Minimally Invasive Management

January 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

One of the greatest compliments that can be paid to an author is that they establish a common vocabulary for concepts everyone understands. I’ve heard the word “servant leader” used from time to time, but to me it fails to capture the nuance of leading technical and creative folks in our industry. Here’s to Minimally Invasive Management, a term I plan to overuse immediately.

You’ve heard of software as a service? This is management as a service. Managers serve the people doing the work. And nobody is more important in an organization than the people doing the work.

In this brave new world, management’s role should be to remove the impediments in front of the people doing the work so that they can do it well – and so they can be satisfied, rewarded and motivated in their work.

via Randy Komisar, HBR

Free to Grow: Transparency driven Accountability

April 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

What motivates you?

There’s an old saying, “Hard work isn’t easy. It’s hard.” The pace of business and the changing market landscape makes that statement as true today as it’s ever been. Working amidst complexity, struggling to achieve ever-higher productivity goals, and operating within razor-thin margins are common realities in many industries. With all of these challenges, it’s easy to ask, “is it worth it?”
The science of motivation has grown tremendously in recent years, and it’s a good thing too because Millenials and GenY employees seem to have a pretty different set of expectations about the role of work in their lives than their parents. Research by Daniel Pink and others are increasingly showing that internal values, not external rewards, are the primary drivers of passion and success. Specifically, Pink refers to “Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose” as three principles that drive motivation to perform. The freedom to choose what we work on, the opportunity to improve, and an understanding of how what we do matters are all far more successful at producing results than money or titles.
Now, that puts business leaders in a tough spot; we want happy employees and we want a healthy bottom line. Is there a solution that lets us provide autonomy to our teams, and still achieve our business goals? I think there is.
We’re in a competitive industry, and technology moves at a blistering pace. I’ve seen my engineering team triple in size in the last two years! Our company culture values freedom, innovation and a challenger mindset. These values become more precious but also more difficult to preserve as we grow. For that reason, we need a context for freedom, a set of parameters that dictate what we should and shouldn’t do. We need to understand the boundaries that, if followed, will help us win. This is our strategy.
A well defined strategy is the context for freedom.
When you have a company strategy that everyone (and I mean everyone) understands, you can begin to draw a mental picture that allows each person in the company to make micro-decisions aligned with success. You do that by creating line of sight between every day activity and the results. It’s convenient to visualize this in three layers:
  1. A crystal clear strategy

  2. Established metrics (Key Indicators) that demonstrate the success of the strategy.

  3. Tactical processes designed to improve Key Indicators


I like the maxim, “You are what you measure.” I’ve seen engineering teams wrapped around the axle of code coverage metrics, or obsessed over velocity or burn-down rates. When we put a number in front of our team, we know they’re going to try to hit it. That’s why it’s so critical that we use wisdom when establishing the metrics which will govern our business. We should focus on metrics that directly map to our strategy, and drop the ones that don’t. We should be confident that the improvement of our Key Indicators equates with improvement in our overall business outlook. Then we can empower our teams to drive towards those Key Indicators, however they chooseWe should establish the what, not the how.
Employees with an understanding of the strategy, and a grasp of the Key Indicators that drive it, are in an excellent position to develop good processes. This is the day-to-day blocking and tackling that must be done to generate results, and this is where freedom pays the greatest dividends in terms of motivation and performance. Modern work management tools let us provide this to our teams and still preserve a high degree of accountability, because we can see both their activities and outcomes. As business leaders we need to understand what’s happening, but stay the hell out of the way (that includes asking for status updates).
Transparent Accountability is the beating heart of successful, modern businesses. Strategic alignment provides a context for freedom for individuals, and Key Indicators set the bar. The processes your team establishes and follows should drive those Key Indicators, and you’ll know they are because you have visibility into what they do.


Telling our CI story

October 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ll be speaking at the Better Software Conference in Orlando this November. One of the sponsors, asked me to share a little more about what led AtTask to embrace a continuously integrated system. When it first came out, I thought our stuff was pretty novel. Now I think it’s just the cost of doing business if you’re selling software on the web.

You can read the whole interview here.

Selling to the Enterprise, a Product Dev Dilemma

September 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I recently read an excellent article by Paul Graham that defines a startup (as distinct from any other new business) as the combination of two key attributes:

  1. It must make something lots of people want
  2. There must be a way to reach those people

Most businesses can do one of those things, but not both together. Software and the distribution medium of the web has opened up all kinds of possibilities for achieving both goals, which is why another key indicator for a startup is rate of growth.

