Washington Techies Hold Retrospective on Healthcare.gov

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Last night, I attended the Washington DC Scrum User Group’s monthly meeting, where a group of 25 technology professionals talked about the Healthcare.gov crisis. There’s been a lot of debate in traditional media as to why the website project incurred so many issues.

The group discovered four common themes…

No One in Charge: The congressional hearings revealed the classic accountability problem: Everyone was in charge of their part, but no one was in charge of the whole thing. If there were ever a conflict over which agency or contractor needed to own an issue, there was enough ambiguity to deflect any blame. Also, even if CMS took accountability for stitching together all the pieces, they would have needed the appropriate expertise in house, which by all accounts, was not the case.

Quality: By now, we’ve all heard the story that overall system testing began way too late in the game. Each agency or contractor reportedly delivered their components just fine, but cross-system testing happened too little, too late. The group discussed the value of continuous integration, applied not just to the individual components, but to the entire program.  

Big Bang Delivery: The opposite of continuous integration is last-minute, all at once integration, which we saw with Healthcare.gov. The group wondered out lout what problems would have been avoided if the program release support for only 1 state at a time. Releasing one small piece of the capability at a time allows for progressive learning and elaboration of the technical solution.

Volatile Requirements: Several fascinating points were made regarding the scope of the project getting delayed and changed in a way that would put any technology project in jeopardy:

  • Scope Unrealistic: One person made the point that the ACA law refers to “the website” 118 times. This means the website project was launched with over a hundred system requirements, which ostensibly, had not been reviewed by technical experts.
  • Scope Delayed: Much like any large scale project, the 2012 election created very real political forces on the project. Out of a sense of prudence and self-preservation, the administration held off on several policy decisions that were feared to have a potential impact on the election. As a result, key questions (like the difference between a gold and silver plan) were delayed until after the president and the democratic Senate were safely secured.
  • Scope Changed: When the Supreme Court ruled on NFIB v Sebelius in June of 2012, all of the Medicaid expansions were invalidated. Needless to say, that would require any previous work on that piece of the system would have to be reworked.
  • Scope Expanded: The website was originally envisioned to be a pass-through portal to the state-run exchanges. However, when Republican governors overwhelmingly decided not to create state exchanges, the federal website would now have to support those states as well. Expanding from 8 exchanges to 34 could not have been a trivial change.

Latest News About the PMI Agile (PMI-ACP) Certification

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PMI Agile Certification

Since PMI announced its Agile certification program a couple months back, there has been a ton of activity. Here are some specifics:

  • Chatter – The PMI Agile Community about the certification has featured some good dialog (PMI Members only link) about what it means. The most interesting is a webinar debate between Alistair Cockburn and James Shore on the pros/cons of certification. PMI members can download that webinar for free.
  • Momentum – PMI’s CIO gave at talk at last month’s Scrum Gathering conference in Seattle, where he revealed that more than 6,000 professionals have already registered for the pilot program. That’s more than triple the number of certification holders for PMI’s last 3 certifications COMBINED (PgMP, PMI-RP, PMI-SP). In case it wasn’t obvious already, people want this.
  • Training – Yes, I have built a PMI-Agile curriculum, which is being field-tested right now in India. But there are some other trainers that I am very excited to see also building a curriculum, including Ahmed Sidkey in Egypt, Mike Griffiths in Canada.
  • Resources – With a new landscape, comes experimentation. Some early offerings are starting to show up, from flash cards, to practice exams, and even some pre-published books. AgileScout has been reporting on some of these, so keep a look there as well.

As one of the people who helped shape this program, I’m pretty excited about the buzz. Given that the mission for this program is to increase the awareness and adoption of Agile PM, I’m already seeing an ROI on our efforts.

