Archive for the 'people & systems' Category

Refactoring my business to start the next ten years

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

I’m refactoring my business to become the simplest thing that could possibly work for what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years. Developing valuable software and helping others do so.

I was at the chamber of commerce yesterday to change my Inc (Besloten.Vennootschap.) to a personal company (eenmanszaak). Writing down the details of the takeover my personal company does from the Inc, I noticed it was exactly ten years ago, on 27 December 2001 my business started.

Yves Hanoulle suggested I write a short post about it. So here it goes.

The reason I’m de-incorporating my company is that incorporation was doing more harm than good. I originally incorporated to participate in the founding of Seek You Too, since this year better known as Seecr. They are ten years today, because Eric (my then business partner) and I had to incorporate our personal holdings first. Why did we do this? Our then accountant advised us to do so. When we wound our collaboration down in 2004 it did provide somewhat useful as we at least got the basic rules of engagement down in a contract.

Before that we’d already changed accountant. Our new accountant frowned somewhat at the complexity and cost of three Inc’s for two people. But it’s a lot harder to get out of incorporation than it is to get into, probably because it is less common. Apparently when a business grows, it incorporates, and when it fails it is liquidated.

The state where a business is profitable, but the overhead of an Inc is too much is rarer, although the person who handled the registration of my new company at the chamber of commerce said he saw quite a lot of it lately. I scoured the internet for hints on how to unwind a BV, but nothing much turned up. If you’re interested I’ll do a dutch write-up after it’s completed.

If you’re making less than 150.000 Euros in profit after costs and your salary it’s not worth the trouble, unless you need it for other reasons. Paying yourself a minimum salary of about 34000 euros is obligatory here, because the tax man is afraid you’re not going to pay enough taxes otherwise. Pro tip: wind the incorporated company down when you’re still profitable, being incorporated while not making more than your salary + costs sucks. there were many months I had to figure out how to pay income tax while waiting for payments to come in. Luckily I had two very good years, so I could compensate for the losses I made the years before, and I’ll start the next year as simple as necessary. Same name – Living Software – new company.

As I wrote in about the name  a couple of years ago, a company is still the best way for me to search for those moments and situations when I am most alive. I’m looking forward to the next ten years!

Extreme Startup, Smalltalk and Server Login Considered Harmful at XP Days Benelux

Friday, November 25th, 2011

What do Extreme Startup, Smalltalk and Server Login Considered Harmful have in common?

I’ve made some slides to promote sessions about them at XP Days Benelux. Competition for the most hilarious Official Half Minute Pitch at each half day of the conference is fierce. This year sessionorganisers can send in slides. Luckily Stephan Eggermont reminded me that the deadline is right about now. With a few iterations, film poster-like slides are my themes for this year.

When Robert Chatley asked if I wanted to be stand-in for Matt Wynne, who has more sensible priorities than most of us ;) I thought for half a minute and said yes. The eXtreme Startup is a hands-on session that lasts a morning, but allows for new participants halfway through. I attended it at Agile Cambridge, and found it loads of fun and educational. Can you and your partner code against the market and your competitors? Will you deliver the most business value against changing demand? Can you balance the flow of euros against technical debt? Join us this friday at 9:30 in room 16 and find out.

One of the ways to iterate quickly while finding out what is a good market fit, is to use a language and environment that was build to explore the unknown. Join Stephan Eggermont and yours truly this Friday at 16:30 in Room 16 and find out how web development can be like desktop GUI development, and how Debugger Driven Development optimizes your inner software development loop! No code was harmed in the making of this session.

So, you’ve found your strategy to find your market and keep up with it and you’ve found a development sweet spot. Now your deployments can’t keep up. Servers burn down, your mail is a spam magnet and as a systems administrator you are getting tired of late night phone calls. Devops configuration management to the rescue? Come to our session “Server Login Considered Harmful” and find out if Chef can save your Puppet’s bacon. Find out this Thursday at 11:00, again – surprise surprise? – in Room 16.

XP Days Benelux is already sold out, I just wanted to share the fun Ihad in preparing it. Still hoping to see you there :) .

A puzzled skeptics trip to ALE2011

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

As a frustrated and puzzled skeptic I went to the Agile Lean Europe conference to work on my frustration and puzzles. As a frustrated and puzzled skeptic I returned. To my delight with different frustrations, puzzles and some highlights.

