PMTips: We are happy to announce, that today we are interviewing Scott W. Ambler Vice President - Chief Scientist of Disciplined Agile at Project Management Institute

Scott is the co-founder of Disciplined Agile (DA), which was acquired by the Project Management Institute (PMI) in August 2019. The DA toolkit is the world’s only complete agile body of knowledge (BOK) that provides straightforward and practical guidance to help individuals, teams, and enterprises choose their “way of working” in a context-specific way.

Furthermore, he is the creator of the Agile Modeling and Agile Data methods. Scott has also (co-)authored several books, including Choose Your WoW!, An Executive's Guide to Disciplined Agile, Disciplined Agile Delivery, Refactoring Databases, Agile Modeling, and The Elements of UML 2.0 Style.

Scott, thank you for accepting PMTips’ invitation. It is our great pleasure to have you as a guest.

Scott W. Ambler: It's great to be here

PMTips:  Scott, you hold a corresponding Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Commerce. You have a Master of Information Science from the University of Toronto. Can you tell us more about what motivated you to focus your education in this area?

Scott W. Ambler: When I graduated high school, I did not really want to know what I wanted to do when I grew up.  So I went to the University of Toronto, and the way they worked there is, the first year is set up so that you can take courses and sort of figure out what you want to do. Luckily, I took a computer science course because I loved it from high school but when I was in high school, they told me that you know there would be no computer jobs. This is the early 80s, so they told me there would be no computer jobs, but I loved computers. So I took computer science and then I learned that there you might actually be a few jobs and computers out there.

So I did the specialty in computer science and then I also took commerce because I still didn't really know what I wanted to do. So I figured I better expand my horizons, and then I went off for a couple of years and worked in some insurance companies and banks, a lot of financial stuff in Toronto. I decided to go back to school for my master's degree and I went to the information science school and focused on the time human-computer interaction.  It is now known as design or you know user users experience design. The community keeps changing the terms every few years but it's basically a UX design focus.

PMTips: Looking back at your professional experience, you first started your career as a Consultant. What would you say were the primary challenges you encountered when starting with your professional career?

Scott W. Ambler: A lot of it is being useful and being perceived as being useful and valuable and being able to sell yourself and to sell your services to these various organizations. You know I did have a background for years at a full-time job, but then when I graduated the second time from university I struck out as an individual consultant. I was teaching, delivering training workshops, as well as professional services around, you know software development for the most part, and how to improve it, how to get better.

That is really where my focus on process came from.  I was very interested in that pretty much from the very beginning and so I helped organizations understand and help them to get better and understand this process stuff and to improve their way of working.

PMTips: Scott, back in 2006 you joined IBM Rational as Chief Methodologist for IT. While at IBM you led the development of the Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) methodology. This included process development, courseware development, training and mentoring, and eventually writing the DAD book with Mark Lines (published in 2012). Can you tell us more about this experience and the process of writing DAD?

Scott W. Ambler: I said I was always interested in the process and I was always interested in how can we be more effective and how can we get better at what we do.

When I was at IBM, myself, and my team and business partners, we were working with organizations around the world, and Mark Lines being one of the business partners at the time. We were working around the world helping organizations to understand agile and lean, often at scale, and to improve their way of working.

We started noticing a lot of common techniques and issues and strategies. At the time, nobody else had really put together any sort of coherent and cohesive definition of how to do agile software development from beginning to end. That was the motivation behind that is that we realized that all these organizations were struggling and were and still are in many ways…

They needed some advice.

At the same time, we also noticed that everybody is doing agile differently, because there are different people in different situations facing different contexts. A prescriptive approach, a one-size-fits-all approach that you see in many of the agile frameworks was not realistic and it really was not going to help.

We could have put something together and yes it would have been successful but we really wanted to do something better, we really wanted to upper game and that's where DAD just came from. This context-driven, choice-focused, non-prescriptive approach to agile lean software development and then event that eventually evolved into what is now the uh the Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit.

PMTips: The Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit provides straightforward guidance to help organizations streamline their processes in a context-sensitive manner, providing a solid foundation for business agility. Last year, it was acquired by the Project Management Institute (PMI). Can you tell us more about the acquisition process?

Scott W. Ambler:  Yes, definitely.  PMI acquired the Disciplined Agile in August of 2019 and then very soon after purchased the net objectives organization for their flex and for other IP assets. Organizations are applying agile, lean, and traditional, often called predictive techniques and hybrid techniques of course as well. That is what attracted PMI to DA, was that DA had a really solid description of what business agility was.  How all these good things fit together?  We filled in a few holes that we had in da at the time so we have been combining the two bodies of knowledge of the two toolkits in many ways into one and taking advantage of the great stuff that PMI has. It continues to evolve.

It is a wonderful fit for both organizations. You know on our side, on the DA side of things, the reach of PMI and the people involved…. there are our chapters, and just the overall, you know the PMI organization itself, plus the overall ecosystem that PMI works and helps to grow.  It is just phenomenal. It has really helped us to do some good things and continue to do some good things.

