Interview: Never Waste a Good Crisis – Agile, Low Code and Creativity

Computer scientist Jurgen Appelo talks about euthanasia for dysfunctional companies and why he loves programming and low code at the same time.

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  • Silke Hahn
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IT specialists would certainly have a few words to say to their team leaders about successful or unsuccessful project management – if the latter listened to them. But most software developers don't pick up their pens right away, and in very few cases would it become a bestseller that managers actually read. In the run-up to the inside agile conference, heise Developer invited Dutch computer scientist Jurgen Appelo to talk to us. Appelo is not only technically well-versed, but has also written nonfiction books on leadership topics that have resonated.

What spurred him to write, his relationship to the "agile gurus" and the Agile Manifesto, but also his preferences in programming as well as low code and blogging are part of the conversation, which took place in English in the original. A slightly shortened German version is also published at Heise.

heise Developer: Jurgen, you've taken on many roles in your professional life: Author, speaker, entrepreneur, but also software engineer and CIO of large development teams. What exactly do you do for a living today, and what path led you there?

Interview with Jurgen Appelo

Jurgen Appelo is a Dutch serial entrepreneur, author and speaker, and computer scientist. He is considered an expert on agile leadership topics and describes himself as a creative networker. In addition to his blog, he writes books, including "Management 3.0", "Startup, Scaleup, Screwup – 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean & Agile Business Growth".

Jurgen Appelo: I am originally a software engineer. I studied at the University in Delft, University of Technology, I studied Software Engineering, Computer Science. But I was never really a nerd or a geek. I love programming, but my interests were far too wide. I also like bookkeeping and marketing and leadership, creating content and many things. And if you have so wide interests, then you can’t just keep up with all the things that are happening in technology. So I had to give that up. I haven’t written a single line of code in, I think, twelve years or so. Maybe some day when I’m old I might get back to programming as a hobby or something.

heise Developer: What was your first programming language that got you into programming?

Appelo: Basic, on my Commodore64. I love my C64, I knew it inside out. I also did a little bit of machine language on it, and then I moved on to Turbo Pascal which was used at university. Then I learned other languages, of course. C++ and even COBOL we learned a little bit.

heise Developer: COBOL is recently in demand again because of legacy code. If you know how to handle COBOL, there is definitely something you can turn back to for retirement. With a twinkling eye: would you?

Appelo: No, I already knew back then in 1987 that this was horrible. I focused on Turbo Pascal and then I moved on to Microsoft .NET, and then I sort of quit. I became a manager, I was Chief Information Officer (CIO), and I managed up to 100 people at some point, multiple software teams, project managers, product managers and everything. In 2010 I quit my job and became independent because my book came out, “Management 3.0”. That sort of changed my whole life. Since then I have been independent: speaker, writer, entrepreneur. Trying all kinds of things. Some things work, most things don’t – that’s how it is.

Für Führungskräfte und Product Owner: Konferenzreihe inside agile

Jurgen Appelo war Keynoter bei der agilen Konferenz "inside agile" am 3. und 4. Mai 2022. In der Konferenzreihe geht es online weiter mit dem Vierten Product Owner Day (POD) am 30. Juni 2022 (online):

Produkte sollen Endkundinnen und -kunden begeistern. Product Owner und Produktmanagerinnen stellen sicher, dass die richtigen Produkteigenschaften gewählt werden, sodass begeisternde Produkte entstehen. In der agilen Welt stellen sie über kontinuierliches Inspizieren und Adaptieren sicher, dass ihre Produkte tatsächlich die Kundenbedürfnisse befriedigen.

Themen des 4. POD:

  • Meinungsverschiedenheiten: Komplexität braucht die Mehrperspektivität
  • Product Discovery in Scrum integrieren
  • Skalierungsframeworks – über Menschen statt Frameworks skalieren
  • Richtig gute Produkte entwickeln
  • Moderationsskills – Werkzeugkasten für jede/n Product Owner:in
  • Ask Me Anything mit Roman Pichler

Die Konferenz richtet sich an Product Owner und Produktmanagerinnen, die die agilen Grundlagen kennen und bereits Erfahrung in der Rolle mitbringen. Tickets sind bis 8. Juni zum Frühbucherpreis von 199 Euro (zzgl. MwSt.) erhältlich. Alle Infos zum Programm stehen auf der POD-Website.

heise Developer: Management 3.0 – what made you write this book?

Appelo: I actually wanted to write a book about complexity science because I was very much interested in pop science around chaos theory and complexity, end of the 90s, early 2000’s. Then Agile emerged in 2001, and I got interested in that for professional reasons of course, in my job in the next ten years as CIO, I introduced Scrum into my organization, and I actually learned how to be a manager in an agile context. And I noticed this topic was not really addressed by any of the "gurus" at the time. They focused on the team level mainly in the early years.

heise Developer: The "gurus" at that time, who were they?

