I was honoured to be asked to sit on Booking.com’s Women in Tech Fireside Chat in May 2018 and one of the questions put to the panel was “Are you where you wanted to be?” That got me thinking about my journey line to Agile Coach.
When I was ten I joined the Girl Guides and instantly fell in love. I would take the badge book home, work on badges and bring my efforts into meetings, then a few weeks later be presented with my badges. I earned dozens and filled my sash – something no one had done before – and Alixe, the Guide Leader, took me under her wing. She recognised something in me: a drive, a determination and a desire to achieve.
Over the years she got me my first job at a local cricket club, bullied me into playing hockey (20 years later and I’m still playing) and inspired me to get into tech. Alixe loved her job. It gave her the opportunity to travel and meet new people, and she earned good money. I wanted to go into something I loved, so I decided to pursue an IT degree.
I left university in 2004 with a Computer Studies degree, and took up a temp position at Lloyds TSB (now Lloyds Banking Group) where I had done an industrial placement during my university sandwich year. At the time LTSB were undergoing transformation, so although previous placement students had been offered permanent contracts, the option wasn’t offered to my year’s intake. After nine or so months, the lack of job security was nagging at me so I moved into a contract elsewhere, which hinted at the possibility of becoming permanent.
The contract was with the Tote, at the time a government-owned bookmakers. During a project I was working on, it was pointed out to me that one of the gaps I was filling was not dissimilar to a Business Analyst role, so I was asked if I’d consider a permanent role as a junior BA – and I jumped at the chance.
Not only was I really enjoying that part of what I was doing, but it was the perm role I needed to feel some security. The Tote sent me for some UML training along with the two existing BAs, and the following week I was writing specifications to change the systems.
During this time, Thoughtworks came in to the company and ran a taster session (I forget what the session was), and mentioned the meet-ups in Manchester. Something they said or did that day really piqued my interest, so I went to the next meet-up, which happened to be about iteration and breaking work down into small chunks. It made total sense to me, along with the idea of walking through my spec, making sure the developer and tester understood before work started, and I started implementing bits of what I’d learned immediately.
I continued to go to meet-ups but my eyes were now open and working with an offsite third party started to grind me down – changes weren’t delivered as requested and we were billed for every mistake made – whether it was ours or the third party’s. Consequently, I started to look at other options. A tester I’d worked with at Tote had moved on and I contacted him to see if there were any roles at his new place – luckily, he was able to put me in contact with the recruitment team and we scheduled my interview.
That role was at Swinton Insurance, where I spent eight and a half years, becoming part of the furniture. During that time, I moved through the BA ranks from junior to senior, and then to team leader and finally software development manager positions. My time at Swinton was incredible and I was given some wonderful opportunities and very well looked after by some fantastic leaders and managers. When those people left the business, the place wasn’t the same and as the branch network was becoming under-utilised, Swinton’s traditional “Bricks and Clicks” model was changing. It was time for me to move on.
Before I had my daughter in 2011, Swinton had been looking into better ways to deliver software. The business weren’t ready to embrace agile frameworks so we tried to implement some small parts without disrupting the business.
Our first version was to implement two-week cycles, where we would break the work into small user stories and plan two weeks of work at a time. This was done with the team to an extent but was far from collaborative. We did, however, get each UML specification signed off by stakeholders, do face-to-face handovers with developers and testers, and review the finished article with the relevant stakeholders.
It gave our business colleagues some sense of how the project (we were still working in project mode) was going, and whether we were building the right thing, and it took on board their feedback nice and early. We had some good successes using this method and over time we evolved it. It wasn’t until much later (way after I was back from maternity leave) that we got some real business engagement and started having nominated, pseudo product owners to sit with the team, working much more closely to true Scrum.
Ahhh – yes! Let’s talk about Scrum training at this point. Some while into our “SWAgile” days, one of the team leaders managed to arrange some Scrum training. However, misunderstanding the idea of the course and the implementation of Scrum, they sent all the software development managers and team leaders on the course – and none of the team on the development floor. On day one we did the usual ‘creeping death’ intros round – name, rank and serial number. Within ten minutes of the start of day one, the Scrum trainer told us she had the wrong people in the room and didn’t know why we were there!
The trainer was an incredible lady – loads of charisma and a “tell it like it is” attitude. Throughout the two days, it was obvious that she was frustrated. People kept piping up as she was teaching, making statements like “but we do…” and she’d say “yes and that might work for you, but that’s not Scrum”.
On and on these interruptions went, and at the end of day one we were behind. Day two started with a reset. The trainer told us that while our experience of agile was interesting, it was irrelevant to the teachings of Scrum because we weren’t doing Scrum and could we please keep our anecdotes to ourselves in order to be able to finish the course on time.