The common unit of success for any startup, then, is the growth of the user base. This presents a problem for a business geared at selling to the enterprise: although the unit of growth is the user, the acquisition of users is done at the level of the corporate account. This creates conflicts all through the product development process. Building sexy and easy-to-use is great for the user, but they’re not the ones buying your software. Building rich business value will help you win accounts, but lack of adoption by the end-user within the business will doom you when it comes time to renew.

Because if this internal tension, I believe anyone doing product development geared at selling to the enterprise must consider one of two growth models:

  1. Design to maximize number of accounts sold
  2. Design to maximize number of licenses per account

You achieve growth in model one by selling to as many companies as possible. You accept as a ground rule that you will probably not achieve rapid growth by going wall-to-wall within any corporation that buys. As a product designer, you should focus your efforts on deep solutions for specific verticals (Marketing groups, Help Desk, HR). This focus allows you to solve the problems better than one-size-fits-all solutions that could be sold to a larger audience within a single company. You’ll win more accounts than Model Two, but with fewer seats sold per account.

In Model Two you grow by selling as many possible licenses into each account. The trade-off for going with Model Two will be that you must provide a solution that is either one-size-fits-all or extremely customizable. It must work across a huge variety of professional disciplines. Wall-to-wall adoption of a product across an enterprise is rare, and must typically focus on common problem-sets to all workers. Examples here include collaboration, management and productivity-enhancement tools. Selling a tool like this requires a value-proposition that makes sense to Senior Executives, and the adaptability of the product will likely mean that compromises must be made on ease of use for specific verticals. As a designer, you should solve problems in the most generic way possible, with an emphasis on strategic problems in the business rather than tactical ones.

So, what does this have to do with Continuous Delivery? In any start-up you must build a system that allows you iterate on concepts as fast as possible so that you eliminate designs that don’t lead to growth. If you are selling to the enterprise the importance of Continuous Delivery in your system will depend on which of the two models you choose. If you’re shooting for selling the maximum number of accounts, you can iterate on look-and-feel, and on solving the most common problem sets of your targeted verticals. This can happen rapidly because your have more total accounts to work with. If your ambition is to grow by deal size, your iterations will probably be longer because you will have fewer over-all deals to test your strategy against.

I think if you’re building enterprise software, deciding on one of these two paths to growth is key to focusing the Product Development process enough to iterate into a successful solution.


Agile 2.0 and the Continuous Delivery Mindset

June 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today’s Agile is not “agile” enough. This was the message I took away from the Agile Roots conference in Salt Lake City this week, where topics around Continuous Delivery and returning to the foundational principles of Agile weaved into many presentations. As I observe trends in our industry as well as the tech sector as a whole, it becomes more clear all the time that even established businesses now operate in an environment of extreme uncertainty. Prescriptive methodologies that drive long cycle times simply cannot keep up with the pace of change in an increasingly services-oriented world.


Continuous Delivery provides the technical foundation for a software development lifecycle that can respond to this pace of change. I remember a few years ago when AtTask first adopted Scrum, and started shipping code every month. We thought it remarkable that we could deliver working software at such a rapid pace! How quickly things change–it’s not uncommon for development to ship code into production several times a day! Examples include IMVU, Etsy, and Flickr and many others. Even in large scale organizations like Facebook, a daily deployment is now possible through robust automated testing and clever use of virtualized infrastructure. As I’ve described in other posts, AtTask has adopted a rich CI pipeline, which includes many of these features and now facilitates daily deployments. We have the technology to react to change at the pace the market demands… but do we have have the professional will?
An “Agile Mindset” can be demonstrated by adoption of the agile values in the decision making process of an organization. Agile teaches us to focus on delivering value over adherence to a plan, and to focus on results over process. Ironically, Scrum as it’s most commonly practiced is a heavy weight process in itself, and while it can help enforce agile principles, there are many examples of companies who keep to the pomp and ceremony of Scrum, but gain little value from the flexibility it affords to the product development process.
One of the Agile Roots keynotes this morning was given by Dr. Israel Gat (@agile_exec) on the subject of Agile 2.0. The thesis is that converging market trends require a re-assessment of the Agile practices we have followed over the past 10 years… that in some ways the Agile of last decade is just not “agile enough” for the years ahead. These trends include:
  • Hyper-segmentation of markets: such as the proliferation of social tools serving every conceivable niche community
  • Transiency of markets: It is not uncommon for a market need to come into being, but exist for two or three years only to be superseded by a new innovation
  • Value chains becoming value webs: Most value is derived in the interconnected world by the confluence of different synergistic services.. For example, a phone that is also a camera that integrates your phone contacts with a photo sharing service.

