TL; DR: The Agile Movers & Shakers Interview with Ben Linders
Welcome to the Agile Movers & Shakers interview series. Today’s guest is Ben Linders:
“As an independent advisor, trainer, and coach, I help organizations with effectively deploying software development and management practices to deliver business value to customers. My strengths are continuous improvement, collaboration and communication, and professional development. I’m a one-person company doing many different things to help people, teams, and companies become better in developing and delivering software products and services.
I’m a practical person who wants to have a real impact and make the world a little bit better. I look for ways to apply things, share, and help people experiment and learn. In my books, workshops, advice, and coaching sessions, I focus on adopting agile, increasing agility, dealing with impediments, collaboration and communication, continuous improvement, and making retrospectives valuable.
A couple of years ago, I started my own ‘agile scaling and digitalization’ journey. I’m making my books, games, exercises, workshops and remote training, and other agile coaching tools that I use myself in my workshops and advice work available to the world as digital downloads at benlinders.com/shop. And they come with free lifetime support personally by me. Examples of the products and services that I provide are the Agile Self-assessment Game (close to 2000 downloads!), Impediments Cards and Games, Agile Retrospectives Bingo, and Agile Retrospectives Smells Cards and Agile Quality Coaching Cards. People can use them to self-improve their way of working, or coach professionals, teams, and organizations in improving their performance and increasing the value that they deliver.”
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Agile Movers & Shakers: Ben Linders’ Questionnaire
- Please describe what you do in 280 characters:
“I’m a one-person company helping people, teams, and companies become better in developing and delivering software products and services.”
- What brought you to ‘agile?’
“What do you do when you get a project that’s been going on for a long time and hasn’t delivered value? Running my first project, my team and I collaborated with our customer, doing agile stuff when the Agile Manifesto wasn’t invented yet, to deliver high-quality software. In the first project increment, we addressed one of the main risks so that we could deliver core functionality. We excluded everything else to focus on the problems and were able to deliver a piece of software running on a PC (the application was embedded software for a CNC Milling machine). Something that actually worked!
Our customer was happily surprised when we showed him the software when he visited us a couple of weeks after the project started. He took it back to his company to play with it. The next day he called us and told us that he had tried it and found out what worked well, except for one situation. Going through the failure on the phone, we immediately understood the problem and agreed that it would be solved in the next increment. Each increment, we added new functionality and solved problems that either the team or our customer found. We would demonstrate the product to our managers, the customer, and anybody else who was interested in getting feedback and improving it. Building a relationship with our customers by delivering the product in increments was beneficial for both of us — resulting in high-quality software.
As you might guess from some of the grey hairs that I have, my first project had been a while ago. To be precise, this was in 1990 when I was working as a consultant for Philips. Agile hadn’t been invented yet; there was no Scrum with Sprint Planning and product reviews. I took the approach to deliver value to my customer in increments because it made sense to my team and me. To complete the picture: My team was distributed over two locations. We worked at the same site one day each week, where we merged the software and synchronized (using floppy disks to transfer source code). We used version control and automated testing, did design and code reviews, pairing, and tried to improve our way of working as much as possible by reflecting and learning from the things that happened in our increments.
When I got the early manuscripts from Alistair Cockburn on Agile Software Development and heard about the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, that all made a lot of sense to me. The values and principles are exactly those things that I’ve been doing throughout my career. Now they got a name 🙂. All of the projects that I’ve managed or have been working in used increments — I’ve never been in a waterfall project. For the people that I worked with, delivering in increments and for me is the best way to work together. Maybe I’m spoiled, but it strengthened my belief that working in increments works 🙂.”
- Why do you believe that being passionate about ‘agile’ is worth your time?
“It’s not that much being passionate about agile, more being passionate to share what people are doing that works or doesn’t work, to share their leanings, their experiences. Much of that is agile, but certainly not all (and a lot was there already before agile was coined). I’m hoping to make the world a better place by inspiring people in a practical ‘can-do’ way.”
- How would you characterize your way of contributing to an organization’s success in becoming agile?
