The Marbles Sermon

On June 28th, 2015, I delivered a sermon entitled ‘Marbles’ to Arlington Street Church (Unitarian Universalist, “Gathered in Love and Service for Justice and Peace”, kickin’ it from the new pad by Boston’s Public Gardens since 1861). I believe it was a rainy Sunday, a couple of days after the Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples could marry nationwide. I share this here because I managed to fit describing an aspect of Agility into a sermon. Also you’ll find some words in all-caps: I’m doin’ this live, so I’ll take all tactics to not mess up, which included printing this out in size 24 font. Take no parishioners prisoners.

My close friends will recognize the first third, a.k.a. ‘the marbles story’.

Marbles
by Merrill B. Lamont III

When I was 6 years old, there was this freckled red-head named Gemma from Australia, and I asked her to marry me. Here’s the setup.

It’s recess. It’s 1988. Ponytails were flying sideways NOT because it’s windy, but because it’s 1988. Kids surrounded an impromptu arena of 12 slabs of concrete, all in a row. On one end was Gemma. On the other was a girl 3 years older. In the middle was a King-sized Dragon Egg. Passed back and forth between the 2 gladiators… was a God-sized Steelie. Historians and economists will agree: these were two of the most VALUABLE MARBLES on the local market, and they were BOTH up for grabs. All you had to do, was roll your marble, kind of like bowling, and knock the marble in the middle OFF of its crack in the concrete. You walk in with 1 marble, and the first to get to 3 hits, walks away with both. Ladies and gentlemen, for a 6-year-old, THIS was a high-stakes game!

I’ll cut to the chase: THIS was a high-stakes game… that Gemma won. As she walked towards the middle to rightfully claim both her prizes, the other girl, the older girl, the taller girl, the girl… with a larger stride, got to the middle before Gemma could, grabbed both marbles, and walked away, parting through an onslaught of “boo”s. Ladies and gentlemen, for a 6-year-old, THIS was scandal!

And this… made Gemma cry.

And this… made me turn on auto-pilot. I marched up to Gemma, who at this point was by her lunch box positioned where you would line up to be led back inside, and I gave her a hug. And she hugged back. And it felt right. And because I was still on auto-pilot, I did the next logical thing – I asked her to marry me. She said, “No”. I asked, “Why”? She said… a bunch of things that I couldn’t fully make out because she was still crying in a think Australian accent. So I gave her another hug. And she hugged me back. And it felt right.

That’s when I looked up, and across the heat streaming off of the baking concrete, I saw Meher from Pakistan, Sabah from India, and Sangeetha from Bangladesh. They were looking in our direction, and it no longer felt right. In that moment, I realized that I was acting against a societal norm, because I was in Saudi Arabia, and although I was born there, I am not Saudi, so I was not home. NONE of the kids on that playground were home, and one day, we would ALL go home… some of us, to a land where a guy hugging a girl, could feel right.

This shaping of my world view is what I think about when someone mentions ‘marbles’.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing the word ‘marble’, or, in its plural and I would argue its more common form, ‘marbles’, is NOT a word you would encounter on a daily, nay, a weekly basis – no.

But for me, I have marbles prominently displayed on my desk at work. They sit in this bowl, where, drinking from it, is a zebra – all made from the same piece of wood. Imagine the zebra’s head, submerged in the marbles, all next to a sign that reads, “Do not feed the Zebra. Thank you. signed, the management”. I’m describing this in some detail because NOW I want you to imagine somebody walking up to me to talk about something work-related, and without hesitation, running a hand through the marbles. Imagine the clickity-clack sound. That rustling calm in combination with that tactile sensation is one of the TWO purposes that THING is there. Through our day we live in our HEADS… MUCH more than we live in our BODIES, so I offer this opportunity to bring one back into the present, while activating other areas of the brain as we think through something together. The OTHER purpose, of that THING, is to signify that this is a PLAY SAFE ZONE. WE TAKE BEING SILLY… VERY SERIOUSLY. (Sometimes with an attempt at a British accent.)