Regardless of what I say next: creating a pan-european agile/lean event that is not tied to one of the schools of thought, nor any functional silo (looking at you, coachcamps and testing days!) is a major achievement. I tried to pull it off with about twenty other folks a couple of years ago, and failed (early, but nevertheless. It is not something I bake cake for ;) ).

First highlight: I found a community that welcomes skepticism without suffocating it. Thanks, amongst others, to @OlafLewitz and @ojuncu for open discussion on twitter beforehand, and to those who offered help instead of rotten tomatoes after I threatened to put trainers and coaches out of a job in a lightning talk :) . And those who took my call for more coaches combining hands-on work with coaching (too?) seriously. More on that in follow up posts.

Although many of the scheduled talks rehashed things I hoped would have vanished from agile / lean conference agenda’s to make place for new things, I was pleasantly surprised by a number of talks. (See below in talks)

Building a car using a distributed team.

Wikispeed is a collaborative, distributed effort to build a fuel efficient car (one that is also efficient at high speed, unlike some other fuel efficient car). Thorsten Kalnin described how they use whatever works to get there. At this moment that includes for instance aspects of kanban, scrum, using object oriented principles for mechanical engineering and finding storage boxes that can be rented for cheap, while still being suitable to do engineering work.

I’m listening to vinylbaustein’s wikispeed dreams while writing this. Finding new music at a conference, what do you want more ;)
Vinylbaustein – WIKISPEED dream – SGT01 mix by vinylbaustein

The inside wikispeed video is worth watching if you want to see more:

Your baby is ugly

Seeing Stephen Parry in action again, during his talk and afterwards during dinner. Olaf Lewitz has described other aspects of Stephens’ session. What I particularly liked was ‘your baby is ugly’ – get employees to analyze the companies performance as seen through their customers’ and describe that to their peers and managers (also mostly employees, lets’ not forget that). This is probably a lot more effective than outsiders saying that (e.g. Yours truly tweeting about how SAP is going lean but their products prevent their clients from evolving), and I guess it takes a lot of time and patience. Something I would like to try, nevertheless.


I stayed out of the Claudio Perrone’s A3 presentation after seeing the intro slides from outside which looked so heroic (Big Agile Transition), that I was afraid I would not be able to shut up during the presentation and heckle ehm excite. Turns out the rest of the slide deck is a lot more to my liking, including a pragmatic use of the satir change model somewhere in the middle. So I was wrong. Looking forward to see the video of it.

In the meantime I would recommend reading Toyota Kata by Mike Rother. I took it on the road this week and am pleased by how it does not try to make this kind of open ended coaching look easy, and uses storytelling plus questions to you, the reader, to show how this might work in your practice.

One more for the skeptic

It was only talks. Tip for next years’ organisers: if you want more hands-on sessions make some space for scheduled sessions that last longer than thirty minutes, some sessions that require preparation don’t magically happen in open space. Stephan Eggermont and I enjoy the challenge of seeing what of a three hour session we can meaningfully cram in thirty minutes, but we may be the exception. It seemed most people were watching as opposed to downloading the zip and following along.

I was looking forward to ‘exciters’, Walldorf and Statler from the muppets were given as example, and bar tables were placed in front of the presentations for people to heckle from. I haven’t seen that happen, and didn’t dare to either, preferring the safety of my twitter feed instead ;) . I asked Stephan Eggermont to heckle during my lightning talk, which he did, but I was so focused I didn’t hear him do it…

It seems the open space explanation left out the butterflies. When I described my open space experience to another participant at the end, he stared blankly at me. It also seemed mostly open space veterans where butterflying and bumblebeeing around, as well as applying the law of two feet (sorry, the politically correct wording used in the opening was so complicated I failed to remember it ;) . Shorter PC versions I’ve seen include ‘the law of motion’ or ‘when in doubt, move out’ ).

So I butterflied, mostly, except to host an open space session because someone wanted to pick my brain about session selection processes. The best suggestion in that session came from @LLillian, who stated the obvious thing I’d missed before: besides playing a perfection game, encourage session organizers to Ask for Help, to lower the barrier for new session organisers. Duh. Why didn’t I think of that before! Other than that, it struck me that few of the open space topics were original. It seems we have been struggling with the same problems for a couple of years. Maybe it is rotation of participants, maybe we are asking the wrong questions. Of course, I could have taken responsibility by posing a question as a session. It seems the stuff I’m struggling with right now is in a stage where I don’t know how to formulate the questions yet. It seems grumpy tweets, responses to that and hallway discussions help me move forward :) .

