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Taking Agile Personally

How I used Agile for my photography business

11 July 2017

Thomas DuVal
Capital One

Let me tell you a little about myself to give some context. My name is Thomas DuVal, and I am a ScrumMaster with Capital One. I have worked with Capital One for 11 years, of which most were spent on the banking side: NDB and Capital One 360 — first at the Call Center, then with the QA testing team. When I was first testing the main banking application in 2010, Capital One had both feet firmly planted in the Waterfall software delivery world, with large business requirement documents, countless calls and meetings, arduous timelines, and numerous handoffs with a finished product that hopefully resembled what the customer initially asked for and still wanted. You never were certain, because it had been a year and a half since the customer initially requested the product.

But this was all I knew. I thought this was the best and most efficient way to do what we needed to do: deliver relevant, working software that fit the customer’s need. That is, until I was introduced to Agile in 2012, when Capital One was bitten by the Agile bug.

It was weird. It was alien. I didn’t like it. It was something new that I had to learn and add to my work repertoire. It might’ve been me, but I didn’t feel this was being presented as, "We’re changing how we do everything." I went through SAFe training and learned the ins and outs of the Agile terminology and was immediately inducted into an Agile Team, or what I thought at the time was an Agile Team. Coming from a Waterfall world, you learn fast that the two don’t mix very well. It’s like oil and water. Water is good to drink, but even a little bit of oil turns the water into oil-flavored water. It dilutes the whole process if you don’t approach it correctly.

When Capital One bought ING and formed Capital One 360 in 2014, I was plunged headfirst into Agile waters. This was learning by immersion. As a tester, I was placed alongside associates who had worked with ING previously and were entrenched in truly Agile practices but were now with Capital One. One of the biggest reasons Capital One bought ING was their efficiency and their Agile system. They were legitimately Agile, and you could tell by the speed and efficiency with which they released software and were able to adapt to change. I credit this timeframe (early 2014–December 2015) with changing the way I viewed Agile. I got it.

I finally understood the process, and I understood what type of change this meant and could bring to an organization or product if truly embraced completely, without apology. I witnessed the correct relationship among a ScrumMaster, product owner, and their team, and I saw legitimate collaboration across all levels of the business and across teams. I saw the lowering of egos and the formation of true partnerships for the betterment of the product and business. It was a truly eye-opening, career-defining moment for me. I knew I wanted to pursue Agile full time.

Since then, I’ve received my Certified Scrum Master®, Certified Scrum Product Owner®, and Professional Scrum Master level I certifications and have recently submitted my application for the Certified Scrum Professional® certification. My ultimate goal is to become an Agile coach for organizations and individuals who want to revolutionize the way they approach work.

A business is born

My wife and I started a family photography business at the beginning of this year. I know what you’re thinking: "Anyone with a camera and a couple of bucks could start a photography business." You’re absolutely, 100% correct. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. It also doesn’t guarantee success — but I digress.

At the foot of our bed, on our bedroom wall, is a secured 3-foot by 4-foot whiteboard with our business goals for the immediate and near future. Some of them are rather detailed, but most are pie-in-the-sky goals and quite nebulous. The bottom line is that we were losing momentum and not sure where to go. The overwhelming sense of infinite competition and endless tasks and to-do’s filled our lives and minds so much so that we were paralyzed from taking action. There were so many things we could do that we had no idea what we should do. Take out a loan to get more equipment? Advertise on Craigslist and risk getting less income? Keep blasting our photos on social media? Create a website and, if so, do we need a blog? Are people really interested in our pictures? Are we good enough? And what about pricing? In addition, two of our cousins started a photography business at the same time. I mean, really?

It was overwhelming. Needless to say, the conversations between us were endless. Something had to change. Then, the tiniest of light bulbs went off in my brain. I had spoken with my wife multiple times about this thing at work called Agile, how much it had revolutionized our work environment at Capital One, and how we approached software development. I wondered, why not try to use Scrum/Agile to plan our business? With two wedding photography gigs in back-to-back weekends coming up and a website in development, now was absolutely the best time to lay out our business on sticky notes and sprint plan for our future.

So, off we went. Here is how we approached it.

Agile as part of our business strategy

  1. Program increment planning. This was ground zero. This was where the rubber met the road. Like all good program increment (PI) plannings, I brought refreshments in the form of a six-pack. My wife and I both cracked open a cold one, and I, more quickly than I would have liked, explained the entire Scrum process to my wife as best I could from memory. We used blue painter's tape to tape off a five-sprint PI (with each sprint lasting two weeks) on the kitchen wall. I went over terms, such as epics, sprints, and retrospectives, to my wife while trying to adequately explain away the confused look on her face. As time went on that night the confusion lifted and clarity set in. Success!
  2. Epic creation. We created our photography business epics. These were loose epics but still gave the general idea of something big being accomplished within our business over the period of a PI. I placed the epics up on a different wall, using different colors of sticky notes for each epic. We were starting to have fun and were already seeing the benefit of finding out things we’d missed before. We were engaged in discovering new ways to work on our business!
  3. Grooming. We groomed out our epics and created stories that could be completed in one sprint. We used the same colored sticky notes as we had for the specific epics, and placed stories underneath their assigned epic. This was our backlog. It was finally, visually, coming to life.
  4. Sprint planning. Based on the stories we had created, we decided on what we wanted to pull into the first sprint. We picked a handful of stories (we had not started to point stories and hadn’t established a velocity at that point) and placed the sticky notes underneath the first sprint. We also groomed out the second sprint, and placed a handful of stories in Sprints 3, 4, and 5. This was all starting to look very familiar and colorful. We pulled in more than we were comfortable with, but ultimately we completed everything we pulled in, plus a couple of additional ones pulled from the next sprint.

What we learned

We realized that we thrive in an Agile-type environment and decided to keep doing this. The second sprint has been just as successful as the first, as we’ve completed almost the same amount of work. I sense us giving ourselves a little cushion and not being as productive as we could be, so we might reorganize Sprint 3 and try to approach it with a bit more tenacity.

I learned that my wife likes to hold me accountable for work I have in progress, and that we work amazingly well as a team when our goals are transparent. I plan on continuing this Agile project with my wife, as long as it’s working for us, and introducing Agile more effectively. I learned that Agile is not just something you do at work. It can be applied to almost anything if you try hard enough and make large and complex tasks manageable. This entire process and the learning we’ve accrued have made me an even more devout Agile spokesperson. I challenge you to find something in your personal life that you can apply the Agile principle to. Whether it’s that bench you’ve been meaning to build or the landscaping project you’ve had in mind, or even the family vacation you’ve been meaning to plan for years, just try it. Watch how efficient Agile makes your life and how great you feel when you accomplish something huge. Cheers to Agile!

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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