PMTips: Currently, with your position at the PMI, you lead the evolution of the Disciplined Agile (DA) toolkit and evangelize how to apply the toolkit to improve the way of working (WoW). How challenging is it to be responsible for this segment?

Scott W. Ambler: Well first, it is a lot of fun. It is a bit challenging; it is also a lot of fun. 

We are all having a great time in so many ways.  I get to do what I was doing before the PMI acquisition and the wonderful thing is I have been able to build a team of great people, very smart.

We are really doing some interesting work in extending and enhancing and defining how organizations can be more agile, leaner, more effective.

It is challenging, the merger was actually a lot smoother than I thought it would be.  It surprised us all, but most of it is just building up. It is the classic how do we build a team, how do we communicate what we are doing, how do we bring it to market.  

It is a lot of fun and very interesting. We are doing a lot of good stuff and I get to help lead and grow a great team, a great team of people, so it is personally fulfilling as well as professionally fulfilling

PMTips: Scott let us focus our attention on the Agile Modeling methodology. You are the practice leader behind the Agile Modeling methodology, intended for effective modeling and documentation of software-based systems. How can this methodology serve software development projects?

Scott W. Ambler: Agile Modeling came out of my work in the modeling space. I led a team almost 20 years ago now and we originally started it had its genesis in an article that I wrote for software development where I was explaining how do you approach modeling on an extreme program, on an extreme programming project.

This was before the agile manifesto was written and then just before a couple of months before the agile manifesto came out, and agile got a lot of attention and a lot of us started working on this modeling and documentation issue in agile. Because at the time, those were radical things and we basically combined some great ideas from the existing modeling community, which at the time was very traditional and very heavyweight.

We started identifying these at the time phenomenally radical concepts like you know most modeling gets done on whiteboards and using post-it notes and paper and index cards and we take all these things for granted now. This was truly radical and a lot of them for a good 10 years the modeling community you know the traditional online community really sort of pushed back didn't believe in this.  It couldn't possibly be true that you could do these things whereas now it's very obvious that almost all modeling is done on whiteboards and post-it notes.

So it's really for software development and for business in general it's been phenomenal the agile modeling techniques have been infused throughout the DA toolkit as well as in other frameworks too.  It's unfortunate that we often don't get the credit, that proper credit in some in some ways because we really were the first to talk about techniques like big room planning, there's big room modeling stuff and big room planning stuff and this lightweight flexible inclusive modeling techniques, that like I said are pretty much taken for granted today. A lot of good ideas and good stuff there both in the software world and beyond the software world

PMTips: Scott, for almost 30 years you have presented at a wide range of public and corporate conferences around the world in which you have delivered keynotes, tutorials, workshops, and presentations. During the course of these years, what would you say was the most exciting event in which you have participated? 

Scott W. Ambler: Well there have been a few. I think personally for me, the most exciting one was my very first international conference in Germany.  That was fun because it was the first time in Germany, the first well first time in Europe. I did not really know the culture did not really know it did not know the language so it was just struggling with basic language issues.  I was in presenting in front of many hundreds of people at the time.

Of course, over the years sometimes it has been a size of audience issue, you know presenting in front of thousands can be challenging but then again presenting in front of a handful two or three people can often be even more even scarier.  I find what's also interesting is the was the first PMI congress that I spoke, it went about 10 or 15 years ago but the most recent one, last year in 2019 was a bit scary because it was immediately after the acquisition of the of DA by PMI.   We had a lot of attention on us that was it was scary…. it was fine it was great I met many great people. I spent a week just constantly meeting new people and many of which I knew over the years but certainly meeting them for the first time in face-to-face was it was very interesting. 

Public speaking is great and it grew out of my training. I trained, oh I actually started in when I was in university I was a teaching assistant so I started learning how to train people there, and then I became a professional trainer for a  while and then a public speaker.  Many great experiences over the years.

PMTips: You have published several books and articles. Last year you have published, Choose Your WoW!: A Disciplined Agile Delivery Handbook for Optimizing Your Way of Working. Can you tell us more about the idea behind this book and what can the readers expect from it?

Scott W. Ambler: Yeah so I co-wrote choose your wow with Mark who was my business partner and long-time friend. Choose Your WoW! is a handbook. The first quarter, so first hundred pages or so describes the DA tool kit and does a summary of it. Choose Your WoW! is really focused on teams and there's still a bit of a software flavor to it but it's certainly applicable to you know agile marketing teams and you know non-software development teams as well.

The basic idea is how we show people, how do you choose your way of working, how do you go about choosing your wow and you know potentially breaking out of method jail or you know breaking out of framework prison as ivory acquisition. I would like to say, how you actually take control and take responsibility for your way of working, for how do you choose your wow.

