What I learned on my summer vacation at Agile on the Beach

Agile on the Beach conference attendees at the beach party, gathering around the big letters "AOTB" in front of the water

A conference called Agile on the Beach sounds like a summer vacation! By scheduling some free time before and after the conference, I did turn it into one. A vacation where I learned a lot and picked up many new ideas! Janet Gregory and I were invited to pair on a keynote, “Weaving Quality Into Your Product”, which gave me a fabulous opportunity.

Beach with blue water and blue sky
Gyllyngvase Beach in Falmouth, Cornwall, UK

Arriving in Falmouth two days before the conference gave me time to enjoy Ihe beautiful beaches and coastal walks, as well as the charming town center. I snarfed down my first authentic Cornish pasty, which was mind-blowingly good. Janet and her husband joined me the second day, so great to get to hang out with them!

Here’s a brief (well, maybe not so brief, too many good takeaways) look at some takeaways I found quite interesting. Disclaimer: I’m hearing impaired, and none of the presenters used live captions in their talks. So, I may have misunderstood some things. If you’re a speaker, note that Powerpoint, and probably other presentation platforms, offer subtitles and they work pretty darn great!

Walking in a fog

Jeff Gothelf opened the conference with a keynote on “Outcome-based product planning”. His focus on outcomes – the behavior change we want to see – is right on target. Too many companies measure progress by how many features are delivered, are they delivered on time and on budget. Instead, we should be asking, what will customers do differently if we succeed?

Jeff used an analogy of walking in a fog. You can’t see clearly, you don’t know what is ahead, you have to be ready to change direction. He recommended starting with a clear business problem, ask what people will do differently if we solve their problem, turn that into a goal. Make a hypothesis about meeting the goal – how will we measure success? I’m a fan of small experiments. Whatever we’re doing on a software team, we can benefit from that approach.

New to me – a “data mesh”

Charles Kubicek delivered an excellent experience report about how he and his colleagues built a data mesh at Springer Nature. I’d not heard this term before, but I could relate to his statement, “data is the new oxygen”. At his company, data was hard to access, inadequate, and not trusted. He saw this as an opportunity, since easily accessed, trusted data is in high demand.

Multi-disciplinary approach to building a data mesh - Data Analysts as story tellers - software engineering to analytical engineering to data analysisCharles’ approach involved taking operational data and feeding it into analytics, using machine learning models, and feeding that back to the operational data. Data was pushed, rather than pulled. They treated analytical data as a product – not a byproduct. The team wanted to build a self-service data platform. They focused on interoperability and building trust. Their approach was oriented to domain use cases.

I was interested to hear Charles say that AI is only as good as the data – and the data mesh. Machine learning and large learning models don’t change the fundamentals. Some other takeaways included: Treat key data as a product; standardize platform infrastructure; do just enough governance; keep use cases simple. These sound like principles that apply widely across many aspects of software development.

Fake it til you make it

Sophie Küster did such an amazing talk, her “imposter’s guide to tooting your own horn”. She had us Slide showing how Sophie is a "fraud" - barely a tester, failed mathematician, not really sporty - all untrue things as we can see the truth in the photos. all laughing with the great monsters on her slides, and quips like, “I’m the only real imposter in this room”. She made us think. For example, she noted, if you can fake competence (if you think you’re faking it, because you think you’ll be revealed as an imposter), you can fake believing in your own competence! Well, that makes sense. She urged us to externalize our imposter thoughts, and harness the power of “good enough”.

It’s hard for those of us experiencing imposter phenomenon to internalize compliments. We need to work on internalizing success the same way we internalize failure. Speaking of failure – maybe we just weren’t ready yet for the thing we failed at. Embrace that learning. We take failures hard because we’re high achievers. The old saying is true – don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.

Veerle Verhagen and I were so happy that Sophie joined our workshop, “Winning with Imposter Syndrome”, that afternoon. Veerle wrote up the outcomes from our excellent participants which you can read in this post.

Annoy and insult your users in one easy step!

Julia Hayward‘s talk was around a big area of interest for me – unconscious bias and accessibility. She used some compelling personal experiences to illustrate many embedded cultural assumptions. For example, years ago when her children were young, there was a new tax credit available to people with kids. She applied and was rejected. When she applied again but changed her salutation from “Mrs.” to “Mr.”, she was accepted. There was a bug in the system that didn’t accept the “Mrs.” salutation.

