Why Aren’t We Better at XP (or Almost Anything)? “Stop Making It Harder”

There was a Twitter discussion about XP not having crossed the chasm. Someone Lula Rodrigues posted this wonderful Kent Beck talk about that here: https://www.agilealliance.org/resources/videos/xp-as-an-incentive-system-kent-beck-xp-2018/. Lots of great insights. Watch all of it, including the Q&A at the end.

Early in the video, Kent discusses the all-too-frequent sexism and racism I also see in tech. He says later, “Stop making it harder.” He focused on women and handicapped/disabled people and the problems they described or he saw at work.

The post image is my chasm image from Manage It! and Create Your Successful Agile Project. The closer to the left your products are, the more your managers might be open to changing their behaviors and the culture. The closer to the right? The less likely they will change their behaviors.

“Stop making it harder” applies to everything we do. That's where I'm going in this essay. I'm only discussing my reality. Your reality is certainly different from mine.

TL; DR: “Stop making it harder” is a culture problem.

Start as You Mean to Go On

I reported to my first professional job at GTE Sylvania in May 1977. (That part of GTE is now General Dynamics.) My first responsibility? Report to the nurse's office. (Yes, there was a corporate nurse!)

A half-dozen of us sat around the conference table. The nurse handed us the health forms to fill out. The men received blue forms—I received a pink form. For several minutes, the only sounds in the room were pens on paper.

I filled out the form until I got to the page where they asked me:

  • What contraception are you using?
  • How many children do you plan to have?

With the passage of Title IX, those questions became illegal.

I stopped writing and put my pen down.  I asked, “Does anyone else have a question about their choice of contraception and how many children they plan to have?”

The men looked at me as if I was deranged.

The nurse said, “Dear, that's just for you. You're the only woman.”

I'm pretty sure I said, “I am the only woman here. And these are illegal questions. I'm not answering them.”

She visibly paled. “You have to. It's our policy.”

I said, “Don't worry, dear. I'll either quit today or get my boss to back me up. You won't get in trouble.”

I wanted this job and didn't want to quit before I even started. But the demand for software developers was high and I was good. I knew I could get another job.

I got through the nurse gauntlet, the idiotic policies, and started the job. However, note that the corporate Culture (Big-C-Culture) was that they could take advantage of women. That played a large part in the duration of my employment there.

My First Review Revealed Pay Sexism

I had a great time at that first job. Aside from learning how to learn about a new domain, I learned that software is all about interpersonal skills. One of my big learnings?

The small-c culture in my team (we would call it a product team now) helped me learn a ton. Some of what I learned:

  • Inch-pebbles, not milestones, allow you to make progress.
  • Slipping a week every week is a disaster.
  • The 90% Done Schedule Game.
  • When people offer you feedback about your work product, it's not feedback about you. The design reviews were about the integrity of the product and the code.
  • How to work in a team and use my influence to make everything better.
  • When to give into demands to demo (“I haven't tested!”) and make friends with the general, even though he didn't get to use the feature correctly.

The small-c team culture was great. My boss created an environment where it was easy to do great work.

Corporate Culture Betrayed Institutional Sexism

I told several stories about this first job in Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization.  One of those stories was about my experience with my yearly raise. My boss told me the company “maxed out” my raise—I received the highest possible percentage. Later, at lunch, I learned my peers still earned more money.

Why? They offered women less money to start and I hadn't negotiated my starting salary.

I asked for pay equity. No, they couldn't afford to do that. “What if everyone asked for it?”

I said, “People would want to work here because you'd be known as a fair employer.”

No, my boss couldn't do anything. I told him I was looking for a new job.

Three weeks later, I found a great new job for an even larger increase and gave my notice. Somehow, that drew the attention of the Big Bosses. One of them called me into his Executive Row office. Plush carpet, nice desk, bookcases, a personal secretary who offered me coffee.

“We have big plans for you, Johanna,” he said.

“Good, I like big plans. But I don't work for promises. Do you?”

Our conversation went nowhere. As I left his office, he used his speakerphone to call someone else. “Do you know what that little girl said to me?” was the last thing I heard.

I am five feet tall. At the time, I did wear skirts and pumps, so maybe I was five-two. However, this conversation reinforced what I knew about Big-C-culture:

  • Women were second-class citizens, regardless of the law.
  • There was no point in treating any employee with respect.

That's a Big-C culture where management makes things harder. People and teams can succeed, but it's local.

A Pairing Experience Like No Other

A couple of jobs later, in 1982, I worked on a machine vision product. I was stuck and my boss was no help. (The company was a startup and strapped for cash, enough people, everything.)

They brought in a previous contractor, Jeff. Except, he negotiated one critical thing: He and I would work in his office, not at the corporate office.

He hauled all the equipment to his office and I showed up on Monday. Jeff said, “Here's how I work. We work together on every single damn line of code. You don't write code separately. You write with me. I don't write separately either. I write with you. No fighting about this. This is how I work. You're stuck, right?” I nodded and he continued. “So why do you think working alone will help?”


At first, I didn't like it for many reasons. We didn't trade off driver/navigator positions—I had to grab the keyboard. Or, he paced and dictated to me. However, I learned more in those three weeks (about design, coding, you name it) than in any previous time in my career. And we finished the product.

One of the best things about this small-c culture was that Jeff treated me exactly as he treated his other pairing partners. He assumed I knew my stuff and that I had trouble solving this problem. I assumed the same about him.

Jeff made it easy for me to succeed. (I have more tools now to make it easier, but it was a good experience even if we might not call it the same kind of XP as we normally see.)

