In the after-hours-hangout portion of my most recent Certified ScrumMaster course, one of my students asked a fun question that took me down memory lane:
“What was your corporate experience like?”
It was amazing and frustrating at the same time.
Corporate America in the Late 1990s
I’ll state for the record that I’m blessed. The simple reason being is that I had a family member who worked for a Fortune 50 company that allowed myself to interview as an entry-level developer in high-school. While my friends were off enjoying their afternoons and summer breaks, I was working in a cubicle or at home writing code. This early-access to corporate America before all of my peers truly catapulted my life.
I fondly remember my onboarding process. HR-onboarding was a highly prized experience. Back then, companies spent thousands of dollars creating amazing new-hire multi-day experiences that make the cheezy-startup-perks feel like amusement park plastic prizes. I’m talking real onboarding experiences like:
- Onboarding was 3 full days of activities, experiences, and integration into the culture!
- Coming into day one with 50-70 other new hires…
- Splitting us into department groups where we created a tribe name, created a tribe crest, and created artifacts that would ensure our tribe would always be connected, even after we were placed with our future teams.
- The introduction to the company wasn’t a video. It was a full 4 hour tour of the company, meeting many of the management and employees as we went to different business units and areas of the campus.
- We met two executives per day for an hour each. These executives would give us their story, their reasoning and their passions for the work they do. They were pouring into us, and we just got there!
- Day 3 we met with our new managers and went through multiple workshops to help define my goals and understand how my manager works so I can align to his type of thinking. He asked so many amazing questions about (who I was) rather than what I could do. I was a green bean! I didn’t know anything anyway!
- Amazing spreads. Amazing potty breaks. Amazing snack-a-roos. Amazing swag.
- Onboarding back in the 90’s was epic.
- Oh, and did I have the company vision and purpose memorized? Absolutely.
Do First Impressions Matter?
Ok ok. This was before the dot-com bubble burst, but still. There was a conservatism and high-touch culture that is eerily absent from today’s work place.
There was more camaraderie, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose.
For sure, as many of my readers know, we didn’t have TVs in our offices back then streaming political news 24/7… maybe this has something to do with it…
Maybe I’m over-romanticizing the old days. Kinda like a Korean drama. I get it, but my experiences were real. They stuck with me so profoundly that I can even remember the VERY first room my Onboarding Guide took us to and what was in there:
- My really nice looking name badge
- My onboarding kit with a bag for me to carry around all the stuff I’d receive throughout 3 days
- A beautiful leather binder with my name on it. A beautiful note pad with a better-than-average pen
- The most profound thing? – A 3-page checklist of all the things that are important for me to learn and do with areas for notes so that I could ‘choose my own adventure’ and ensure that I got to pick which things were most important for (me) to get to know the company, the leadership, and the culture. It was so bloody detailed and gave me such a wide vision for what the company was about, it felt like I could choose my own destiny and be whoever I wanted to be…
Then I learned about corporate politics.
1990’s Corporate Dysfunctions VS Today
Hey. Want to know something that you struggle with NOW that we struggled with back in 1997? Your Dev and QA environments aren’t the same as Prod and every time we promote to production it breaks…
While I distinctly remember that the overall culture of corporate was a ‘brighter time’ overall, the same constraints, dysfunctions, and lethargy of product development has not changed. They needed agile back then just as many need it today.
There is nothing new under the sun after all, and as companies get bigger, they get bloated, they get sub-optimal, they get slow. Now, my perspective back then was an entry-level developer, but the traditional set of work patterns I had then still mirror many of the patterns of today:
- My tasks needed to be well planned out and documented before I wrote any code.
- They needed to be added to an MS Project plan that our Project Manager Pamela needed to ‘roll-up’ to management.
- I needed to ensure my hours per tasks were ‘accurate estimates.’ – wut?
- My code was only peer-reviewed monthly, and meetings were nerve racking – I never had good answers to any questions, ever. I was also not a very good communicator back then either.
While my yearly plan, bi-weekly meetings with some (very) good management, and growth in knowledge of code was excellent, the work itself was good… but it needed serious improvement (in my opinion).
Technology Advances Always
After my 2nd year as a corporate engineer passed, I was learning the ropes. I understood the culture, I saw the patterns of work, I knew how to get along, play nice, and overall, relatively satisfied with my work. I was absolutely blessed to work under some great management. I’ll never forget the lessons they taught me!
The problem was that Macromedia Flash had just come out with its latest version. Not only that, the scripting language, ActionScript for Flash and Shockwave were easy-to-learn and even cooler to develop with.
These were the years of 1-minute flashy intro loading screens that were light years beyond animated mailbox gifs and fire horizontal rule bars. We saw our very first web-based video games, telnet and bbs chats were dying quickly, being replaced by “You’ve Got Mail” and IRC. We saw the first usage of iFrames (ugh), and interactive web experiences for users. UI/UX was advancing quickly. Cold Fusion and Dreamweaver were driving the Web1.0 landscape, and the very first jokes about how shitty classic ASP is as a server side scripting language were just starting to hit the 2nd floor watercooler chats.
