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Part I: Deconstructing the Agile Manifesto to Make Better Barbecue

Guest Derek Lane deconstructs the Agile Manifesto and applies its lessons to making better barbecue. In this first of a series, Lane shares how his journey as a continuous learner helped him pursue and map together both passions.

Show Highlights

In this episode, you’ll learn how Derek Lane’s journey in technology and study of the Agile Manifesto coincided with his pursuit of barbecue craftsmanship. These two pursuits eventually mapped together for Lane, and he’s sharing how you can apply the Agile Manifesto and its principles to making better barbecue. 

Along his journey, he created the 20-Day Agility Challenge, a free program where participants commit 15-30 minutes a day to focus on improving their agility. He and a group of colleagues also founded a free online community, Unlimited Agility, where people can take the challenge with others and continue to enable, equip, and educate one another.

Read the Transcript

0:00:00.0 Matthew Edwards: In this episode, I pick up my conversation with Derek Lane as he shares his journey in technology, software development, the Agile Manifesto, and best of all, how it all relates to barbecue.

0:00:17.0 Derek Lane: Every weekend I would try to smoke something. It was definitely this pursuit of craftsmanship. I’d start out with something… The idea is you start with something simple, you’re gonna do chicken, you’re gonna do ribs, and that’s the idea. Well, I’m in Texas and Texas brisket is king. I don’t know how many mistakes I made, I’m sure there were many, but I do know that when after probably about 12 to 14 hours, taking a brisket off that none of us could eat it. I learned a very valuable principle at that time, and this is back when you could still buy briskets for 40, 50 cents a pound. I mean, if it’s on sale now, it’s $2.50, $3, and if it’s not, it’s quite a bit more than that. So it’s a very expensive hobby, is my point, for you to make something that you can’t eat. Some of the techniques I learned, some of the principles that I learned were really to try to figure out how do I make that dollar go a little longer?

0:02:12.3 Matthew Edwards: Today, I wanna talk about something that’s near and dear to my heart, and I believe it’s near and dear to your heart, which is not only meat, and today we’ll talk about barbecue, but also then Agile, what is Agile and how might barbecue and Agile have this weird interrelationship that maybe not everybody else cross-maps in their head, but today we’re gonna talk about meat, barbecue in particular. Does that sound reasonable?

0:02:40.3 Derek Lane: Well, barbecue always sounds reasonable to me.

0:02:43.1 Matthew Edwards: Tell us a little bit about where you’ve come from, like just highlights of your journey, general mindsets, where you are today and where you’re heading, and then let’s mold that into one of the things that you use to teach people and guide and coach and mentor, and just generally pair with folks, which is this analogy or this mapping between barbecue and Agile and where we go from there. But first, teach us a little bit about you, please and thank you.

0:03:09.6 Derek Lane: Okay. Well, originally, my career kind of started as what I call hard engineering; architecture, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, computer drafting, that type of thing, and this is back when DOS was still the primary PC operating system. As a matter of fact, it was relatively new, so that’ll give everybody… Definitely dating myself there. Did that for several years and was able to learn, I guess, back all the way up through what was considered the best computer engineering and drafting systems at the time, and really felt like I had kind of explored a lot of what I wanted to learn, and felt like, “Hey, this is pretty early in my career, and I feel like I’ve already kind of seen all the landscape, what’s next?” And about that time was kind of the emergence of these new things like Microsoft Windows and Linux and other operating systems that are going out there, and that also led to open source software.

0:04:16.2 Derek Lane: So at some point I decided, “Let me go on the other side of the screen. Let me see what it’s like to actually write a lot of code.” And at some point around the late ’90s, it was ’99, 2000, was working on a project for a startup, and somebody mentioned to me that something I was doing looked extreme, and was it extreme programming? And I thought he was making a joke because XP was used as a lot of other things for a lot of other abbreviations, I guess you’d say, and I thought he was making a joke, looked into it, and this is all really pre-Internet, so you had to call the book store, you had to go down to look in the library. I mean, this is back before you could just look it up on Amazon, and found Kent Beck’s book, “Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change,” and was just fascinated by the style of the book. Every chapter is two to three pages long, the fact that he was communicating in a very abstract way, but was talking about how do you deliver the pragmatic aspects of value. And when I got through all of it, I really felt like, “Hey, I’m doing a lot of this stuff, but I’ve never heard of this extreme programming. Where is it? What is this?”

0:05:38.6 Derek Lane: Now my background kind of… I guess the formal training I’d received was definitely in a waterfall spiral and ultimately unified process, so really big things which were all state-of-the-art at the time, and realizing XP was one of these things now called the lightweight methodology. And so then I learned about feature-driven development and ultimately about Scrum and Crystal and many others, got to try some of those at different points, and eventually realized, “You know what, I’ve written a lot of code, I’ve architectured a lot of systems, I’ve used lots of different technology,” and that’s still interesting and fascinating to me, but the thing that seems to be the hardest thing is the people problem. When I was learning software, my opinion was that technology was about 90% of the problem, that there were so many technologies. Back then you had to decide what kind of database you were gonna use. I mean, there were so many decisions that you had to make from a technical standpoint, and then you had to get all those things to work together. So people was really the small part of the problem. Of course technology became more standardized, but became more variable too, because now you’ve got more technologies, you’ve got more languages, you have lots of new ideas on how to build things, and eventually I moved over to, “Hey, there’s lots of people who can write code.”

