Beliefs Challenged

An Atheist’s Acceptance that God is Love

By Chad Greenslade

 

A few days ago, I watched a video that made me think for a second about being atheist.  The premise was simple.  They likened DNA to a book.  They placed an actual book in the hands of an atheist and asked the atheist, “Do you think this book could have materialized out of thin air?”

 

Of course the atheists replied, “Absolutely not!  A book cannot magically appear out of thin air.  Someone must have made it.  Someone must have made the paper, made the ink, created the language, pictures, etc., required to physically produce the book.  A book clearly has a creator.”

 

Then, the narrator goes on to explain how DNA is the instruction book for every living thing on this planet, and how every living thing, when it comes time to make a cell for a certain function, refers back to it’s DNA book in order to produce the cell to the correct specification.  The narrator got the atheist to agree that DNA is a book, and then re-presented the atheist’s previous conclusion that a book must have a creator.  All of the atheists interviewed were speechless.

 

So, I thought about this.  I thought about this in the context of religion, science, evolution, the age of the universe, and my limited but interested, understanding of chemistry, physics, space and time.

 

My initial rebuttal is that comparing a physical book to DNA is false equivalence.  A physical book simply cannot be the same thing as DNA.  After all, DNA is a chemical; it’s an acid.  But apparently, in that acid sits a code, and that code can be compared with a book that has three billion pages.  For humans, 99% of those three billion pages are the same.  The remaining one percent makes up the differences between you and me.  The other three billion pages are reserved for every other form of life that exists on this planet.  So, when you think about it like that, simply denying that DNA is a book is not enough to justify mine, or anyone else’s, atheism.

 

After my initial rebuttal, I thought some more, and here’s where the “DNA is a book” analogy breaks down, at least for me.

 

I’ve observed every living thing on this planet have defense mechanisms.  These mostly biological responses serve to protect an organism, and in certain situations, other organisms like them.  We see protective responses all the time.  In animals, we see them when mothers care for their young, and when species live in packs.  We see plants chemically warn other plants of impending destruction.  None of these living organisms has a god, none of these organisms stand to benefit by recognizing that there is a god, and none of these organisms will ever think about being punished by a god.

 

From the Miller-Urey experiment in 1952 that proved amino acids can be built from inorganic precursors while simulating the conditions of early Earth, to the Abiogenesis theory that that the transition from non-living to living entities was not a single event, but an evolutionary process of increasing complexity involving molecular self-replication, self-assembly, autocatalysis, and ultimately the emergence of cell membranes, it’s clear that electricity, a natural phenomenon, jump-started, and was later harnessed by, molecular self-replication (a.k.a. “life”).  At a sub-atomic level, molecular self-replication used electricity to assemble a chemically-encoded instruction set for how it came to be, and how it could continue to be.

 

This chemically encoded instruction set was “the book”.  So what created the book?  It’s simple.  It’s obvious.  It’s the only answer that’s ever stood the test of time, and probably ever will stand the test of time.  We did.  Life did.  It’s always been us.  It’s always been life.  The book was required for life’s self-preservation.

 

When I set this theory against the backdrop of time and imagine the elements forming organic compounds in a primordial soup, chemically instructed at a sub-atomic level to preserve themselves, to look after each other, aging, evolving, using new materials and chemically recording their experiences, given the vast expanse of time and space (Earth is 4.53 billion years old), I can see how the book accumulates three billion pages.

 

I think it was slow at first and probably suffered some setbacks, but with electricity (lightning) as the catalyst for the specialized chemistry of carbon and water, building largely upon four key families of chemicals (lipids, carbohydrates, amino acids, and nucleic acids), after one billion years, these organic compounds began manifesting their destiny.  With enough time, they’ve recorded enough intelligence in their chemistry to animate themselves and evolve in many different directions, resulting in an explosion of life in the oceans.  Within the first billion years of Earth’s history, life appeared in the oceans and began to affect Earth’s atmosphere and surface, leading to the proliferation of anaerobic and, later, aerobic organisms.

 

Some geological evidence indicates that life may have arisen as early as 4.1 billion years ago. Since then, the combination of Earth’s distance from the Sun, physical properties and geological history have allowed life to evolve and thrive. In the history of life on Earth, biodiversity has gone through long periods of expansion, occasionally punctuated by mass extinctions. Estimates of the number of species on Earth today vary widely; most species have not been described.  More than 99% of all species of life forms, amounting to over five billion species that ever lived on Earth, are estimated to be extinct.

 

But I digress.  This post is not necessarily about theories on the origins of life, but more about disproving the existence of god.

 

Look, I get it.  People need spirituality to feel connected.  A feeling of connectedness is how we reproduce.  Often, people need to feel that someone somewhere is looking out for them, preserving them.  This, innate, biologically-encoded ideal is the origin of the god construct that has plagued humankind’s psyche since the beginning of their existence on this planet.  We only have it because our brains are evolved enough to operate above an instinctual level.  This has freed our mind to wonder, and for early humans to derive supernatural explanations for the unexplainable.  These leftover supernatural explanations gave rise to modern day religion.