Lately, ‘marbles’ to me represent how laughing together is to be encouraged in the workplace, for happy teams get more done. My role in all this is the culmination of self-discovery that I can proudly say has been significantly guided by Tricia, my wife. Growing up a skinny kid… with acne… and a funny name, to a skinny adult… with acne… and a funny name, being comfortable in my own skin, literally, has been a challenge. And now because of heightened self-expression, I can relate to the marble. I see a thing that is colorful, playful, smooth. I see… myself?
Aaaaand I have just compared myself to a glass choking hazard. Surely, I have lost… my… say it with me ON 3… 1, 2, MARBLES!

(That was the audience participation piece. Thanks for playing.)

Jokes aside, ‘marbles’ now represent the type of FATHER I hope to be – Tricia is due mid-July.

When I see children play, I view it as them discovering their world, sometimes by pushing the limits of SOMETHING (…or …someone), answering the question, “What happens if…”. These are essentially experiments, rooted in an innate curiosity. The type of father I want to be is one who fosters that sense of play, for this is a way to LIVE, let alone work. In the tech industry, this is a relatively new paradigm, and gaining traction. Instead of directing lots of time and treasure towards building out a big idea, then putting it out there and hoping it sticks, why not experiment with less time and less treasure, building out a small version of the big idea, and putting THAT out there and see if THAT sticks? This is how you get feedback quickly to see if the rest of your big idea is even worth it. So besides trying new things more often, experimenting like this also means FAILING more often.

THIS is what I want to impart upon my little one. Failing is OK, and it is to be expected, because it means you’re trying – it means you’re experimenting – it means you’re pushing the limits – it means you’re discovering your world – you are playing – you are truly living. What you DO with “failure”, informs your next step towards ALLLLL your big ideas.

So yeah – exemplifying a sense of play as a model for living, and sharing that notion as a father – is what comes to me when I look at a marble now.

Folks, let me come clean: I don’t actually care about marbles. I care about what that word stands for, and specifically, how that has changed through my life so DRASTICALLY. Take my life story, shove it in a box, tilt that box on its edge, then tilt it again, now onto a corner, and NOW slice awkwardly through that to reveal how the meaning of ‘marbles’ has evolved. From shaping a world view, to embracing self-discovery, to raising a kid, THIS is the MEANDERING JOURNEY of a WORD as a SYMBOL.

THIS is PECULIAR, and, folks, it is THIS FASCINATION that I wanted to share with y’all. Whether it is a tale of how you will grow a person you are yet to meet, or how you met yourself, or how you learned to play with others in your local sandbox, I AM ADVOCATING for YOUR random slice of life, and what uniquely colorful little stories will spill out. I am sure they are all… MARBLOUS.

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My Interview And The Squiggle

In streamed a few strangers, trying to hide their smiles from each other and myself. They just came from the kitchenette, having colluded on how they would play out the next hour. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time – it was my interview.

If you are a software engineer, and you want a job coding, then it’s fair that your prospective employer asks you to code as part of the interview. So if you are a Scrum Master or Agile Coach, and you want a job … doing that stuff, then it’s fair that your prospective employer asks you to do Agile Coachy stuff as part of the interview.

And thus, we began role-playing a mock Retrospective, a best practice which follows from the 12th Principle of Agile Software:

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

I first asked this pretend team to step through the last two pretend weeks, collecting just the pretend facts, leaving out any pretend feelings, and having this written up and pretend physically displayed. This is a way to level set.

Then I went to the whiteboard and wrote “KEEP” in the top-left corner, “START” at bottom-left, and “STOP” at bottom-right. The exercise here is to ask the team to top-right corner think back through the two weeks, like we had just top-right corner done, and write down, one per sticky note, things top-right corner that we would like to keep doing, start doing, and top-right corner stop doing. Afterwards, we’d categorize them, discuss top-right corner them, determine which few things should be actionable, establish respective next steps Kaizen, then run a quick Retrospective on the Retrospective. This top-right corner has worked many a time before, producing quick wins with minimal pushback.