Bangalore India Talks About Scaling Scrum

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This week featured the latest gathering of Scrum prapractitioners in Bangalore. This free event drew a solid 50 participants for the second straight time, and featured some really smart technology workers. The group was about 50% developers, 25% testers, and 25% managers. I did get to do my standard presentation on Agile Contracts, but the broader theme for the day was “Scaling Scrum”. This was of great interest to me, since RippleRock is helping a large dotcom implement Scrum across two strategic pilot programs using 4 teams on 2 continents. Needless to say, I took copious notes below

Scaling Scrum

First off was Vibhu Srinivasa from Solutions IQ. People laughed out loud as he facilitated a team dynamics game. But what people came to hear were his points about using Agile techniques on really large projects:

  • Understand Why You’re Scaling – The point is not merely to have an official standard for managing work. The point is to create alignment across larger projects, to make sure people are on the same page about delivering on a business objective.
  • Understand What Scale Means – To help bring alignment to our own large group Vibhu offered this definition of large-scale agile projects: “A group of teams working together on a common product or project or portfolio”.
  • Well groomed backlog is required to scale Scrum. For a single team of 7 people, a poorly formed backlog will only impact that team. On a larger project of a dozen teams working on the same poor backlog of project work, then you’ve just scaled the associated pain and errors.
  • There are several ways to nest Scrum teams. In general you can have nested backlogs of increasing degrees of detail, but there needs to be a clear, singular owner of each product backlog.
  • Charter a Product Owner team, responsible to keep the backlog groomed and prioritized. In larger organizations, the Product Owner role can quickly get to be too much work for one person. Have relevant stakeholders meet as required, above and beyond any other meetings with the Scrum team.
  • Align the sprint schedules. Namely, it helps if everyone is working to the same deadline.
  • Use the Scrum-of-Scrums only to coordinate dependencies. The overhead associated with the Scrum-of-Scrums is best utilized less as a status meeting, and more of an impediment removal meeting.
  • Relentless Automation – Just scaling scrum management is not enough. You need continuous integration, low-cost regression testing, and  “touch free” deployment.
  • Rotate ScrumMasters – Spreads skill and awareness of Scrum and alleviates anxieties about career path.
  • Ambassador Pattern – Fly people to their distributed counterparts for key meetings or even for an entire sprint . This help preserve team dynamic,  when individuals return to their home base.

Vibhu Srinivasan


Globally Distributed Agile Teams

Then, Rini van Solingen. the CTO of iSense Prowareness, joined the group over skype. He started off with describing the “30 meters principle”: When teams are distributed more than 30 meters apart, the communication frequency drops to near zero. So, it doesn’t matter if your 3 time zones away or 3 miles away, the real limit is 30 meters.

This is a bit of an obsession for Rini, who is working a research project at TUDelft called “Creating the virtual 30 meters”. In this research, he has found some best practices:

  1. If a single roof is possible, do it! Don’t distribute if it’s not absolutely necessary.
  2. First, deploy Scrum locally and effectively before working distributed.
  3. Assign Scrum roles explicitly. The Product Owner and proxy roles becomes even more critical.
  4. One team in one rhythm. Staff your regional teams with people from all other locations. This is the “ambassador pattern” described above.
  5. Meet. Teams are not built by themselves. You need to actively establish relationships by traveling to each other’s sites.
  6. Impediment removal and retrospectives are even more crucial. In fact, meet collectively for retrospectives (see previous item).
  7. Work at the customer location at least between 10-20% of the time.
  8. Personal mindset is crucial: “what did *I* do wrong? what can *I* do different? how can *I* help?”.
  9. Don’t focus on tools: discussion and interaction are more important.
  10. However, communication and awareness don’t happen automatically. Here, tools can help, but only if implemented with the right purpose in mind.
  11. Fail fast: improve empirically. Both success and failures are sources for learning.


