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Three Sporting Fails for your Agile Interview

June 9, 2017

“That's what you live for as a sportsman. You have to put up a fight.” - Jurgen Klopp

Well done

Congratulations! You replied to the job advert for an agile position, and you’ve got an interview. Genuinely keen to work in an agile way, you know that the organization must have picked up on your credentials. You did everything you could to highlight them in your application, and evidently those agile skills must have got you to the top of the pile. Now you’re through the door. Good luck!

You move over to the chair indicated by the interviewer and sit down. You quietly study him from across the desk - and your heart begins to sink. He seems disengaged, and barely acknowledges you as he sniffs disdainfully, checking his watch. His body language suggests a person with little interest in either you or the interview itself. There is no eye contact beyond the most fleeting of glances. You begin to wonder if he is a dullard promoted beyond his competence, assigned to this interview because he was the only manager available at the time. Now he looks out of the window. As the seconds tick by - during that key inaugural moment when first impressions count - you find yourself drawing your own conclusions about him.

Eventually he turns his unseeing and self-absorbed gaze towards you, and seems ready to speak. You hope he will redeem himself and the organization he represents. Will he ask your opinion about Sprint commitments, or a good Definition of Done, or of how work ought to be co-ordinated when multiple teams are involved? Will he probe your agile experiences like an expert, and allow your own expertise to shine through? Or will he confirm your growing opinion of him as a dim bulb? Perhaps one of those pointy-haired bosses who capitalizes “agile” because he thinks it is an acronym, or rendered more significant because he is pronouncing the word?

His voice breaks the silence with the self-assured contempt of a mid-tier apparatchik too important and too busy to learn. “I haven’t had time to read your application” he barks dismissively. “What I want to know is, how do you propose to use AGILE to get my projects done faster and cheaper?”

You sigh quietly, your worst fears seemingly confirmed. As if the substance of his words was not disappointing enough, you can tell by the tone of his voice that he does indeed capitalize the term. How should you answer him though? Is this really the place to explain how agile practice isn’t just about “faster and cheaper”, or necessarily about projects at all? Such a clarification might well cost you the job. You may find yourself explaining innovation to a man who doesn’t like to be contradicted, and who never sullies his mind with original thought anyway. Perhaps you should just talk about building the right thing at the right time, with opportunities for a team to learn, and to secure an early return on investment? If he listens to that much about agile ways-of-working, perhaps you can move forward from there. Or should you just pander to him outright, telling him whatever nonsense you think he wants to hear, with your eye firmly on getting the job? Should you reassure him that of course “AGILE” will make your projects faster and cheaper?

He's looking at you, kid

This is a quandary you hoped never to get into, but it is hardly a rare one. Many others have to deal with this situation. The classic problem in an agile interview is that the person doing the interviewing isn’t necessarily the person who wants to hire. Perhaps a vision or directive has been given by the CEO for the organization to “go agile”, and new job descriptions are framed accordingly. It’s delegated to the CEO’s underlings to make transformation happen. Unfortunately, the person now staring at you from across the desk may not value agility at all, regardless of whatever the job advert might say, or the strategic goal is stated to be. It could be that agility is misunderstood within the organization, and its petty bureaucrats look for a magician who can somehow just do things "faster and cheaper". They effectively translate the wider organizational need in terms of their own narrow parochial demands and localized pain-points.

Furthermore, a “go agile” directive from the CEO can be seen as an actual problem by middle-managers, precisely because it implies change and threatens stability. Told to recruit people with agile competencies, middle-management look to hire candidates who can make this agile nonsense go away. That type of interviewer doesn’t want an expert who is gung-ho about agility and the need for deep and pervasive organizational change. What he or she wants is agile lipstick on a fast and cheap pig. If the pig can be made to dance and blow kisses, it might meet an uninformed CEO’s idea of agility and prove beautiful enough. That’s what the interviewer is mulling over right now. He's looking at you and trying to size you up. Are you the right person to give a pig an agile make-over? Or at the very least, can he rely on you to insulate him from transformational failure, so when things start going pear-shaped you absorb all of the risk?