Slide saying "Every time you force someone to misrepresent themselves, you commit a microagression". Teams that lack diversity are subject to blind spots. “It works for people like me!” The results of these blind spots are everywhere – in the UI, the logic, the database, the integrations, even the operating system. Why should we care? So that we have good relationships with our customers, comply with laws, and build credibility. Julia pointed out, “Every time you force someone to misrepresent themselves, you’ve done a micro-aggression.”

She had so many examples of these blind spots in UIs provided for people to sign up or register for an event or similar. These apps rejected very short names, long hyphenated names, middle initials as required fields, just to name a few. She cited a “secret question” form that asked for mother’s maiden name, but a surname of four characters or fewer got an error message.

Julia said, if you can’t fix it, create fallbacks that are as close as possible, and reassure the user that it’s not their problem. One way around the difficulties of getting names right is simply to avoid use names as identifiers in the app. Assign an alphanumeric identifier to a person’s record. It’s unique, and avoids spelling issues. Let the customer provide what they want as their salutation – eg., “Julia”, and their full name – eg. “Mrs. J. Haynard”.

Some great advice from Julia was – Ask, don’t guess! An app can’t infer gender from a person’s name or prefix. Use free from text for things like gender, nationality, Data is the new oil – if you don’t handle it with care, you get a permanent sticky mess. AI will add even more problems.

An agile coach becomes a manager

Gitte Kiltgaard shared her experience “From agile coach to manager and back… or?” Gitte is one of the most helpful, insightful agile coaches I know. I attended a workshop she co-facilitated back in 2014 at BoosterConf and have benefited from her wisdom ever since.

After many years as a coach, Gitte accepted a new job at a fast-growing startup, in a role that was to be half-coach, half-manager. She had a lot of success building a good culture and taking care of people. Over time, she discovered some big differences between the role of manager and that of coach. For example: you don’t have a choice about whether to meet with your manager, whereas you go to a coach of your own volition. A coach gives advice to help people set their expectations, whereas a manager is expected to set expectations for the people that report to them.

Gitte felt frustrated that she didn’t get “street cred” for her extensive coaching experience. She also found administrative tasks and performance evaluations hard. Gitte finds it easy to be badass and caring, to listen, to put mental health on the table, to handle conflicts. Too many managers underrate the so-called “soft skills” such as clear communication and listening. Gitte noticed that many managers have not learned to be leaders.

slide saying it is hard to be a manager, my kind agile coach has a lot to offer to the management role, managers are not always given the tools they need, we can help and we doThough Gitte felt strong, she realized she doesn’t fit the manager mold. She has helped many managers in her career. Her list of what she won’t do going forward resonates with me. She wants to be able to decide for herself what to do. Like most of us humans, she wants to be heard. And I share this view: Gitte doesn’t want to do performance reviews or administer “people stuff” other than her own. (My experience – performance reviews don’t add value. Frequent feedback does.)

The “hallway track” and social events

The AOTB founders started the conference 12 years ago to help boost the tech industry in Cornwall. (Cornwall is one of the poorest areas in the UK, as Wikipedia documents). The many organizers and volunteers have a smooth-running system. I did experience a few long queues for food or drink, which were great opportunities to meet new people! And, I quickly learned that there were tips and tricks for going for breakfast or lunch at less-busy times.

The expo / tea / snack area was always buzzing. People engaged in fun activities like coloring the beach scene on the conference swag bag with Sharpies provided by one of the vendors. There was a Secret Garden party the first evening with Cornish pasties.

A group of sea shanty singers on the beach

View from boat with water and hills beyond and beautiful cloudy sky
View from the boat

The second evening, we enjoyed an amazing party on the beautiful beach in Falmouth, complete with sea shanty singers. The boat tour that the organizers treated us to on the last evening was an extra special treat! I caught up with a few

old friends and made new ones.

The organizers have photo albums showing all the fun on their Facebook page!

More vacation!

My good friend Hilary Simpson, a recently retired testing expert (whom I met at a SigIST conference years ago in London!), drove all the way from Cumbria in the days before the conference to pick me up the day after the conference. We saw a bit more of Cornwall, then went to stay just north of

View from Black Tor (a hilltop with rocks), looking over Dartmoor and the farm fields beyond
View from Black Tor in Dartmoor National Park

Dartmoor National Park in Devon. We hiked

Ponies grazing in Dartmoor National Park, mares and foals, with dramatic landscape
Ponies in Dartmoor National Park

many miles on the moors and up the tors – even when it rained (fortunately not much rain). We saw beautiful gardens and charming seaside villages. I crammed in as many cream teas and fish ‘n chips as I possibly could. SO delicious.

That’s a sampling what I did and learned on my summer vacation! I highly recommend Cornwall, Devon, and the Agile on the Beach conference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Recent Posts: