How does a former musician build a successful business in the agile space? DevJam leads the way with David Hussman

In this interview you will learn:

– How a musician pivoted to start a successful agile startup

– Some ideas on career path for SCRUM Masters

– Dude’s law on how to get more value

DevJam’s new studio in Minneapolis, from the outside it looks like cool coffee shop, but step inside and you will find programmers and David developing great software using the principles of agile.

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Interview transcript:

So welcome to the Future of Project Management, this is Samir Penkar and I’m here with “the Dude” as they call him. From DeFJam and we are in a great facility here, it’s, I don’t know, it’s a coffee shop probably and there’s a ping pong table here.

It was a coffee shop, and now it’s called DevJam Studios.

Now it’s called DevJam Studio, great. And in this call we’re going to talk to David Hussman about Agile, project management and a lot of cool stuff. So, thank you for doing this.

My pleasure.

So, David, do you want to start off with telling us a story about someone who brought very great value out of, adopting Agile practices.

And, that’s a good frame, because they’re a lot of people who want to talk about how much their doing Agile and how much they’re doing Scrum, and it’s the wrong measure all together. I guess, there’s a company just in Minneapolis, there’s a lot of examples that I think are good. But there’s a company in Minneapolis out here and they do hardware, firmware, and software. So they have some of the hardest constraints. And I think they’ve done an excellent job, in that they stopped, very much, to understand what problem they were solving. So instead of saying “We need a new methodology,” they’re kind of first principle thinkers, they were saying, “We have some challenges and, we have some opportunities.” Because that’s the other thing, a lot of people talk about process and Agile is just the latest process.


And they talk about it as if it’s going to solve their problems. Well, but no, they don’t think about, “Well maybe if we just augment our opportunities our problems will be diminished.” Which is what people do when they’re trained to do work with like developing nations, is you can’t just throw more money at it, sometimes you have to figure out what works well.

So that’s what this company did. We went in, and we tried to kind of understand their culture and their challenges and their opportunities, and then we framed a set of practices that spoke to those.

So the goal was never really “To do” Agile. That’s the saying they’re on about. The goal was to be successful.

I also think their company is a really strong understanding of values matter. And it doesn’t mean that everyone at their company, that it’s like this magic place and they all just love each other, and they get along.

They have challenges, just like every family has challenges. But they’ve done a really nice job applying those. Applying Agile methods as ways to promote the right values. Instead of saying, “You have to have these values, these Agile values,” I kind of, I get that discussion. I guess another dimension of what I think they did really well is they use their data to answer questions instead of as a punitive measure. There’s all these people out there that are saying “Oh the burn down chart doesn’t look good.” Well, Ok. That’s the easy part. So what are you going to do about it? So I’ve watched people, in fact I just made a joke the other day, we made these cards for this conference we’re going to and one of them says “Fred Brooks was right.” Yes, the guy who wrote “The Mythical Man Month.”

Because I watched people look at burn-up or burn-down charts, and then they say, “well things are going well, but if we added four more people…” and I’m just shocked. These guys, they’re the opposite, they kind of say “If this data isn’t telling us the story we want to, then what is at the source of the problem?” And they looked at that a lot, and I think that’s pretty common to a lot of the places where I think people are successful. I think the third component is because they’re more of an engineering firm, it wasn’t hard to sell them on root-cause analysis. Figure out what the problem is, whether it’s in the environments, or the data, or the code, or the build, or the deploy, and automate the things you can.

Because you can’t automate happiness. You can’t automate good product road maps, but you can automate builds and tests and deploys.

Yep. So like, maybe this was a project, but specifically did they get a better product out of it? Did they do it faster? What would we say the outcome was?

Well there’s another big story there. They got this project funded through their board of directors. So for them, for this company it was a large project, it was about $5 million. And it was a middle ware project.

So those are, I would say, having one of those be successful is a big win.

They have a bunch of devices down here, and they have a bunch of applications up here and what they did strategically was say “Let’s not just build the magic solution, let’s pick two opportunities of applications and devices, let’s connect those through that.” And I think yes, they built it faster and cheaper. But I think also, and this is hard to calculate, is the both the opportunities savings and the train wrecks averted, are hard to say “well, how much do we save by not waiting?” But I’m sure they did.

Correct. You know, I mean Agile practices, in practice, in fact, it’s sort of fashionable these days to talk about Agile. But you know, the audience here, most of them are project managers, program mangers, and managers of project managers.