And there's a lot of hand waving in the agile community about oh yeah you're really smart you can do this and sure enough, you can but that's hard and it's slow and it and it's failure-prone. With a little bit of advice, with a little bit of guidance, you can dramatically increase your chance and increase your effectiveness at improving the way that you work. That in choosing the right techniques for the situation at hand. Because it's pretty easy to observe that everybody is unique and every team is unique and every team faces a unique situation so you really do need a fit for purpose approach um to your way of working. But having said that even though you're unique you can still leverage the learnings of others and this is what we do in the toolkit and it embodies thousands of years of experiences of various people that we've combined.  we basically put things into context, so instead of telling you this you know, these are the 17 best practices that you should follow and therefore be you know to be pure agile whatever that means.  We instead say, this these are the issues you need to think about here are some options here are some techniques that might work for you and your situation.  but we don't know what you're we don't know the exact nuances we don't know you we don't know the nuances of your situation so we can't tell you exactly what the best practice is going to be.  

But what we can do is we can give you some options, and we can give you advice for what the trade-offs are, so that way you can make better choices, you can make better process-related decisions and thereby have a better, a more appropriate way of working for your situation.  Then as your situation evolves, you can learn and you can evolve your approach.  

In many ways, it's sort of like a coach in a box, and certainly, you know experienced agile coaches you know tend to love the da toolkit, and they leverage it all the time. but even non-coaches do as well of course but it really in many ways the coach in a box and it helps you to make better decisions.  And we guide you through this because there are thousands of practices and strategies out there you know agile and lean and traditional. How do you choose between them, when do you do them, when don't you do them, how do they fit together and these are the sorts of questions that we help you to answer.

PMTips: Serving the PM community must be a fulling profession, filled with many challenges. Which project (or experience) would you say affected your professional life the most?

Scott W. Ambler: Well good question.  

I have been on a lot, they have all affected me, I have learned from all of them. Some of them were good learnings and some of them were wow I better not do that again type learning. But I think I’ll tell you about two from a professional point of view.

The most interesting or the one that had the biggest effect on me professionally was a US government program in the mid-90s that I was involved with and it was very large incredible amounts of money were spent on it and it was an abysmal failure. It is the old advice, that you learned the most from your failures and I learned a heck of a lot.

One of the things I learned there was that the heavyweight techniques, which I was really into at the time, simply did not work. And it didn't work as advertised, didn't work very well. But they, sort of got the job done but in the end, it was not what the government wanted. And so even though they've declared success it really wasn’t. The people affected by that project were not the happiest of campers and they had to go on and spend another few hundred million dollars on a brand new thing afterward. I learned a lot there

I guess the second, it was a few years later we applied very lightweight techniques and we are very successful still at some organizational challenges. Of course, you always do, but in many ways, the beginnings of agile modeling and our application of these techniques that ended up becoming core to the agile modeling method. In some cases, the agile data method as well were developed at an insurance company in the United States as well. That was also very interesting learning. We were applying extreme programming techniques and you know what became agile modeling a little bit of what scrum evolved into and this was later 90s pre-agile movement but still a pretty agile effort.

PMTips: Scott, to conclude, what is your advice for project managers who are striving to succeed in their professional field? 

Scott W. Ambler: So, I think um several things.

First, definitely learn more about agile and learn how to apply agile, when to apply agile, and lean, and traditional and hybrid as well. If you are not familiar with agile or just getting into it I highly suggest taking a look at a short online workshop that we have called the basics of discipline agile. It is excellent, a wonderful overview of what enterprise-class agile really means, and it goes beyond software development.

A lot of frustration for project managers and I hear this all the time is that agile is all about software and certainly it came out of software but it isn't purely focused on software development. So we purposely go beyond software development and have examples in there that we work through scenarios that have nothing to do with software development. Also having said that, appreciate that software development is critical and DevOps is critical. I think I do run into project managers that you know are sort of in denial of the fact that many projects are technology-focused and are IT-focused.  

So even if you work for a construction firm you know there's some you've got some it projects going on as well so and having said that even on construction projects you can still apply agile techniques. Certainly agile on a construction project is very different from agile on a software development project so fair enough, but you can always improve, you can always get better. I think if I had to leave you with one thing, is: have the desire to learn, to improve, and to know that you can always get better.

This manager will help you do that in the context that you face and will provide ideas for you. Because a lot of the time, what we find is that, you are stuck and you do not know-how, you have a great toolbox of techniques but then those techniques are not working for you and then suddenly you do not know what to do. You do not know how to react to this new this changing situation. You find yourself in a situation you still have not figured it out.

Fair enough, you know you are only human, but the DA tool kit gives you choices, gives you options, and will help you to think outside of the box.  We've run into hundreds of people now which is they've come up to me and said: “Wow you know I use the toolkit and it gave me this aha moment where it helps me identify this weird strategy I’d never heard of before and we experimented with it, it worked and it was amazing and it's really solved serious problems”.

I get that sort of feedback all the time so it is really a wonderful way to up your game. So always, be willing to learn, always, and have the humility to know that other people have dealt with whatever situation you are dealing with now. Other people have more than likely dealt with before. So you can leverage their learnings and you know strive to be agile, strive to be lean, and experiment always be experimenting. There is nothing wrong with failed experiments as long as you learn from them.

PMTips: Scott it was a pleasure talking to you. I believe our community will benefit from our conversations so thank you for your time

Scott W. Ambler: I hope so, have a great day everybody.