Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"Sorry Goose, but it's time to buzz a tower"

In 1990 I was a member of the team that was developing the avionics testbed for a experimental fighter jet called the YF-23. This work required me to live for almost a year at a McDonnell Douglas facility in St. Louis. Members of the team had gathered from all around the company to prepare the avionics for demonstration to the Air Force. We faced many imposing challenges; the various components of hardware and software had been separately developed and were resisting integration. The avionics were designed to survive destruction of up to half of their components and still perform their function. Unfortunately the actual hardware could hardly tolerate being installed. One key component, a fiber optic communication interface was so sensitive that 29 out of 30 initial boards produced failed before our final demonstration!

The team was led by a former F-14 pilot. He was an outstanding leader. He didn’t understand the details of how each of us did out jobs. He hadn’t written a line of code in his life. What he did very well was remove obstacles from our path.

We were guaranteed to see him every morning at the daily stand-up meeting. Scrum was largely unknown to the world in 1990, but apparently F-14 pilots knew how to have a stand-up meeting. Each of us, in turn, would describe our progress, what we were doing next and what problems we were having.

Our F-14 pilot-lead had this interesting habit that I have never forgotten: he used to trim his nails every day during this meeting. He focused on his nails, but you knew he was listening. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it forced me to speak to the group instead of to him. If the discussions got too involved, he would cut it off.

During one of the first daily meetings I reported that a McDonnell Douglas system administrator was not giving us access to a computer as he had promised a week earlier. It was cutting into our efforts to test the avionics. The administrator was being a jerk to us contractors.

As soon as I told the story, our lead’s head snapped up. With a steady glare he repeated what he heard me say. I verified that he had heard me right; the administrator was messing with the team. I thought I was in trouble, but he didn't say anything else about it.

Five minutes after the conclusion of the meeting, we heard our lead swearing at the top of his lungs at the administrator. They must have a class for F-14 pilots on the creative application of profanity. It was impressive to hear. It was even more impressive to realize that our pilot-lead had our back. He was our “wingman”. As Tom Cruise learned in “Top Gun”; you never leave your wingman.

We received access immediately and never had another problem with the administrator. It was a pivotal moment for the team. We started the day as a collection of contractors from around the country. By noon we were the team you didn’t mess with. Did it effect our work? You bet. We didn’t have any excuses not to solve our own problems with the dedication demonstrated by our lead.

Our lead wasn’t a Scrum Master, but he would have been a good one. Our daily meeting wasn’t a “Daily Scrum”, but it sure served the purpose of one. Scrum invented very little. It was derived from observing what worked and formed a framework to encompass these practices. While I don't teach Scrum Masters how to be as effective with their profanity as our lead was, I'm sure to let them know that their job is to be a wingman for their team.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like your F14 pilot was way ahead of his time. Hardly any scrum masters I've worked with over the years have realised what he already knew in 1990. Scrum masters are not the leader, nor are they in charge, they are the remover of obstacles.

Clinton Keith said...

I think he was just a good lead. People think that the Scrum Master role creates a new paradigm, but it doesn't. Good leaders have *always* been those that clear the path for a team and get out of the way. Scrum merely creates a framework and roles that allow that to occur.

Anonymous said...

ScrumMasters are Leaders - they just do not meet the normal definition or style of leadership that is accepted. ScrumMasters should exercise a form of servant leadership or Level 5 leadership style, but you have to be an effective leader to take care of your team and to remove obstacles successfully. It seems in this article this pilot did what is best to do. Get top people in their fields, help them stay on track, remove obstacles and get out of their way.

Clinton Keith said...

Leadership can come from anywhere on the team. You'll often see teams that go through the Tuckman model of formation - form, storm, norm, perform - identify or grow people into leadership roles.

The best Scrum Masters are definitely servant leaders; clearing the past and getting out of the way.

Anonymous said...

game development needs a lot more people like him (& you!) especially in these times where budgets are even more constrained and the cost of slippage, or outright failure, are so high...

Clinton Keith said...

There was a recent article from a game industry exec that made a great point. He said that the game dev industry burns out many people with ~ ten years of experience which has created a dearth of experienced leadership. It's a vicious cycle for sure.

I wish I had saved the link.

Thanks for the kind words.


Ron said...

Burnout, huh? The game industry needs to learn a lesson from the Navy, I'm not just sure how they can implement it.

A carrier has 5000 people on it, average age 19 (or so I've been told). What makes the carrier work is not the officers, but the Chief Petty Officers who are lifers and know how it is all supposed to work.

I would postulate that the game companies that are best equipped to break/beat the burnout vicious cycle have a nucleous of guys in the middle levels that can keep the new guys and the suits (officers) on the right track.

Clinton Keith said...

Nice analogy. The game industry doesn't have as many CPOs. Potential CPOs fail to reenlist.

However if aircraft carriers were like games, they would have been invented less than 40 years ago and would have evolved to something like Death Stars by now. Change is the engine of our industry, but it brings some problems.