Some people just have it. Cara Turner (@Cara_Faye) at the Scrum Gathering definitely has it! She delivered an inspiring and thought provoking keynote, which I would like to share with you. Her slides are here and I borrow several screenshots from them because she has great visuals.

Cara Turner (@Cara_Faye)

Cara is involved in a company called Codex which teaches eager South Africans how to become coders. They embrace Agility as a key tenet of their methodology and give the students hands on experience on how to deliver working code. This is their solution to the scarcity between skills and jobs in the country.

My post starts with a realisation which stems from the thinking inspired by Cara. It relates the current student-crisis in South Africa to the startling realisation that Cara and people at Codex discovered. My post follows with a brain-dump of my notes from her presentation. I hope there are some interesting ideas that you find useful in here. Leave me your thoughts in the comments below.

Double Pyramid of Needs

The missing link between Government and Industry

Cara presented her thoughts on scarcity and privilege. This is relevant because there is a severe shortage of programming skills amongst the have’s and have-not’s in South African society. At the time of writing, South African students are protesting because of fees (news article here, and here: #FeesMustFall). My take on it is that there is an underlying (deeper) issue at the root of the problem and it’s NOT education, and Cara’s presentation gave me a glimpse of what it might be.

When CodeX started out, they (diligently) believed that the solution would be to uplift education in order to improve employment. This is how Cara presented it:
Network Effect

This makes intuitive sense. Sure, why not! What startled me was when she said that they learnt the hard way that their real challenge in achieving that was to first bridge the digital divide that stopped students from being able to spend time on their education. It’s all the stuff at the bottom that has to come right too.
The Digital Divide

The real problem is NOT people’s unwillingness to get educated. And not even their access to education. The real problem is their inability to do so due to constraints on all the factors below education. Eureka! For the first time I can see the direct connection that the government has in the technological upliftment of its people. They mustn’t worry about the upper factors because people like Cara can do that. Industry can do that. Business can do that. Universities (which I see as a bridge between Industry and Academia, themselves being a Business) can do that.

Instead, Government MUST provide people with the basics: electricity, water, sanitation, safety, health, social support etc. The rest will sort itself out. Governments responsibility is to ENABLE education by allowing the factors below to come right for each individual.

I like to see the double pyramid like this:

The double pyramid showing what Industry and Government should focus on
The double pyramid showing what Industry and Government should focus on

Governments responsibility is to do this. It has let us down! Dear President Zuma @PresidencyZA, please focus on your pyramid and we will handle the rest.

The way that Cara explained how they overcame this challenge (or to use a software term: ‘worked around the issue’) was by applying an agile-inspired solution to the problem. Flip the triangle around. They instead acknowledged that people will have transport issues and be unreliable. Going to the clinic is not something you do in an hour… it takes a whole day. Looking after your brothers children while he goes to your grannies funeral is just a part of life. Instead of having set lectures and exams at specific times, students work at the pace they can sustain (Khan Academy comes to mind). There are concrete milestones along their learning path. It doesn’t matter if you go away for a week. You can continue where you left off. This is genius. It reminds me of how Agile has broken the reliance on Fixed Requirements upfront. So too has CodeX broken the reliance on firm commitments by the students all the time.

Someone on the radio said today ‘People in positions of privilege won’t understand these issues that the students are facing’. With the context presented so elegantly by Cara, I think I am able to get a glimpse of it now.

I have an open challenge to you… while we wait for government to bridge the gaps of the first pyramid (relying on mass-action like tomorrows march by students to the Union building to make the issue real), what are ways that you can ‘flip the triangle around’ to work around the gaps? Swap one thing for another in your context and imagine what would happen… then try it out!

What follows is a collection of my notes from Cara’s keynote session. This provides additional context to the argument above but also has several gems that are worth taking from her talk.

Can Agility Change the World?

Cara Turner’s Keynote

What makes a hero? Ordinary people that decide that they will make a change and embrace the opportunity to make a change they want to make.

Hero = Ordinary People + External Trigger + Change

But we are all too busy with the problems in front of us. In spite of our best efforts, when the going gets tough, we fall back to our old habits.