It will probably take a week or so to pinpoint my newfound frustrations and puzzles, at least I feel my time in Berlin was well spent. Especially now the QWAN Learning Community has some more first followers, I got over the scariest two minutes presenting I’ve done in quite a while, and I got useful feedback on the idea from various people. So thanks everybody for making it happen.

We are uncovering better ways of moving post-its

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Ten years after the agile manifesto I believe we’re better of with it, than without it. To me, it served as a rallying cry for those who were developing software to improve themselves by looking at what works in practice.

Remember? “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.”.

The reason this appealed to me, was that I was working at the time, and had been working before, with good willing, hard working people who advised others on building and delivering software, but they didn’t get their hands dirty (and if they did, their practices looked nothing like what they advocated for clients). With Agile, I believed we had a fighting chance to do better than what came before, prevent methodology wars by finding what unites us and market ‘lightweight methods’ a lot more effectively.

These days, when I travel to an agile or lean related conference (and even to some craftsmanship related events) most participants are full time managers or coaches, occasionally coding at night if they are so inclined. In the early days, if I would run into a fellow coach, it would be someone like me, who worked at all levels, with all stakeholders while also working hands-on with and in teams. These days, if I get cynical, it is, more often than not, someone who helps a team to move post-its better, either through kanban or scrum.

Not that the intentions behind scrum or kanban are bad (‘improving the world of work’ and ‘Evolutionary change for your technology business), it’s just that obsessing over the mechanics, such as the right way to move post-its or the best practice for stand-ups costs less energy than thinking for ourselves about how we work, and what we can improve.

As I’m leaving for ALE2011, which on the surface looks like it’s packed with post-it moving folks, I hope to be proved wrong and be surrounded by complex systems thinking hackers, like  I was at XP2001, just after the agile manifesto had launched. That ALE opens with a massive coding dojo gives me some hope.

Otherwise, it’s just going to be 3M who benefited the most from lean and agile software development ;)

Why offshoring government IT is stupid

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

I’m live blogging from the uk government IT meeting on agile at the SPA conference. Nothing beats a blogpost fired off in anger ;)

Here are some tweets I would like to elaborate on:

Me: “Offshoring government it is stupid”

Eric Lefevre (@elefevre): “why? on paper, if there is any way to commoditize software for government, it would sound like a win, wouldn’t it?”

Me: “Software is executable knowledge. Offshoring software is giving a potential enemy exclusive posession of that knowledge.”

Imagine, if you will, the UK code breakers in the 1920’s outsourcing some of their work to Germany, because labour there in the crisis after the first world war was cheap. Manual computations, but nevertheless. What would have happened by 1938?

This is a bit of a straw man of course. However, the problem with outsourcing and/or offshoring is that you put executable knowledge, plus the expertise to grow that knowledge and build knew software from it in the hands of one party. That leads to a dependency on that party. As long as things go fine, that is swell. When things go bad, not so much.

If you think that documentation is going to help. It might, if you are lucky. Most of the knowledge that goes into software is tacit, and very difficult and costly to transfer.

So if you are a government agency (or a company for that matter), don’t be stupid. Keep some good technical people on permanent staff, who know how your crucial systems work, and can make modifications. If you add some external staff to that to be flexible in capacity or bring in specialist knowledge, great!

Just don’t forget to let them work side by side with your permanent staff on a daily basis, so your organisation does not leak knowledge that it can’t recover on its own.

Just remember, knowledge is power. If you’re not careful, you will learn that lesson the hard way.

Maximum Marketable Featureset

Monday, June 6th, 2011

Have you ever thought about the Maximum Marketable Featureset for your product? You may be familiar with a Minimum Marketable Featureset, which is the minimal set of features where someone wants to buy your product.

The underlying assumption is that adding more features after the minimal set will make your product more valuable.

At some point adding features makes a product less valuable to users. Less features are easier to understand for users and for developers, which in turn can help improve the value of each feature.

So next time you build a product, think about it. When will more features diminish the value of your product to its users? Why not on your current one? Are you there yet? How far still to go? Past the point already? Could I make this post more valuable by asking less questions or using fewer words?

