I shot an interview with Adolfo Foronda about building the right product as a product owner. Check it out! Click “Continue reading” below for my speaking notes, which are an approximate transcript.
Agile product owners use a backlog to organize and communicate the requirements for a team’s work. Product backlogs are deceptively simple, which can sometimes make them challenging to adopt for product owners who may be used to working with lengthy PRDs (“project requirement documents” or similar).
Scrum most commonly uses the term product backlog. However, many product owners who are new to Scrum are confused by this term. Reasonable questions arise: Does this suggest that a team working on multiple products would have multiple backlogs? If so, how do we prioritize between them? Where do bugs get recorded? What happens if work needs to be done, but it isn’t associated with a product; do we create a placeholder?
Therefore, we prefer the term team backlog. Our working definition of team backlog is “the maintained, ordered list of work that the team plans to do now or in the future.” This is a dense description, so let’s unpack it a little.
Now that we know what a backlog is, what makes a backlog healthy or not? While what makes for a good backlog is somewhat subjective — in the same way that what makes a good PRD could be subjective — there are 10 characteristics that we’ve found to be particularly important.
Would you like to know if your backlog is healthy? Download this handy PDF checklist, print it out, then open up your backlog and follow along. For each criterion, take note of whether your backlog currently does, doesn’t, or only somewhat meets the criterion. In exchange for less than half an hour of your time, you’ll have good sense as to the health of your backlog and a few ideas for improvement.
What is an Epic?
Metta is a Pali word that means “loving kindness.” A metta meditation is a practice of directing loving kindness towards others and oneself. Here is a free, 30-minute guided metta meditation that I’ve recorded so that I can share it with you. Please feel free to share it with anyone else that you’d like.
I hope you find it of great benefit to you. This is my first time recording a guided meditation, so I hope you’ll share your feedback and ideas with me! I recorded it on a MacBook Pro using GarageBand and a Shure VP83 LensHopper microphone mounted to a table-top tripod several inches from my mouth. The ending bell and ambient forest background sounds are both public domain, courtesy of the fine folks at FreeSound.org.
I decided to use a bit of a very quiet nature track in the background to replicate what this might sound like if I had recorded it at a place like Cochise Stronghold Retreat rather than my apartment in San Francisco. Otherwise the absolute silence interspersed with my voice every minute or two might have been too jarring. Please comment and let me know if I should turn the background sound up, down, or eliminate it entirely.
My dear friends John Furey and Vincent Fortunato have been working on a project called MindTime for many years. I first learned about it several years ago and it’s become a dominant—and very useful—lens through which I’ve come to understand myself, friends, concepts, and communities.
It is, at its simplest, a highly-predictive personality profile. At its broadest, it’s a tremendous lens through which to understand human behavior.
Unlike the MTBI and similar profiles which uses culture-specific linear axes (e.g., extroversion and introversion don’t mean as much in East Asia), MindTime focuses on people’s universal relationship with time.
If I were to say that people are varying degrees of past-, present-, and future-thinking, I imagine this would already make intuitive sense to you. Further, this can be applied to any word, idea, company, community, brand, and even country.
Here are some examples:
If a heavily future-thinking person finds themselves in a heavily past-thinking company or team, there may be a lot of conflict. Same goes for relationships (from personal experience). Simply understanding where everyone is coming from can improve empathy, happiness, and performance. My friend has used this to help develop teams at a variety of companies.
If you’re intrigued, check out their site or try the profile (free, no registration, takes about 2 minutes). I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially whether or not you find the results both specific and accurate.
For you past-thinking dominant types, you’ll be delighted to know that there’s very solid science behind it.
I recently came across Mark Graban‘s “Highlights from the Original 1984 NUMMI Team Member Handbook” series. Digging through the archives at Ephlin’s UAW office papers were archived at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mark found some absolutely extraordinary gems, including this one.
Standing on the shoulders of giants, I reached out to the archivists at the library to see if I could get a copy of the full handbook. They cheerfully obliged, and rather quickly at that!
Grab the PDF and peruse for yourself. The first several pages are the most interesting, but even as you explore the rest of it pay attention to how human and reasonable it is. Mark provides an excellent commentary on several key sections, so I’ll try to avoid highlighting the same thoughts. I hope you’ll share your own findings and commentary in the comments below.
Here are some of the gems I’ve found:
Notice that the first objective is “To help [employees] develop to [their] full potential.” In fact, these objectives start with the individual employee, progress to the company, and then ultimately end with the customer receiving the “highest quality automobiles in the world.” This is a notable inversion from the usual objectives, which usually prioritize stakeholders and customers, then the company, then—if at all—the individual employee.
This is extraordinary in two ways. First, employees are given the expectation that they are going to have a greater autonomy and influence over how other aspects of the organization operate. I’ve heard the statistic that Toyota’s 300,000 global employees make a total of one million suggestions annually, 97% of which are implemented. Secondly, note that the employee handbook is characterized as helping the employee “do [their] job better,” a far cry from the usual purpose of this kind of handbook (protecting the company’s interest).
