Interview with Jeff Sutherland (co-creator of Scrum)

Jeff Sutherland is one of the creators of the Agile Manifesto, co-creator of Scrum and the Scrum Guide, author of “Software in 30 Days” and so on. What more can I say about him!

I was fortunate enough to meet Jeff in Stockholm. I really learned a lot from him.

It is a great honor to interview Jeff.

Jeff, thank you very much for the interview.

1.     Most knows your work with the agility and Scrum, but… Who is Jeff Sutherland? Where are you from? Where do you work? If I’m not mistaken you were even USAF pilot, right?

When I graduated from the U.S. Military Academy I had a chance to go to pilot training and join the Air Force. I wound up flying 100 missions over North Vietnam in an RF-4C Phantom. Over half of us got shot down so I devised a risk avoidance strategy that is embedded in Scrum. The burndown chart is based on what you need to look for to land a high performance jet at the end of the runway. See

2.     When I spent some days with you in Stockholm, I remember that you said that a main issue today with agility is the «bad agility». What do you mean? And what can we do?

The Standish Group has data on over 100,000 projects worldwide. For the book that Ken Schwaber and I wrote last year, Jim Johnson broke out the projects into two groups – waterfall and agile. He was amazed that the success rate for waterfall was 14% and it tripled for agile teams to 43%. I was horrified that 57% of agile projects are late, over budget, or totally fail. It seems that there is a lot of bad agile out there!

3.     In my agile projects and in the courses I teach, I often see that for large organizations it is so difficult to adapt to work with agile teams. What is your experience and what advice can you give to us?

Large organizations require teamwork across teams, visionary leadership, challenging goals and this requires major change in traditional management styles. The management needs to change their behavior from micromanagement to being agile leaders and coaches. Few management teams have the courage and vision to do this. This is OK because the companies that are not agile will be overwhelmed by their agile competitors. We are working with many large companies where the leadership really understands they need to eliminate command and control, radically reduce hierarchy, change the way they use space, eliminate individual bonuses, ban time sheets, dump performance appraisals and get rid of people who want to tell people what to do instead of letting the Product Owner’s backlog guide the teams. Leaders need to inspire people to high performance and not flog them into mediocrity.

4.     It’s been over 10 years since the birth of the agile manifesto. And you are one of the signatories. How do you see the future of Scrum and Agility?

Those companies that are Good Agile will survive and the others will go out of business. People have trouble grasping that global competition is increasing at an exponential rate. Companies like Microsoft and SAP have already radically changed their management structures. Google has 15000 developers working on one code base with over 20 changes every minute, and 75,000,000 automated tests that drive multiple deployments a day. Even smaller companies like delivery 220 releases every two week sprint. We have a company near my office in Cambridge that does 170 live updates to their product every day on a slow day. The future of agility is to be agile enough not to get crushed by companies that can deliver a new release of software every minute.

5.     What are your three favorite books that every software engineer must read?

The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks. This is as true today as it was 30 years ago and it is astonishing to me that every engineering manager has not read and reread it.

The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, the world’s greatest swordsman. This is how to have to think to cut through the code, slice through impediments, and always be executing a short term and long term strategy simultaneously. Great code requires great architecture. Great architecture requires great design. Great design requires seeing everywhere at once and all the side effects that changing your code will have.

A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America’s War on Terror by Daniel Ford. This is the best book by on the world’s greatest fighter pilot. If you implement his strategy you are certain to win whether coding or leading teams.

These are all books about mindset. These days I am regularly meeting with former fighter pilots using Scrum and black belt Aikido, Kung Fu, and Karate experts. We discuss how to get the agile mindset into the average team. Agility requires intense focus, discipline, and aggressive, spontaneous action.

6.     Any recommendations for young software engineers?

Look to work with the greatest engineers you can find. Only work in agile environments. If you in the middle of bad agile, either fix it or get out of there. Find a better team. Every day you are not on a great team is a day of your life wasted!

7.     Have you ever been to Spain?

When I was CTO of what is now GE Healthcare we owned a piece of a company in Barcelona. It was great working with them. Years ago I used to ferry F4 Phantoms across the Atlantic. These flights were staged out of Morón Air Base. I spent many hours hanging out at the bar with fighter pilots there. Fun times!

Thanks Jeff.

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