Open Conversations

The day wrapped up with an open space session. A number of topics were suggested, but the top two were two key topics:



  • Estimation: In this conversation, there was a lot of discussion about the expectations around estimates. Managers expect your estimates to be internally consistent, when in reality they aren’t. They also expect your actuals to match those estimates exactly, but in reality they were really just estimates. One suggestion was to begin using the word “forecast” instead of “estimate”. Doing so may emphasize the fact that the numbers are rigorous, but not iron clad.
  • Careers. Here, there was concern about the impact Agile roles and responsibilities have on your career. For example, if a developer takes the risk of helping lower-paid testers learn code-based automation, will that make him less needed? If a BA takes the risk of not writing all the details for all the requirements up front, how will her skill be judged? If we take the risk to move in the professional direction of Agile skills, is there a job market for those skills? The answers are not easy. If you work for bad managers, then they may punish you for doing the right thing. But then again, they’re probably already doing that. And really, the your career should not be based on a choice between Agile jobs or non-Agile jobs. Your career should be based on what makes you and your team most successful.


It was an eventful day. iSense does a really good job of organizing this. I look forward to the next one at the end of September.

Scrum Gets Going In Bangalore

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This past Sunday, May 31, 2010 saw the kickoff event for the Scrum Bangalore user group (photos available here). It was a 6-hour mini-conference that featured 2 speakers, and open-space, networking, and several prizes. Also in attendance were the Agile Bangalore user group, an online community led by Vinay Krishna.

Rahul Sah Kicks Off The Event

Scrum Bangalore is the product of Rahul Sah of the Dutch company iSense Prowareness. He started the event by setting a vision: there is a huge gap between the demand and the support for Scrum in Bangalore. He said that he was charged by Jeff Sutherland to start something, when it was observed that the most Google searches for “Scrum” originate in Bangalore, more than anywhere else in the world. Before this month, there were no formal user groups supporting the local Agile practitioner community in Bangalore; now there are two.




Pete Deemer Wows the Crowd.

The headliner was long-time South Asian Scrum trainer, Pete Deemer. He shared with us his 19 keys to successful agile adoption. It was a great talk with lots of energy and insights. At the end of the talk, he amazed the group with several giveaways, including a copy of Mike Cohn’s latest book for *everyone*. A very generous gesture indeed. 




The “Amriki Gaura” Gives it a Go

In the afternoon, I got up and introduced myself to the crowd, sharing my story of starting an Agile consultancy in India. I then facilitated a group discussion about how to overcome key challenges with Agile Adoption. We used the “12 Key Objections to Change” from the NY Times bestseller Switch (a great book I will discuss later). Both Pete and the group offered some excellent points:

  • Change is like a rebirth
  • Many agile teams are technically proficient, but behaviorally are still stuck
  • Driving in Bangalore is the essence of a self-organized system
  • Scrum is a paradox: we offer specific guidance on success, but must encourage the team to choose its own direction


Agile India Moves Forward.

Afterwards, I had some drinks with the new leadership team of the Agile Software Community of India (ASCI). We talked about the 2010 spike of activity in India around Agile projects, such as:

  • Agile Coaches camp in Goa earlier this year
  • Launching of 2 user groups in Bangalore
  • Four (4) scrum trainers offering classes in India, instead of Pete Deemer being the only one
  • The forthcoming announcement of the Scrum Day India event in August

It is an exciting time to be a part of this community. And I’m looking forward to an eventful remainder of 2010.

QUESTION: What other signs of increased interest & momentum around Agile engineering or Agile project management are you seeing in India ?


Agile Project Managers in Illinois this Tuesday Night

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illinois regional agile user group

This coming Tuesday night, April 27th, I’ll be presenting at the Illinois Regional Agile Users Group in Bloomington, Illinois. I will be continuing my series on “What is an Agile Project Manager Anyway?”, where we deep dive on the role of an Agile Project Manager on both traditional and agile projects.

I’m really excited about this crowd. From what I hear, IRAUG is the hottest new Agile networking group in the country. If you’re in the area this week, I’d love to have you come check it out and join the conversation.

