Jesse Fewell is Back in the USA

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Paul McCartney Back in the US

The rumors are true: I have returned back to the US after a two year stint as Managing Director of RippleRock India. Now that my assignment is completed  (“build an India subsidiary”), I have been relocating myself and the family back to the States over the last few months. What was it like, you ask?


What an incredible journey! Over the last two years, I have trained and coached software teams in India, Malaysia, and China. Not only did I get an excellent exposure to different work cultures, but I met a compelling array of people, too many to mention by name. By virtue of being an expatriate, I was exposed to a full contingent of internationals. Here’s one story: The church I attended featured a number of African students, studying in Bangalore. One Sunday, I met a Ugandan and asked about the difficult history of Uganda and India, to which he replied, “Yes, lots of history, but I like to think of the future”. A few days later, I learn the US government is warning citizens not to travel to Uganda because of anti-American sentiment there. So I was one of the few Americans in the world who had the gift of hearing this African millennial’s positive perspective on the 21st century.


I’m proud of what we created at RippleRock India, but it took work. I joke with people that I must be glutton for punishment, given that I took a job that offered both the challenges of working abroad (culture shock, home sickness, language barrier) and a startup (legal, accounting, business development). As you can imagine, I learned a LOT of things all at the same time: (1) doing Agile consulting and training (2) as a foreigner (3) in the developing world (3) starting up an (4) international (5) subsidiary. One friend of mine offered the insight that I gained amount to a real world MBA, only with the bouns of a little more white hair.

Now What?

With the firm fully instantiated, I have handed RippleRock India over to the capable hands of Hiren Doshi. The founder of his own firm, PracticeAgile, Hiren is one of the strongest agile practitioners in India, and his team has generated some amazing results for clients across South Asia. With regards to our offerings, my absence means we won’t be offering Certified ScrumMaster courses nearly as often; however, we have established RippleRock as the premier best-in-class provider of PMI-ACP training.

For myself, I’m a little winded from all the travel and will be focusing my work on my home town of Washington DC for the foreseeable future. To make that happen, I will now be working with my old alma mater, Excella Consulting. My first Washington DC Agile training with Excella will be May 31st – June 1st, and to celebrate I’m offering major discounts to anyone who contacts me personally: email {at} jessefewell {dot} com.

All of you have been a tremendous support to me these last two years, and I am deeply grateful for that support (especially from all you Desi Walas). Of course, I will be posting new ideas here soon, but for now, I’m savoring the satisfaction of accomplishing a personal and professional dream.

“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.

PMI’s DC Chapter Talks Agile

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Last week, the Washington DC chapter of PMI hosted a roundtable discussion on Agile Project/Program Management, which featured a packed crowd, smart speakers, and some healthy debate. Indeed, the event was broadcast on the official PMI Agile twitter feed. The event was an outgrowth of the strategic partnership between the DC chapters of PMI and APLN. The panelists were:

PM Tools 2

General Inisghts
The discussion was moderated by Bearing Point’s Matt, who was reprising his role from the very popular APLN-DC event disussing Agile Government. Nicolette and Bodamer were brilliant for sure, but Cheng was itching for a fight and Cook was on fire with her quotable talking points. Among the panel’s key comments were:

  • “Top barriers to agile are 1. crashing against organzational culture and 2. anxieties about job security”
  • “Don’t just say let’s go agile”; target a specific problem.”
  • “ask how much am I willing to invest in this project, not how much will it cost”
  • “an agile PM facilitates process, relies on team to deliver results”
  • If you’re a theory Y manager already, then agile will be easier for you to do
  • “manage things, but lead people”

PM Tools

PMBOK != Agile
The event also yielded two interesting differences of opinion. When asked whether the PMBOK could be used in conjunction with Agile, most PMI Agilists will say yes. Cheng got a laugh when he read page 1 of the PMBOK, which calls for iterative processes that fit the project at hand. But we went on to critique that “agile does not talk well to adoption in organizations with multiyear budgeting cycles”, such as the U.S. government. He also made the point that a “traditional WBS is not an agile feature breakdown stucture”, a concept popularized by PM authors Wysocki and Sliger/Broderick.

Oddly enough noone on the panel disagreed with Cheng’s points, but they instead highlighted the common point that Agile practices are considered to be a subset of the best practices described in the PMBOK. Hmm….

A juicy debate, by PMI standards
The most interested disagreement came over how to get started using Agile. Nicolette assumed everyone in the audience was ambitious, suggesting you choose a high-value high-risk project, and then use Agile to turn it around. Cheng disagreed, suggesting that a high-risk project is inherently high-risk. Going Agile may not mitigate all the risks associated that project. Instead, choose a high-value low-risk project to show that you can deliver business value more effectively with an Agile approach. Then, with that track record, you can gradually take on riskier endeavors to spread the value.

After the talk there was a photo op (see top of the post) and some good networking.

PMI Hosts Agile Breakfast

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This morning at the National Press Building, the Washington DC chapter of PMI hosted a talk entitled “Agile or PMBOK? You can have both”. The presenter was David Sides from ESI, who has been using Agile at his client engagements for a while, and shared his observations light-hearted fashion (more on that in moment).

The event was sold out, with more than 100 DC-area professionals coming to check out the talk. When David asked how many were using Agile, only 2 raised their hands (including me). When he asked how many were looking into / thinking about using it, a full 40% raised their hands. Clearly, this was a topic that had significant draw.


So with that backdrop, Dave went about debunking some Agile myths, and making some interesting points. Here are the highlights:

  • “There’s no such thing as pure methodology” – His point here is that all Agile projects have a dose of reality tempering the ideal process. Indeed, even waterfall projects use iterative/incremental process to knock out bugs during a test cycle.
  • “Will Agile get you working software faster? Yes. Will Agile get your product to market faster? Maybe.” Getting to market depends on more than just working software. Packaging, marketing, sales prep, training, need to be considered.
  • J.E.D. = Just Enough Documentation
  • <li >”Too often we don’t have enough SMEs. Instead we get SMRs (subject matter rookies)”

  • “How many of us have been on ‘stereo concalls’…where half the participants are in the cubes next to us?”
  • “Some cultures never change.” Even those that do need a “constant iterative change process to get where we can use Agile”.
  • Move away from “Earned Value” to “Achieved Value”

He also had fun doing his Letterman routine: 10 stupid Agile tricks (e.g. “We in IT know what is best”). David did a good job, and he’ll be reprising the talk as a webinar tomorrow: http://request.esi-intl.com/forms/EV09JUN11FM-PM-AgileWebinar

At the end of the talk, he took questions from the crowd:

  • But what about regression testing?
  • But what about fixed-price?
  • But what about Agile teams that need a full iteration to finish testing?
  • But what about matrixed teams? My organization would never give dedicated staff

What suprised me about this event, was not that Agile newcomers were asking the same questions. Instead, my eyes were opened to the uncharted ocean of opportunity that exists in the market. So many projects are struggling with the same issues. So many PMs are tasked with the impossible. Agile offers a management approach that can solve those problems, but people are not getting the message.

This is why I volunteer with PMI’s Agile Community of Practice. The market needs a place for dyed-in-the-wool PMs to go for their first exposure to Agile PM. A place where people can have these basic questions can be answered, and then get directed to a local user group and local training. This kind of resource could the beginning of a journey of growth and expertise that could transform our workplace from a dungeon to a dynamo.

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.