendency to value information that validates our beliefs. Zuill asked, “What if we could increase the possibility of serendipity?” We could "turn up" what is already good, he said, by stumbling purposefully, taking small steps, and learning to see the good rather than fixating on the broken. 

The learning hour

On Wednesday morning, Llewellyn Falco explained his latest experiment: the learning hour. This year, Falco, an agile technical coach for mob programming, added a learning hour to his standard coaching day. It's at 11 am every day and is open to everyone—one hour every day when people are not working but learning. The payoff, he said, is compound interest for productivity.

If each learning hour provides a 1% improvement in productivity, the result would mean a 5-minute improvement each day. After 6 months, productivity will have doubled. And most likely your competitors are investing nothing. 

Check your head

The closing keynote, “Banishing your inner critic,” by Denise Jacobs, was the perfect ending to the week. Her message was simple: Our inner critic is holding us back. That critical voice inside our heads is fueled by the fears we have about ourselves and triggered by the negative things people say about us. However, we have mental “power tools” that can help fight this: attention and focus, mindfulness, self-compassion, and neuroplasticity.

Jacobs went on to share examples of how to access and use these power tools, such as:

  • Think like a scientist and question your inner critic.

  • When your mind won’t stop ruminating, squeeze a stress ball in your nondominant hand.

  • When your creative flow is blocked, work with your hands for 15 to 30 minutes.

  • Know your unique advantage.

  • Be your own coach of awesomeness.

  • And if you want to be rid of a negative thought, swipe left. Our brains are conditioned to associate this action with delete.

With memories of Jacobs’ session fresh in mind, I’m off to curl up on the couch with a copy of her new book, Banish Your Inner Critic: Silence the Voice of Self-Doubt to Unleash Your Creativity and Do Your Best Work.

I hope you found this small taste of a week at the world’s largest agile conference useful. With attendance for the Women in Agile workshop up about 25% from 2016, it shows there's a clear need for this sort of event. Join me in San Diego in 2018.


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