Ten minutes into the session, the usual talker in the room piped up again to collective groans and, to my immense amusement (it’s the reason I will never be able to forget this course) the trainer jumped up and down on the spot with clenched fists. “IF YOU INTERRUPT ME ONE MORE TIME I WILL NOT CERTIFY ANY OF YOU! I AM TRYING TO TEACH YOU SCRUM. YOU ARE NOT DOING SCRUM AND IF YOU TELL PEOPLE YOU ARE DOING SCRUM I WILL REMOVE ANY CERTIFICATION YOU GAIN!” Even typing this up, I’m belly laughing at the memory (yet these days I can completely empathise with her – I’ve had similar experiences myself and considered the same approach – I know it would be memorable).
Aaaaanyway – let’s get back on track. The project at Swinton, where we had product owners, was really well carved up. My team owned the quote and sales flow, as well as the bootstrap and the web container. Another team owned the Single Customer View element. Another team owned the Payments, another the Documents, et cetera, et cetera.
The teams loved working with the product owners: it really worked for them, having a person to bounce solutions off, get buy-in from and get feedback from. We were delivering on our sprint commitments more often than not, and I started to look into agile frameworks in more depth and bring the team more info and more things to try. Then requests came from other teams for us to share our ways of working: I started teaching other teams and I really loved it.
I heard on the grapevine (from one of my best friends, who’d moved from Swinton to Rentalcars.com) that someone we knew was applying for an Agile Lead role. Curious as to what an Agile Lead was, I looked up the job spec and realised it was not dissimilar to what I was doing but without the line management – and I asked her if she thought I could do the role.
As I’d not long been promoted at Swinton she’d discounted me for the role, assuming I was happy, but she admitted she had in fact thought of me for the role, so she offered to put me forward. This was November 2015. I’d previously applied for a Business Analyst role at Rentalcars.com but didn’t get an interview as I was deemed too senior for the role. So I was a bit reluctant to apply. The thought of jumping ship after 8 years, leaving my comfort, hard-earned respect and seniority (not to mention disrupting things for my then-four-year-old daughter) daunted me and I bottled it and decided to not apply.
It was only in February that I knew it was time to go. I spoke to my friend and she told me they’d just appointed an Agile Lead but went off to find out if there would be any more vacancies. Luckily for me, there was one – but there was still a touch of imposter syndrome to beat. Although the role was so similar to my own, there was still a big chunk of me that thought I couldn’t do it and I came out of two interviews convinced I’d blown it. Rentalcars.com was a great fit for me – not only would it allow me to grow in a different direction, but the company growth was incredible yet there was still plenty of change to come and lots of potential to make a really positive impact.
Imposter syndrome notwithstanding, I started at Rentalcars.com in April 2016 as an Agile Lead. The role became that of Delivery Lead shortly afterwards, and then Agile Coach in the October. I had zero idea what an Agile Coach was and one of the ways I’ve always tried to overcome discomfort is to research research research.
I set myself a mission to understand what an Agile Coach was, what coaching, was etc. I put together cheat sheets for sessions that would prove useful, brainstormed various areas and built myself a library and tool kit with the help of the other Agile Coach and the Software Engineering Manager I was paired with at the time.
In December, we had two new coaches joining us – one an internal move and the other external. As we were reporting to the Head of IT at the time, I offered to help set up desks, PCs, email groups and induction-type activities to alleviate some of his burden. At the time, there was a vacancy for Lead Agile Coach, something I had discounted as I had no experience of building strategies, although I had line-managed teams for a few years by then – again, the old imposter syndrome kicking in to tell me I couldn’t possibly apply with only half of the credentials. I applied anyway and was successful and here we are today – Lead Agile Coach. We even have a strategy – after a steep learning curve and many torn-up pages.
I feel like I’ve skipped the best part of my career development and I’ve definitely not gone into any of the mistakes that have brought me here today, but I’ll spare you – for now at least.
Did I ever think I’d be an Agile Coach? Absolutely not, but then I didn’t know what an Agile Coach was two years ago and the manifesto didn’t exist until the year I left college. I actually wanted to be a teacher when I was younger so I’m not too far off that in some respects – a lot of agile coaching, in the early days, is teaching.
Do I think I’ll be an Agile Coach until I retire? Absolutely not, but for now there’s a lot of really good challenge and I feel like there’s still plenty to do in this space.
Going back to that question to the panel “Are you where you wanted to be?” On reflection, the answer for me is “No, but I’m happy to be here”.
Lyssa Adkins, Agile Guru, proposes a ‘journey lines’ exercise for teams to do together as part of a ‘getting to know you’ session. You can find out more and download the activity sheet here: