Blog Post

SCRUM Training with Alistair Cockburn


I wanted the SCRUM Master certification this year, and could have gone local, but I wanted to get the training from Dr. Alistair Cockburn after watching a video of his training - and noting how great a teacher he is - and also after having read his impressive book Crystal Clear - which is on small-team "lean-like" methodology for software development (and I've pretty much always worked on small teams). So I took the trek to Salt Lake City for Alistair's class and wow - it was an out-of-body experience in a positive way.

If I find something really good, then I like to surface it. I've brought up Alistair a few times on after having read Crystal Clear on a recommendation from a friend - but pretty much nobody else has talked about him to this point - a point that can be seen by doing a search on "Cockburn" on the SSC search page.

That noted, I think Alistair deserves attention even in the realm of database development and administration since I presume we care about how we go about doing what we do, i.e. methodology - and Alistair is arguably one of the best professional methodologists out there.

Now, I'm not doing a Simple-talk "Geek of the Week" interview on Alistair here - so I'm free to invert and flip my reporting of my SCRUM quest and talk about curious observations - like how Alistair clinked together small engraved brass cimbals to start and end team exercises - and how I noticed he wore a strange gaelic-like belt buckle, denoting the general vicinity of his family origins (somewhere up there around the Scandanavian realms).

I notice he hardly ever says the word "idea" - which is short but with three gluttonous syllables, often adds a certain credibility to whatever follows - and instead uses the word "notion" with two efficient syllables - and tends to make what follows sound far more provisional and less authoritative. Part of what Alistair has been doing in the software development field is pulling back on ways of doing things that have become dogma - and reeling them back in as just "good tricks" - which is what they were to start with. When you realize that all you have is just good tricks, then you feel less constrained in adjusting things to better fit the situation.

Alistair hardly ever uses extra-terrestrial metaphors while talking work matters. You won't hear any "space time continuum" - or "out there in the stratosphere" or "like a super-nova" or what have you. His metaphors are decidedly terrestrial, down-to-earth, toiling on the surface of the planet metaphors. For instance, in the course of about five minutes during a lecture-discussion, he used all of the following metaphors: "Let's dig under there a little," "let's sharpen that up a bit," "let's invert the way we look at it," "here's the binding force," "let's go after that one," "this is why I want it broken out" and "let's build that one up a little more."

So through the metaphors you can gather a zeitgeist of sorts and see that in the world of ideas, Alistair does excavation, exploration, construction, deconstruction, architecture, invention, chemistry and the like (even culinary arts. He talks about flank steak, sashimi and carpaccio as varying sizes of incremental development).

Now the excavation activities Alistair does deserves special attention. So, he reads from a wide range of fields like philosophy, anthropology, psychology, sociology, ancient martial arts and so on - and if he uncovers something profound, he pulls it up brings it to the surface. For instance, he's got some great references to out-of-print material in the appendix of his book Agile Software Development that are golden. For instance, he's got a selection from Miyamoto Musashi, a famed but forgotten 17th century samurai warrior who never lost a fight and who wrote "The Book of Five Rings." Musashi's writings contain some gems that are relevant to software development, such as "never do anything useless" and the art of reflective practice and learning.

In a class of 10-12 students, I was the least experienced in agile. So perhaps I listened differently. I was interested in the world view and the big picture of our profession. I asked Alistair what he thought of our profession as a whole compared to other professions like education, accounting, medicine and the like. Are we better or worse at self-reflection and reflective learning?

Alistair replied that he's done lots of consulting over the past few decades around lots of people from other professions - and his general impression is that we're less self-aware and reflective as a whole. Yet the concept of reflect and learn is at the heart of agile techniques like SCRUM where the point is to hold up the mirror and ask, "what is the mirror telling you? What are you going to do about it?" It's all about reflecting, learning, adjusting.

So if that's true about us in general, that's a sobering thought. There was plenty of evidence in our group exercises. In one exercise, three small teams were given a simple software system to build - calculate tax by state and three discount tiers for three products of a given price.

I was on the team with the least practice with Agile - and we put together something workable. The other two more agile teams weren't able to pull it off. You could say they were too tied to doing things a certain way and they didn't adjust during the exercise. They built base classes and used test-first practices - paying a heavy up-front time cost that they didn't have enough time to pay. They knew how much time they had up-front and knew that re-use wasn't the object. Had they reflected on the situation mid-way, they could have made an adjustment. But they didn't.

Reflect, learn and adjust is an urgent need in our profession. That was a big takeaway for me.

So Alistair is one of the original founders of the Agile Manifesto - so he's been at the heart of things and today he's an avant-garde voice among the experts, constantly innovating, experimenting and challenging the status quo. What's more, he shares a vital sense of history behind the ideas that swirl around agile. He knows where they came from and he knows the people that said things and what the context was.

In our realm of database platform where as a whole we're trying but are of course struggling with agile practices, a half-cup of Alistair Cockburn wouldn't hurt a bit.


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