 

So what is god?  God is a defense mechanism.  It’s a defense mechanism we construct for ourselves, in order to feel connected, to feel preserved.  But, if defense mechanisms come from a chemically-encoded instruction set for how a being came to be, and how it continues to be, it can be argued that the innate feeling of preservation for ourselves and others, is the real defense mechanism, and that “God” is merely a figment constructed by the conscious mind.  What else do we call it when we take action to preserve ourselves and others?  Love.  We call it love.

 

That same feeling, that same energy, that drives us to hug our family and friends, to pamper our pets, and to water our garden is the same energy that pushed the building blocks of life, all those eons ago, to band together and simply look after one another, to take care of each other, so that it, whatever “it” was, could continue.  Over time, life came to realize “it” as reality.

 

You don’t need a deity to mask your love.  You don’t need a deity to justify your love.  You don’t need a deity to augment your love.  You are able to generate the same amount of love with or without your idea of a god.  Love is not simply a feeling; so much as it is the actions you take from those feelings.  If there’s a universal force, it’s undoubtedly electricity, a predictable and sometimes controllable physical phenomenon.  Once that force jumpstarts the reaction, self-preservation, or love, is what sustains it.  The explanation of god begins and ends with love.  At least the bible got that part right.

Cutting the Cord on Cable Television Service

Using an Over-the-Air & Internet Streaming Solution

By Chad Greenslade

If you are looking to cut-the-cord on your cable television provider, I can’t recommend enough a solution consisting of an over-the-air antenna combined with a smart TV streaming box.

I have been using the following solution for over two (2) years.  Prior to implementing this solution, I was paying AT&T U-Verse approximately $250 per month for television and (terrible) DSL-based Internet service.  Now I pay SuddenLink $90 (+ tax) each month for their 1Gbps Fiber-Optic Internet service only.  I do not pay for television service.

For my over-the-air television service, I installed the “EXTREMEtenna 80” ($109) external television antenna (https://www.channelmaster.com/Digital_HDTV_Outdoor_TV_Antenna_p/cm-4228hd.htm) on my chimney.  If you live in an HOA, you’ll want to get pre-approval to install the antenna.  I also installed the “Titan 2 High Gain Preamplifier” ($69) (https://www.channelmaster.com/TV_Antenna_Preamplifier_p/cm-7777.htm).  The amplifier is mounted onto the antenna.  I hired Eddie Banegas of “Digital TV & Media Services” (http://digitaltvandmediaservice.com/ (469) 855-0707) to install the antenna and amplifier and run coax cable to my “OnQ” wiring distribution box located in the laundry room.  It cost me $420 to have the antenna & amplifier installed.  I now have over-the-air HDTV service to every room with a coax outlet.  I get over 100 HDTV channels, including the major ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX affiliates.

For my Internet streaming service, first it’s imperative that you have high-speed Internet.  For me, AT&T U-verse’s DSL-based service didn’t measure up.  While I could use AT&T U-verse’s DSL-based Internet service for Netflix and Hulu (because both of these services dynamically optimize for lower bandwidths), using a Smart TV streaming box was out of the question.  Once I was able to get 1Gbps (gigabit) service to my home, the Smart TV streaming box performed much better.

Another item to keep in mind with Internet streaming is that a wired connection is better than a wireless connection.  You’ll want to force the devices (Televisions, Smart TV boxes, etc.) that are involved in video streaming to use the wired connection.  In my home, I have COAX (television) and Category-5 (CAT-5) (data) outlets in every room.  The data outlets are the ones to use for streaming.  The wires for the outlets terminate in a distribution box located in my laundry room.  The Internet service also comes into the house at this distribution box.  In order to distribute the Internet service to every room in the house, you’ll need a “switch”.  There are many makes & models to choose from, but I recommend a 1Gbps (gigabit) switch containing as many ports on it as you have rooms in your home with a data outlet.  For me, I have a 16-port, 1Gbps switch ($80) installed in the distribution box in my laundry room.  This provides wired Internet service to every room in the house.

Once you have wired Internet service to your room, you’re ready for Internet streaming.  Many of today’s “Smart TVs” can be connected to the Internet directly using either a wired or wireless connection.  Again, use a wired connection for the best, most-reliable results.  Smart TVs generally come pre-loaded with one or more streaming “Apps” such as Netflix, Hulu, etc.  Use these apps as you normally would.

Now, what about premium channels and content such as HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, ESPN, CNN, etc.?  This is where the Smart TV box comes into play.  If you’ve plugged your TV directly into the Internet using the data outlet in your room, you’ll first need to “split” this connection so that the TV can access the Internet alongside the Smart TV box.  To do this, again you’ll need a “switch”.  The switch you use in the room does not need to be as big as the one used in the distribution closet.  Whereas the switch in my distribution closet contains 16 ports, switches in my bedroom or media room only contain 4 ports ($40), or 8 ports ($65), depending on the number of devices in the room that need to access the Internet.  Again, you’ll want these switches to be 1Gbps (gigabit).

