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Category Archives: Culture

An Inspirational Visit to the Powerhouse Museum

It seems I do most of my blogging on airplanes – this is another blog post written while crossing the Tasman.

Last week the Software Education trainer team had a rare opportunity to get together for some professional development and R&R together. We try to do this on a regular basis, but it’s been quite a while since we got it right.

Nine of us met in Sydney for three days; we spent the first day sharing ideas and talking as a team. The second day Clarence White from The Actor’s Studio took us through some exercises to extend our classroom delivery skills, and on the third day we did touristy things in Sydney: a visit to the Powerhouse Museum followed by a Harbour Cruise lunch.

I really enjoyed opportunity to spend time with my colleagues – we tend to be a fairly solitary bunch, and seldom get the chance to work together simply due to the nature of our work. We travel to venues around Australia and New Zealand (and beyond) delivering courses and consulting with companies and teams on our own, so being able to spend three days in each other’s company is a real privilege.

We debated the content of courses, delivery styles, and the state of the world at length – it would be impossible for us to get together and not have intense discussions as we’re all so passionate about our work.

If you think the testers and developers in your company sometimes have passionate discussions you should see a bunch of testing and development trainers talking about the merits and flaws of each others topic areas:-). Fortunately we value diversity and embrace free thought and the sharing of ideas, and we have a social contract that sets the framework for debate so the discussions were interesting, fun and respectful.

On our third day together we visited the Powerhouse Museum and had a Curated Tour. This was generously organized by Damian McDonald and we were guided around the museum by Matthew Connell.

Matthew is the Principal Curator for Physical Sciences & IT and he took the time to not only show us around the museum, he explained what the exhibits are, what they represent, and the process the curators go through to identify and select what goes into an exhibition. This was a fascinating tour and the insights Matthew shared with us were inspirational both in terms of how the ideas apply to what and how we teach, and about the lifecycle of technology and innovation.

I didn’t take many notes (too absorbed in listening) but fortunately Sharon and Anja were armed with their iPhones and they did take notes of some of the key points Matthew made. So, thank you ladies for sharing your notes with me.

Here’s what Sharon had to say (she summarizes so well I’m not going to try to paraphrase)

  • The museum had to focus on “less consumption and more interaction” – I thought that was a good analogy for software also, particularly the development of Agile software – less “take what you are given and be happy with it” more of “what do you want out of this and how can we provide it”. Less spoon feeding more designing the menu.
  • “Living laboratories” in the museum – I could also draw the analogy back to software here –our solutions should be built with this in mind – particularly with an Agile solution – let’s hypothesise and experiment with the solution and use the results of the experiment to determine our next steps.
  • “Technology at a cultural level – what is the context, purpose, persistence of the technology” – it was a great trigger for thinking about how long any solution will be around and why is it being used. So often we see our solutions not providing a single solution but being built as a package of solutions – is that the best way?
  • “Significance is not a universal concept – it varies over time”. I thought this was very insightful as you can see this is software when the priorities change at the micro level and when the technology changes at the macro level – iPhone and iPad aps are the example that came to mind – we have moved away from complex multi-function software to small, simple aps that deliver the required solution
  • “The Rubbish Phase” of a product or an artefact – this made me think about good software solutions that do not survive the “rubbish phase” and are thrown away before people realise their value or potential value [Editors Note: the Rubbish Phase is the period between an idea being innovative and it becoming an important part of history. Matthew spoke about some of the material the museum has in storage that runs the risk of being discarded to saved space, and then becomes rare and historically significant]
  • “Innovation is something that changes human thinking” – I thought this was a great definition and would love to do some blogging and working on innovation in IT and what is it and how do we recognise it?
  • “The deficit model of scientific communication – we know everything and we will tell you what you need to know” – Matthew was talking about climate change as his example but I could see us in IT doing that to the business and our end users – only telling them what we think they need to know.

Anja posted her thoughts to the Software Education Yammer stream:

I felt inspired by our Powerhouse Museum visit in Sydney
that was guided by Matthew Connell, the principle curator.
He was an excellent speaker - now that means different
things to different people. 

He was fluid, and was able to provide knowledge in context
of historical, current and future changes within the
engineering space. 

Moreover, he was very personable - or, he was in the moment,
very approachable and humble about his knowledge trying to
connect to us by giving us his focused attention for over
an hour. And no GAMES!

