Scrum Notes 2013-20

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Corporate Culture, a short story ▶️

Once upon a time, I worked for a large corporation. I had one of those nonsense HR job titles, I think it was project manager IV, but I made up my own job title on the internal company website: human systems architect. My manager tolerated this indulgence.

What I was actually hired there to do there was to help improve the organisation, especially to improve the Scrum process for the department—a large group of around 1,200 people, mostly in one location, but around 30% spread around the world. They needed improvement, for sure. They were the victims of one of those big Agile consulting companies, who had helped their executives implement a top-down change. They formed Scrum teams of all the developers, inside pods, inside groups, with pod leads and group project managers. They eliminated the QA department, and the testers had the choice of being laid off or becoming scrum masters. Some opted for the former. The more fearful ones, unsure of the job market, accepted the latter. The department purchased hundreds of licenses for the Rally tool and rolled out training for everyone. But this is not the story.

Every day I showed up at work, met with many managers and many teams. I watched and listened. I asked questions such as why are you doing this? The most common answer was, "well, it's required." I did my best to penetrate the HR department, knowing that without their support and understanding nothing I did would amount to anything. I started groups to meet and talk about what was not working, what they wanted, figure out what we might do. I ran sessions to teach Agile values, and I ran stealth workshops on storytelling and citizenship, trying to change hearts and minds. My manager tolerated this too, throwing her eyes up, and shrugging her shoulders. I invited her. She never attended. But this is also not the story.

This is the story. One day the press published an article saying that our CEO had just come into a few extra hundred million (or some impossible figure) from the sale of something or other, or some redistribution of the massive wealth that sits atop these corporations. I wrote a message to the internal developer list—a list I regularly contributed to—expressing the idea that it might be an encouraging gesture if our CEO shared some of that windfall with the cleaners, custodians, maintenance crew and the army of others that kept that place functional. I wrote it in the spirit of citizenship. Without these people none of us would have a place to work. In a way, we depended on them for our jobs. I thought it was a decent email, articulate, balanced, non-threatening—and hopefully challenging.

The next day, my manager, who I didn't see much of, came to my office. She glared at me. What did you do? This was clearly a test question, so I responded in kind, what did I do? You can't write messages like that on a public forum (I guess the company was big enough that she could reasonably use that adjective). You didn't like it? I asked. I didn't read it. Oh, then... I was told about it. By someone in HR. Can I know who? No, that's confidential. Did the message upset you? No, not me personally, I told you I didn't read it. Ah, it upset this anonymous HR person—so why am I talking with you? I'm your manager. I wasn't sure how to respond. Nothing came of it, I was basically given a telling off, and a warning to keep my opinions to myself.

I actually hadn't expressed an opinion, merely made a suggestion. But I wasn't going to argue the point. Her message was essentially, stay under the radar. A little time passed. I continued to communicate on the list about more practical, development/process-related things, but in time I sent another email considered to be controversial. Same response. The invisible HR person (or maybe a different one) emailed my manager, who came to see me, and again wouldn't let me respond to the person I'd apparently upset—or know his or her identity. I wondered what they thought I'd do with the knowledge, something sinister?

And then a third one. To be clear, these next two missives were nowhere close to my Hey, CEO, give away all your money email, they just challenged some questionable process decisions around performance reviews. I thought my job was to help the organisation improve. Apparently not. After being there almost two years it became clear that my manager and I had had a misunderstanding during our interview process. What I was actually there to do was comply with the organisation—and improve the people, specifically the developers who didn't want to do Scrum.

You've gotta stop this socialist crusade. We have processes in place here for a reason. And you have a job to do. How many standups did you attend this week? Which teams are improving their velocity? I have work to do too, and I can't keep getting interrupted to deal with HR over stuff like this. Let me deal with HR, I suggested. She just looked at me with her that's-not-the-process eyes. You need to get on board, she said. I swear, she actually used those words. Thanks for the invitation, I responded, but I quite like it here, in the water.

At that time, I had started another stealth workshop: how to stay engaged under the threat of layoffs. We'd had at least three rounds of layoff, and although the message was No More, no one bought it. People were fearful, or despondent, certainly defocussed with a lot of time spend resume-writing. Not much work was getting done. It's just as well I ran that workshop—it kept me engaged, at least. And inevitably, in the next round I was one of the head-count to go.

The upside for the corporation was, I was already in the water. They didn't have to throw me off the boat.

Addendum. I am currently looking for a job. If you are thinking of hiring me, let's just call this a fable. I mean, it could happen, right?

Palo Alto, 25/01/2016   comment