Editor's Note: Johanna Rothman is keynoting at The Path to Agility conference, presented by The Central Ohio Agile Association on May 20-21, 2015. The conference takes place at The Ohio Union in Columbus and showcases some of the greatest minds in Agile, with 46 speakers and 30 sessions that speak to every Agility experience level.
Johanna Rothman: Practically Agile
By Terreece Clarke, May 4th, 2015

Agile management guru Johanna Rothman is known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” who provides frank advice for an organization’s tough problems. The author of nine books, including Manage Your Job Search, Hiring Geeks That Fit, and Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management, Rothman is a keynote speaker at the May 21st Path to Agility Conference in Columbus at The Ohio Union. She plans to focus her talk on helping people see where their agility is succeeding, how and where they can improve, and of course, why they might want to (hint: It’s about all your customers).

Focus On the Team, Not Just the Talent

A key part of making Agile work is creating the right teams. Rothman said one of the toughest parts of managing high tech people is creating a safe environment so they can collaborate.

“So much of what 'management' and 'human resources' does actually discourages collaboration,” she said. “It discourages experimentation. It discourages asking for help. All of those things make it difficult to create great products that move the organization forward. Any time you have management by objectives and the objective is a single-point metric, such as date, you will get insufficient collaboration.”

“Here’s an example: When the organization rewards salespeople when they book business, rather than when they ship. If you reward at the booking time, you reward salespeople when they sell anything, not what the company has. When you reward at ship time, the salespeople will sell what you have. Or, if you reward Project Managers/Scrum Masters/Product Owners on meeting a date, you encourage technical debt.”

Rothman asserts this model encourages the salespeople to work with the product owners/product developers to make what they ship *now* the best it can be.

“When HR insists on individual bonuses or merit raises, they discourage collaboration among agile teams,” she said. “Why should I help you if I don’t get “credit” for it? Agile teams work together. The team knows who does what. No manager or HR person can know.”

The best part of hiring tech people, Rothman said is when they work together, create and release a terrific product.

“I call everything products, regardless of whether the team is in IT, Engineering, or something else. When you call the work you deliver “products,” you tend to think about the customer differently.”

Hiring Fitness Assessment

Rothman said assembling the team - the hiring process - comes with plenty of misconceptions that actually hurt the chances of building a great team.

“Too many people think technical talent is a sum of their technology and tools experience,” Rothman said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, people need technical training, whether that came from school or life. But the most important piece of hiring is how well this person fits into the existing team. Or, if you are creating a new team, how well this person can help hire others. These are social skills, in a field that is not known for social skills. That’s okay. We can all be kinda geeky together. I am!”

Rothman said the second misconception people have when finding, hiring and keeping great talent is hiring managers don’t learn how to interview and instead use a tests as a substitute for great questions and auditions.

“Too many people don’t know how to ask great interview questions,” Rothman said. “If you ask behavior-description questions, you can have a terrific conversation. If you ask hypothetical or closed questions, you don’t have the same conversation. If you create auditions that reflect how you work, you can see how the person works. That, and the conversations can help you see if you want to hire this candidate.”

Rothman added that contrary to popular thought people do not need a lot of management.

“They need to be told what results they are responsible for, and then for the manager to create an environment in which people can deliver those results,” she said. “That is difficult work for a manager. It means you don’t micromanage. You lead innovation and creativity. That is a difficult job.”

Learning to Learn

Rothman has owned Rothman Consulting Group for more than 20 years, was the founder of the Amplifying Your Effectiveness Conference (AYE) and has led software development for companies like Boston Technology, Symbolics Inc and more. It’s a career obviously driven by passion for the work.

“I’d always been a bit nerdy,” she said. “I didn’t realize I loved programming until the fall of 1974, when I took my first programming course. I was hooked!”

Part of her success is not only the passion for what she does, but a big learning opportunity found in a not so great learning experience.

“For my first self-published book, I didn’t choose a great layout person,” Rothman said. “At some point, I will have to redo the interior of that book. On the other hand, my frustration with that process led me to learn how to create covers and to look for a different layout person. I now have a wonderful team I use for my non-fiction books. I have more control over the process (not over the people!), and I have much better results.”

The ongoing lessons from that first book continues to help Rothman succeed with her upcoming books: “Predicting the Unpredictable: Pragmatic Approaches to Estimating Cost or Schedule” and “Agile and Lean Program Management: Scaling Collaboration Across the Organization.”

“It turns out that a program (several projects in the cause of one overarching business objective) is much less complex than some people think,” she said.

With such an extensive background in Agile and tech including writing about it, IT Martini asked Rothman how she stays excited about Agile and technology on a whole:

“How could I not? Every organization is different,” she said. “So many products are unique. I love working in the intersection of how to help teams release great products.”