Why It Took Time (to become what I didn’t know I wanted to be)

The terrorism of an alcoholic father left me with serious damages and memories of a loveless youth. Nevertheless I graduated as Industrial Engineer in electronics in 1992, age 22. An opportunistic choice of study as philosophy or literature didn’t offer the same job certainty. Purpose?

Time for a little retrospective exercise. What has happened in the 20 years since my graduation? What has been most influential in becoming who I am today? And why did it take that time?

The formative years

I was deeply disappointed when entering the labor market as my grade created the expectation of thorough technical insights while I had hoped for some staff position, and the possibility to work with teams.

My first job was software engineering on VAX but I remember most the great times I spent in the great country of Ireland. After a little project on OS/2 I moved to a small company in 1993 to do assembler programming on Micro-PIC controllers. My 6 months trial period wasn’t too convincing but a one month prolongation did show some success in planning and purchasing, combined with Borland C++ and Paradox programming.

Blind enthusiasm and overwork burned me out so I left in 1996 to take over a bookshop of a large chain on a franchising base. A client of our shop pointed me towards Nietzsche and his ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ (and later on his other works) was an incredible eye opener. Since then I kept saying that 90% of who I am, I am due to my wife and 9% due to Nietzsche. Nietzsche revealed the bare truth to much of my struggles with life to that date. Although my wife and I had the time of our lives being all around books, and we moved to a bigger shop twice, on the last day of 1998 we had to decide to quit. The reason was the imbalance of income, social life and personal development; and being on the verge of debts.

In 1999 I started as business developer for the first Belgian e-commerce site for books and CDs, where I soon grew into a senior management position. By the end of an exciting but burning period I remember me creating a mega (no, wait, giga) analysis for a complete new back office (from IT to logistics), which was my domain to lead. It only took me 3 hours to get a team through it. Once. I don’t know whether it was that analysis or the complete renewal of our server park, but just after I resigned in 2001, I was offered the position of IT director at the company. Although I did co-write a post-crisis survival business plan for the company, I still decided to leave. I felt too young, too inexperienced and -above all- my views on the people aspect were quite different from our investors and other leading managers. I rightfully left, is my opinion still. Later that year, our first son was born.

The Years of Dedication

In 2001 I started working for a large local (Belgian) consulting company.

For my first project I did a complete functional analysis, took the lead in contracting and other negotiations and continued as ‘project manager’. Management advised me not show the estimates to the team. But I did, and it didn’t prevent the project from ending up break-even where all other fixed prices ended in major losses. But I specifically remember helping a team member through a difficult divorce situation. Without minding the actuals.

In 2003 our second son was born. He turned out to have Down Syndrome. Professionally I got called to urgently lead a new project that seemed unfeasible despite the fancy MS Project promise. It took 15 minutes for 2 software architects to convince me about eXtreme Programming. It just had all elements fixed in the method that I had -to a certain extent- tried to do in my first project: communication, iterations, feedback. In December 2003 I presented this project as the first major production XP implementation in Belgium at Javapolis.

When scaling up with the next phase of the project we added Scrum in 2004. I went well-prepared, i.e. having read his 2 books at that time, to a CSM class by Ken Schwaber. And we replaced our organizational XP practices with Scrum practices and names, but we kept doing the core engineering practices (pair programming, TDD, continuous integration, automated testing).

By the end of 2006 we had successfully delivered 2 more phases of our early Agile project, and applied Scrum + eXtreme Programming in 2 additional large website applications, incorporating extensive front-ends, back-ends, integrations and interfaces. Those projects learned me that inclusion of incremental development of even major UX-components is feasible, and even to be preferred.

Due to lack of respect for our results and for the people I decided to leave in 2007. And to date I’m still struck by the observation of an esteemed colleague and team member that I had never consciously made myself, i.e. that he loved the way I tried to turn a project into a total, 360° experience of joy, fun, energy and… results. Never satisfied with less.

Richard Dawkins deepened my Nietzsche experience by adding a genetic and memetic dimension to it. By the end of the year I started at another consulting company, led and blinded by promises of a management position. Around that time our oldest son, age 6, was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Having read Richard Dawkins helped in surviving and dealing with the genetic flaws of our 2 children.

The empty management promises finally covered 2 years of my life in stress and agony. I fought, battled and barely survived, before returning to my Agile roots. I realized that I had never cared about any ‘CS*’ certifications or whatever career, that my satisfaction had been in working with teams and clients, joyful projects, and that I still didn’t care about careering. Therefore I was attracted by the community orientation of Ken Schwaber’s new platform, Scrum.org and followed and joined it from the early days in 2009.

2010 did not only see me giving consultancy a last chance at my current employer, but after 2+ years of medical uncertainty and wandering our daughter was born. No genetic problems, not even carrier of DMD. My first professional experience wasn’t too comforting, but I applied my iterative-incremental approach and turned my first project, once more, and once more against all odds, into a 360° success. In the mean time I evolved with Scrum.org and did the Professional Scrum Master assessments (level I and II), and decided to firmly proceed on that path. I applied for Professional Scrum Trainer for which I went to a PSM class by Ken by the end of 2010 in Zürich.

