Meet The Coach: Dhaval Panchal
Q: Can you summarize for us your career path and how you came to be an Agile coach?
Right after college, I joined one of the biggest outsourcing Indian IT firms. It was a great feeling to play my part in the IT revolution of late 90’s and early 2000’s. We were truly good engineers and we worked hard, really hard. In about 4 years of working in the Indian IT outsourcing industry, I was ready to call it quits. I had emotionally burned out.
For the first two years, I worked on a project that had users in the UK and project managers in Malaysia, under a waterfall project management model. As lead developer on the project, if I asked a question on Monday to my PM in Malaysia, I would be lucky to get a response back from the UK, via PM in Malaysia before end of week on Friday. We built and rebuilt this project and all our code, yet never released to production. The business had purchased a COTS system that served most of their needs. If only the requirements were given to us correctly, we could have then built a system that would get used and I would not have been left with an empty hollow feeling. So for the next two years, I took onsite assignments in Malaysia and then in the United States, because I wanted to get the “right” requirements and then no one else would have to build unnecessary systems.
Boy! was I wrong or what?
After having burned out in chasing vague descriptions from end-users and managing a remote offshore team, I figured it out! I had been asking the wrong questions. So in 2003-2004 period, I read up on Extreme Programming and Scrum and found a company where I would get to practice anything but waterfall. For the next five years or so, I played various roles in implementing projects outsourced to us. Over time, I realized that I was spending a lot of time working on the customer side, helping them understand Scrum/XP and to be able to benefit from the incremental and iterative delivery that we were enabling for them. Perhaps it was the realization that we could get paid to share our learnings and practices, or the plan all along the way, but my previous company started an Agile Consulting business. As one of the first coaches and trainers at the time in 2006, I did what I did and enjoyed it. People said that I was “coaching” and I accepted that label. You see, for me, I would still be doing what I do even if it was not called coaching. So for me, I never came “to be” an Agile Coach. I like working with people, I draw energy from healthy social interactions and I like building stuff that I can be proud of. So I nurture my context and serve people to feed my wants. I collaborate to create things that none of us could have built in separately.
Q: What are your top 3 tips for Agile managers?
“When in doubt, ask your team”
1) Manage relationships not people: Focus on the relationships between people in your organization, not on the individual people. Of course, care and concern must be paid to the people who report to you, but remember that you are not the only wise guy in your organization. When managers focus on people, instead of the relationships around this person, we do a huge dis-service to our people’s growth and learning. We make them dependent on us, the manager. If instead, when managers shift their focus and are able to nurture positive relationships between their sub-ordinates and people within their group and also with people in other departments, then we create exponentially more opportunities for learning for our employees. A team and an organization with healthy relationships between its members can readily adapt and thrive.
2) Manage context not tasks: What kind of machine does your developer use? How long does it take to run all unit tests? I was once coaching at a big Fortune 100 company, where the developers were using outdated machines that took 30-45 mins just to boot up. And this was the norm - unacceptable, sigh!. Cultivate an environment and context and great work is inevitable. Provide tools and support that make doing work fun. We are in a Knowledge based creative economy. When people are burdened by mundane hindrances, then they are not flexing their creativity in the right direction. Make tools, infrastructure, information, support, coaching and help readily available to your people and they will outshine your wildest expectations from them.
3) Stay consistent, be the compass: Stay authentic and true to yourself. I find managers that lack clarity often confuse their people by sending mixed messages. There is no folly, in admitting that you are human. When in doubt, ask your team. As a manager you are awarded a position of leadership. Not all managers lead, but all leaders manage. Manage through uncertainty by maintaining a steady moral and ethical compass. If you champion quality, do not send a mixed signal to your team by asking them to skip on unit-testing, just this one sprint. This confuses people and remember, whatever short-term gain you made - it happened at the expense of your long-term credibility.
Q: What is the main inspiration for what you do?
It takes a long time to be good at something. I have been training/coaching/helping/guiding Agile transitions at a variety of organizations for more than ten years now. I think I am pretty good at it but believe, I can still get better. My inspiration is to help people experience positive and meaningful Organizational Change. I feel amply rewarded when people walk up to me at conferences, even after four-five years and remember their training or coaching experience with me. And share the positive impact that it had on their personal and professional lives.
Q: What have you seen lately that is interesting and new?
It is an interesting stage in development of Agile movement. As a community, there are set beliefs and standard practices. The very thing that the Agile manifesto tried to avoid. Agile manifesto, is a statement of values supported by guiding principles. The spirit of Agile has always been to experiment, always to stay curious and validate. A scientific approach where our methods and practices are merely “not-reject”. Perhaps I am too sensitive, because I have been sensing this shift towards dogma and need for assurances in practices and methodologies. After an explosion of experiments in the last decade, are we all taking a break? - I hope that Agile spirit of tinkering stays sincere and we continue to make tiny experiments all along.
Q: Favourite non-fiction book and why.
A good book for me is one that I can read over and over again and learn some thing new about myself or the world and people around me. Following are the two books that I keep re-reading and continue to get sucked in:
1) Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder (Incerto) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
2) Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman