Latte Art and the Art of the Agile Team

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These past eight months I’’ve spent working at Tasktop, I’’ve picked up some truly interesting and marketable skills. Among the expected skills for a Quality Assurance Engineer (attention to detail, ability to assess large swaths of code for functionality, critical thinking for creating tests, communication skills) one of the skills my colleagues point out is the fine art of the espresso machine.

I joke that it’s the most marketable skill I’’ve picked up at Tasktop. But as I sip my attempt at a cappuccino, I’’ve noticed some interesting parallels between the process of making pretty lattes and becoming an engaged member of an Agile team. In truth, the most marketable skill I’’ve learned from Tasktop is flexibility and Agile practice. So how do you go from never having brewed the Agile espresso to a latte-sipping member of an effective Agile team?

The initial start is someone teaching you to use the espresso machine; or a company taking you on to their team. Just like the Agile manifesto, it’s simple to explain but astounding in its subtlety. And just as no two people want their lattes brewed the same, no two companies should do Agile the same.

That segues nicely into the second stage: find a mentor. In keeping with the latte metaphor, it was Tasktop’s VP of Architecture, David Green, who taught me how to foam the milk correctly to make art. Finding a mentor on your team can accelerate learning what Agile means for your company. Though everyone comes in from different software backgrounds, some with breathtakingly effective Agile and others with patchwork knots of Waterfall/Agile/DevOps, it’s essential to assess the organization’s personal dynamic before starting to enact changes. This means a lot of listening, research, and learning. Eventually, you will come to the point where you feel like you’re part of the team, or at least the espresso machine seems a little more manageable.

From there, the only thing for it is to jump in with both feet. Make it with too much milk, or too little. Fail to froth the milk. Make a terrible latte. Make any latte at all. We have a word for the kind of person willing to jump in and get their hands dirty at Tasktop, coined by our President, Neelan Choksi, as “scrappy”. For software developers, it usually refers to a willingness to jump in and lend a hand if the going gets tough. For enacting Agile, I like to think this means getting involved at all levels to make the team more effective, no matter which part of the delivery train you’re a part of. 

Observe problems, suggest practice, enact practice, reflect, and iterate on these steps. For aspiring baristas this means making a lot of different lattes, with different patterns in mind, and an eye towards what it means to make a successful latte. It’s very similar for an Agile team member, but it also includes an essential element of communication. It means being a spokesperson for the software components that you are a stakeholder in, while still being mindful of the needs of other stakeholders. And most importantly, it means making these changes gradually, with each day’s work building on the successes and failures of the one before. Recently Nicole Bryan, our VP of Product Management put forth an excellent post on Decorating Agile— adding in the little pieces that make it that much more effective. It’s that attention to continuous, incremental improvement that transitions a team from going through the motions of Agile to being Agile. And that starts with every individual contributing to the conversation.

At the end of the day, the most valuable thing I’ve learned from working at Tasktop is that Agile teams consist of Agile people—people who buy into creating software, and create it more effectively. As I return to university, and the intersection of software, Physics, and Mathematics, I intend to be scrappy, find a mentor, be part of a team, and continuously integrate and deploy improvement into my life. And after fine-tuning, maybe enjoy a homemade latte.