Booming Business

And then, suddenly, there was 2011. Dutch colleagues found me. I developed an internal Scrum training, which was highly appreciated and became very successful. It opened important gates at clients, caused some amazing breakthroughs and I mutated to another division. I followed the early Professional Scrum Product Owner program and soon became Professional Scrum Trainer in PSM and PSPO.

I had a boost in understanding and living Agility, not in the least through the mentoring and lessons by Ken. My perspective quickly broadened. Authors like Daniel Pink (“Drive”) and Nassim Taleb (“The Black Swan”) augmented my general world views, and greatly supported my belief to use people and empiricism to cope with the complexity of our world. I am now the global expert on Scrum at my company (120.000 people worldwide). And the end is not nearly in sight. Scrum has become a substantial part of what we do and offer. We train our consultants and our clients, we coach and guide them, we promote Enterprise Agility and we inject more and more agility into our own organization.

Soon I will be talking at the Scrum Day Europe event that Scrum.org initiated and that we co-organize. I will introduce how I perceive the Emergence of the Customer-Oriented Enterprise. Previous ‘confessions’ gave some insights in what might have influenced how I developed my views. Who knows what will happen next to change how I see things?

Not Future

Some things take time. Beauty. Growing flowers. Becoming what you didn’t know you wanted to be. Unlearning. Mastery. Dedication and determination.

I am still without much formal title or position. I regularly struggle with the gigantic, monstrous machines that corporations tend to be. I regularly want to flee back to the underground when balancing my personal ethics against my desire for impact. Overall however, I manage and it works out… without power games. I am epigenetically (the seeds sown in my youth) unable to play power games, but I’ve learned to use that in my advantage.

In 2012 I am even making enormous progress on my scales of valuation. In the past I usually was merely tolerated, in the best case appreciated.  Here I am now, not just being motivated, but even able to innovate.

Note

I started writing this blog note to give people insight in what it sometimes takes, at least time, to learn and evolve. I was long in doubt whether to continue this text when I started reading Lyssa Adkins’ book Coaching Agile Teams. Having read the first chapter I decided to go for it. Because my message reflects how I became to ‘be’, not only what I ‘do’. Painful sometimes, but honest. Hoping it might help or inspire others. Hoping it helps people understand that it takes time. The path and the patience pay off. I can now go back to Lyssa’s book again and finish reading it.

10 thoughts on “Why It Took Time (to become what I didn’t know I wanted to be)

  1. I am so pleased to have been a small part of spurring you on to finish this beautiful blog post. I am inspired by the self-refletion, clarity and vulnerability in your blog post. Incidentally, self-reflection and vulnerability are being heralded everywhere (even the Wall Street Journal) as two must-have management traits for our complex world so you’re right in line. Journey on!

    • Lyssa, thank you for the kind words. Imagine that I would have a future in ‘management’ ;-)

  2. Michael Cooke

    Gunther, I am begining to believe that there are NO coincidences only omens. I stumbled on your blog whilst looking for an agile backlog grooming diagram. What you have written resonates deeply with me; especially the underlying conflict that you have experienced along your evolution. I am a holistic thinker who has struggled to work in plan-based, piecemeal, corporate environments; applying hard skills to a fundamentally soft, complex systems world and playing political games to achieve benefits realisation. Your blog has given me one of those rare but exciting ‘aha’ moments where another piece of the puzzle drops into place…one step further towards what I am supposed to be. Thank-you so much for taking the time to put your thoughts down in words.

    • Michael, truly glad my little personal story helps. And relieved that I did decide to get my thoughts out in the open ;-)

  3. Your blog post perfectly fits the changes I am currently going through. I was triggered by a very fitting title. Currently I am discovering what I didn’t know I wanted to be.

    We didn’t meet by accident I think, we share a common goal. PSPO I and PSM I is just a start for me I think. I will have to address some personal deamons though and I still have so much to learn! I think I have to get used to go without much formal title or position. But I think it’s worth it!

    I am glad you decided to continue your blog post! Thank you for sharing! I can’t wait to hear you speak at the Scrum Day Europe :-)

    • Hans, thanks for the feedback. Honored that it might inspire people to understand an emerging career is possible, one that is discovered by accident.

  4. Deeply touched by your story, and ever so glad we found you.

    • The pleasure is totally mine, just being philosophical about Scrum all the time. Dream come true.

  5. Thank you for sharing your personal retrospective. There’re, how disconcerting, sufficient touch points with mine (if I had the focus and talent to commit to writing one) to start reflecting on where I am on the valuation triangle. And I guess, a fair number of readers of this blog will feel the same wrt. their path. We own our gratitude to Lyssa Adkins then… ;)

    • Ron, like all things: it takes time to write this. I’ve (at least mentally) taken a couple of months to get this at the level I wanted it to be.
      I sincerely hope we can make your 3rd attempt result in the same sort of valuation.

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