In his words, displayed work ("art") is not just about
communicating and interacting with people, but to engage
them in context of their realities, their lives -
how and why we are evolving.
Innovation in his own words he described as providing a person
with a new understanding of the world and themselves, their
culture with the main objective to have a social impact.
Innovation can be gradual or big bang. 

The main message I took away from "new approaches to teaching
and learning" is that of an intuitive journey -
to provide for the individual as opposed to mass!

So we had a great time, learned a lot and gained an insight into the historical and scientific mindset. If you’re in Sydney and have some time to spare go and visit the Powerhouse – it’s a great experience. I certainly plan on returning to see the new exhibitions.

Thank you Matthew and Damian, and thank you to my colleagues for sharing the time. Thank you James for the idea of visiting the Powerhouse.

Thanks too to Martyn & Phil for giving us the time and money to be able to get together in Sydney. Now, where should we go for the next trainers session (Fiji anyone?)

Oh, yes – just in case you think we were purely focused on work and learning, I can attest to lots of banter and laughter over great German food and a wonderful cruise on the Harbour. Significant quantities of good beer and wine somehow appeared on the bill at each meal we shared 🙂

The photo was taken on the first day when we were behaving ourselves because the boss was there with us. There will be no published record of the later events. 😉

Posted by Shane Hastie

 

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‘Soft’ skills or dealbreakers?

A few weeks ago the Australian sales team headed down to Sydney to attend Agile Australia 2011. They had a busy couple of days meeting and talking to Agilests from all over the country and noticed a common theme. Lots of companies have adopted the practices of Agile without accompanying them with the necessary cultural shift that they needed to make things actually happen. Anyone working in software development will have heard that story before and it always makes me wonder why we still use the term ‘soft skills’. Soft skills are not a small, unimportant or unnecessary thing to consider, they are the crux of your organisation’s ability to succeed. If you can’t talk to people, listen to them and work together you’ll never get anything done!

With regards to Agile, in order for projects to be successful you need support from your business and investment in training and coaching so that all staff members come along for the ride. The processes of Agile and Scrum are important, but without understanding why you are following these processes it’s going to be almost impossible to make anyone do them (which is the reason SoftEd’s Agile training courses focus on awareness as well as process).

What else did they see at the conference? First of all keynote speaker Alistair Cockburn talked about Agile UX Design as an ‘up and coming’ area of interest. They listened to Rob Thomsett‘s presentation on whether your business is ready for Agile According to Rob, “implementing Agile practices is a disruptive cultural revolution” and Agile business models are based on simplicity and transparency. Daniel Oertli, who has made big changes at REA Group, promoted the value of planning (not plans necessarily, but the actual planning process) and of being customer centric rather than customer driven (an important distinction I think, after all you can’t and probably shouldn’t do every single thing that every customer requests, but you need them at the heart of your organisation to make sure you’re going in the right direction).

According to Michael Bromley Agile isn’t the point, better is the point, and his organisation (NBN-Co) believe that Agile is radical and will take time to develop, but the only way to make this happen is to get started and go for it because you learn Agile by being Agile. Just as you learn, fail and improve in Agile projects you must learn, fail and improve at doing Agile itself, “Agile is a way of thinking”.

There were a few other things you see at most conferences nowadays: panel discussions, game playing (the marshmallow challenge) and the usual buzz-word bingo (everyone has their favourite terms!) which keep us entertained over the two days. Thanks Agile Australia!

And just one last thing, we at Software Education run conferences as well: SDC, focusing on business analysis and Agile and STANZ, our testing conference. We are really proud of the calibre of international speakers who present at these events and the high quality of the event, the material and the discussions which is always reflected in the feedback we get so if you’re interested in coming along, or want to know more about us in general please go to www.softed.com. Thanks!

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2011 in Agile, Culture

 

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Using your brain effectively

Another post from an airplane 🙂

I received a promotional email which intrigued me, and followed the link to download the Synaptic Potential (http://www.synapticpotential.com/) paper titled “How to use your Brain to be more Efficient, Effective and Productive”, I was a bit skeptical (thinking I know this stuff, after all I teach all about it) but discovered the author (Amy Brann) does actually have some very valuable content to share, based on solid neuroscience and brain research.

She presents a three-component model to help understand mental processes and address the questions of “how quick, how good and how much” do we use our brain capacity?

The paper gives a useful discussion of the underlying neuroscience and introduces the prefrontal cortex and Neural Darwinism, then goes on to address the three components of her model. Amy provide concrete tips and ideas on how to change your behavior for each aspect of their model.