For the Smart TV box itself, I highly recommend the Kodi box.  They can be purchased at www.xbmcmart.com.  They generally only have a few models available and any one of them will work.  They range in price from $100 to $165 each.  There is no monthly subscription charge.  You’ll get access to virtually everything on television.  Now, one thing to keep in mind is that you are watching “streams” of video and each “stream” is only as good as (1) the person (connection) uploading the stream, and (2) the person (connection) downloading / watching the stream.  Not all streams are created equal.  Some uploaders have limited bandwidth and your bandwidth will directly impact the quality of your experience.  This is why you must have extremely good Internet service.  I own two Kodi boxes; one is installed in my media room and the other is installed in my bedroom.  Both perform great.  There will be a little bit of trial-and-error involved as you learn how to operate the Kodi box, but rest assured, you’ll figure it out.  The menus are intuitive and no prior experience is necessary.  Each Kodi box comes with a remote.  I do not recommend purchasing the mini-USB keyboard remote from xbmcmart; it’s a piece of crap and there are better options available on Amazon.

Lastly, I don’t have DVR (digital video recording) capability.  With the setup above, I have found it to be obsolete since virtually everything is on-demand.  Now, if you want to purchase a DVR box for over-the-air recording, be my guest.  Channel Master has some great options available.

Good luck!

Leadership in Times of Crises

Keep Calm & We’ll All Get Through This

By Chad Greenslade

 

I went to get my car inspected on Fri Mar-20, as part of renewing its yearly state registration.  The lady at the car shop said to me, “You might want to wait, because with all this craziness and everything shut down, if they can’t process your registration renewal in time, you’re just going to have to get it inspected again!

 

I thought about it for a quick second, taken aback, the only response I could think of was, “Yeah, but it’s a mail-in application.”  I knew it wasn’t a very strong retort.  She again says, “Everything is shut down; the driver’s license office is shut down!”, as if she was actively trying to get me engaged in her hysteria.

 

Having a very skeptical view of her impassioned argument, along with my quick determination that she appeared to be hysterical and ignorant, and given the fact that I had already taken the time to drive there, considering the mere $25.50 inspection fee, I decided to risk it.

 

My renewal application hit the mail on Sat Mar-21.  Yesterday, Fri Mar-27, I received my sticker.  When you subtract mailing time, that’s a three (3) day turnaround for the county tax assessor’s office to deliver my registration sticker, which apparently, is still functioning.

 

My point with this anecdote is that everyone needs to remain calm.  Here’s a lady, right in the middle of Prosper, TX, actively spewing uninformed garbage like it’s gospel, stating the government is shutdown and I should forego my legally required automobile inspection and registration.  How many other people did she convince of her narrative?

 

The world is not ending.  Do you know what I’ve done since this quarantine began?  Work.  Work every day.  Long hours.  It has upended the Clients that my company serves and we’ve had to pivot sharply.  We all have a role to play.  Go to work, if you can.  Pay your bills, buy your groceries.  I think we can all manage to keep ourselves indoors if we’re sick and only venture out for essentials for a while.  Take a socially distant walk.  Exercise.  Listen to the leaders that you trust; you know that you have a few whom you consider to be moderate or reasonable.  Pay attention to what’s happening at the federal level so that you can take advantage of the $2 trillion in cash that’s about to hit the market.  If we all don’t freak out, we can adapt to this crisis with grace and class.

 

I’m fortunate to have a job I can do from home.  My Clients, however, are in all industries, and are all struggling to make sense of the new world.  As a leader in my company, I have to act level-headed at all times.  The biggest call to action for me was to keep everyone focused and on-task.  Find ways to push forward.  Listen to Clients and Employees and quickly adjust.  Succinctly communicate facts and limit opinion.  Be open and honest, diligent and principled.  New opportunities will present themselves that can benefit everyone.  My largest account is shrinking by 50%, but I have other Clients that are increasing demand.  I know that my company can’t effectively respond to these changing conditions without leadership at all levels, acting like leaders.

 

We are all leaders of something or someone in life.  Maybe it’s your children.  If you have the word “manager” in your work title, someone in an actual business, that participates in the actual economy, is looking to you for direction.  Step-up.  Engage.  Don’t indulge in fear and paranoia.  There will be no nationwide martial law, no FEMA concentration camps.  There will be no nationwide suspension of habeas corpus.  If the military does get deployed, it won’t be nationwide and it won’t be for long periods of time.  When it does happen, remember, THEY ARE AMERICANS AND THEY ARE THERE TO HELP.  Trust me, they’d much rather be in the US helping people than in a war zone. Look at what the National Guard is doing in NY State; building hospitals, distributing aid.  No one’s coming for your guns.  Governor Abbot just clarified his order that gun stores can remain open; god bless him.