That’s when I top-right corner noticed the top-right corner. It was bare, and it made me uncomfortable. So I did what anyone in an interview situation would do: make stuff up. I drew a squiggle and said that I would later explain what that squiggle was for, giving myself time to figure out what that squiggle was for.

That’s when I top-right squiggle stepped the team through the exercise, and how we would top-right squiggle fill out the rest of the hour. When I top-right squiggle got to the top-right squiggle, I did what anyone in an interview situation would do: stay whatever was at the top of my head. I explained that the squiggle was a category for things you wanted to share that did not fit into the other categories.

Simple enough. Rub’ al Khali averted. The team drew pictures and put them there. Then they hired me. Now, when I run this flavour of Retrospective, the squiggle is used and loved.

INTERVIEW-RELATED POST-SCRIPT:

Before my first day had passed, I was asked to take part in a mock retrospective. I had a few minutes’ notice. Soon, I streamed in with a few strangers, trying to hide our smiles from each other. We had just come from the kitchenette, having colluded on how we would play out the next hour. Of course, I knew this – it wasn’t my interview.

SQUIGGLE-RELATED POST-SCRIPT:

Before my first month had passed, I was asked to run the Retrospective for a hackathon. I had a few hours’ notice. Soon, there milled scores of buddies, sharing beers with each other. We had just voted on our favourite projects in the cafeteria, having cheerfully coded over the past few days. Of course, I used the squiggle – it was from my interview.

Squiggle keyword density: exactly 2%.

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This Agile Life

Alright, I have a trailer idea. Just read this with that awesome voice.

In a world… where software developers dare to try Agile values and principles

Intrigued? Well hold on to your butts, ’cause here’s the kicker.

…six guys in St. Louis dare to podcast.

Booyah. I know. Riveting. Mind equals… lightly jostled from the hefty breeze.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the latest of the set of ways I’ve been keeping myself busy between jobs. This 7-week hiatus has proved to be the type of vacation I never thought I’d give myself: lots of recreational reading by the fireplace. Now replace ‘fireplace’ with ‘baseboard heater’. Now replace ‘recreational’ with ‘Agile & Scrum & Kanban -related’. Now replace ‘reading’ with – the point is, the internet has tonnes of stuff to read and watch and listen to and cry over (did you see the finale for this season of Downton Abbey? It’s like Freaky Friday, except classist).

What have I learned? I’m doing it all wrong.

Scrum is a framework that has more structure than Kanban. Scrum focuses on transparency, inspection, and adaptation. Kanban focuses on making work visible, and reducing work in progress. Both are considered Agile, and by focusing solely on Scrum, I’ve limited how I could explore the Agile value set in my personal development.

Yet, in a way, I’ve been transparent about my progress in conducting personal development through Scrum, and through inspection of how it feels to struggle balancing the planned and the unplanned, I’m adapting by embracing the study of Agile values and principles. Thus, the road I’ve chosen has gotten me here, to this intersection in a rural part of the state. There’s a cafe ’round the corner, and the locals seem friendly. I think I’ll explore. I’m taking this blog with me.

What have I learned? I’m doing it all right.

That podcast: This Agile Life. I’m starting from the beginning, over two years back, and it’s been both informative and entertaining. Give ‘em a shot if you’re into this.

How am I doing? I’m doing alright.

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The Ends Justify The Genes

Oh, that’s right, I have a blog. Maybe I’ll post something.

THE END

There. It’s done. We goooood. Hasta la pasta, people. Zip up your knapsacks, knickknacks, and fanny packs. Leave the paddy whacks. (Hit the road, Jack.)

I created this blog so that I could document the journey of applying Scrum to personal development. I applied Scrum to personal development because I didn’t have a team of people such that I could apply Scrum to software development. I didn’t have a team of guinea pigs people because I had just received my ScrumMaster certification, and was a n00b looking for experience. To that end, this blog documented how, as a Biomedical Engineer testing bedside monitoring systems, I scrappliy found a way to practice being a ScrumMaster until I was employed as one. Of course, for the past 6 months, I was happily neck-deep as a ScrumMaster for 3 teams, which means this blog has reached its end, although not the only end.

