From boats to Agile

By Joe in Agile Other on January 23, 2013

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I came back and decided to live in Wellington and Agile was why.

That doesn’t mean anything to you, but to me it is everything. In May 2012 I had quit my job as a Drupal developer and left Wellington, NZ to work as a First Mate on a large motor-yacht in the Mediterranean. It was to be the dream job that would get me back into an industry I had left for a relationship in New Zealand that had not worked out.

I liked yachting because I liked working in teams. It was empowering to be a part of an organization where teamwork could mean the difference between life and death or a couple million dollars.

Unfortunately, the summer that should have been amazing, turned out to be a great disappointment. Some of it had to do with systemic structures; the Captain favoring the Bosun (the deck leader directly under my charge) and hiring a temp First Mate (me) until the Bosun could acquire the proper certificates. Others were a failure on my part to properly address the issues as they came up in a transparent manner.

Despite this, we made it through the summer with happy guests, an uninjured crew and a ship ready for a scheduled yard period and another season. The failures I count were basically in terms of my team’s relationships to each other and myself.

There is a high emphasis on “command and control” in the yachting industry. On the best teams I’ve worked with, this means delegation and communication. Work is trusted down to trained teams and communication is always open. Problems are solved together, attitudes recognized in the open and solutions discussed in collaboration. The best deck teams would allow me to focus on safety, provisioning, scheduling, navigation and all of the other duties that a First Mate is often expected to be responsible for. If deck work slowed or the Bosun could be spared, he/she would be invited to participate in the next level of work on the boat, so the ship was in a constant state of sharing and learning.

On this vessel responsibilities were cordoned off. The Captain did not share bridge duties with the First Mate. The Bosun, with two years of experience on the ship, was expected to run the deck and the deckhands were expected to take orders. This left me in a position of authority, yet no actual job. I focused on a safety program, but the Bosun refused my suggestions for daily use and the Captain did not back me.

It soon became clear that any programs I put into place would be dropped as soon as I left. The crew was “putting up” with my presence for the summer. Tensions rose and eventually I saw the situation for what it was. I unofficially (and voluntarily) stepped down as First Mate and helped out in the capacity of deckhand, under the Bosun, to finish the season. It wasn’t something that I felt great about. It was ego crushing, but the good of the crew was more important than my self image.

The Captain had worked his way from 16 meter boats to 53 meter over the course of twenty-five years. He had been a captain all the way through. A capable and kind man, but I found he lacked a practical empathy for those who worked for him. He maintained a system that lead to a high turnover in crew and left him with a holiday every five years.

So the summer ended and I returned to Wellington. I had heard about Boost through a friend and sent in my CV as a Drupal developer. After a few interviews the owner, Nathan, asked me if I would consider being an Agile Coach. Not fully understanding what that meant I asked him to elaborate. I felt it was perfect for me.

So now I’ve started this Agile journey. At Boost my days are filled with daily stand-ups, retrospectives, inspiration games, and heaps of reading. There is lots of sharing and encouragement and while I am still brand new to Agile I’ve come to appreciate it’s power. Boost is the living example of self regulating teams. Agile has set the expectations high in the areas that matter most to people; achieving excellence through being human.

On boats, it’s easy to think people are waiting to be engaged like the propellers or engines you use daily. In a software company it is equally easy to wish people worked under the same logical algorithms you use to develop your software. Rather than trying to trick people into working like machines, Agile demands that individuals be taken into consideration first and that the product is the team.

I never could have guessed it was going to be a philosophy that would get me to stay in Wellington. But then again, I didn’t know about Agile before I came back.