Server login considered harmful

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Why limit continuous improvement to planning or programming? Inspired by the DevOps movement and a new breed of server configuration management tools, Stephan Eggermont (playing Dev) and yours truly (playing Ops) set out to see if automating the hell out of a server build would benefit us. We learnt a few things. One of them: each time we logged in to the server was a system administration smell. Something in our approach to automation had failed. Time to ask why a couple of times…

We constructed a web and mail server for an early stage startup. Stephan wrote the application for it together with Diego Lont, and they were looking for a smart way to deploy it. I had looked into automating systems administration tasks with scripting tools such as puppet and chef before, had tried puppet a year before and failed to earn back the time I put in.

This time our goal was to be able to build a new server quickly, because the startup did not have the funds for more expensive disaster recovery options. We also wanted to not think separately about writing documentation: if left as a a separate task, documentation is often just left.

Stephan was somewhat new to linux systems administration and wanted to learn, I have done linux administration on the side for almost ten years now, but many things I still don’t really understand (e-mail, firewalls), even though I administer a couple of servers that seem to be running ok.

We hoped that documenting ourselves in the form of scripts would help us understand, and that writing these scripts in a Domain Specific Language designed to describe servers (puppet in this case, but it could have easily been another tool) would force us to be precise in describing our understanding.

So why did we need to log in?

Our web server would not start, but puppet did not pass the output of the web server (lighttpd) on to us.

Why did our web server not start?

We made errors writing its configuration file.

Why did we make errors in writing the configuration file?

We used lighttpd, a web server I hadn’t used in a couple of years. Its configuration is not that hard, but you have to use exactly the right lines. Especially with secure sockets (a bit tricky on most servers) this turned out to be harder than we thought.


We don’t have automated tests yet for the configuration, Stephan and Diego’s software has automated tests on the inside, but the mail and web server stuff does not have automated tests. I have a virtual machine that is, with the puppet scripts, roughly a copy of the production machine, but learning puppet and figuring out how to automate tests for the environment was too big a step.

There are many more whys. Sometimes we were in a hurry, so we didn’t sit together to think through the next step, do it, and reflect on it. Sometimes we still did things directly on the server, because we could not figure out how to quickly do it in puppet. The first steps in automation required a lot more patience than I expected. The object oriented database used does not come with a ubuntu package, but needed to be installed with a couple of shell scripts that required manual intervention. We did not have the courage or understanding to rewrite the scripts as (automated) puppet recipes or an APT package.

It didn’t occur to us at first that logging in was a smell. We just started to notice after a while, that whenever we logged in to the production server, there was something we had overlooked. We broke something, or could not see whether something was running properly or not. Sometimes we took action to prevent having to log in the next time, sometimes we thought it was too much work for now, and accepted that our automation is not yet ‘perfect’.

If you made it this far, congratulations! You may want to hear more. If so, join us this Sunday at 15:00 In the configuration management devroom during FOSDEM 2011 in Brussels (no registration required). We’ll be talking about configuration management for developers. Learn from our mistakes, so you can make different ones ;)

Thanks to Stephan for coming up with the first title. And Marc Evers for shaping the second one.

Why running a session at SPA is a good idea

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

I’m co-programme chair for the Software Practice Advancement conference in London on June 12-15, together with Rob Bowley. The call for sessions is open until February 28. Read Rob’s “a quite unique conference” to see why attending SPA is fun, and amazing value for money.

Why is running a session at SPA a good idea? Because you will lay awake at night after having a nightmare of rowdy SPA regulars tearing your session apart? Not only that ;) Running a session here is an excellent way to learn, and since the conference is relatively small, there is ample opportunity to continue working on your ideas after hours. SPA attendees are critical, curious and have lots of experience, which can make your session interesting in various ways :) .

In case you have not organized a session at SPA before and are interested in running one, I’d like to highlight some things that are different compared to most other conferences:

group discussion in the hallway


Lets assume they all work – fall conferences

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

I saw this tweet by Alan Shalloway the other day, it went like this*

“Scrum, XP, Kanban, XP, lets’ assume they all work”.

This describes the conferences I’m attending this fall and the sessions I’m running reasonably well. I’m even assuming Java works, which seems to be more and more of a stretch for the near future ;) .