I like how you just differentiated that, because I’m amazed at how many people don’t get that, you know, the way you just phrased it, is a program is composed of projects. And I think many people only live their life in project land, they don’t get that, at even medium sized companies, there’s rarely six things that are completely discrete from each other. And if you can’t answer how you’re doing across teams, across time, across features, you’re not adding the big value.

But one of the questions I get asked a lot is, with this advent of sort of Agile. What is the career path for a, let’s say a Scrum master or a project manager, it’s becoming hard nowadays for, anyway it was hard for project managers to sort of look at their career path. It’s becoming more fuzzy and muddier now. So what do you think is the career path for someone like, maybe a Scrum master take?

I think there’s a little frame to put around that question. Part of that frame is that the structures that we’ve used for a long time work well because of the rate of delivery. We did, in the amount of dynamism that existed. So, I think what’s changed is that we’re forced to change more often. Adapt to the market.

And so having a structure of a centurion and a hundred soldiers doesn’t really work that well any more. And that’s a tragically apt metaphor, analogy, because I think that we’re moving towards a more dynamic model. Moving towards a space where this idea of a coach and a team is more appropriate than a manger and a bunch of workers. And that manager-worker model is a little bit industrial. And I’m not saying this to upset any of your audience at all.

I think that, you know, project management as it has been is really going to go, is going through an upheaval. It’s kind of one of the, like, death-ops. It’s a little bit last in the line to start because effected by this Agile wave. So, going back to your first question it was interesting to me that you kind of put project manager and Scrum master kind of together. So I think that, yeah, there is some real good and some real bad that’s happening there. And there are some people that, and again I’m not trying to offend your audience, because there’s troublesome people in every, in every service.

Yeah, so this is not a bag on project managers. But people that are project managers that aren’t connected to teams, that don’t understand how to solve problems, that aren’t really trying to focus on delivery, are going to be bad project managers that will become bad Scrum masters. In fact, one of my friends jokingly said “Where there’s Scrum masters there’s Scrum slaves.” Which is harsh.

But that’s true in a lot of situations. So I think that career path is going to change as the structure of organizations changes. And some organizations won’t change. They’ll continue with their model.And Scrum masters won’t even be in the HR hierarchy.

So they’re going to have project managers and tech leads, and the tech leads will go up through this engineering stack and the project managers will go up through this management stack and somewhere along the way they’ll be Scrum master.

Other companies, I think, are going to morph their models. So, like I have a friend who has a company, and they don’t have an idea of business analysts anymore, they’re business anthropologists because they figure out, they understand that it’s not just analyzing the problem; it’s understanding the problem in the context. And, the company has a different structure, and in their world, the idea of a coach slash scrum master is up the chain of leadership.

But it’s not, it’s not a traditional model of managing where you’re gathering numbers and reporting up the chain.So it’s, I think both are, have a healthy evolution towards leadership. And do go back, and I’m not trying to like, just, make your audience like me, I think there have been very good managers out there for a long time that have been trying to foster what is now called Agile. Let’s produce real evidence, let’s learn in small increments.

Let’s be able to use what we’re learning to move forward and learn in the future.

Yeah, I think the coach and team, that’s a good analogy. That’s a great analogy.

So that’s not, I didn’t make that, that analogy came from the idea of extreme programming. Which, I think that analogy is just easier for people to understand, because I go in tons of companies and someone says “I’m the Scrum master.” And I say, “What does that mean?” [Laughter]. And by and large, people don’t give me a good answer.

And when they do, often times it’s “I’m in charge of SCRUM.” And I’m like, oh, now we’re back into the space of, again, the challenge is, is often times when a PMO comes in and mandates a process, people don’t follow the process, because the people that are defining the process aren’t connected to the delivery.

Whereas some of the PMOs I’ve worked with have looked at Agile methods and said, “well what are we trying to accomplish as a PMO? As a PMO we’re trying to avert chaos. We want to make sure that we’re informed. We want to have real evidence of how we’re doing.” And if you explain to that group of people, well one of the difference in the Agile space is that instead of, you know, traditional earned value where you’re 60% done of 100%, we are now 100% done with 10%.

If you look at softer development as an investment, you can say “We’ve invested 10%, here’s what we’ve got. Should we invest another time and 10%?”

And that’s a big difference, because, on the technology level now we can build things incrementally. We don’t have to have a two year window that’s funded for $5 million.

But, you know, what I often see happening is, you spoke about a PMO, if the PMO sometimes come in and they kind of take this sort of Agile into their process model. Say, this is the gain, and these are the things that we have to go through. And very soon it sort of because another process and governance structure. You know, laid upon the people to follow. I mean, that’s, that’s hard. It loses the essence of what you wanted to achieve. In a sense.

