Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Agile Africa 2013 Conference - Day One

I attended the inaugural Agile Africa Conference in Johannesburg yesterday, hosted by the JCSE & ThoughtWorks, sponsored by an interesting array of partners. A two-day conference hosting guest speakers from all over, quite an impressive list of speakers.

I attended more out of curiosity to gauge the talent in Africa/South Africa, as I've been quite skeptical about the breadth, depth and appreciation of software engineering practices in Africa, due to my limited exposure to the local industry after having spent ten years in Europe working with Agile from way back in 2004/5, coming back to work SA felt like I'd been set back by the way software was done 15-20 years ago. Not only that, it seems corporate structures of large companies in SA are still set in this mindset that is so out of date with current modern day practices...

In my two years of being in SA, I've touched base with a few consultants and quite honestly I was not overly impressed. I felt that people were just jumping on the Agile bandwagon, without fully appreciating what adopting Agile really meant, the impact on company organisation, culture and productivity. My limited experience & interaction with these Agile Trainers also led me to believe it was just the next gravy train, people went on Agile courses, got certified as Scrum Masters / Coaches and then went out to offer expert training without being in the trenches themselves, seeing the transformation of teams through this process of Agile Adaptation / Evolution, basically training us without any substance/depth.

So I was looking forward to getting an insight into the Agile community in South Africa - and boy, was I pleasantly surprised! The turnout for the conference was impressive, the Alex Theatre in Braamfontein was almost full to capacity - there is indeed lots of interest in Johannesburg alone. The line of local speakers impressive (respect!). The presentations were world-class, engaging, interactive, inspiring, motivating - but most of all, they echoed the values that I've shared on Agile all along, renewing my own energy and passion, since the last two years have been quite a struggle to get a company to move from one level of Agile maturity to the next level, in the context of a major product delivery, in what's become quite a difficult and rather ambiguous Agile journey.

What I've also taken away is that the speakers haven't really conveyed truly enlightening insights to me, that I myself have been in Agile for 8+ years, and I've built up my own body of knowledge (through my own work experience, training & readings) that I think is possibly worth sharing, especially with companies working with Large-Scale Software Systems in Digital TV projects. The white papers I've written have been my first attempt at distilling this knowledge, but I realise now (well, this has been on my mind for a long time now) that I need to do more, since quite frankly, the medium isn't really working for me. My white papers are long and tedious to read, often my readers suffer from Communication Saturation. I've made strides at shortening my posts, using visualisations, etc - but now I think I should really put myself out there, ask for feedback on my writings from these esteemed speakers, and also take the leap into presenting my own case studies at similar conferences! Time will tell...

I've summarized my personal key take-aways from the first day here:
Successful Agile Transitions: Patterns to ensure success (or failure) - Mitch Lacey
Mitch Lacey (from the US) is the author of "Scrum Field Guide", added recently to my Amazon wishlist. Mitch's pitch was really around the reality and implications of organisational change and leadership required when taking the plunge into Agile: it is new, scary, people will fail a few times until they get it kinda right and working for them. The message not so blunt and direct as a later, local SA speaker (Arrie), Mitch subtly transferred key points: Understand Agile Principles and Values, Don't pay Lip Service or Offer Agile Ceremonies with no depth or value creation, Management must be Leaders not Managers, Trust in People and Afford People the opportunity to Fail. Agile is a journey, a learning journey - it can't be rushed, avoid typical nonsense "My IT team can try out agile, but failure to deliver is not an option" which is so often the speak of Senior Managers who don't have a clue of Agile really is. Beware of simplifying Agile as just the next fad, buzzword, etc - it is working in a variety of companies, not only software development (or even just web development). Take time to know what you're getting into.
My only negative comment is that I was hoping for some real case studies and war stories of successes and failures. But in the time allowed for the talk, I think if Mitch's intent was to enlighten senior management as well as people disillusioned that they're doing Agile the right way, then it should have lit some light bulbs, people should start by envisioning the outcome...
I also took away his mode of presentation style, the flow of story telling, the analogies he used with describing leadership versus management, and his note on Communication Saturation and also Product Owner writing Acceptance Test Cases for user stories...