AN END

(It was worth a crack.)

I applied Scrum to personal development also because… it helped… and is helping, both tactically and strategically. It is a way of life that I am still refining, and ain’t that the Western way to be: to want to be better.

intEND

Juxtapose this with a more Eastern approach, which is to give in & embrace to your inner way of being.

surrENDer

The blog thus continues, focusing on exploring both these philosophical …ends… while living through Scrum.

appEND

(Cut me some slack.)

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Berry With A Beat

I am now a professional mime.

When the Internet decides to be slow, in turn cutting out the audio component of a meeting I’m in the middle of with my teammates in Romania or India, the HD webcam stays rolling, like an out-of-date analogy, my face lights up, like Garry Kasparov playing chess, and my hands are all over the place, like an Italian stereotype.

I lead teams that are not in the same room, so to mitigate the 3 continents and 10.5 hours between me and, say, Vivek & Mihai, I:

  • tell stories to bring people together, like how I ran into Kevin Spacey at a Starbucks
  • show and tell the random things lying around our conference rooms, like little trinkets like oversized clothes pins and 3D-printed Sesame Street characters
  • intonate exaggeratedly, because our budget doesn’t allow for teams to have studio-grade microphones & speakers to share speech subtleties
  • apologize liberally, because I am often cutting people off since it is not always clear when somebody has finished sharing their thought because of an audio lag
  • pause often, because teammates often start talking for a few seconds before realizing they have yet to unmute themselves
  • insult them flatteringly, like, “oh no no please, the top of your head is so well shaped… please don’t ruin this experience by showing the rest of your face.”
  • explain that what I had just said was a joke, because sarcasm does not always travel across national borders fully intact
  • crack jokes, because it brings people together via laughter

I will sing and dance and still be productive so that people know that when you come to my meetings, you know you will leave with a little more funk, and your day will be a little sweeter. This is my flavour of ScrumMastery; I am a berry with a beat. My goal is for you to leave as a berry with a beat.

Oh, what joy it is to create a berry with a beat.

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Titmouse

You are a titmouse.

Finding yourself in a small room, dimly lit, you’re still unable to make out shapes.

You wait.

Resuming interest in the dark, the shadows outline the contents of the room, which are just not that interesting.

You leave.

Ibizan sea breezes take hold of your wings.

You have wings. (Whoa. Nice.)

Ever higher you float. And then, you don’t.

You fall.

Nearing terminal velocity, you flail.

You flap.

Death stares you down.

You fly.

Life carries you… somewhere.

You follow. (Fun! Until…)

Your ponderous nature takes over the intercom at cruising altitude, and you ask yourself, “What’s a titmouse doing off the coast of Spain? I’m a North American bird of genus Baeolophus of the family Paridae. I don’t even know how to pronounce those words, but I know that’s my deal, and that me swooping around the Mediterranean ain’t making an ounce of sense.”

You get existential angst.

Unctuous olfactory onslaughts assault your feathery core.

You get hungry.

Nearby is a treat.

You hone in.

Icarus swerves up and out of the way of your gastro-intestinally-induced nose dive.

You are a thing of beauty at high speed. (Natural velocity.)

Villagers scatter at the news of a falling star.

You laugh.

Evacuated streets set the backdrop for your table for one.

You dine.

Ravished by the dish, you rest for a minute.

You seek more.

Satiation punctuates your ever engorging desire to feast on what feeds your soul. There’s just no other way to describe it, especially since it doesn’t make any sense, since…

You are a titmouse. (…)

Everyone should try hummus.

You send this link to everybody who figures out the Morse Code in your email signature.

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Pain Is Just Information

I took a systems physiology class in college one summer, and on the very first day, the professor said, “If there’s one thing you remember from this class, it’s that ‘Pain is just information’.” Pain let’s you know something is up. Or down. Or out of place. Or stuck in place. Or generally amister amiss.