 

There’s no place I’d rather be for this crisis.   Texas is a proud, strong state.  We pull together in times of crisis, not push apart.  We’ve seen it time and time again.  Every time a disaster happens, neighbors help neighbors.  We don’t pillage and loot.  We don’t take advantage of others.  Our Republican government is clearly focused on getting our economy restarted, above all else.  Economies don’t work when society is in a state of civil unrest.  No one wants that.  Everyone is pulling in the same direction; care for the sick and get the economy restarted.  In third-world countries ran by actual dictators, they’d simply round up all the sick and burn them to death.  Think about that and why it will never happen in the US.  We’re armed to the teeth.  There are more civilians than soldiers.  Eventually, it’s just a numbers game.  No pilot is going to fly a bombing campaign over their own people; it’s an illegal order, and pilots know that.  Finally, I highly doubt any service member would ever take up arms against fellow American citizens.  The government, the military, FEMA, everyone – it’s all us.  It’s you and me.  We all know (or were) someone in the military, someone that works for the city, county, or state, someone who is a police officer, etc.  In this particular crisis, we’re seeing state and local leaders step-up, at least as much as the federal government.  Democrats and Republicans may be bickering, but I believe that most are trying to do their best and protect the citizens under their jurisdiction or representation.  Both Democrats and Republicans are being forced to work together.  Our government may be slow, but we will eventually rise to the challenge.

 

Fellow Gen-Xers, I’m looking at you.  We are uniquely qualified to navigate this crisis.  We’ve lived through countless other crises.  Not much fazes us.  We have a duty to help those who are struggling to cope with this crisis.  This is our opportunity to step-up.  At best, this is just momentary blip at the midpoint in your life; at worst, decisions we make now will impact the remainder of our lives, and most likely the lives of others.  Consider this weight when acting.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 7

Seventh in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

 

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the seventh in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 7: Engage Stakeholders & Supporters

Once you have executive buy-in, you’re now ready to engage your supporters.  It’s imperative to get the right people on-board early on.  The Agile Champion requires a group of people around them that are dissatisfied with how work is currently performed and are willing to make a change.  Stakeholders and supporters fall into three (3) broad categories:

Executives: Executives will approve and / or sponsor the agile project.  You’ll want support from an executive that has a vested interest in the success of new projects.  If possible, try to find an influential executive, one that is seen as a leader amongst their peers, someone they trust to bring great vision and planning to the organization, and try to get him or her to sponsor your agile project.

Individual Contributors: Your Individual Contributors are the folks that will actually be carrying out the agile project.  These are the guys who will need the agile training to execute the agile work processes.  You’ll want good representation with this group of people.  If your organization has certain disciplines (application development, database, project management, etc.) or product lines, you’ll want though leaders representing these groups.

Middle Management: Every Individual Contributor on your team reports to someone.  You’ll want to figure out who those people are and talk to them.  After all, these people write the performance reviews of your Individual Contributors.  Even the strongest Individual Contributor still must do what their manager asks; that’s how they retain their position.  It’s extremely important to gain middle management buy-in because very often, middle management is directly responsible for executing the operation of the IT department and are unlikely to pose future, unforeseen process barriers if they are engaged early.

Once you’ve identified your stakeholders and supporters, schedule meetings to discuss the agile transformation initiative.  Educate them on what you’ve learned about agile and how it can meet their objectives.  Discuss your plan and key milestones in the agile transformation initiative.  These meetings are not the “one-and-done” type.  Expect to have multiple conversations as people learn more.  You must give people time to learn, to think through agile concepts and how they will impact their day-to-day.  Everyone learns at different speeds, so be prepared to be patient.  You will be doing ongoing research in order to answer everyone’s questions.  If you’re able to answer everyone’s questions and sell them on the benefits, they will follow your lead during the changes ahead.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 6

Sixth in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the sixth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 6: Gain Executive Buy-In

Executives have motivations and you must work to understand their nuanced agendas and how they are measured while getting them to agree on a specific course of action. You’re going to need a coalition of aligned executives if you wish to get your agile transformation effort off the ground. Discuss the problems that you are attempting to solve, help them understand why a change is required, and educate them on how you came to explore agile as a solution.

The first step of executive alignment is gaining consensus on the problem statement. If executives have differing opinions on what the problem is, they will naturally have differing opinions on the solution. Conversely, executive consensus on a problem statement makes it much easier to gain concurrence on the problem’s solution. You should be able to articulate the problem using actual results from previously completed projects. Empirical evidence such as budget, schedule, and quality data can be examined and used to justify the problem statement. If existing project intake and / or request management processes cannot keep up with demand, this can be further used as justification for change. Many of today’s software products are subscription based with regular updates included as part of the service. A traditional waterfall approach may not support the quick release cadence demanded by your customers. Whatever your justification may be, it’s important to not only cite the problem statement, but to also provide concrete, salient examples of the problem; incidents that everyone can point to and agree that they are actual examples of the problem statement.