0:07:00.1 Derek Lane: Ultimately, once I understood a little more about the Agile mindset and learned about Lean, Lean startup, Lean enterprise, those types of things, just how to manage waste, how to identify and manage all the different kinds of waste that are part of the process, ultimately, I got to this idea of saying, “Okay, that’s the real problem. How do you get people to decide what they want when they really don’t know, how do you get people to work together and actually work together, not in the same room or the same department or meet every once a week? No, actually work together, and being able to see the nuance of the interactions of people and how that resulted in what was delivered, or whether anything was delivered at all.” And so I decided, “Well, let me spend a little more time learning this, this human aspect of delivering products.” And that’s kind of where I think I’ve spent a little more time. So I’ve spent a little less time, but I kinda inverted my formula. I think it’s now probably 90% to 95% is a people problem, and it’s really about 5% to 10% a technology problem. But to be fair, that obviously with things like free Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud and the proliferation of technology that’s available, that’s definitely had an impact as well.

0:08:22.0 Matthew Edwards: So the journey that you’ve been on though is really a journey of realization, and I will amplify right now that this journey of realization, in my opinion, my interpretation or my perception of the things you said is really a by-product of the type of personality who’s constantly wanting to know more, wanting to see more, wanting to understand, asking why. In other words, you don’t just accidentally discover, “Hey, I’m doing things that are like this XP thing, I wonder what that means,” you choose it. All that stuff is done on purpose, so right off the bat, what in my opinion you’ve already illustrated is you have a hunger to learn and become and evolve, you’re always looking out the window saying, “Alright, I’m doing this thing, but am I doing this thing well? Am I doing it usefully?” And you believed everything was 90% tech and 10% people, and then through the years you’ve discovered that, “Dude, it’s 90% people and 10% tech.” That realization could have been prompted to you by reading it in a book, but it really sounds like you’ve discovered it by living.

0:09:26.6 Derek Lane: Yes, it’s a constant learning curve. And as I moved into software, it was the same way. And I’ve had a lot of frustrated folks who say, “Why are you spending time with that? Why aren’t you spending here doing the thing that we’re paying you to do, or this one thing that we’ve already spent time on? Why are you looking at this other thing?” It’s been a… I’ve been chastised more than once for that. So yeah, it wasn’t until probably I would say in the early 2000s that I learned that there was actually a diagnosis for it, that people actually have been classified as a continuous learner. This idea that there’s actually something wrong with me may be true, but they can’t blame it on the fact that I like to learn new stuff and that I’m always working to learn how to get better. They can blame that on something else, but they can’t blame it on that.

0:10:18.6 Matthew Edwards: But if we fast forward then on that journey, this has led you to a current endeavor or activity that you’re working on called Unlimited Agility, or in particular something that you’ve used as like the tip of the spear called the 20-day Agility Challenge. And I believe based on what I’ve studied and learned and discussed and considered as it relates to what you’re doing, the entire focus is on enabling, equipping, and educating people.

0:10:42.1 Derek Lane: Essentially the 20-day Agility Challenge is my attempt to take a lot of the lessons I’ve learned, almost all through mistakes or misunderstandings on my part, and put them in a format that over a period of 20 days an individual can be challenged against the Agile Manifesto, and the unique aspect of this, or what my hope is, obviously it’s difficult to have your hands in the middle of something and not get some of you on it, but my hope is that the person is challenging themself against the Agile Manifesto as I understand it today, not against Derek’s way of doing things, not against Derek’s version of Agile.

0:11:26.6 Derek Lane: My hope is that this is independent of me as much as can be, and I’ve gone through a number of folks that I’ve worked with over the years that I respect a lot to go through and review it, to give me feedback, to tell me how we can improve it, actually applying the principles in the manifesto to building of this particular challenge that the… One of the things about agility is that you have to decide, as you said, are you going to really pursue this or are you just gonna do the minimum that someone says you have to do to check the box and go on down the road? If you’re really going get better, whether that… You don’t have to be a coach or scrum master, if you want to understand agility and how it applies to business, to everyday life, to some organization that you’re involved in, you’re going to have to work at it. So that’s the intent of the 20-day Agility Challenge.

0:12:18.0 Derek Lane: And then with some feedback there, early on, I was like, “Well, this is great, it’s designed for an individual to do it theirself, but everybody’s not the kind of individual who wants to do this by themself. They’d rather go through it with a group. So how can we do that?” So we created an online community that’s free to join called Unlimited Agility, and that’s one of the things… The goal is really to focus and pursue servant leadership, because that’s so abstract, through the means that we’re more familiar with, which it might be Lean or Agile, or growth mindset or human-centered design, DevOps, any of those things fit in there, ’cause that’s the pragmatic, that’s the tangible thing that we see, but servant leadership can still be the underlying set of principles there and be a contributing factor to the outcome of applying Lean or Agile or so forth.