“One important thing is that I always look for what’s there already and try to strengthen that. What are people doing that works? Where’s a success, and how does that look? What drives people, where’s the energy? I look for ways to use this is as a lever to drive improvements. So I don’t come in with a bag of frameworks or tools. I come in to help people reflect, understand where they are, see what’s keeping them awake at night. When they want solutions to solve problems or become better, I help them pick from what is there and have them think about ways to apply it in their specific situation.”.”
- What is in your toolbox?
“What isn’t? I mean, I’ve been working in the software industry since 1984, so I’ve seen and done many different things. And I’m still eager to learn and try out new stuff; my toolbox is growing every day. In my books, workshops, advice, and coaching sessions, I focus on adopting agile practices, increasing agility, dealing with impediments, collaboration and communication, continuous improvement, and making retrospectives valuable. As an adviser, trainer, and coach, I help organizations with effectively deploying software development and management practices.”
- Do you believe in removing yourself from a team or an organization in the long run? If so, why is that and have you done so in the past?
“I think that from the first minute you should put the people that you work within the center. I don’t tell them what to do or how to do things; I’m helping them to see where they are and move forward — and also inspiring them to find their own solutions. As people are learning, our interactions change continuously. At many times, we’ve found out that things went quicker than expected. People picked up stuff, starting working, got results, which energized them and empowered them to take on more. Regarding removing myself, when it’s done, then it’s done.”
- What has been your greatest success so far, and how did you manage to realize it?
“Right now it’s my books, games, exercises, and other agile coaching tools that are available as digital downloads. People all over the world are downloading them from benlinders.com/shop. I hear back from how they have used them and what they got out of them. They help coaches and teams to do great stuff!”
- What has been your worst failure so far, how did you contribute to it, and what did you learn from it?
“To go back to the roots of agile, what the manifesto for agile software development has done is giving visibility to a different school of thought about developing software and managing it. With the manifesto they challenged what was commonly thought and accepted by the software world in the past century:
- We need to define the process upfront and stick to it. And use tools to ensure that people don’t take shortcuts.
- If we all do our job, then the result will be great. And please, make sure that people always fully document what they did.
- We need to define what’s needed upfront, in detail and have it signed by the customer. Before we start a design, let alone coding, we can’t make a product when we don’t know everything.
- Changes are evil. So let’s postpone them to the end of the project and make sure that we get fully paid to do the dirty work.
At times I’ve been guilty too to have one or more of the above things leading my thinking. During my early career, I’ve probably stated similar things to my colleagues. Hell, did I know? It’s what I learned at school, what I read in books, and what my bosses were telling me. Looking back, my worst failure was believing what ‘traditional’ opinion leaders in the industry were telling — not thinking for my self, trying to do things the easy way. I encourage people to try out stuff, experiment. Dare to fail and learn. Take small steps. And dare to disagree, develop your own ideas. Think for yourself.”
- Finally, what is your magic tool as a coach/trainer or Scrum Master?
“The magic is that there’s no magic. Everybody can do magic if we allow them to do it. Trust them to try something out. Don’t micro-manage but provide what they need. Maybe my magic is that I inspire people to experiment, and somehow, I’m able to convince their bosses to step aside and give way…”
- Which newsletters, blogs, podcasts, or Youtube channels do you follow that deserve more credit than they receive now? Any recommendations?
“There are no specific things that I follow, I get my inspiration in many ways. Google is my friend when I hear something new, then I search for it and try to find at least three different views to get some first idea of what it is. As a side job, I write for InfoQ.com. Writing helps me to stay on top of new developments and share what’s happening in the world. There’s lots of great stuff there, so I recommend it.”
- If you could recommend only one book on ‘agile,’ which book would that be?
“If you haven’t read it yet, get a copy of Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister. It’s pre-agile, and the sad news is that a lot of what’s described in the book that’s blocking people in working together still exists. We can do better than this!”
- Whom should we interview next, Ben Linders?
“There are so many people who keep inspiring me. Bob Marshall, who keeps bugging our minds and making us think. Yves Hanoulle, whose initiatives are connecting many people. Michal Vallo who challenges the world for better ways of managing our companies and people. These are just some…”
- Where can we learn more about Ben Linders?
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