What have I been up to so far? The Belgian Lean and Kanban conference a few weeks ago attracted quite a lot of people new to agile and lean software development. Rob Westgeest and yours truly also presented at a private conference for the dutch tax authorities, we never ex pected to have a room packed with over 120 people for an extreme extreme (duplication intentional. TDD as if you really meant it is an exercise we learnt from Keith Braithwaite) test driven development demonstration. The agilecomes to you vendor event at which I did some systems thinking was also a lot of fun; the panel discussion afterwards prepared with focused questionnaire by Jeffrey Fredrick and colleagues was very effective – the audience shared a few concerns, so we could answer a couple of questions in depth. For instance, several people were wondering about writing down requirements (they wondered about the how, the presenters wondered about the why ;) ), and their angles were different: some wanted to know how to combine working with stories and iterations with medium term strategy, while others were concerned with demands for documentation from the organisation. Which of course led to a couple of why questions from the panelists :) .

It’s fun to see crowds gathering for things I’ve cared about for a couple of years, and it is even better to see extremists of various sorts look over their fences and see what we have in common again, like in the ‘good old days’ of the agile manifesto. at, just in case you are wondering what I’m doing at the scrum gathering Amsterdam, November 15-17 – this will be the first scrum gathering I’ll attend, thanks to the invitation by Tobias Mayer and Gerry Kirk to host a ‘deep dive’ into extreme programming practices that complement scrum (and kanban) well. This gathering will also feature a Kanban deep dive. On the other extreme, I’ll be attending the software craftsmanship conference in Bletchley Park tomorrow; besides focusing on people and process really getting to know your tools and techniques to actually build stuff also works.

Agile Cambridge (next week October 14, 15) – User story mapping & dimensional planning with Marc Evers on Friday

One thing I can’t get to next week, but also highly recommended: devopsdays in Hamburg, friday and saturday. Conference for developers and systems administrators interested in creating flow between software development and deployment.
JFall – Testing Asynchronous Behaviour – Wednesday 3 November
Citcon Europe,  London – Open Space. This year I’m interested in continuous deployment. (hmm. I’m not doing a session on Kanban anywhere yet, this might be a good spot :) )
XP Days BeneluxForces that shape your software – notes on the synthesis of form revisited with Marc Evers, Fearless Change with Linda van der Pal (session based on a format by Linda Rising, with permission).
XP Days London, Monday, Tuesday, November 29, 30. Open space.

I hope to see you there!

* can’t find the exact tweet at the moment.

I didn’t know it was hard

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

During the debrief of Steve Freeman’s Paradigms of Programming: Hands On workshop an interesting side discussion emerged about the origins of object oriented programming. Steve’s quote of Ivan Sutherland struck a chord:

small comic. Interviewer asks Ivan Sutherland "How did you invent this" he says "I didn't know it was hard". In between the two character is a display containing objects and a lightpen.

"I didn't know it was hard"

Ivan Sutherland invented the graphical user interface and the lightpen, as well as object oriented programming (he talked about “hens and chickens” instead of objects, a bit more poetic :) ). I found the quote Steve mentioned on Wikipedia:

“How could you possibly have done the first interactive graphics program, the first non-procedural programming language, the first object oriented software system, all in one year?” Ivan replied: “Well, I didn’t know it was hard.”

Ivan Sutherland with Sketchpad

I’m not sure whether Steve and Michael Feathers (his co-host who was stuck in the USA) intended to have ‘creating a programming language is not hard, as long as you don’t think about it’ as a feature of the workshop, but thinking about it afterwards, every single one of us participated in the design of no less than four programming languages in the space of a few hours! Armed with nothing more than pens, papers, peers and a high level description of the language features we managed to create programming languages that were expressive enough to solve the problem at hand. To be fair, we created examples of programming languages and reasoned about how the examples would run in our programming language. But still, the process felt pretty fluid.

Some things, like designing a programming language are hard, if you think about them a lot. I recently wanted to do more with drawing, as developing and communicating ideas visually is often a lot more effective than working with words alone. I started to ask people who were facilitating with visuals (Rachel Davies, Serge Beaumont) or drawing comics (Chris Matts) how they went about it, and I got a few books on drawing. The overall feeling I took away from it, is that it is easy, as long as you don’t believe that it is difficult; drawing doesn’t have to be hard, as long as you don’t believe it has to be art.

What are the things you are doing that other people believe are hard, while you do it easily? What are the things you believe to be hard, that might be easy if you just stopped thinking about it?


Sutherland, Ivan Sketchpad: A man-machine graphical communication systemPDF (3.90 MiB), Ivan Sutherland’s PhD Thesis.

Sketchpad and Ivan Sutherland pages on Wikipedia.

Dan Roam, The back of the napkin, solving problems and selling ideas with pictures.

Betty Edwards, Drawing on the right side of the brain