Appelo: The ones who wrote the Agile Manifesto. Such as: Jim Highsmith, Ken Schwaber, Kent Beck, Martin Fowler... They had a technical emphasis of course. I devoured all the books. But I sensed: You cannot just change how software teams work without changing the rest of the organization. I struggled with that as the manager of multiple teams. So I thought: Okay, let’s make that my topic. I went all in. Then I thought: Actually, this would be a much more interesting book. So I changed my perspective and it helped me to understand: How do management and leaders operate in the agile world? This was the problem that needed to be solved, and this territory was not yet claimed.

With the research that I was already doing into complexity science and system thinking, I had a solid background to be able to write that book. That combination worked really, really well. It’s just a great fit, system thinking and Agile. I could explain the management side of it, being inspired by how to manage complex systems. I am still proud of the book I wrote at that time, it cost me a number of years. It was boom, it was a bestseller, I did not really expect that. I had never written a book before. I had tried a novel a couple of years earlier, but that was a failure.

heise Developer: What was your impetus to try again, this time with nonfiction?

Appelo: I was in this role of a manager trying to figure out how to help this organization be a success, not having much to lean on in terms of available literature – except for generic management or leadership books, of course. Those offered some suggestions, but they had no technical angle on things. I started with a blog, noop.nl, which I launched in 2008. For a couple of years, I just wrote. And that was one of the insights that was very agile: I wrote blog posts, short pieces of text that I got feedback on. I have often explained this as an agile principle outside of the software development work: If you write a book, begin with a blog!

Because then, while writing, you can figure out what it is that people find most interesting. Where do you get the best feedback on? And where do you get people’s corrections and new insights through the interaction on the blog? At that time, there was not even Social Media. Everyone was publishing blogs at the time. That short feedback cycle is something that I learned from the agile gurus. But they applied it mostly to the technical side of things, getting fast feedback on programming, whether features work or not, whether they are being used by users or not. I applied the same principle then to management and leadership: How you get fast feedback with team leadership. The principle remained the same, the practices become completely different.These are things that I did as a manager, this is one of many examples where I had to practice what I preach. When I began my position, the turnover was about 15 or 17 percent in the company of people, engineers and others quitting their jobs, and I was able to bring it back down to zero.

heise Developer: How did you manage?

Appelo: Nobody left their jobs anymore. Because we introduced Scrum, I helped install self-organizing teams, they did their own planning, they did stand-up meetings, and they did retros and stuff like that. It was new and exhilarating to be part of that transformation. The funny thing was that we had a big open office space at the time, actually a very famous building in Rotterdam that was re-designed as an office space. The rest of the company saw the engineering part doing stand-up meetings and things like that. It was a big open space. I loved that kind of environment, but not everyone does, let’s be honest, but that was what we had. At some point, Sales and Marketing was also doing stand-up meetings – because they saw us doing that on the other side of the floor. That was pretty cool.

I suddenly saw them doing stand-ups on the other side of the office. I thought, what the heck is going on? Word goes around. Usually the smokers of course shared these kind of things because they get together across departments outside of the building.

heise Developer: Two crucial elements emerge - architecture can be helpful, and smoking breaks apparently were: do you see a connection between such breaks and creativity?

Appelo: These are unintended but useful side effects of things that are actually harmful. Open-plan offices aren't so good for your health either, they have figured out by now – but they do have some benefits: You can literally see what's going on on the other side of the company.

heise Developer: Before Heise, I had also worked in an open-plan office. The pandemic then sent us into isolation. What was that time like for you?

Appelo: I have been doing remote work since 2011 because I did not have an office anymore. I have my home and I travel a lot. I spoke at conferences, at events, all over the world, doing workshops, and I love that. I had some businesses that I had launched, licensing around my courseware that really took off. So, in 2019 I was travelling about 250 days, which is insane. I had a lot of different clients and customers, wasn't dependent on anyone. As an entrepreneur, you don't want to be dependent on one major client, that would be risky. At the time, I thought I had that covered. I didn't realize that I had an Achilles' heel, which was traveling.

That’s how I made money, by travelling, and suddenly that stopped in March 2020 – from one moment to the other. All the events in my calendar, all wiped out within a couple of weeks. Everything was cancelled. And I was like: oh my God! What is happening here? That’s all my income for this year that just evaporates. That impact was huge on me, on my business. Fortunately I had other things still going on that licensing revenue on my workshops that still continued, royalties from books. But the big thing had been the events, losing those was painful. But never waste a good crisis. This was the moment to try something new. I was mostly at home for two years, testing different businesses to generate revenue – like a real entrepreneur should. And I think I’m coming out of it better than I was before. Less dependent on travel, which is good.

One thing that I learned: there’s probably always an Achilles' heel, no matter what you do, and you should be aware of that. I wasn’t aware of it, that it was travel. Who would have expected that suddenly travel would drop that way, worldwide, globally. I had never predicted that. But if you’re agile, and I was, within two or three weeks I had the prototype of a new business running, and I’ve been experimenting ever since, and now I have a new business model that I’m working on, new revenue coming in.