Once you have executive alignment on the problem statement, next you must help executives understand how agile solves the problem. Reiterate the benefits of agile from lesson #3 as you map them to the problem statement. Solving the problem statement also involves addressing the, “what’s in it for me?” question. When having this discussion with executives, frame it in terms of cost, risk, and rewards.

The agile transformation can expect hard costs for training of the pilot team, and an agile coach, if you choose to use one. You can expect to encounter soft costs for staff transitioning to a new methodology and tools as their productivity temporarily slows until the new processes are institutionalized. You must do your homework to ensure these costs are accurate, complete, understood, and accepted.

In my opinion, there is more perceived risk than actual risk in an agile transformation. Fundamentally, we’re not changing the way software is written, we’re simply changing the way we organize the work of software development. Sure, if you don’t have a plan for how to get from point A to point B, you’re going to get lost, but if a plan (like the one outlined in these lessons) is followed, risks only materialize in a few areas. Risks should be logged and managed with a mitigation plan for each that is regularly reviewed with the executive team. Doing this builds trust that risks are being managed and confidence that the effort will succeed. The most common risk is insufficient buy-in from executives or team members. This can clearly be managed before an agile transformation initiative is undertaken by additional training and education. Healthy skepticism of a new process is welcome, but active sabotage will be detrimental to the effort so it’s important that the right people are on-board and all pulling in the same direction. Risk of business impact can be mitigated by executing a pilot agile project first, and then using the results of the pilot to further refine the rollout.

Everyone likes to look good to their boss and executives are no different. You’ll want to figure out each executive’s performance drivers, but like everyone else, executives want to be valuable and promotable. Like all leaders, they want to demonstrate their leadership skills, achieve faster product delivery, lower operating costs, and in increase profits. You’ll want to again re-emphasize the speed of product delivery reward expected from an agile transformation and highlight how their sponsorship and / or support of a major organizational shift, such as this one, will demonstrate their leadership abilities and increase the bottom line.

Advantages and Risks of Hit-and-Run Plays

Chad Greenslade is an established Dallas, TX-based IT project management executive who offers solutions-driven consulting services. Passionate about baseball, Chad Greenslade excelled in the sport in high school and continues to play in adult recreational baseball leagues.

One of the foundational offensive strategies with a man on first base is the hit-and-run, which involves the runner on first base breaking toward second as the pitch is delivered. At the same time, the batter swings at the ball and attempts to connect.

With one of the infielders needing to cover second base, an opening is created on the left or right side of the field which can allow a ground ball to pass through to the outfield for a hit. In addition, the chances of a ground out double play is reduced, as the runner has a jump on the action.

There are risks associated with the hit-and-run, including a high likelihood that the runner will be thrown out in cases where the batter fails to connect with the ball. This has to do with the runner not taking as large of a lead off from the base as when stealing.

In addition, the hitter is obligated to try to connect with the ball, even if it is well outside of the strike zone, to protect the runner. This can result in balls that are weakly hit, leading to easy outs.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 5

Fifth in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the fifth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 5: Be Prepared to Address Difficult Questions & Refute Key Concerns

Moving to a completely new way of doing things can be scary, especially when the folks that will be carrying out the work have no advanced knowledge of how they will be carrying out the work.  To the uninformed, Agile can be synonymous with little or no process, tools, documentation, commitments, or planning.  The truth, however, is quite the contrary.  These concerns and misconceptions must be met head-on if they are to be overcome.  Below I discuss a few common questions & concerns that you’ll most likely encounter on your journey.

Question #1: Will we be trained in Agile?  Anyone who is unfamiliar with agile concepts but is asked to carry them out will immediately ask when they will receive the training required to execute the concepts. There’s nothing more intimidating than being asked to complete a project with a methodology that you don’t understand, and on which you’ve received no training.  Further, an organization’s commitment to change can be measured in its willingness to invest in the education necessary for their employees to successfully carry out the change.  As a leader in an organization’s agile transformation, you’ll need to immediately understand funding constraints relative to the agile training required for the team.  You’ll need to be able to explain to each and every team member, as quickly as possible, when and how they’ll be trained.  Open communication in this area will go a long way in allaying fears that arise from an uncertain path forward.

Question #2: Is the company hiring an agile coach to help us?  It’s important to understand advantages and disadvantages of using an agile coach before you decide to use one.  A coach will undoubtedly provide value to the initial teams tasked with carrying out an agile project.  Keep in mind that an agile coach is a temporary role, typically hired from outside the company, and is generally no longer required once a few agile teams are up and running and the organization has built some internal agile expertise.  Despite the temporary nature, you’ll still want someone who can establish rapport, build relationships, and motivate both agile team members and executive-level stakeholders to follow their lead.  Experience matters.  Be aware that due to the temporary nature of the role, some internal stakeholders may resist the coach’s direction based on their conclusion that the coach lacks standing to implement lasting change.  Conversely, a coach can be unencumbered by internal organization politics allowing them to deliver an honest assessment of the actions required to launch the agile initiative.  Whatever your reasons for or against a coach, be ready to explain them to the team.