In response, we must tailor the processes which facilitate value delivery to match the speed and uncertainty of the market we operate within. Here are a few examples:

  • Replace pre-planned backlog silos with a shared backlog which is pull-based, allowing teams to self select from a prioritized order.
  • Begin to track capacity not as a function of estimation, but by measuring throughput (cycle time) on consistently sized units of work. This is also an Agile 2.0 way to predict delivery dates.
  • Instead of focusing on what features to add to a product, refocus efforts around customer development. This could include product features, but encompasses other areas such as in-product feedback mechanisms and processes to facilitate rapid bug resolution.
  • Replace sprint planning and intermittent grooming sessions with continuous grooming of the backlog in response to new market learnings.
  • Demonstrate and sign-off work in discrete functional units instead of arbitrary time boxes, such as Sprints.
Some of these are radical changes for an organization built around the heart-beat of sprints… In the past, the business itself has been subject to the rhythm of development. In Agile 2.0, we jettison many of these processes which have been rendered technologically obsolete, and free ourselves to focus on moving past value creation to value realization. We decouple the mechanisms of software creation from the requirements of the business to position and sell. It requires the bravery to recognize that the market is intrinsically uncertain, and to venture there.

Impressions from Jenkins User Conference, New York

May 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

It was just one day, but it was a packed one. The Jenkins Conference in Times Square NYC was probably the most densely informational conference I’ve been to this year. Frankly, I would have appreciated a two day schedule with some open space for hacking on plugins or un-scheduled talks. The community is passionate and invested in the success of Jenkins, which I already knew (they followed after the split w/ Hudson, after all), but there wasn’t enough opportunity to network as I would have liked.

We’re getting closer to settling on a code-review solution, and a talk by Monty Taylor (of Openstack project) on Gerrit was just what I was looking for. Gerrit is built in Java, so it’ll be an easy ride for my engineers. It’s flexible enough to absorb lots of different types of data. Best of all, it’s already integrated with Jenkins. I plan to present code coverage, performance, and test results to reviewers. Little concerned about the ugly UX, but that’s something we can tweak.



I was fortunate enough to participate on the panel discussion in the evening, where we discussed trends in the CI space, potential areas of focus for Jenkins development, and pros/cons of different approaches to deployment pipelines. Video cameras were present, so I’ll attach a link when I hear back.

In the meantime, I’ve added the slides from my talk on the slides page. Very enjoyable, well done Cloudbees. I’m already looking forward to next year.

People work hard for money, harder for leaders… but hardest for a cause.

May 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

From my vantage, the Atlanta Scrum Gathering was largely a success. There were a few stand-out talks, but some duds as well. I was surprised by how light many of the presentations actually were–perhaps because agile methodologies tend to be pretty simple in the first place. That said, there were a couple of learnings that will stick with me as I move our organization forward.

Time boxing is not a pre-requisite for effective Agile. The closer we’ve moved to Continuous Delivery, the more the time-boxing of our Sprints has felt like an artificial construct. Lots of people have run into this problem when working on queue-driven activities. One person shared an example of an off-shore team whose entire job was to write regular expressions for website scraping. There was no reason to use a time-boxed release cadence. Instead, the team pulled work from a queue at a consistent pace, delivering the work as it was completed. The ER (Escalation Response) team at AtTask is already doing this, just without a mechanism for observability by external participants, or a formal improvement program. I believe that Kanban solves this problem in an elegant way, and would be a relatively painless model to explore.

“People work hard for money, and harder for leaders. People work hardest for a cause.” This quote was shared during this mornings keynote by a gentleman named Tanner Corbridge. He works with Partners in Leadership, the company behind The Oz Principle. He mentioned it almost as an aside, but it certainly resonated with me. The fire that we instill in our organization should not be about compensation, or about the charisma of those that lead our teams. It should be about building our culture around a common purpose. It’s something we should have laser like focus on in everything we do. I’m very proud of AtTask’s culture, and believe that our adoption of agile has helped us focus on our common cause. AtTask is about improving the work lives of knowledge workers across the world, and we can measure ourselves against that cause. I’m looking forward to discovering ways to accomplish that going forward.

Oh, and Zombie survival video games are a great platform for exploring agile. I’ll leave that to your imagination.

From Scrum to Kanban, doing the legwork

May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ve enjoyed participating in the talks at Scrum Gathering 2012 in Atlanta. One of the most interesting was Steve Forte’s presentation on Kanban 101. I’ve been exploring Kanban as an alternative to Scrum at AtTask for a while now, but with our adoption of Continuous Delivery and the recent rollout of Feature Toggles, we may be ready to take the plunge.