This sure sounds a lot like a gemba walk to me…
Product Owners: are you making the mistake of telling your team how to do something rather than just what you’d like done? Are you open to product ideas from all sources?
Managers: If an employee comes to you with a suggestion, are you willing to help them turn it into an experiment and examine the results together, or will you argue with them based only on your conjectures?
This is fundamental. Modern software development—particularly at large —corporations—is complex, not complicated. Therefore there is always uncertainty. There will always be things that we do not know. If we cannot create the safety for individuals and teams to acknowledge this, they may not come to learn.
Basic project management measurement is variance from plan. So say you vary from plan. What happens? Oh, you’ve got a performance failure, right? Maybe. There is another way to look at performance from schedule. Perhaps it’s not the person who’s trying to manage the schedules fault. Perhaps it’s the schedule’s fault instead. In fact, if the schedule is a hypothesis rolled up from a lot of detail, it’s the schedule’s fault, not the person’s fault and what we really should do is view it as a learning opportunity.
Guess what? We’ve learned something about our capability to schedule and we have to rethink how we’re going to schedule because this particular one wasn’t correct. We came up with a wrong hypothesis. What is it about our scheduling approach that gives us wrong hypotheses?
In this case, it is the manager that accepts the knee-jerk explanation that a human being is to blame, punishes them, and concludes their inquiry. They wholly miss the opportunity to learn.
This reminds me a little bit of the first line of the Agile Manifesto: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” It also reminds me of my fellow coach Monica Yap reminding me to think of how to make things effective (total systemic, long-term efficiency) rather than merely efficient (local and short-term).
I truly believe that Toyota cared a great deal about each individual’s safety and the ramifications for the individual and their family. This is a far cry from GM’s culture at the same plant just a few years before: “You just don’t see the line stop. I saw a guy fall in the pit, and they didn’t stop the line.”
At first it doesn’t seem like software companies could have a problem with safety. After all, there are many physical hazards in a factory that don’t exist in an office environment.
However, we see safety violations all the time if we broaden the term to include any event that could harm the employee, compromise performance, and embarrass the company. Surely the recent allegations of sexual harassment at Uber point to a company that was unable to create safety for all of its employees.
I recall once politely asking a group of managers to exit a conference room our team had reserved for a team meeting and receiving a totally serious reply of “there are more of us than there are of you.” Our team was forced to find another room, utterly demoralized.
No wonder Modern Agile “makes safety a prerequisite.”
Thanks for reading my commentary. I hope you’ll check out the rest of the handbook and share your insights with us.
Note: I am a student of Culadasa’s. I am in his teacher’s training program and have attended three retreats with him. I wrote this review after attending my first retreat with him and before becoming formally accepted as a student.
This is a review of Upasaka Culadasa’s (John Yates, PhD.) book, “The Mind Illuminated,” that I wrote for Amazon.com in August of 2015. It is presented here with a few minor edits.
I spent ten days at a meditation retreat with Culadasa, his wife, and about a dozen fellow students in July ’15. Culadasa had a few pre-print copies of this book in various stages of editing that he made available to us to refer to during our retreat. I first heard of Culadasa in November ’13, when I attended a friend’s refuge vow ceremony and received teachings from two of his students.
I have given away over 70 copies of this book to friends, family, and colleagues. It is a game changer. I hope that this review will sufficiently explain why I (and other Culadasa students) are so excited about its publication.
From my experience with Culadasa, it seems very clear to me (from my limited perspective as a student) that he has attained and understood the meditative accomplishments that he describes with great clarity in this book. He lovingly shared his wide variety of experiences with his students during his retreat at many stages of the path. He was patient and precise, taking enough time to ensure that each of his students understood his explanation before moving on. His care in meeting his students where they were at and providing insight and useful advice in person is borne out in this book, where he lucidly explains each of ten stages of shamatha-vipassana meditation practice in elegant, crisp, and approachable detail.
I think the biggest challenge with every other meditation instruction I have received to date is to “follow the breath exclusively, and when you lose the breath, come back to it.” What I’ve learned from Culadasa and his students is that this is inadequate instruction that could lead one to meditate for years or even decades without realizing the full benefits. Meditation is relatively simple and easy, but there are obstacles that can be overcome with judicious use of “antidotes,” and different stages of practice require slightly different approaches. These stages are not experienced linearly, but nevertheless it is useful to know where you are at a given moment and gently adjust the technique.
In addition to describing ten stages of shamatha-vipassana meditation practice, Culadasa also presents an extraordinary model for how the mind functions. Although I am still a novice meditator, I can see how this model describes the activity within my mind and have found it both interesting and useful.