Meanwhile you perform your own calculations. Is the job still worth pitching for? Perhaps work is hard to find right now, or you relish a challenge. It could be worth it. Only you can decide that. Trying to apply agile practice in a compromised environment is a crucible in which the highest-grade agile expertise can be forged. You learn all sorts of pitfalls and anti-patterns and how to get out of them.

Or perhaps you’ve had a bellyful of “fake agile” already. You were really hoping for something a bit nicer in your next engagement. All you'd succeed at here are some local optimizations and leaning a few things out. Now it is your eyes turning to the window, as you consider the opportunities for escape. Should you just say that if he hasn't read your application properly then you don't wish to continue? The busy man can put the time back in his busy diary. Or should you continue for a bit, then ask to be momentarily excused, and try to slip out quietly by the main entrance? Oh, what about the security barriers though, you don't have a swipe-card. Do you remember passing a fire exit? Should you just sound the alarm and flee?

In my experience, fortunately none of these options have ever proven to be necessary. I have an alternative approach to getting out of a bad interview quickly. The trick is to say "That's interesting!" and explore the prospects of agile change further with three critical questions of your own. Any one of them should be enough to count you out of the job and bring a painful interview to a rapid close.

Three agile questions to spook your interviewer

  1. "Who here actually wants agile change"? This may seem like a softball question, but just try asking it and watch the results! The interviewer's gaze immediately hardens, then he looks away. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair and you can cut the atmosphere with a knife. It's the $64,000 question and he's uncertain of the exact answer himself. He just knows it's the way the politics have shifted. Also, you've steamed right ahead and used the word change. The context is switching from his comfort zone of faster and cheaper to much more uncertain territory. You've clearly lost the job, but he may try to bluster an answer to save face by appealing to unseen authority. "It's the CEO who wants it" he may state with due gravitas, or "the CIO has determined it", or perhaps he will name some other eminence which a prospective underling would do well not to question. Perhaps he even asserts that he is the one who wants it, so as to try and wither you. No matter. Whoever is claimed to want agile practice, it's time to move on to the next question. 

  2. "What is the transformational vision"? If anyone truly wants agile change, then it is reasonable to expect them to have a sense of purpose. Why do they want it? If the CEO wants it, then what is the strategic vision for change? If it is the CIO, then how far does the initiative and remit for change truly extend? Will increments be integrated, fully tested, and feature complete? What about business? Whoever wants it, how will innovation span the organization's delivery model, and how will feedback loops be closed? Now you've got your interviewer well on the ropes. He hadn't figured on vision or the breadth and depth of genuine agile practice. Faster and cheaper projects is what he wants. He never said anything about vision. Worse, you've upped the ante further from change to transformation. The sure ground has moved from under his feet and he feels like a man drowning. He dodges your question or babbles a half-formed answer. It is your turn to look at him disdainfully, eyebrow raised. You know you shouldn't have done that but you just couldn't help it. Time to finish the misery.  

  3. "How will sponsorship be provided"? The coup-de-grace is to put your interviewer squarely in that transformational context he would prefer to avoid. You're making it absolutely clear that agility isn't about a new hire somehow doing things faster and cheaper. It requires a willingness on the part of stakeholders to overcome their own organizational gravity, so change can actually happen. What part will middle management play? How will your interviewer perform his role in the transformation which an agile delivery model requires? He hasn't even thought about how his own role will need to transform, and grows silent at the thought of the courage he would need to be a sponsor himself. 

One door closes behind you

An agile change agent can plow a lonely furrow. Sometimes though, plowing must be done before a seed can take root. By asking critical questions and making your interviewer think, perhaps you can turn over the compacted soil of a manager's mind and help the germ of agile transformation to begin. Not now, or perhaps even next year, but eventually it might be understood that organizational change cannot be delegated. Agility is about innovation and building the right thing, not executing projects "faster and cheaper". The change required is deep and pervasive, and clear sponsorship is essential. Perhaps the organization will need to fail a few times before the small seed you left can grow. That might be the time for another conversation. Then there may be a stronger understanding of agile practice, a keener interest in your skills, and a clearer vision of the benefits which the agile journey can realistically be expected to bring.

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