(This blog post is about a conversation from work. I’ll try not to make these boring and solely technical, but if you decide to give up on reading this because you’re emotionally distraught over Scotland not being its own country, remember: Pain is just information.)

Now that I’m a ScrumMaster by day (your local superhero by night), I get to talk through sticking points that my team members have with parts of the process, and the point that was sticking this time involved the Sprint backlog.

(I can’t believe it… to be your own country… you get to stay up as late as you want, eat haggis whenever you want, drink scotch whenever you want…)

During the Sprint, something may come up that we as a team end up working on, with the Product Owner’s blessing, that wasn’t planned for in the Sprint Planning meeting. The question is: If we can add things to the Sprint mid-Sprint, why can’t we remove the things we now know we won’t get done mid-Sprint?

(…skinny dip with my sheep in whatever loch I want…)

Seems like a decent enough question: by accepting sudden stories, you’ve already blown out the original plan, so why not update the plan based on new information? Since the Spring backlog is what the team committed to doing at Sprint Planning, it’s easy to understand why the team doesn’t want to see this thing they know won’t get done: it’s embarrassing, or it induces anger, or it elicits some kind of negative emotion (or else the team wouldn’t be asking to get rid of it), some kind of pain.

(…wear kilts as short as I want…)

The way I sell this is via acknowledging this ‘pain’ as not necessarily bad, but useful: at the end of the Sprint, the stories that do not get done represent a quantifiable adjustment to consider during the next Sprint Planning session. If no ‘outside’ stories were brought in mid-Sprint, then the undone stories represent the team planning to do more than they could pull off. If the story points associated with the dragged-in ‘outside’ stories were the same number of story points associated with the undone stories, then the undone stories were neatly ‘displaced’ by the sudden stories and the team did a spot on job of estimating how much work it could pull off.

(Did you hear about the Scottish cross-dresser? He wore pants.)

Sure, it feels icky to leave things undone, especially when you said you’d do ‘em, but if it’s because the Product Owner asked you to do something else, then heck, it’s totally not your ‘fault’ – the person in charge of prioritizing work… reprioritized work! And this was the particular scenario of the sticking point – there was pain, and it was reframed as information.

My systems physiology professor would be proud. If I only remembered his name… this sucks, I really liked that guy… man, this is embarrassing…

(Pain is just information.)

Oh shut up.

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Trial By ScrumMaster

Folks, I’ve made it – it’s been 2 months since I’ve lasted blogged, and that’s because I had been transitioning away from being paid to break expensive hospital equipment test medical devices in Andover, towards being paid to crush the spirits of insolent coders coach software development teams in Boston’s Fort Point district (by South Station).

I don’t always change careers, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis it’s exciting and a whirlwind of activity, from sending off and being sent off by my close-knit awesome team (and colleagues of 6 years), to welcoming and being welcomed by a couple of virtually-knit teams (half of my colleagues are in Romania!).

My first job was to reduce the number of unknown unknowns, i.e., yes, there’s an onboarding process to becoming a new employee (the formal stuff) and learning the social structures (the informal stuff) at a new place, so I’ve got to figure out what they even are to then address them.

My second job was to familiarize myself with the teams and the state of Scrum within each of them, i.e., learning Indian names and Romanian names, then how to pronounce them, then getting a sense of how much Scrum they know. Lucky for me, I’ve got a couple of crews that WANT to get better at this game. They LIKE the theory, and they WANT help with the practice. They’re smart and they push back on me, forcing me to lead discussions so everybody’s on the same page and willing to experiment with new processes.

It’s been trial by fire.

It’s been drinking from the firehose.

It’s been the starkly punctuated evolution of my wanting to be better at Scrum from leading a team of just me to now leading two teams of international team members.

It’s been trial by firehose trial by ScrumMaster.

I feel awesome, and since my theme song isn’t on YouTube yet, I’ll give you the next best thing.

Ladies and gentlemen, Kashmir by Led Zeppelin. You’re welcome.