1. How Quick?
There are three factors that improve how quickly we think – Monotasking, Minimizing Distractions and Maps.

Monotasking is about focusing on one thing and doing it well. She cites studies and investigations that show how bad multitasking is in terms of actually achieving effective results (“one study showed that visual input dropped by 29% and listening ability dropped by 53%”); this impacts on stress levels and creates “constant and intense mental exhaustion”.
Minimizing Distractions Builds on monotasking and looks at the impact of interruptions on productivity – every interruption takes at least 15 minutes of productivity away from the task you are working on. Even the smallest interruption (noticing the text message that arrived, even if you don’t stop to read it) has a concentration impact. Minimizing distractions requires active management of your personal environment and space.
Maps are the mental models that help to form pathways in the brain and enable us to do things by rote, deep learning. She recommends identifying the cognitive tasks that you need to do regularly and build maps for them.

2. How Good?
She presents three ways to be more effective in your thinking – Flow, Unstuck and Sleep.

Flow is the mental state when we “feel at one with what we’re doing, immersed, focused, fully consumed and involved”. She explains the chemical balance the brain needs to achieve flow and gives advice on achieving this balance.
Getting Unstuck requires changing the frame – raise above the details and look at the big picture, go for a walk, do something non-stressful and different to allow your mind to jump out of the rut it gets into.
Sleep is vital to effective thinking – she talks about how important it is to get sufficient sleep on a regular basis, and discusses the value of the power-nap, a 20-40 minute sleep during the working day can result in a 40% increase in cognitive function!

3. How much?
The final threesome are Allostatic Load, Challenges and Expectations.

Allostatic Load is related to levels of stress and stress management. She talks about how stress impacts the ability to think and provides advice about healthy body-healthy mind.
Coping with cognitive Challenges requires acknowledging the emotions you feel when faced with challenge and not succumbing to the negative emotional impact.
The final piece is to set high Expectations – goals based on clearly stated high expectations motivate and encourage us and help us keep working towards those goals.

Overall I found the paper an interesting and useful read. I can certainly recognize the three aspects in my own cognitive working. Over the last two weeks I’ve worked on some tasks that have enabled flow, focus and monotasking and the rate of productivity has astounded me.

Being aware of how you think, and taking ownership and control of your cognitive behavior is a great way to improve productivity and satisfaction, whatever you are doing.

Posted by Shane Hastie

 
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Posted by on June 24, 2011 in Culture

 

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Do you believe in magic?

Recently, I had the good fortune of seeing Sonny Rollins in concert. Any one member of Sonny’s band would hold the stage on their own.

Sonny Rollins was the drawcard but the concert was not just about him; the band collectively made it about the music, together as a whole, not any one individual. Obvious solos abound but mini-solos and subtle by-lines ran through the various cuts and all throughout you could see musicians seeing, feeling, expressing in response to the others. Two hours flew by like it was only 20 minutes – no breaks, very little jabber, just pure enjoyment.
Watching them reminded me how we strive to bring together our various operational and project teams.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Huh? I thought you were talking about Sonny Rollins? What does Jazz have to do with teams?”

Watch a good jazz band and you’ll see a team collaborating and sharing the whole. Watch a tight, outstanding, mind-blowing group and you’ll see magic happening and the outcome is on a whole different level.

How do some groups achieve magic? Watch and learn from the greats… you’ll see they LISTEN to each other and their whole blend. The spotlight is SHARED and they aren’t afraid to TRY. Innovation is part of their nature; dare I say habitual. They display emergent behaviour – complex patterns arising from simple interactions.

Jazz is characterised by improvisation, syncopation tied together by regular underlying rhythm(s). As the team lead or manager, we do whatever is needed to help maintain the underlying directional beat while the overall team contributes their various melodies, counter-melodies and rhythms. We don’t insist on keeping the spotlight or insist on being the only one driving the beat, but work alongside those that we lead. And like a jazz group, a well performing team adapts as the situation morphs and different voices emerge.

Magic doesn’t happen often enough and never happens on its own but the magic is there.

I believe in magic.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2011 in Culture, Uncategorized

 

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Learning from Baboons

I’m sitting on a plane flying from Wellington to Melbourne, and find myself urged to write this blog post.

I’ve just watched a National Geographic video called “Stress. – Portrait of a Killer” that I found really fascinating. It looks at research that has been conducted over the last 30+ years into where stress comes from and how it impacts us.

Stress related illnesses have a huge impact on our society today, and together make up the majority of the illnesses that kill people before their time.