  • Topic: “What is an Agile Project Manager Anyway?”
  • Date: This Tuesday night, April 27th @ 6:00PM
  • Venue: Holiday Inn Express, 1031 Wylie Drive, Bloomington IL 61701
  • Details: http://www.meetup.com/IRAUG-ORG

An IT Wonderland in Omaha

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Last week I attended the Infotec 2010 conference in Omaha, NE and had quite the time meeting with IT professionals and talking about leadership and management challenges. The conference featured several vendors, including Cox, Microsoft, and Google. The facility was the awe-inspiring Qwest center. I estimate around 700-800 people showed up.


Agile Project Management Nuggets
The project management track was coordinated by the PMI Heartland Chapter, and featured two Agile PM talks. First, I retold the story of the PMI Agile Community, which was fun. But I was more excited by Sally Elatta and Kelly Morrell, who talked about the Agile transformation at Mutual of Omaha (download the slides here). Here are some of their great quotes:

  • PMBOK tells you WHAT to do, Agile tells you HOW to do it
  • "Thinking Agile" is more than just "Doing Agile"
  • servant leaders measure their success by their team’s growth
  • Your team doesn’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care
  • You will fail a few times in the beginning with Agile PM, but you’re supposed to; you need to fail in order to learn
  • Ask yourself as a PM, does this task/artifact/meeting add direct value to the business

Compelling Leadership Talks
Also interesting were 3 other talks outside the PM track. Stephen Balzac of 7 Steps Ahead described “Zen and the Art of Leadership”, Kate Brown of TechEdge talked about “High Performing Teams”, and Chris Russell from Google told us about “Building a Company Culture that Engages Employees”.

I really can’t do these talks justice with one blog post, but I can give you the uniting theme in building dynamic productive organizations:

  1. Craft a Clear & Compelling Vision – This is the high level project goal, with some conceptual success criteria. It can’t be simply “Implement the Requirements!” or “Deliver on time!”. Instead, I heard all three of these presenters independently describing the need for sticky ideas.
  2. Get the Right People: Kate called it “Hire and Professionally Develop Your Winning Team”, and Chris called it “Get the right people on the bus”.
  3. Serve Your Team; Don’t Make Them Serve You – Kate and Stephen both talked about Servant Leadership…it was uncanny how similar they were. Then, Chris gave some concrete suggestions like “Give employees ownership over the workplace” and “Give perks”

It was fascinating to see these three independent talks give startlingly similar advice.

Fabulous Keynotes.
Also during the conference, I got to see two fantastic keynotes:

  • Kansas State Professor Michael Welsch shared some of his insights on digital culture, based on his wildly popular YouTube video “The Machine is Using Us” and his research on Mediated Cultures.
  • Successful Nebraskan businessman Gordon Whitten shared his “7 Secrets to IT Entrepreneurial Success”, which are:
    1. Choose the right ‘what’: What you invest your energy in, is your biggest decision
    2. Go where the wind is at your back: Really hot field right now are mobile IT, healthcare IT, and cloud computing
    3. Find a durable competitive advantage: One example is “Ownable network effect” like Google Ads and Jigsaw
    4. Purple gorilla marketing: Based on Godin’s Purple Cow; think Webkins.
    5. Innovate on your business model: It yields 5x ROI over simply investing in more features.
    6. Relentlessly invest in relationships BEFORE you need something: Give until it hurts
    7. Crash through barriers: Winners endure standard obstacles like low payroll & lost business.

Omaha Agile Development

At the end of Day 1 of the conference, Sally drove me to the Omaha Agile Development user group, where I presented my PMBOK vs. Agile talk. People asked some hard questions, in particular:

  • How do you do Agile, when management insists on capitalizing labor by specialized skillset? This was a topic explored on the scrum discussion group recently, and people offered some good suggestions.
  • Isn’t Agile PM more conducive to products and less conducive to projects? This is a hot topic on the Agile scene right now. I’m not quite sure where I land on this debate, but it’s probably somewhere in the middle. See this post and also this one for thoughts.

