Gonzo QA: Fear and Loathing at Scrum Day Europe 2014 (part 1)

A savage journey to the heart of evidence-based management for software organizations in 1,000 words or less

Dateline: 3 July 2014, Amsterdam

I approached Scrum Day Europe with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Ken Schwaber was giving the opening and closing keynote speeches. Ken Schwaber! Ken co-developed the Scrum process and signed the Agile Manifesto. He founded the Agile Alliance, Scrum Alliance and Scrum.org and I was going to hear him speak. Would the first row of seats be reserved for acolytes dressed in white robes? Would the audience chant his name? Would there be fruit juice to drink at the end? The man who wrote ‘Scrum’s roles, artefacts, events, and rules are immutable and although implementing only parts of Scrum is possible, the result is not Scrum,’ does not sound tolerant of dissenters.

Walking towards the Pakhuis de Zwijger from the Piet Heinkade side, I held my hands high where security could see them. At 08:30 in the morning, it was far too early to invite trouble from the black and blue clad militia bearing the sign of ‘*’. The De Zwijger warehouse has attitude. Built in 1934 to house refrigerated goods, it obstinately refused demolition during renovations to the Eastern Docklands in the late 90s, with the result that the authorities had to build the Jan Schaeffer bridge *through* it to offer the intended link to Java Island.

I accepted my ankle tag from check-in using a false id I had had made on Haarlemmerstraat for the purpose. There’s a limit to the amount of marketing a person can take before madness is the only option.

The bar was serving coffee caipirinhas and lime croissants. With two of each in hand, I made my way up multiple penitentiary-style staircases and sat in the dimly lit ‘Grote zaal’ waiting for Ken’s ‘Evidence-Based Management for software organizations’ keynote. Ken Schwaber! Ken was here and I was going to meet him. The room filled up, the lights went down and Gunther Verheyen filled the stage. He’s a big man with a soft voice and I’ve learned to watch people like that. Gunther delivered his body blow immediately. ‘Ken is not here,’ he said. ‘He has been refused entry to the Netherlands due to visa irregularities. He will Skype in to give the closing keynote only.’ ‘Lame’ was my first thought. Gunther then calmly and competently proceeded to give the keynote by himself. ‘Kudos’ was my second.

Evidence-based management (EBM) promotes use of the current, best evidence in management and decision-making. Its roots are in empiricism and is well developed in evidence-based medicine. EBM for software organizations extends those principles into Agile software development methods to allow development team decision-making to rely less on hearsay and more on facts – which sounded good where I was sitting.

The keynote over, I made my way to Session 2: Led Zeppelin Scaling Agility by self-proclaimed would-be guitar hero, Bertrand Dour. The official scrum guide focuses on running one project with one scrum team, meaning nine or less people are involved. It is a real challenge to preserve agility and keep lead times short when projects multiply and staff breed like rabbits. Bertrand’s conceit is to envisage each scrum team as a member of Led Zeppelin, each with their own personality, ego to massage and role to play. As individuals their musicianship was outstanding, but together their music went up to 11 – plus both the band and the music have successfully stood the test of time – although John Bonham’s mother Joan may have begged to differ before she died in 2011. Unfortunately Bertrand assumed I already knew and admired Spotify’s method of scaling agile with Tribes, Squads, Chapters and Guilds as background to his talk. In fact Bertrand’s passing comments were the first I had heard of it, so much of his material went over my head.

After mid-morning daiquiris and chocolate pastries, I found my way into Session 3: Limits of empirics in EBM by Victor Gijsbers. Victor wore a Hawaiian shirt, had the strong, clear voice of a Irish lay preacher and more hair than Jesus. He may be assistant professor in philosophy at Leiden University *now*, but surely the world beckons. In his own words, “EBM aims to apply the empirical method of science to managerial decision-making. The core idea – that it is better to base decisions on solid, objective evidence than on unreflective gut feelings – is of course very attractive. But applying the empirical method is already difficult in laboratory science, and a management context adds some unique challenges. So while we may want to embrace evidence-based management, we also need to be aware of its limitations.” Over the course of the next hour, Victor tore EBM for software organizations to shreds. He advised we embrace EBM as a concept, but take the claims of would-be snake oil salesmen at less than face value. He concluded by recommending the use of phronesis – practical wisdom – as opposed to practical magic, a 1996 novel by Alice Hoffman falling into the genre of magical realism, containing elements of magic and irony and featuring non-standard romances and relationships.

Oh to see Victor Gijsbers go head to head with Ken Schwaber on the value of evidence-based management for software organizations.

The lunchtime bell ringing in my ears, I made my way to the bar.

(Continued in part 2.)

Author’s note

My thanks to everyone who made Scrum Day Europe 2014 a resounding success. Such inspiration! I look forward to Scrum Day Europe 2015 and, who knows, finally hearing Ken Schwaber speak.

www.scrumdayeurope.com 3 July 2014, Amsterdam


In memory of Hunter S Thompson, 1937 – 2005, high priest of Gonzo journalism

First posted: 7 July 2014 on www.spritecloud.com

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