Question #3: How is this different from our past attempts at change?  Most organizations have tried to implement a quality improvement program.  In many cases, there are employees in an organization who have been involved in a failed process improvement attempt.  It’s important to understand your organization’s past successes and failures and be able to compare and contrast them to the agile transformation at hand.  Be prepared to discuss the roadmap you’re following and the champions that you have on-board.  Ask for feedback to the plan.  Keep a list of the questions received and answers delivered.  This list will continue to grow as the transformation unfolds and keeping a readily distributable log of questions and answers will be a valuable time-saving resource as more persons become involved.

Concern #1: Agile teams don’t use any process or tools. While the first tenet of the Agile Manifesto is to value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, anyone with a cursory understanding of the methodology knows that Agile, in and of itself, is a process, and there are many tools on the market today to assist with facilitating and automating the agile processes. The bottom line is that Agile does contain processes and does promote the use of tools, however, the interactions amongst team members and the customer is more important than the use of any specific tool or process.

Concern #2: Agile teams do not produce documentation as the project progresses. The reality here is that a documentation-heavy, waterfall approach to writing software has been proven time and time again to be fraught with waste and rework. In today’s software development environment, it is much more valuable to begin with a high-level design approach and then refine this design as development unfolds. Agile teams will not spend hours attempting to document and control every single variable that they will encounter with on their development journey. Lightweight design tools will be employed including whiteboards and diagrams to produce just the right amount of design at just the right time such that development can begin and the design can be iterated. Agile teams will spend more time documenting the design of what’s been built versus attempting to fit development into a pre-engineered design. The effect is that design, development, and documentation happen at the same time.

Concern #3: Agile teams do not make customer commitments. In the old paradigm, the customer would deliver their requirements to the development team, the development team would provide an estimate, the customer would approve the estimate, and then the development team would commit to a release or implementation date. The customer would largely be absent throughout the design and development process, only to be re-engaged for user acceptance testing and release. In this process, the commitment is clearly visible and is part of the development methodology. The issue, however, is that a vast number of the commitments made by the development team were missed. Agile attempts to solve for this issue in a couple of different ways. First, Agile teams ask the customer to remain engaged throughout the design, development, and testing processes to ensure that constant feedback and collaboration occurs. This collaboration has the effect of ensuring that what is built actually solves the business problem and delivers the value requested. Second, Agile discards the big commitment made up-front in the old paradigm for a series of smaller commitments made incrementally towards the larger goal. The same rules still apply in that the overall project end-date cannot be determined until all customer requirements are defined and delivered upon. However, Agile realizes that in today’s software development environment, requirements evolve over time and are more conducive to a product development lifecycle versus a project lifecycle. Requirements don’t stop coming in once a software development project completes. Agile recognizes this and accounts for it via continuously updating roadmaps and release plans, which drive the lower, sprint-level commitments that are hallmark of the methodology.

Concern #4: Agile teams do not plan. As mentioned in Concern #3 above, you can clearly start to discern the tenets of Agile planning. The key difference between traditional Waterfall planning and Agile planning is that Agile embraces what is known as “horizon planning”. Horizon planning means that you can only plan, with any degree of accuracy, as far you can see. In other words, if you look at the horizon, you can make a plan for how to get to where you can see on that horizon, but you can’t plan with any degree of certainty for how to travel beyond that horizon. With each passing day, the horizon changes, and as such, your plans for how to get to the horizon should also change. Agile embraces the planning horizon and anticipates changing requirements by placing a top-down structure around the uncertainty. At the top level, a more high-level approach to planning is employed whereas at the bottom level a more realistic and time-bound commitment is made. The five levels are as follows:

  • Level 1: Product Vision. The product vision is a high-level narrative produced by the product owner. It can be high-level or very detailed depending on what is known, by the product owner, about the proposed product. In many cases it will contain a high level description of the product, the markets it will serve, the value to the organization, and a description of how the product will serve the market. The key outcome of the product vision is a general direction for the development team to embark upon when creating the product.

 

  • Level 2: Product Roadmap. The product vision is decomposed into a roadmap consisting of large work elements, known as “Features”, and high-level estimates for each, laid over time. The key concept here is that the estimates are high-level and the schedules are aspirational. The product roadmap is not meant to establish a product development end-date, but rather it is used to chart a path for product development, and attempt to start setting high-level expectations around when a minimally viable product can be delivered. The product roadmap, like most other Agile planning artifacts, is intended to be iterative and refined over time as the product vision evolves.