I was really impressed by the group.

Personal Ignorance
I have to admit, I came to this conference with some pretty stereotypical views of Omaha engrained in my mind. If you asked me about Omaha, I would think mostly of Cornhusker football and Bruce Springsteen.


But by the time my two days were done, I had a completely different view: Omaha is a serious hub for IT business. From LinkedIn to Qwest, there are some pretty serious technology players there. Human ignorance can be an interesting topic, but most especially when I’m the one guilty of it.

“If you consistently deliver garbage, then all you have is a repeatable process”

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That was a quote from Sanjiv Augustine, who presented this past week at the DC chapter of the APLN. His talk was titled “The Agile PMO: Scaling Agile through Adaptive Governance”. You can download the slides from his company’s website, but Sanjiv offered a few great points you won’t find in there.

“If you consistently deliver garbage, then all you have is a repeatable process”

Sanjiv offered us this point when explaining WHY you want a Project Management Office (PMO). Too often, project managers are told to serve the PMO, when it should be the PMO working to help projects be successful. The whole point of a PMO should be to improve project delivery, not merely achieving policy compliance. If your PMO can derive its tasks from this kind of focus, then you’re already ahead of the game.

“An Agile PMO is NOT a Scrum team”

After explaining what a PMO should do, Sanjiv gave us an idea of what it should look like. In particular, it should not consist of dedicated resources. Instead, it should be a standing committee, comprised of representatives from each of the portfolio’s projects. In that way, the projects retain the ultimate authority over the process. The committee discusses and debates what decisions should be made to support project delivery: switching staff, moving budget, or even killing a failing project. If there are no dedicated staff on a PMO, and it’s charged with supporting (as opposed to delivering), then by definition, it’s not a cross-functional Scrum team. This was a fascinating model, because it flies in the face of the conventional PMO, having full-time staff mandating decisions to project teams from on high….a model which seems to contribute to the very high kill rate for PMOs themselves.

“I make more money finishing smaller projects one at a time”

One of the more compelling parts of Sanjiv’s talk was when he wasn’t actually talking. Specifically, he showed off a video interview of his home renovation contractor, Steve. It turns out that Steve is a construction guy that embraces Lean management principles. He explained in the interview that when he had a larger crew, working several projects at once, he had nothing but headaches. He wasn’t able to guide the all the work sites at once, so he would often show up to find misunderstandings and mistakes. Furthermore, visiting all those work sites every day left Steve feeling stressed out and frayed around the edges. Eventually, he trimmed down to just one team, working on one project at a time, and became much happier. Apparently, downsizing his operation didn’t hurt the bottom line: Steven the one-project-at-a-time “lean contractor” drives a Porsche 911.

As always, the best part of the evening came with the networking afterwards. Once the talk was over, Sanjiv sat down with me, Richard Cheng, and the gang from Code71 to talk about these topics more in depth. I strongly encourage all of you to consider attending the next APLN chapter meeting in Washington DC, or in your own neck of the woods.

Experts Discuss Agile Government

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This past Thursday, the Washington DC chapter of the Agile Project Leadership Network conducted its monthly meeting. The chapter hosted a roundtable on Agile in the Government, and featured the following panelists:


With such a talented panel addressing a topic that resonates strongly with Agile practitioners in DC, it was a format certain to deliver good nuggets. The moderator, Bearing Point’s Matt Vandegrift opened the evening with some discussion around current momentum and opportunity. For example, the CIA’s CIO has issued an agency wide mandate to use Agile Project Management. However, some expressed skepticism over the long-term impact of an appointee who would likely be off to another assignment before real culture change can happen. Mr. Carpenter suggested the most Agile-friendly agencies are those with an existing entrepreneurial culture of value delivery, such as IARPA or DARPA. However, most of us know those kinds of government cultures are far and few between.