Commonalities Across My Career

I've experienced more sexism. For instance:

  • When I was pregnant with my first child, my boss tried to pressure me to return to work in two weeks. He said, “I don't have to keep your management job open. I just have to keep a job open for you. You can be the receptionist.” I just looked at him. What do you say to stupidity like that? (I returned after 3 months and I started to manage several groups, a promotion.)
  • At a different company four years later, my newly-installed VP Engineering laid me off because I was pregnant with my second child. They paid me well for that privilege and I no longer had to wear pantyhose in the last two weeks of my pregnancy. A huge relief.
  • A colleague at the director level attempted to indirectly bully me. I'm not sure if this was sexist or just he wanted my job. I started to call him, “my friend, John,” so people could see the contrast between his behaviors and mine. No, my boss was a wuss and unwilling to confront John about his behavior. John was supposedly too valuable.

These companies have Big-C-cultures that make it hard to succeed.

I'm pretty sure that the people who have trouble with female consultants don't hire me. Which is totally fine.

My Experiences with Being Handicapped

In 2009, after an inner ear hemorrhage, I have several handicaps: constant vertigo, and single-sided deafness. If I try to walk independently, I look drunk (from the vertigo). For a while, I told my clients I looked drunk. Now, I use a rollator, which allows me to walk with ease.

At work, such as client sites and conferences, I don't have too much trouble, assuming I can get into the building. These circumstances create trouble:

  • When two people want to walk and talk next to each other and the hallway isn't large enough.
  • When I can't find the handicapped entrance. There were still some non-accessible buildings the most recent times I've been in Europe. Or the ramps are quite steep. It's hard to change buildings.

The big question is this: When do I accommodate other people? When do they accommodate me? It's not always easy.

I've seen many people in intense conversations who barely realize other people exist. It literally does not occur to them to accommodate me. Should they pay more attention to their surroundings? Sure. That's a human thing to do. However, if the Big-C-culture is that work is more important than anything or anyone else, why would they?

Yes, this is a culture thing—how we treat each other.

General Culture Matters, Too

In hotels and airports, it's a different story. I get angry when people don't pay attention to where they're walking or who's around them. I have no trouble banging into people who barge in front of me and then stop. First, I can't stop that fast, and second, why should I make all the accommodations for them? (I do try to accommodate small children who might not have the experience to know.) And don't get me started on people who try to run in front of me because they don't want to go behind me.

I've fallen in too many airports because people in a rush clipped the wheels of my rollator. Too often, I take them down with me.

Too many handicapped people appear invisible to others. Many people are uncomfortable with us. I suspect they think, “What if that happened to me?”

Kent spoke about a woman who, after her transition, seemed invisible at work. We need a different culture at work. Instead of invisibility, we need acknowledgment of their common humanness. We're all unique. Some of us look different than others or walk different or something else different.

The woman who felt as if she was invisible? Management allowed that behavior. Management created the environment where things were harder for her. That's a Big-C-Culture problem. Why did no one speak up to support her or let other people know their behavior was wrong?

Team Culture Can't Trump Corporate Culture

I've used some terms here: small-c team culture, about the culture in the team; and Big-C Culture, what management encourages.

Here's what culture is (evolution from Schein's work):

  • What we can discuss
  • How we treat each other
  • What we choose to reward

I've only discussed my experiences with sexism and equity. But, if our managers and teams can't discuss it, we can't change the Big-C Culture.

Let's face it, if managers said something about how we treat each other in the hallways, at meetings, and how we enter and leave teams, people would change their behaviors.

The rewards drive a ton of behavior.

Kent said, “Stop making it harder.” I might reframe that to “Make it possible for each of us to succeed, preferably as a team.” There are ways to do that:

  • Only reward inclusive behavior. That means it doesn't matter how “good” someone's technical skills are. Don't reward nasty interpersonal behavior. That includes the ability to walk down a hall and not have to allow others to take the right-of-way. I have as much right to walk the halls as you do. I didn't design the building with too-narrow hallways. In cases like that, we all need to give a little, to accommodate each other.
  • Encourage discussion of uncomfortable subjects, especially bullying. When Kent offered those examples of women backing away from confrontation, I heard bullying. I stand up to bullies, especially in public, where they tend to incriminate themselves. Managers need to recognize and stand up to bullies. Definitely don't reward tem.
  • Watch for how we treat each other. That team at my first job was extraordinary—they worked for the good of the product, not individual good.

Stop making it harder requires corporate culture, that Big-C culture to change.

Why Hasn't XP Crossed the Chasm?

Because I can't resist, I'll add my $.02 about XP:

  • Companies reward individual work. Why should people put their raises at risk?
  • Managers want speed and don't realize clean code is the fastest way to get more speed.
  • Too many managers don't understand the real risks in product development, so they don't know how XP manages many of those risks.
  • I'm pretty sure there's no XP certification. (Laugh all you like. HR and too many managers have no idea how to differentiate the real performers from the people who talk a good game. They use certifications as a way to discriminate. “Performance management” is a crock and the source of much dysfunction.)

Even when a team makes it easy, management still might make it harder.

When we stop making it harder and make it easy for all of us to work, XP can cross the chasm. I guess I need to write about management change and the chasm, too.

I hope this was helpful and offered ways to think about XP.  Let me know.

1 thought on “Why Aren’t We Better at XP (or Almost Anything)? “Stop Making It Harder””

  1. Pingback: The Morning Brew - Chris Alcock » The Morning Brew #3365

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