 

  • Level 3: Release Plan. Once the product’s features are defined in the product roadmap, a vertical slice of the features are taken for each quarter. This vertical slice becomes the release plan. For example, if your company’s product is a new website for ordering college textbooks, features could be “shopping cart”, “search”, “payment”, etc. In each release, you’ll want to include certain aspects of each feature in the release.

 

  • Level 4: Sprints. A sprint is probably one of the most widely known Agile concepts. A sprint is simply a time-box for completion of work. The most common sprint duration is two weeks; however, sprints can be as short as one week or as long as four weeks. It is not recommended to have a sprint duration longer than four weeks. Once the release plan is defined by quarter, the Agile team determines the number of sprints than can be accomplished in each quarter. User stories supporting each feature slice are written and selected by the team for completion in each sprint. The selection of a story to be completed in a sprint is a hard and fast commitment by the team to deliver a working piece of software within a certain timeframe. There is much that goes into the drafting, estimation, and selection of user stories for a given sprint. This guidance is outside the scope of this lesson.

 

  • Level 5: Daily Stand-Up. The daily stand-up is also a widely known Agile concept and fulfills the requirement of the team’s daily planning. It is probably the simplest Agile process. Its goal is to align the team, each day, around the current sprint’s objectives. It is a fifteen-minute meeting in which each person answers three questions relative to the deliverables in the current sprint; what did you do yesterday, what will you do today, and do you have any impediments (a.k.a. “roadblocks”). Typically the team’s Kanban board will be displayed to facilitate discussion. Problem solving is reserved for subsequent meetings to be scheduled by the Scrum Master.

 

In this lesson I’ve discussed some common concerns and how each of these is refuted. While it can take some time to persuade everyone to get on board, it’s clear that planning & process is not absent in Agile, simply better tailored to today’s software development environment.

 

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 4

Fourth in a Fifteen Part Series
By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the fourth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 4: Understand Common Environmental Constraints

There are some common organizational environmental constraints that you will encounter when moving to an Agile delivery model.  Each of these must be considered and addressed for your Agile transformation effort to take root and flourish.  Each of these should be considered “difficult” to address and requires ongoing effort to engage key players in the organization and change their perspectives to align with transformation goals.

The first and most common constraint is simply the one of management “style”.  Management style can either be a hindrance or an enabler to the transformation.  If your organization is an older one, especially one that has been around since before the Agile manifesto was published in the early 2000’s, the management “style” is most likely a top-down, “command-and-control” model.  In this model, the methods by which lower-level employees carry out work are dictated by higher-level management personnel.  “Command-and-control” is also frequently used in smaller organizations that may have no knowledge of Agile principles or practices.   Agile requires collaboration.  Collaboration necessitates that decision-making occur at the level where the work is taking place.  Agile believes that the resources performing the work are best equipped to guide their own work and successfully navigate obstacles when they present themselves.  In simple terms, the folks doing the work must be empowered to make decisions about the work.  Since collaboration is a bed-rock principle of the Agile manifesto and “command-and-control” does not foster collaboration, the “command-and-control” management style must be regarded as detrimental to an agile transformation in that it stifles collaboration.  Shifting from a “command-and-control” model can be difficult, especially if the next three constraints are not adequately addressed.

The second constraint to overcome is your organization’s willingness to accept change.  In a “command-and-control” environment, the notion of, “we’ve always done it that way” may be prevalent.  Clearly this won’t work when attempting to institutionalize a culture shift.  In this type of environment, you’ll need to confront unwillingness to change head-on.  You’ll want to tout expected Agile benefits (Lesson 3) and reasons for moving to Agile (Lesson 2) and ensure they are well understood by key leaders, stakeholders, and resources.  You should be looking for the, “let’s give it a try” response to your transformation proposal.  When you lay out the case for Agile and start small, you will be able to build confidence on your successes and get more folks on-board with your vision as your experiment progresses.

A major environmental constraint that exists in many organizations is a “process-heavy” culture.  Process-heavy organizations are those with rigid activities that must be completed in order to progress an effort.  This typically manifests itself with paperwork, and lots of it.  Agile requires lightweight processes.  This means that unnecessary or “non-value add” steps are skipped.  Agile is focused on just enough process to get people what they need to complete the work at exactly the right time.  If you’re in a process-heavy culture, you’ll need to reset management’s expectations relative to the process rigor that will be employed.  It’s not that no process will be used; it’s simply that required process will be employed.  For example, if there’s a process that must be followed to introduce new changes to the production environment, you’ll most likely want to follow it.  However, if the traditional waterfall process dictates that a full-blown detailed technical design be completed before any actual coding begins, this can be problematic and antithetical to Agile’s tenets.  You’ll want to thoughtfully analyze existing process and have a meaningful, collaborative discussion with oversight bodies to gain agreement on exactly which processes will be followed and which will not.  When having these discussions, stress the benefits of “speed-to-market” and reduced costs associated with an Agile effort.  You may also find yourself in the position of re-writing the “rules of the road”, specifically for Agile initiatives.