0:13:17.0 Derek Lane: So one of the things that we do in the community is we offer cohorts for folks who want to go through the 20-day Agility Challenge with others. Again, the point is not to go to the cohort and get the answers to the quiz, that defeats the purpose, that’s not the intent at all. It’s really just to say what can we do to help you ask yourself another question so you can really determine why do you believe this about Agile? Why do you think Agile is this? Why do you think Agile is not this? Where did you get that idea? How did it come to be? And a lot of folks just haven’t taken that time. And then the second thing they haven’t done is really dig into the Agile Manifesto. So that’s kind of my first attempt. And I’m working on… We’ve been trying to get a book out that would even explore that a little bit more and add to it for everybody who doesn’t have access to online, or at least a consistent connection, those kind of things. So we’re hoping that that will grow into more, but we’ve got other things there we can talk about maybe next time.

0:14:17.2 Matthew Edwards: I wanna amplify right before we move on from that, it’s a focus on servant leadership, it’s a focus on craftsmanship, which that whole journey, like Pete Breen wrote an excellent book on software craftsmanship quite a while ago, just talking about this was a journey, it’s not something you accomplished. And so you’re really talking about becoming more tomorrow than you were today, and more today than yesterday, but it’s a continual journey. That’s one of the things I wanted to amplify, is the servant leadership, the pursuit of the craftsmanship, and the other interesting thing too that your desire to foster is a psychologically safe judgment-free environment where everyone is valued, is really what you communicated there, and the intent is a safe place to consider and think out loud and get some alternative perspectives or additional or modified perspectives. Tell us about how you’re mapping some of the tenets or behaviors or patterns, the types of things that you see in your love and journey of barbecue, tell us a little about the barbecue journey.

0:15:25.5 Derek Lane: I guess I’d mentioned around 2000, 1999, 2000 is when I came across Kent Beck’s book. And it was a couple years later that I kind of decided, “You know what, I have never learned how to cook.” So I could cook a burger, a hot dog outside, but that was the extent, that and toast, that was about the extent of my cooking ability. So what I decided to do was, back then, you could go down and for 100 bucks, you could easily buy a smoker. Now, the popularity of this has gotten to where they’re hundreds and hundreds or even thousands of dollars for even a kind of a low level or entry level smoker, depending on what you’re looking for. But I got one, I made the brilliant first time person mistake, which is it was un-assembled when I got it, and I assembled it in the den and then it wouldn’t go out through the back door, one of those kind of things, so I had to take a couple of parts off so I could get it on the porch.

0:16:27.2 Derek Lane: And I think ever since then, I was doing… Every weekend I would try to smoke something, it was definitely this pursuit of craftsmanship. I’d start out with something… The idea is you start with something simple, you’re gonna do chicken, you’re gonna do ribs, and that’s the idea. Well, I’m in Texas, and Texas brisket is king, so brisket’s gotta come up on the dial pretty quick. And I think the first time or two I did chicken or sausage or something, and that’s not… Again, this is not grilling, this is smoking, so it’s low and slow, is the phrase that goes with really that type of barbecue, as opposed to turn it up to 900 and try to flame kiss everything. So at some point I got a brisket, I put it on there, read everything I could read, and that… Again, this is pre-internet, so it’s go to Barnes and Nobles or go to wherever, find a couple of books, put your head in them for a couple days, try to figure out what they’re saying, and then we’re gonna go try it. I don’t know how many mistakes I made, I’m sure there were many, but I do know that after probably about 12 to 14 hours, taking a brisket off that none of us could eat it. I learned a very valuable principle at that time, and this is back when you could still buy brisket for 40, 50 cents a pound. If it’s on sale now it’s $2.50, $3, and if it’s not, it’s quite a bit more than that. So it’s a very expensive hobby, is my point, for you to make something that you can’t eat.

0:18:01.3 Derek Lane: And so I had to find more… Some of the techniques I learned, some of the principles that I learned were really to try to figure out how do I make that dollar go a little longer? How do I stretch it out and go from there? And one of the things I did after talking to you was actually, I’ve threatened to do this for years, and I’ve never actually sat down and done it, but was to actually go through the Agile Manifesto, put my barbecue hat on and say, “What really maps to this idea of applying Agile values and principles to creating good barbecue?” And if you’re interested, I thought maybe we could spend a couple minutes going through that.

0:18:42.3 Matthew Edwards: Also, right now we’re recording this podcast in the morning, I am already thinking about lunch and dinner.


0:18:50.2 Matthew Edwards: Eventually we did have to stop for lunch, and we continued to meet and discuss the Agile Manifesto, its 12 principles, and how it very much translates to creating better barbecue. Make sure you don’t miss them. Subscribe to the Long Way Around the Barn.