AtTask has been an Agile shop for several years now… really since we had a team of appreciable size to benefit from the principles. We adopted Scrum as our methodology of choice, primarily because it along with XP was about the only thing that matched our legacy delivery model. While we’re still delivering features into production every 4 weeks, our CI pipeline has piqued the interest of folks within our organization who would like to see even more rapid build-test-learn feedback loops.

Kanban evolved from the Toyota production system, as a model for developing cars more quickly, while minimizing inventory and emphasizing just-in-time delivery. When it comes to software, Kanban is a model that eschews the traditionally time-boxed Sprint metaphor in favor of a pull-based system. Features are sized, and move through phases of production which are carefully limited in order to eliminate inventory (unreleased code) and maximize flow. With Feature Toggles, we’ve gained the ability to deploy virtually anything without affecting the customer experience unintentionally. Because releases are now managed by the business, we can create a Kanban flow which will take us from story conception all the way to deployment.

I think we may have a good first start with our customer bug-fixing team, since their work is inherently request driven, rather than time-boxed. Over time I’d like to see Kanban principles adopted more broadly across AtTask.

Continuously Integrated with Selenium

May 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

The video from my talk at Selenium Conference 2012 is now online. I discuss the challenges and opportunities in using cloud infrastructure to run large Selenium suites every check-in. Here’s the abstract:

Most engineering organizations include some level of continuous integration in their development process. The brutal truth is that far too often these efforts are plagued by unreliable tests, long feedback loops, and bad configuration management. Learn how AtTask decided to radically rethink their software development model, and by using open source and cloud solutions went from 3 days of acceptance testing to just minutes, providing feedback on thousands of selenium tests to every engineer in the organization. See how by leveraging publicly available tools, you can deliver hyper-scalability to your Continuous Integration framework and include selenium testing per commit to drive cycle time down in your organization.

Feature Toggling our way to a better future

May 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today we released the first Phase of a major new user interface for AtTask. This was the culmination of the hard work over several teams, over a period of several months, during which we transitioned from monthly to daily releases, hired entire teams of engineers, and created an entirely new deployment pipeline. Needless to say it was a great relief to see the system finally deployed, and released into the eager arms of our users.

With a change this large, one might be led to believe that we inherited a high degree of risk. The truth is that this release was particularly low risk, compared to previous releases of our product. One of the reasons was our adoption of a practice that is becoming more common in the Continuous Delivery community, called “Feature Toggling“.

A Feature Toggle is a relatively simple in concept, but devious in execution. At it’s core, it simply means that everything which is coded that has exposure to end users, must be access-controlled through configuration. When you control access to each developed feature by configuration, you decouple the deployment of your changes from release to customers. The process of releasing software then becomes stage-gated: you first deploy, monitor, and learn from a baseline that excludes all customer facing change. Then you release. The release of the software becomes a business decision, not a technology decision. Companies like Facebook and Etsy use this technology every day to split-test and validate features in live production environments.

The reason Feature Toggles are devious in execution is because the implementation path is highly dependent on the flexibility of the application stack to absorb this model. This means that Feature Toggling is more of a design pattern than a product that can be packaged and sold to any development org. In fact, many companies who have developed a Feature Toggling framework in-house will come up with a clever name for their creation. We call ours “PitBoss.”

There are two primary ways that PitBoss differentiates itself from more typical configuration tools. Instead of choosing a simple “Yes” or “No” for each feature, PitBoss gives us the ability to evaluate an expression. We can look at the specific user logging in, and control availability based on their profile, group, company, or any other value we want. For example, if we want to release a new feature to just our beta-test customers, we could create an expression like:

“pitboss.isEnabled(user.beta == true)”

This is evaluated once when the user logs into the system, and drives the availability of features in the product. These are all configurable while the system is up and running, so features that are intended for a single group, or which we discover to be unstable, can be deactivated just as easily.

The second way we’ve differentiated PitBoss is by how we expose it in different layers of our application. In java we can make calls directly into PitBoss methods, but we also have the ability to control access to tiles through PitBoss annotations, or to reference it using JSTL syntax in our JSPs. PitBoss can be accessed through an internal REST api for controlling features in client applications. We have even implemented a mechanism for test cases that allows us to override a particular PitBoss default, for easy A/B testing of features behind configuration.

I mentioned that we released the first phase of our new user experience today, but the code was actually deployed days ago. We’ve had an opportunity to test it by activating the release for a specific set of users, and smoke testing in a live production environment for the first time.

I’m excited by the possibilities of this great new tool, and would love your comments about similar systems you’ve found success with in your organizations!

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