I knew that, and was at least somewhat aware of a lot of the material presented in the documentary.

What leapt out at me were some of the conclusions, and a piece of research done by Robert Sapolsky.

Over 30 years he has followed a number of troops of baboons in the Serengeti and found typical baboon behavior (hierarchy driven, top-down, might-is-right, to win you need to beat everyone around you, etc.) which is equated to the behavior seen in many hierarchical human organizations; the documentary talks about the Whitehall Study that show the same stress responses in 20000+ civil servants in the UK as found in the baboon studies in the Serengeti.

Sapolsky recounts the story of one particular troop of baboons that suffered a tragedy about 20 years ago – illness wiped out all Alpha males in the troop along with many others. The animals that survived were the ones who were more cooperative than combative, perhaps it was because the “nice” baboons were the ones who would be cared for by others when they fell ill.

The fascinating thing is that this troop of baboons went on to become a grouping of “nice guys” where collaboration, grooming & feeding each other and supportive behavior is now the norm. When new males join the troop they bring with them their old hierarchical habits and it takes about six months for them to learn that “that’s not the way we do things here” and to fall in with the cooperative behavior.

Part of Sapolsky’s research involves taking blood samples from the baboons and he has found a significantly lower level of stress hormones in the cooperative baboons than in any other troop he has studied over the last 30 years.

He goes on to suggest that human beings could learn from these baboons and create a better society, in which collaboration, autonomy and cooperation are the norm, and as a result lower our stress levels and improve both the quality and duration of our lives.

Being a staunch Agalist I found this speaks to my fundamental beliefs about why Agile practices work – an Agile team is a collaborative environment, where people support each other and all “win” together, rather than competing for power and privilege. Certainly it has been my experience that effective Agile teams are nicer places to work, with generally less stress and greater levels of happiness.

What do you think – am I just an idealist, or can we turn our organizations into happier, more productive places?

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2011 in Agile, Culture

 

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Advanced Agile?

I was at an Agile Academy Meetup last night and the topic was “The Agile Journey and beyond”. It was great to hear about the agile concepts and practices being applied, in real world scenarios – small and large organisations. But it was equally great to hear about how these organisations were using agile in the way I think it is meant to be used – not as a rigid framework, but as a guideline for an approach. All three of the speakers made a comment like this (please note that I am paraphrasing here) ….”We tried XYZ and it worked for a while, then it stopped working so well, so we changed it”. I had to giggle when Adrian said they sit down at their standups….because they use a webcam and it is not viable to standup. Another speakers said “we tried the 3 questions at the standup, but it did not work, so now we “walk the wall””. I was really excited to see this extension of agile practices and acknowledgement that the practices that we see, read about and talk about so widely are totally malleable and able to be modified to suit each and every organisation. But there is a gotcha! All of the modifications came as a result of trying the “proper” way of implementing the practices, and then careful and comprehensive understanding of what about the practice did not work, and why, and then careful and incremental changes to the practice to make it work better. It was described best by one of the speakers as “an agile implementation of agile”.
So I was wondering:
1. is taking the agile practices and modifying them a good indication of agile maturity?

2. which practices are the riskiest to change and why?

3. how long should you try the “proper” way before considering change?

4. is modifying the practices a sign of agile maturity of advanced agile usage?

What are your thoughts?

published by Sharon Robson

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2011 in Agile, Culture

 

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Diversity makes teams better

The Software Education trainer team used to be a pretty homogeneous bunch – mainly balding, middle-aged white males (most of us with beards).   This wasn’t the result of any policy or plan, it was just the way things worked out over time.

In the  last few years we’ve been fortunate to take on a number of people who broke the pattern, today we’re a much more diverse group – a mix of age groups, men and women from a variety of cultural backgrounds with vastly different experience.

This diversity has made us a more interesting team, has made our course material more valuable and improved the advice we can offer in consulting engagements.

We don’t always agree – in fact we often have robust discussions on many topics.  We respect each other’s opinions and perspectives and actively work to appreciate and understand each other’s point of view, even when we agree to disagree.

Researching an InfoQ article on diversity I found a great quote from Desmond Tutu about “Ubuntu”:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu “God Has A Dream” 2004 Published by Doubleday

I’d say Software Education is an organisation that exhibits Ubuntu in our team.

For more on the value of diversity in teams see http://www.infoq.com/news/2010/07/value-of-diversity

Posted by Shane Hastie

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2010 in Culture

 

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