Eventually, the age old debate surfaced of bottom-up grassroots adoption versus a top-down Agile mandate. Interestingly, a consensus emerged that this was the wrong debate. Both the panelists and the attendees called out mid-level government bureaucracy as the key barrier to effective Agile adoption.


Even if a senior sponsor wants to alter project scope to reflect emerging information, the project’s contract officers will resist it. A mid-level career staffer serving as the Contract Technical Representative (COTR) will be graded on performance-to-plan. Indeed, many situations carry more than just career consequences for adjusting scope, they may face criminal charges. Current procurement policies and statutes are designed with a plan-driven philosophy. If your project takes 2 years to get funded, it’s not the COTR’s fault the scope is no longer relevant to the mission, but he still gets stuck with it.

Mr. Carpenter further broke down the this dynamic into functional roles. In his mind, the real opportunity for breaking through this impediment is not the technical route (easier), not through the Prime/Sub teaming partnerships (harder), but from government PMOs.


Claire Moore, also from Sphere of Influence, challenged the group for some value metrics to facilitate such a cultural transition. What are some examples of programs that measure “value to mission”, rather than “performance to plan”? Several examples were cited (decreased costs, customer satisfaction, or Dr. Rico’s book ROI of Software Process Improvement), but all agreed getting contracting officers to implement them was the hard part.

Dr. Rico emphasized this point several times by issuing the charge that Agilists take influential positions in these policy organizations such as the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) or Institute for Defense Acquisition(IDA). One attendee raised the possibility of launching an Agile lobby, as a means to influence contracts. Yet another suggested outreaching to MBAs, to overcome the buzzword status Agile has in the minds of the few executives who have heard of it.

Other observations included:

  • Mr. Cheng: To improve government adoption, find an upwardly mobile G-man & pitch Agile as his niche contribution to the agency.
  • Mr. Carpenter: Be pragmatic evangelists. Tailor your dogma to the native language of your government constituents.
  • Mr. Sheer: Agile is a means, not an end. If government RFPs and PMOs require Agile, they will do little to transform organizations to deliver against the mission
  • Dr. Rico: We are the software century. Government functions have evolved from paper and hardware systems (analog) to software-centric systems (blended) to all-software systems (digital). As such, Agilists are uniquely positioned to influence the deliver of those functions.
  • Mr. Carpenter: Get security scans early. If you provide Certification & Accreditation officers materials they need as early in the project as possible, you’ll get the flexibility needed to deliver incrementally.
  • Gradually decrease cycle. Move from 3 month releases to 2 months to 1 month. Measure improvements in quality and value as a way to justify tighter timeboxes.
  • Focus first on wining the Hearts & Minds of the PMO and sponsor. Use that leverage to formalize new policies around “delivering mission value” over “performance to plan”. Finally, use mission-driven policies as a foundation for instituting value-driven metrics.
  • Fear of failure motivates the government more than anything. Find ways to communicate how Agile reduces risk of failure, as defined by your stakeholders.

In all, the evening was a successful discussion. I left with a better sense of how I would tip-toe through a government environment as an Agile Project Manager.

PMBOK/Agile @ APLN Maryland

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I am giving a talk on PMBOK vs. Agile at the APLN Maryland chapter meeting later this month. Details are below:

Date & Time: Tuesday, 24 February 2009, 5:45pm

Title: PMBOK vs. Agile: Sifting Reality From Myth
Description: With the increased success of Agile processes and the growth of PMI, project teams are faced with a choice: Use PMI’s collected body of project management practices or use Agile. We are told that PMI practioners mandate a waterfall command-and-control approach, and that Agile is the process-free alternative. But a quick look side-by-side comparison reveals a much more complex situation. What do we make of facilitative servant-minded PMPs? Could Agilists gain value from PMI materials? What is the official position of PMI towards Agile?

Locale: Columbia, MD
Presenter: Jesse Fewell
Details and Registration here: http://www.gbspin.org/upcoming.html