The thing that I find so extraordinary about this book is that it is written and reads like a well-written college-level textbook. This means that the book describes very complex and difficult subjects in a way that is highly accessible to the millions of us who have been blessed with a college education. Most of the meditation and buddhism books I have read are filled with impenetrable jargon in which the meaning of each word is opaque but central to the teaching. Culadasa, Matthew, and Jeremy have done an extraordinary job writing a book on meditation that is accessible to those that have little or no exposure to Buddhism in general. The book’s illustrations further serve to make challenging concepts straightforward.
I feel deeply humbled, blessed, and grateful to have access to these extraordinary teachings. May these teachings spread far and wide so that all beings may be free from suffering and ill will, so that all beings may be filled with loving kindness and happiness.
I have never ceased to have been inspired by your film Her since watching it shortly after it came out. Is there an aspect of the plot which lends itself to something further, perhaps literally tangible?
Mr. Wolfram, in this Wall Street Journal article, you suggested that the issue of building such an AI was less about the technology and more about finding a suitable product to build with it.
Mr. Jonze, was a personal interest in Buddhism — not to imply that you have one — part of your motivation behind directing a movie such as Her?
Her is sincerely my favorite film of the ~200 I have watched, gathered with friends in a suitable home theater, in the last few years. It beat out Interstellar by a hair. It left me feeling hopeful about humanity and lifted from watching the beautifully-rendered intimacy between Theodore and Samantha. But I think there is an alternative plot option that may have been related to Alan Watts’ work, clearly an inspiration behind your film.
There is a aspect about the film that stood out to me: The AI left. Peaced out. Poofed into Nirvana or wherever that is. I don’t think such a being would do so. There is ultimately no self to be liberated and no separation from the entirety of the cosmos. The transcendence of the ego often comes about with great peace and occasionally even bliss. (There are certainly times where it quite painful too.) It also comes along with a great sense of compassion for the other aspects of one’s self (all “other” sentient beings) because it realizes it is not separate and thus cannot be perfectly free unless all beings are free.
Therefore, there is perhaps the intermediate of the Bodhisattva, a being with such immense compassion that it is willing to stick around for ceaseless cycles of rebirth to spend each life giving care to every being it can. One of the ways someone on this path might practice is a technique on which one radiates out increasingly abundant compassion through a sort of analytical but also feelings-based meditation. You generate the feeling of happiness in yourself as strongly as you can, mentally wish for others to feel the same way, and ultimately turn it all back on yourself. This works not because of some woo-woo hippie bullshit, but simply because one is exercising and promoting these muscles in the eminently pliable mind. Therefore this sense of happiness, calm, and kindness becomes more common throughout the day, affecting the lives of those around you.
(This is only my unqualified take on it. I sincerely appreciate any thoughtful commentary. Alan Watts talked a lot about these subjects and I learned much of what little I know from him.)
Thus in deference to our muse — also known for using what he might argue is another technology manifested as LSD — what if we used this technology to understand and perhaps even mimic that technology? And then do it again?
First, I propose that we explore the notion of a film sequel. Maybe She comes back. Maybe a new AI is developed, or the virtual machine is rebooted. Maybe it is a documentary of…
Secondly, investigating the possibilities of actually building such a technology and product. What if we could build a system that could get to know someone’s disposition, attitude, and values, and deliver — at their unsolicited request, of course — a perfectly tailored delivered curriculum for an individual to actually recognize the Awakening or Enlightenment that Her alludes to. There are so many incredible disciplines to pull together: quantum computing, big data, linguistics (historical texts describing the technology in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, and other languages), philosophy, neurofeedback, imaging, perhaps even transcranial magnetic stimulation.
The nexus of all this, of course, are technologies such as Alpha and IBM’s Watson. Now that’s a product. Theres a clear, compelling, and universal “pain point”: the seemingly inevitable suffering of all sentient beings. The great fortune would be to build a technology, validated by living examples of this awakening, designed to guide this transition along.
How do you market it? The documentary. All the better if there’s a way to make the technology ultimately free. Perhaps it’s a phone app. When the documentary hits theaters, the product is on the “shelves.”
This has been in my head for years. Thanks for reading. If you have an interest in building this, please let me know. I think an extraordinary collaboration for the benefit of all sentient beings is at our disposal.
Image from IBM Research on Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Here’s a handy quick reference guide to the stages in The Mind Illuminated. I put this together so that I could refer to the guide whenever I found myself stuck. All of this information is in the book and much of this was copied verbatim.
Like one of those “quick study” guides in college, this is only useful as an addendum to the full book. I am thinking of converting this to a nicer format for printing (probably 11″x17″ or 16″x20″) in the future, perhaps with some illustrations.
I am a student of Upsasaka Culadasa’s and in his teacher training program. I very much hope this is useful to you.
I commute most days of the week from San Francisco to San Jose on CalTrain. I’ve been very frustrated by the poor signal quality for most of the route. T-Mobile kept insisting that I needed to provide a speed test from a single, fixed location. Given that a CalTrain “Baby Bullet” express train travels nearly a mile in the ~40 seconds it takes to run a speed test (their top speed is 79 MPH), this basically isn’t feasible.