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"Cope" Coplien

Jim ("Cope") Coplien is an old C++ shark who now integrates the technological and human sides of the software business as an author, coach, trainer, and executive consultant. He is one of the founders of the software pattern discipline, and his organizational patterns work is one of the foundations of both Scrum and XP. He currently works for Gertrud & Cope, is based in Denmark, and is a partner in the Scrum Foundation. He has authored or co-authored many books, including the Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist.

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Entries with tag intentional practice.

Can You Scrum Art?

Cross-functional teams are a darling of contemporary agile rhetoric. It’s important to note that cross-functional can mean at least two different things. The  more pedestrian reading is that the team comprises all talent necessary to do its work. The more radical interpretation discounts specialization and holds that any team member can rise to any task germane to the goal. This latter perspective was popularized in Extreme Programming’s marginalizing of domain expertise. It lives on in Scrum courses where trainers admonish people that everyone should be a tester. If the only remaining work is testing, you will do testing. Part of being a team member is doing what needs to be done.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers suggest that 10,000 hours of practice precede mastery. Agile folks often tell us that you can practice your way to cross-functionality. However, most people miss that Gladwell ascribes the roots of greatness more to social context than to will. Ericsson’s original 10,000-hour claim (The Making of an Expert, Ericsson et al., Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007) views intentional practice more as a precondition for success than as a means to success.

I think there is more than a grain of truth to the 10,000-hour argument, as discussed previously in Practice Makes Perfect. It’s healthy for Java programmers to grok UX tools, and vice versa. Teamwork is about shared knowledge and communication. Effective communication begs high context. Head knowledge provides some context but there’s no teacher like experience. Even Java programmers can intuit what a good interface looks like after building hundreds of them instead of just mechanically creating them using GOMs analysis and Fitt’s Law.

Behind the second form of “cross-functional” looms the spectre of a commoditized work force. You can assume plug-compatible employees for light unskilled labor. Programming is becoming a more common skill and, perhaps eventually, it will become natural to hire teams comprising members with adequate and relatively undifferentiated programming skill sets. Programming may become unskilled labor.

Become? Hmmm.

None of the 10,000-hour pundits ignore the importance of individual talent. Talent is of small importance in unskilled labor but it is everything in the arts. Even though the 10,000 hour number is commonly used to quantify the German nightclub practice that prepared the Beatles for stardom, no amount of practice is enough for some people to become opera stars. Not everyone can become a Rembrandt or, to shift disciplines, a Usain Bolt. Epstein’s The Sports Gene (Current Hardcover, 2013) dispels the 10,000-hour myth with genetics. This brings us onto dangerous ground: is it racist to say that Nigerians are naturally better runners? Is it sexist to say that women—another genetic consideration, right?—are naturally better computer scientists? (Read You Go, Girl! before answering too quickly.)

This begs the central question: is software product design purely a matter of science and manual labor, or is it an art? I’ve been corresponding with Peter Denning about the innovation process, and he’s convinced me that there are people who can design and some who just can’t. It’s the same with many other software product skills.

Talent matters in the application of many software disciplines. The first definition of “cross-functional” is still crucial: complex products draw on many disciplines, and most programs are complex products. Rather than trying to become an expert in all of your weak areas, practice them enough to be a good team contributor. However, focus on improving what you’re good at. And, of course, try many things: it may take a while to find your true calling.


Someone recently posted the question on an IEEE Computer Society forum: “What is the best Information Technology certification?” As I elaborated in my earlier comments on Certification, I don’t find certification level as a meaningful qualifier for any job above technician. Certification may help you land a job, but it’s no way to launch or even advance a career. I went so far in my advice as to say that I’d probably refuse any employment offer where the question of certification arose during the interview process. And I further recommended that job experience deserves the spot as the determining factor in employment qualification.

Research evidences this. Paul Oehrlein’s “Determining Future Success of College Students” (Undergraduate Economic Review, Vol. 5 [2009], Iss. 1, Art. 7, The Berkeley Electronic Press, 2009) indicates that experience overshadows factors such as SAT scores and grades by about an order of magnitude. If you view grades and experience to be independent measures — and this seems to be so according to research in most fields — then don’t sweat the grades, but do be attentive to experience.

Can I say anything useful about experience in a finite ‘blog entry? Many of my other musings here are in some way quantifiable and lead to concrete action that might even be planned: investing in others; giving, time management, acting in terms of the big picture instead of the immediate. It’s a bit harder to accelerate one’s acquisition of experience beyond a certain level. While experience is more than just accumulating grey hairs, it’s difficult to claim a seasoned perspective on one’s profession without the gift of years. The gifts of perseverance and reflection, or at least of endurance, are also important.

Experience is more than a collection of experiences. Experience is practical and requires the kind of reflection that leads to learning. It grows gradually through life’s way stations. Learning happens in the hands and heart more than in the head. It unfolds over the intervals necessary for assimilation and integration; however, the passage of time alone is no guarantee of learning and we shouldn’t confuse grey hairs with experience. Research in project management shows little correlation between proficiency and  years in the field (Attributes of a High Performance PM - 2007, The Executive Board, Experience can’t derive from being a bystander in the classroom or on the assembly line: You have to be in the game. It means diving in, doing work, building stuff, and taking risks.

Not all experience is positive in the short term. Reinforcing experience seldom changes behavior; we tend to learn from failure. Remembering your successes and failures helps you to use life and career as a scientific laboratory. Look for the patterns in what succeeds and what fails; some of you may find a diary or journal to be a useful tool.

Experience starts now. Even if you are just in school, take the opportunity to apply your nascent skills in an internship, part-time job, or other avocation that grows you. Applying your skills is much more important in the long term than achieving some academic grade. It’s rare that you can perfectly plan experience in advance: it’s not so much about setting aside a two-year stint at some position that affords a check mark on your CV as it is about capitalizing on the opportunities in your environment. Experience is much about keeping your eyes open for such opportunities.

The sweetest experience is hard-won and the best experience is broad, generalizing across life disciplines and situations. Take risks, be introspective, and always be seeking the next higher niveau.

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