The last key environmental constraint that you must address is trust.  Trust is an absolutely essential component to Agile.  A key item to keep in mind is that trust is earned over time.  When trust does not exist, management tends to micro-manage the engaged resources.  When trust exists, management will get out of the way and let the workers carry out the work.  Trust is required to start an Agile pilot project, and management, including the Scrum Master, must trust the folks carrying out the Agile project to get the job done with quality.  By starting small and demonstrating value delivery, trust will be gained and increased over time.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 3

Third in a Fifteen Part Series
By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the third in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 3: Understand Expected Agile Benefits

Agile implementations produce benefits for both the team members executing agile and the managers of agile teams.  These benefits, however, can only be realized when company management commits to making the changes necessary to realize them.  Further lessons will expand upon the changes and buy-in required, but for now, understand that teams that adopt agile practices must move away from traditional “command-and-control” and “wishful-thinking” (a.k.a. “predictive”) management philosophies.  Agile can appear to be simple, but key concepts such as self-organization and continual inspection and adaptation have subtle implications that require a change to management’s status-quo approach.

Industry studies show that approximately half of software features developed are never used.  These studies indicate that required features can be developed in half the time by avoiding unnecessary work and waste.  Via continuous prioritization of development requests, agile teams avoid building features that will never be used and focus only on delivering those with the highest business value.  Prioritization is further extended to impediments (a.k.a. “roadblocks”) that surface during daily meetings.  Discovered roadblocks are prioritized and removed resulting in a further increase in quality and productivity.

Agile is known to improve the quality of life for the team members executing it through elimination of the pressures inflicted on the team by management personnel.  A sense of autonomy is instilled when teams are allowed to select their own work and then self-organize around the best way to complete the work.  This fosters the development of innovation within the team, produces higher team productivity, and delivers higher customer and team satisfaction levels.  Allowing the team to deliver a functional and effective product that achieves the market and financial goals of the company produces team spirit, ownership, and results in increased employee retention.

Finally, agile is known to improve the profitability of the company by affecting components of the profit margin.  These include customer retention, innovation, timely and accurate delivery, and workforce motivation.  Customers are retained when they are cared for and provide critical referrals necessary to grow the business.  Accurate and timely delivery of exactly what customers need, when they need it, enhances customer satisfaction and revenue streams.  Innovation ensures synchronization with market trends and anticipation of future customer requirements.  A motivated workforce is a productive workforce and one that provides an edge over the competition.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 2

Second in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

 

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the second in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

 

Lesson 2: Understand Common Reasons for Moving to Agile

 

I believe there are three (3) common reasons for moving to an agile delivery methodology. These reasons have nothing to do with IT specifically, but rather align themselves more generally with the common goals of product delivery. These are timely delivery, resolving quality deficiencies, and speed to market.

 

In the traditional waterfall model, an IT project could have a duration of several months or years and not produce anything of value for the business, if it produces anything at all. A common stakeholder complaint is that they rarely, if ever, know when anything will be delivered. Sponsors and stakeholders become reluctant to allow the project to continue when there is no end date or discernible deliverables in sight. An obvious and common risk is that a new opportunity or project will present itself resulting in the original project being cancelled, ending the work before anything of value is delivered. An agile delivery methodology alleviates concerns related to timely delivery by producing incremental product units on a pre-defined timescale.

 

Today’s business environment is constantly changing. Whether it’s new products being developed, old products being retired, competitors being acquired, divestitures, market expansions, new legislation or regulations, the only constant is change. This has an overwhelming and obvious effect on the information needs of the organization required to make accurate business decisions. Furthermore, a business is often willing to invest in building a solution to meet these information needs before all of the needs are fully known or understood. The traditional waterfall model is not conducive to the ebbs and flows of today’s business environment. It creates a situation in which a project team attempts to collect all requirements at the beginning of the software development effort, even though they may be unknown at the time of collection. The project team then takes the requirements as defined (or undefined) and attempts to build the solution over the course of months or years while discouraging changes to the requirements during the development process. This invariably breeds an environment in which the product delivered not only fails to meet the initial requirements, but also fails to address the changes in business conditions that occurred since the original requirements were collected. Stakeholders regard these as quality deficiencies even though the system may be coded exactly as the requirements specified. An agile delivery methodology alleviates quality concerns by continuously engaging the consumers of the information system throughout the development lifecycle and embracing the inherent changing requirements of today’s business environment.

 

A key theme of a successful business is continuous innovation. A common complaint from an executive whose business is failing to innovate could be, “our competitors are consistently beating us to market with new products or features.” An agile delivery methodology keeps the organization focused on product release milestones via the inherent cadence that accompanies the methodology. It also seeks to discontinue the use of non-value add activities such as unnecessary documentation or process which further refines the focus of the product delivery team.