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Analyzing Blog For Direction

This blog post is like green tea: it’s good for me, yet to do it right, I’m not supposed to add sugar. So, behold… a treat that doesn’t go down the smoothest, although it is healthy. I mean, I could try to make this a fun read, but I won’t because… this doesn’t need it. This post represents the culminating bloggular goodness that I’ve thought about over two years ago.

I’m still analyzing what I’ve written via how I’ve tagged my posts, and today I cover the category of ‘direction’. Below are the summary points per post with this tag, which don’t include those that were also tagged ‘path series’, which I think I’ll cover another time.

  • Happiness: Become a heretic because initiative is happiness. Do something that excites me because excitement is happiness.
  • My Vision Sources: Study direction-related sources and derive a method for determining vision.
  • Create & Connect, Supply & Demand: Create something of value in which I am skilled, or is fully engaging, or elicits my passion, or is a combination of the three, then connect by sharing, teaching, or somehow helping others feel good.
  • Bow Ties & Shoelaces: Inner changes are reflected externally.
  • One Epic Thing Before You Die: Whatever this thing is for me, it’s the most cool/epic if it most aligns with my purpose / life path… now do it every day.
  • Don’t Label Me, Bro: Do more and more of fewer things, but more important things, and get better and better at each of them.
  • Style Over Fashion: I’m not looking for the fleeting & crowd-sourced, but the everlasting & self-sourced.
  • That First Tiny Step: What is that first tiny step towards my dream, something that takes almost no time and no effort that gets me that tiniest bit closer?
  • Soutata: Leverage my unique gifts and quit the rest.
  • First Do Cat Food: I have to get deck-clearing capability first before being able to think at the high level.
  • Always Be Outputting: Increase outputting by decreasing inputting.
  • Blogging Break: All advice about success are facets of the same gem.
  • Sum Of Your Parts: Grouping stories into releases per product (facets of me, each with a vision) leads to paths of punctuated evolution in each area of my life!
  • Life In Your Years: In the end, it’s not the years in my life that count. It’s the life in my years.
  • To Be A Better Person, Do Anything: I am defined by my ability to supply a demanded product or service, so do something, something impressive.
  • You’re Allowed: That awesome life I want starts with realizing… I’m allowed to live it.
  • Baconday: I’ve forgotten I enjoyed writing outlandish stories.
  • ScrumOfFun or Local Drummer Boy: I want to lower the barrier to entry for performing music.

Hmm… lots of good stuff. What happens if I try to mash most of ‘em all together?

To be happy and improve my quality of life, leverage my unique gifts to do very well just a few purposeful things (everylasting, self-sourced), while quitting the rest (what I don’t do well and consuming in general), to take the initiative (aka being happy) every day and create something exciting (aka being happy), then connect with others.

I am actually allowed to be happy and live a big dream, so take a small step towards it, developing myself via one aspect of me at a time, doing low-level important things before high-level important things.

So what specifically brings me happiness? Writing outlandish stories. Lowering the barrier to entry for performing music.

Like I said. Culminating bloggular goodness. That last part is specific to me, but the rest respresents a study of how one can get some kind of life direction.

I’m sipping this slowly. It’s still hot.

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Sleep Well

I recently talked with a guy who went through a break-up. He detailed how it was hard to adjust, but he didn’t lose any sleep over it – he truly feels the right decision was made.

This got me thinking: that’s what life’s about: go to bed each night and when you look back on the day, truly sleep well (let go, be at peace).

This got me thinking some more: that‘s similar to another way of thinking about what life’s… about: go to your death bed and when you look back on your life, truly die well (let go, be at peace). Time scales are different, and this has been explored almost two years ago.

Besides making this connection, I want to offer one more insight: add another time scale: the Sprintly time box. Thus, go to the Retrospective and when you look back on the Sprint, let go & be at peace.

Oh no… we can go one more round: one more time scale: now. Let go & be at peace at all ‘now’s. Maybe that‘s what life’s about.

I’ll sleep on it.

Posted in adaptation, analysis, outside resource, retrospective, tactics, taoism | Leave a comment