My First Fights with Management
You see. I’ve been here for 2 years now. I got rank. I got pins. I’m one of the OG’s now. This means my voice matters. This means, you have to listen to me now too!
Or so I thought.
I love technology. I love being one of the first people to dive into a nascent technology. I’m forever enamored by the newest ways to build things, create things, and to do things better.
Here was the problem:
- My project was building an internal educational platform for eye care professionals and essentially looked like a dark web forum for buying weed.
- The newest web technology was PERFECT for better interactivity, engaging visuals, and usable interfaces, and even the ability to embed the tests into the platform via scripting.
- I was actively learning these new languages in my free time and I was lightly demo’ing some of it to my management and leadership.
My confidence got the best of me. I became so convinced that this was exactly what could differentiate our platform from any other competitors that I created an entire pitch presentation inviting my management and their management to the meeting.
This was my time to shine. This was my time to show them. It was my time to prove to them and myself that I’m capable of doing this.
The answer was no. They gave me pittance by sitting through the 17-slide presentation, but I knew it was doomed from slide 1.
“Did you get approval?”
“Who signed-off on this?”
“Is THIS what you’ve been working on?”
(Turning to my boss) – “Does this delay our current project timeline?”
Not a single question or statement about the looks, the UI, the examples, or how damn good the whole platform prototype looked.
Not a single question or statement about how to improve it, digging questions around my design-thinking, or even a ‘good job.’
The closest statement I got was a sarcastic “Exxxxxcellent…” from one Director that trailed off into the awkward silence.
Creative Thinking Need Not Apply
It was moments like these that transpired throughout my 3rd year. I learned that within my role function, creativity was not valued. What was astonishing to me was that it seemed that creativity was not valued as far as (I) could see up the ladder.
Who made the product decisions? I sincerely didn’t know!
One of the most eye-opening experiences was this realization that the requirements that I got from my management and lead developer… weren’t actually from them, and it wasn’t even from their management! It was from some nebulous entity that I had never met nor engaged with. In 3 years, I never found out who gave the orders for the work I was to do. I did however, find out that creativity was only accepted as long as it looked exactly like the powerpoint slide on the 27th page of the requirements document.
Agile to the Rescue? – More Like Hope
One of the core reasons I latched onto Agile in 2004 was that the manifesto, the principles behind it, and the pragmatic application leveraging the framework of Scrum that gave hope to creatives like me.
It was exactly the philosophy necessary to unlock the untapped power of the engineering market. No longer did things need to be top-down, leadership-knows-all the answers and don’t deviate from ‘the plan,’ but rather, now the developers had a voice into the HOW things are built.
What is amazingly powerful and simple about the Scrum framework is the relational dynamic between business (PO) and the development team!
The Product Owner tells us what they want. They’ve done the market research, they have the surveys and data, they have great relationships with our clients and customers. They know what functions, features, and services provide value!
The team determines the how. We are closest to the work. We’ve been hired to execute our expertise. Give us the latitude to build you the best technological solution.
A Developer’s Perspective
Starting my career as a developer, Agile and Scrum were exactly the philosophy and framework I needed to give me confidence and structure to work effectively with the business. It just made sense. The balance was real. The possibilities, endless!
Now that I had better models to use to understand the world, the only way to get to the nirvana of business culture was that everyone had to know about Agile and Scrum!
If they weren’t willing to learn… then I either needed to find a company that had an Agile culture… or build my own.
I opted to roll my own.
First Acquisition – Thanks to Corporate America and Agile
Nine years later I got my first company acquired. It was a consulting firm with a really cool product attached to it called TeamScience. This was a psychometric assessment tool built specifically for development teams. You’d liken it to a Meyers Briggs or Strengths Finder 2.0 assessments today. It was actually a first of its kind back a decade+ ago for helping teams gel quicker.
I resurrected an old video from 2012 that helped us in our pitch meetings with VCs and eventually a buyer. Don’t miss the feels. This product trailer is really my love-song to Agile and the hope it brought me to help my fellow engineers thrive:
The core message of our product was HOPE. The entire company and product was built using Agile. Many people have heard me say publicly that “Agile and Scrum changed my life.” – Yes, this is very true.
But here is something I’ve never said before publicly:
“My first startup and product to acquisition was an entire 9-year grind dedicated to the beauty, freedom, and hope that Agile and Scrum brought to my life. It gave me an entire philosophy and framework in which to build great company cultures and even more amazing products. Thanks to Agile, I succeeded. Thanks to Agile, I have hope.”
Agile has been that profound in my life. For those who take my classes, you already know I’ve been running Agile at Home for over a decade. It works in all facets of life.
I will continue to preach Agile for as long as I live and my hope for you is that you keep hope alive.
My next company is doubling down on this love language. I hope to see you there.
All the best,