Scarcity Science

Relevant for anyone that experiences a “Sense of Lack” or “I never have enough”. What happens to the mind is that our active and background mind is fully consumed on the problem in front of us. We get tunnel-vision focus on what is in front of us. This is an important mechanism from an evolutionary perspective but it also becomes a hindrance in our modern day world filled with stress. This becomes a problem if it persists all the time. We go into a mode of “What is the lesser of two evils”.

In times of scarcity, when there isn’t enough of a resource, the following happens:

  • No time to stop and think
  • We make poorer decisions
  • There is a greater cost to making mistakes
  • This causes more problems
  • Leads to failure
  • Puts more pressure by creating a demand to solve
  • No slack

In a time of scarcity, you behave in a way that reinforces that you will have very little in the future.

The effect of Design

Cara shared a story about Bomber planes during the war that would come back from successful missions, only to crash during the landing at their home airport. The reason was poor design where the landing gear lever was right next to and looked very similar to the air brake lever. All it took was one small change to change the whole situation around. They simply put a rubber band on the one lever to differentiate the two.

A rubber band was placed on one of the levers
A rubber band was placed on one of the levers

One small change can make a big difference

Agility and Scarcity

Look for tools and practices that can:

  • Improve feedback
  • Support decision making

Change Super Powers

  • Change and adapt. Make an assessment on where you are and whether you are getting better.
  • What is the next small change to make a constant cycle of “Change and Adapt”?

The Network Effect

Consciously choose to act on our strengths. It has a rippling upward-spiral effect on the whole system. I like to say: “Always be positive. Its easy to focus on the negative but don’t, learn from it and focus on the positive instead”.

A small positive change can have a positive spiral effect on the whole system
A small positive change can have a positive spiral effect on the whole system

Continual Improvement

“We are uncovering better ways by doing it and helping others do it.” – Agile Manifesto.

It’s our responsibility to share our techniques and insights with others. That way we can ensure a continual improvement.

What’s Next?

  1. Challenge: What are the small things that you can change to see what kind of effect it will have?
  2. Don’t try to learn everything upfront before you start. Just start.
  3. Start and keep learning as you go.
  4. Share your knowledge as you go. [This is the line that inspired me to start blogging].
  5. Be part of a community.
  6. Keep inspecting and adapting as you go.
  7. Build us a new super her tool. Build it together with your community.
  8. We need all kinds of hero’s.
  9. Solve the problem in front of you.

I aim to use the above as a personal checklist. Very inspiring Cara!

Our Next Challenge

One demographic holds all the skills in software. There is a great digital divide between the different demographics. Why? Because of Scarcity and Privilege.

We are not all made equally.
We are not all made equally. Some enjoy more benefits than others.

Help short people be like tall people. The system is designed for tall people but we have a workaround.

Tall people are just better off. The system is designed for tall people.

Everyone's perspective matters.

How do we change the system?

  • Innovation is social.
  • We need people that have skills and knowledge of their specific problems.

Organisations with greater gender and ethnic diversity pay better dividends. Gender and racial diversity is a good sign of health in an organisation.

Diversity + Inclusion = Improved Business Performance

Change is hard. Gestures cost money to achieve the benefits and avoid the costs. We must make a meaningful investment into it if we want to reap the reward. This sounds similar to where the Agile community has been.

Change Routines

  • Mentorship
  • Change the way you recruit
  • Extend invitations broader than you normally do. Invite people.

Agile Skills

  • Create a safe space.
  • Talk about the issues. Have those uncomfortable communications.

Why is it so hard? Because we have a sever shortage of skills. CodeX aims to bridge that gap through education in agile software development. Eduction is a foundation, but actually it’s at the top of a basic needs pyramid.

Next Challenge

  • Scaling agile training
  • Person to person interactions

Creating Change

  • Look at the problem in front of you.
  • Make an experiment.
  • Share it with the community.

Parting Thoughts

  1. Tackle the Wicked Problems
  2. Be unlikely
  3. Be yourself
  4. Rise to the Challenges to create the change you want to see in the world

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Alan Kay