Monday, February 13, 2012

Learning To Frame

K and his wife M were in town this past weekend and when they called to say hello, we invited them over for dinner. K and DB went to school together and were meeting after twenty years. The couple has led a very interesting life and I was looking forward to meeting them.We chatted over chai and snacks and then DB did the obligatory tour of the house. He was really looking forward to showing them some of J's artwork that we have framed and hung on the walls of the office. 
He is incredibly proud of the child's artistic abilities and at times acts like an over-indulgent dad of the worst kind. That evening he was having one of his moments. J enjoys the adulation and I am happy for her - I do believe at least one parent must openly demonstrate pride in their child. It is then okay for the other to be a little reticent and keep things in balance. So while DB pulls the stops on occasion, I make it a point never to do so. 
K indulged us and gushed over how nice the pictures were. DB was all smiles and J looked quite pleased with herself. When the three of them left the room to go upstairs, M pulled me aside to let me know that I should never buy new picture frames on the cheap pointing to one example in the hallway. She exhorted me to check out flea markets for better frames I could buy for the same price and definitely mat every picture before framing. It makes all the difference. She had nothing to say about the artwork at all.
I have to admit I was more than a little taken aback.This is the first time I am meeting this person and  had not asked for an opinion on the aesthetics of my picture frames relative to their price point.A child had drawn these pictures between ages seven and nine and we put it up on our walls because we thought she had done a really fine job for her age. It is our way of encouraging her. I did not have the heart to tell M that every picture does not benefit from a mat and when it comes to artistic sensibility our mileage may vary.
Every room she stepped into she had some advice for me on how to improve it without breaking the bank.The conversations with M left me pondering about how we receive advice and information in our lives. She had a lot of both to share and if I could get over feeling hurt by her not noticing J's efforts, I may have learned several things. Maybe because I never allow myself the freedom to indulge J as lavishly as DB does, I am quicker to hurt over perceived slights. If I could reign my emotions in better, I may learn a lot more from the world around me. As a test, I plan to learn the art of matting from M.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012


I got a flyer in the mail today that had contained an infomerical about a product called Liquid Granite. The story was too good to be true - the look of granite for a fraction of the cost and you would not even need to gut your existing counter-tops. I was intrigued enough to do some research online and came across IdeaConnection. I  quickly moved on from Liquid Granite to more fascinating things. I must have spent an hour reading about inventions I had no idea existed. 
This is how the internet experience used to be when I first got online in the mid 90s. There were no filters or aggregrators - you started somewhere and ended up in entirely unexpected places - the journey was fun and unpredictable. You could waste an inordinate amount of time looking for information and digress all too easily. These days, most of my reading online is via Google Reader - the reading list is long and diverse but there is still a corralled feel to it. I get what I want in one place and related information is already curated for me  - there is little need to "browse" and therefore fewer opportunities to happen by something outside the walled garden. Jumping from from a printed flyer to a related online source and wandering without direction or constraint felt strangely exhilarating - I have not done this in a long time.

Monday, February 06, 2012

A Teachers Value

Recently Ms L, J's 4th grade teacher got engaged. The girls were a flurry of excitement over her sparkling diamond ring. J and friends attended her class last year but continue to swing by to say hello during recess. Not surprising considering how much they loved her. Ms L is in her late twenties, very pretty and has a million watt smile. That in addition to being a wonderful teacher. I was happy for her when J told me she was getting married to her former doctor. 
A few weeks later J told me that she and her friend M were concerned for Ms L. Apparently, she looked sad and did not smile anymore. She cheered up for a bit when the girls stopped to say hello so they made it a point to do so more regularly than they had done before. I was curious to know what a bunch of ten year olds made of the change in Ms L. They had figured she was sad because of the engagement and it burst their bubble a little - looking forward to marriage is supposed to be a happy time. They were doing their part to restore the magic to her special time. 
There is a human aspect to a teacher student relationship that goes beyond teaching and grades. These girls adore Ms L - she combines competence and femininity that they would be well served to emulate. She always took the time to enhance and personalize a boiler-plate lesson plan. Just like her, the kids in her charge were energized and wanted to exceed expectations from them. 
That her former students would treat putting a smile on her face as their recess priority would not count in any evaluation of her as teacher, but that is the highest score a teacher could aspire for. Reading this article by a teacher prompted this post about Ms L.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Lean from the Trenches

I have been on Lean/Agile project teams off and on for the last seven years. During that time I have met an assortment of Agile Gurus peddling their mantra, silver bullets, charlatanism garbed as expertise and other travesties to gullible clients desperate to go Agile. Very few had real experience taking projects to successful completion in the client's specific domain and to that extent a very limited appreciation for the challenges involved in doing so. 

Often the prescription provided to the project team required us all to struggle with force-fitting our problems into a solution that just did not mesh. We were warned of the dire consequences of not following due process- the Guru had coached hundreds of teams and knew what they were talking about.
The Scrum Master was left with the unpalatable job of evangelizing the mantra he or she did not find particularly credible or useful. The unenthusiastic team went through the motions of being Agile - shuffling their task cards around the board, reporting terse (and incoherent) status in daily stand-ups and playing Planning Poker on sprint planning day whose main draw was of course the free lunch. We were pseudo-Agile at best and completely divorced from process at worst. 

The metrics suggested we were getting a half-baked product without significant cost savings and the team was incredibly burned out from the high frequency of releases. We wondered about the great success stories that the Gurus talked about - why we were not able to replicate their recipe. When we re-grouped at project close to retrospect and self-flagellate, we did not come way with an epiphany that would serve us well on our next projects.

Coming from that background, I tend to be fairly skeptical about books that claim to teach how you can do Agile. I was ready to change my mind reading these lines in the foreword to Henrik Kniberg's Lean from the Trenches : "One beauty of this book's story is its complete lack of dogma. It is a story. A story of a project that had real troubles and addressed them with a small set of easily understood practices. Applying those practices required wisdom, patience, and persistence, which is why you can't just copy the story to fix your project". What a refreshing approach to writing about Lean !

As promised, the rest of the book takes you through the project life-cycle of a single project (as opposed to compiling a bunch of disjointed lessons learned/ experiences from projects completely unlike each other) and talks about what was tried and worked and what did not. Kniberg's tone is absolutely authentic - he has the conviction of someone who has lived in the trenches for a long a time and  truly knows the score. 

He addresses every single pain point that I have run into in the last seven years. Involving the customer and keeping them engaged, keeping different project teams in synch, handling bugs, not losing focus on the high level goal while delivering small chunks of the product, testing, WIP limits and backlog grooming among other things. Developers and testers will find their challenges addressed in significant detail. 

While the practices  Kniberg and his team followed, come from a place of commonsense, there is a lot creativity and ingenuity involved in every one of them. You learn how to use a principle and adapt it effectively to your own situation. Readers like myself often know what does not work but we are not quite so sure about what does - Kniberg shows you how he and his team resolved challenges very similar to your own and that I found invaluable.

If you were to have only one book on Lean/Agile in your bookshelf, I would recommend this one. A dozen tomes on theory and best practices will do less for you than reading this amazingly well-written story about a real Agile project. I truly look forward to applying some of the lessons I learned from reading this book to the next Lean/Agile project I am on.