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Taking Agile to Work

Rand Eaton outdoors on campus with fall trees and brick building in background

As a tech industry project manager for more than 20 years, Agile instructor and coach Rand Eaton understands adaptive software product development. He has helped dozens of businesses, from mom-and-pop shops to large firms with recognizable names such as Ameriprise and 3M implement Agile methodologies into their workflow.

Eaton was practicing “traditional” project management and the waterfall method in 2006 when he started hearing about the Agile framework. Waterfall is a stage approach in which the plan and budget are set from the start, and the work is passed from one person or team to another as it’s developed. Agile is a team-based method of working through projects that focuses on delivering valuable products quickly, and because tasks are completed and presented to the customer incrementally, there’s less rework, which keeps costs down.

“The questions we ask in both are fundamentally the same,” says Eaton. “‘How do we work together?’ ‘How do we actually solve people’s problems?’ and ‘How do we have fun doing it?’”

Although the developers of Agile philosophy have their roots in software development, these days Agile strategies are used to manage projects across a variety of industries: publishing, education, and automotive, to name a few. 

Since Eaton teaches all six Agile courses offered through the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing and Professional Studies, he’s in a great position to help us understand how professionals are learning and incorporating Agile methodologies in their professional lives. Here’s his take.

What type of professional is interested in learning Agile?

At the U of M, we get people from all walks of life and from a variety of professions. Across industries, there’s a lot of interest. One of the things that’s fun is to find out who’s in the room. It’s never the same from cycle to cycle. 

No matter who we have in class, they generally break down into two groups: people who have no exposure to Agile, and those who have been asked to use an Agile methodology, such as Scrum or Kanban, but don’t know where to start. Both groups come to realize that it’s really about how people work together to solve problems, create products or services, and hopefully have fun doing it.

What’s the most popular way to enter Agile?

Scrum is the way most organizations get involved with Agile. It gets its name from rugby, a game in which the team has to put their heads together to win. In Agile, Scrum is also the way the team works together. It’s a set of meetings, tools, and roles that helps teams manage their work.

What are the biggest ah-ha's people are getting in the courses?

Many people coming to Agile from traditional project management think we’ll be throwing out all the activities they’re using to keep track of the project, things like planning, testing, documenting. When we go through the Agile principles and they see that all those activities are part of it—but done in such a way as to make the process transparent, cost-effective, and customer-focused—they lean forward in their seats, they become very interested. 

What’s the benefit of taking these courses in person?

First, the benefit of taking a course or getting a certificate is the time factor. As you get into your career, you may not have time to get another degree or to really dive into a new body of knowledge. The certificate, which you can complete in three to four months, gives you a high-level demo, some deeper looks under the hood, practical tools you can take back to the office, and the lingo to have richer conversations about your project work. For example, you may be asked to be a subject matter expert and not know what that entails. The courses show you that and give you vocabulary that you may need to know, to communicate with your stakeholders.

The value of taking these courses in person is in the connections professionals make with each other. It’s fun to see people go through the certificate courses as a group, to see the relationships start to form, and hear the cross-table conversations evolve. It helps them think about how they’ll implement these tools back in their organizations.

What do you tell people who want to instill Agile principles among their coworkers?

I tell them to get leadership involved from the beginning. Take a look at how leadership is working and, based on the needs of the organization, I would help them choose a method or framework that will fit best. For example, I ask them to choose one practice, such as Scrum, incorporate it into the workflow and, when they’re ready for more, learn more. Like the Agile methodologies themselves, Agile adoption is often best handled incrementally.

The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to know it all to start. One of our favorite sayings is, “Perfect is the enemy of done,” especially in the Agile world.

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The five courses that make up the U of M Agile Certificate are: Agile Fundamentals, Agile User Stories, Agile Testing, Agile Coaching, and Agile Teams & Metrics. A sixth course, Certified ScrumMaster, can be substituted for Agile Fundamentals.