Agile for Creative Industries - Trevor Kimenye
I found this talk particularly relevant to the challenges people face in developing Set-Top-Box User Interface / Experience when transitioning to Agile. Trevor, an ex-Software guy, serial entrepreneur from Kenya, started up his own company in Digital marketing, new media only (excludes paper and other traditional marketing material). His company has adopted Agile for what is largely a Creative experience, compared to most adoptions in Software Development. Whilst some projects involved web design / coding, mobile apps, etc - what is interesting is that they've created a team consisting of graphic designers, artists, client services, developers - all functioning as one unit, iterating as required - working with customers in creating an evolving product delivery. The key challenges with agile in creative projects is that non-linear tasks are very hard to estimate and time-box, artists suffer from perfectionism, agency culture challenges in terms of work-ethic (weekend working, last minute deadlines, etc.), not many Agile practitioners in Kenya.
I took away it is possible to pair a creative artist with a developer and finish off a UI/UX design in one sitting. I must get mobile app "The Whip". The presentation artwork was also cool...

Agile Testing Mindset - Sam Laing & Karen Greaves
Sam and Karen are from GrowingAgile, based in Cape Town, South Africa. I connected with this bubbly duo last year when I sent some of my Developers/Testers on an Agile Testing course with Janet Gregory. I also called them to our offices, gave a walk-through of our current challenges, etc - but haven't fully engaged in taking the consulting further. This team have grown and are doing some good things for the industry, especially focusing on Agile Testing, spreading the message that Continuous Testing is really at the core of Agile practices. If you're not doing continuous testing throughout your sprint cycle, then you're not doing Agile properly. The role of the Tester is also clarified, QA are not Test Monkeys that Developers use to throw code over the wall to. They are core to the sprint planning, work with the team to direct and focus, coordinate test strategy and test cases, are domain and subject matter experts. Developers must test throughout. Test Driven Development is key, even if you don't have automation in place, you can still create manual test cases before you start development. Ideally let the computers do the work for you by automation, get your Testers to do the thinking and interpretation, value-based testing. They've also drawn up their very own Agile Testing Manifesto following the same style "whilst we value items on the right, we value the items on left more, etc"...I also really appreciated the teams presentation style, the use of free-hand drawn slides - excellent...

Teams and Sticky Notes versus Organisational Agility! - Arrie van der Dussen
Arrie is from Kaizania Academies, a company I've not heard of until yesterday. This guy really owned the stage, the audience was completely engaged and captivated. Using his Afrikaner-personality as neat presentation style, Arrie spoke frankly, bluntly and was to-the-point, direct, bold, and most importantly absolutely spot on in his message. Companies got to walk-the-talk, appreciate common sense and be honest about innovation and competition. Constant revolution requires constant Adaptation. You don't implement Agile, it's impossible to "implement" agile, you "adopt" it. Arrie echoed Mitch's sentiments about Company Organisational Culture and Mindset changes required to go to Agile / Lean. Whatever the Agile / Lean / Kanban / Scrum buzzwords out there, they are merely justifying "common sense"! I thought I was listening to myself all the way through his talk.
What was interesting is that he touched on the key organisational challenges I wrote about in a white paper here. Without a mindset & massive cultural change, companies will not succeed with Agile.
Books Arrie mentioned that I've now added to my reading list: "Product Development Flow" & "Agile Contracting". Also check out Glass Ceiling, Cargo-Cults (People do things without understanding why - the whole false agile ceremonies, lip service theme). Also thinking of calling Arrie to give a talk to our company's senior management!

The Process Increments Method: Case studies from Egypt - Amr Noaman Abdel-Hamid
This was a slightly heavy presentation for the last session, but no less relevant to the theme of transitioning to Agile, and measuring process improvements - a challenge that most organisations will face when adopting Agile. Once Agile is introduced, there needs to be an ongoing review and monitoring of the overall processes, working through the teams to get to the desired improvements. Amr shared his methods used for driving Software Process Improvements, re-using the Agile concepts of Backlog, User Stories, Burn-downs, etc. The key message is: You can run a process improvement process project as you would any Agile project, but be sure to work through the team, gain commitment from management team and stay away from assigning process improvement initiatives to one person - it is a team responsibility. Amr's team have created templates for various Agile principles that people can use as guidelines. They've implemented this method in real companies, real projects and have collected empirical data and measurements, offering interesting insights. Worth getting hold of his presentation, I believe there's a paper available on Agile Alliance website...

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