6 Takeaways from the Agile and Beyond 2015 Conference

lessons learned agile conference

Written By Andrew Makar

Professional Cat Herder and an Agile Enthusiast with a keen interest in putting PM theory into actual practice.

I love a good chicken shawarma sandwich.  I’m convinced the hand rolled rotisserie chicken goodness is one of the best sandwiches available.  When I heard the Agile and Beyond conference was held in Dearborn, Michigan – the U.S. capital of middle eastern food, I knew I had a double win spending two days at an Agile conference and visiting some of my favorite authentic Middle Eastern joints.


The Agile and Beyond 2015 was first my first Agile software development conference.  I’ve had some Agile experiences in the past but this was my first opportunity to collaborate with other expert Agile practitioners, vendors and consulting teams.  Project management conferences risk being a snooze-fest as speakers tend to put listeners to sleep with a mountain of slides.  Fortunately, this conference was anything but mundane as many of the sessions involved putting Agile practices into action rather than just talking about them.


Below were my top 5 takeaways from the conference.


Takeaway #1:  Agile is more about people than processes and tools


Several sessions focused on the importance of the team and less on the product backlog, user stories and technical Agile concepts.  A lot of emphasis was placed on relationships and trust between team members instead of the typical command and control and process quality assurance found in traditional application development processes.


Every project should have a budget line item for building trust –Alistair Cockburn


If team’s trust each other, they perform better.  Projects need to provide fun, outside the office activities to build rapport and teamwork in addition to the usual servers, software licenses and project team costs.


Take Away #2:  – User Story Mapping is a useful scope and prioritization technique


User story mapping is a useful technique to develop a product roadmap and prioritize feature releases.  Steve Rogalsky (http://winnipegagilist.blogspot.com/) presented a 3 hour hand-on workshop demonstrating how to develop user stories and build a useful user story map.


The user story map is a useful tool to take a backlog of requirements, prioritize them and organize them into releases.  I found it helpful to identify a business process, put the major tasks into a sequence and develop requirements from the specific tasks.  The story map also adds another dimension to the product backlog and helps to establish the minimal viable product for the first release.
Below is a storyboard of an Email software package.  This example is frequently used to illustrate how the major tasks, marked as blue notes, make up the core of the product.  The orange notes are used to categorize the major tasks and provide high level organization.  the specific features, the yellow notes, are listed underneath each major task and become the features planned across multiple releases.


agile storymapEach release can be properly scoped so it produces a minimally viable product and allow the software to be delivered in meaningful slices.  Compare this approach to traditional business process mapping and an umpteen page requirements document and I think you’ll find this visual way of planning is useful for any project.


Learn more about Story Maps


To learn more about story maps, check out these useful articles.



Story Map Tools


As much as I like sticky notes, I like story map software to document and share the product roadmap.  There are several free and low cost story map providers including:



My personal favorite is Stories On Board although Feature Map provides more project management functionality to track and manage the user stories.  Below is a small sample from Stories On Board.




I encourage you to give these tools a try and you’ll quickly see how easy planning with virtual sticky notes can be to develop a product roadmap or scope your next functional release.


Take Away #3:  Writing Better User Stories by Jeffrey Davidson


Jeff Davidson gave a great talk on how to build better user stories and getting more out of your index card based user stories.  He reviewed Bill Wake’s INVEST acronym which helps assess the quality of a user story.  The INVEST acronym defines a quality user story as:


  • Independent
  • Negotiable
  • Valuable
  • Estimable
  • Small
  • Testable


If teams determine the user story does not meet this criteria, the user story should be rewritten or broken down into a smaller set of stories.


Jeff’s presentation is below:



Take Away #4: Waterfall is a late learning strategy


Another key takeaway is the waterfall methodology is a late learning strategy where all the lessons are learned during an integration test.  For weeks or even months, team members define requirements, develop a mock up and get sign-off on the scope before a single line of code is written.


The moment of truth occurs at integration testing where inevitably bugs are identified across the infrastructure and application layers.


waterfall late learning


Conversely, Agile enables teams to learn early in the project with early testing and functional software.  Even if the software is not functional within the first iteration, the team can confirm if the architecture will work or if the code libraries can integrate.  With Agile, you learn to fail fast, adjust and improve.


benefits agile early learning


Alstair’s Keynote




Take Away #5 Automate Everything


Tom Churchwell presented Quality Assurance in an Agile World.  He presented 3 steps to implement Agile quality assurance including:


  1. Establish Quality Standards and a Definition of Done
  2. Gather Metrics and make them prominent
  3. Automate Everything


I got the most out of the Automate Everything step as software teams can benefit from automated testing rather than 3-4 weeks on manual integration testing near the end of a project.  Agile practitioners advocated for continual testing throughout the development process rather than at the end.


agile qa


Tom’s Presentation:




Take Away #6  Learn how others have succeeded with Agile transformations


One of the benefits I took from the conference was being able to meet and network with other people who were going through their own organizational Agile transformation.  There were a lot of lessons learned shared and advice on how to best proceed.  Some of the organizations featured were public universities and state government run organizations.  Government is often associated with bureaucratic processes yet they were successful with Agile techniques!


Mid Michigan Agile Presentation



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