It does in some ways, but I also think, because I’ve watched a lot of Agile people complain about that, and, as if oh, it’s going to go away if they complain about it. It’s not going to, so you have to kind of figure out what’s the root there, and I think, like one of the books that I talk about a lot, that I really love, is written by a surgeon from New York, or Boston, called “The Checklist Manifesto.” He actually wrote, recently, some articles about coaching, Atul, I can’t remember his last name, if you, “The Checklist Manifesto” was a big seller.

So what’s really brilliant about it is it is a governance model. He’s a surgeon. So you’ve got to have..

You can’t just go ahead and say “hey, what do you think we should do?” And at the same time, what’s interesting, kind of like, in a weird way the military world. While they have a lot of procedures and expertise in surgery, things go wrong.

So his book is kind of a gating discussion, but his gates are not “Do this, and you pass this gate,” his gate is, “When you’ve accomplished this..

You’re ready to move on.”

Which I think is a nice shift. Like, let’s say, in the Agile space, tons of people, I’ll say to them, “How do you know when you’re ready to start iterating?” And the truthful answer is, “it’s Monday.” Because it’s Monday, I guess that kind of forces the issue, but maybe the next higher order thinking there is, well, it’s because we’ve formed enough of an idea that we should go build it and validate it.

Correct. Yeah. You know, you were a musician before you started doing this, so, so how did you make the transition? How did that happen?

Well, you can only make $75 a week for so long in Minnesota. Yeah. So I was a musician, well, I started out my career in like, this two year school where I fixed computers early on when there was only 16 pins on a microprocessor.


So I had to learn computing from the inside out,

You know, all the buffers and registers and then the layout of the board of how data moves through computing, and so I think that’s really advantageous for me because it’s signal flow and flow, and that kind of register and buffering is fundamental, all computing is built on top of that. I did that for a while, and I just, desperately at that time in my life wanted to be Jimmy Hendrix or Ted Nugent or someone, so, I went, was a musician for a while. But then I, that kind of grew weary, and the band I was in was real famous and we had a record deal and blah blah blah, but then I built a little recording studio, and that’s kind of what I most in love with, because I got to help people produce.

I did that for a long time and then I actually tragically had a really serious hearing problem, and so I went back to university and I thought, wow, get a programming job, I can write accounting software, and when this Agile thing came along it just really fit with how I used to produce music. And that’s what we’re trying to do here at DevJam Studios is I want to set up an ecosystem for people to produce software. Working on a project is just a means to an end, it’s not an end unto itself. And there’s a lot of parallels between music and computing. I mean, you look at a piece of code,

And you look at a piece of sheet music, and very, very few people, especially if it’s a big piece of music like an orchestra piece, can say, “that’s going to sound good.:\”


You know that.

So you know, that song, you know what you think of the song when you hear it.

And the average person knows what they think of the software when they experience it. And that’s got the heart, what I care about in this Agile space is, let’s produce usable things sooner so we can validate it in our market.

And I think that sells to both the people building it and the people funding it.

It’s so interesting you talk about music; you know I’m from India. And the Indian classical music, which is very different from the written music which is classical in Western, in Indian music it’s just the, you know, it’s a little bit the same, if you look the notes, there is no way for you to understand how that song is going to render. There is just no way.

Well sitar and tablas are passed down from master to student,

And so, that’s, see, that’s more of a model I think we should go towards, is we need to blend, kind of like, you know, art and engineering. I mean, the aerospace industry kind of blended art and engineering in the beginning. And at one time in history, in the western world, you know, alchemy, and, or astronomy and astrology weren’t torn apart.

And alchemy, while, you know, Merlin trying to turn rocks into wool, you know, chemistry kind of came out of that.

So, that’s a little bit hippie, but I think that we need to, if you don’t, if that art and engineering metaphor bothers you, then we could say, you know, humanity and engineering, because we’ve been trying to that with like, human interfaces.

We started plugging those two together and I think we’ll be able to make incrementally better investments than the software we’re building, instead of just focusing on, did we get it built.That’s a pretty tragic metaphor, that’s like surgeons’ assessing the operation is successful because someone didn’t die, and if you’re getting the surgery, that was success.Oh my god, I opened this person up.I stitched up their lung.I put them back together, and they didn’t die.Never mind the fact that their lung still doesn’t work, but yes they didn’t die. We need to go beyond that.

You had a quote that you ended up quoting.If someone wants to sort of look at that as something they want to develop in themselves.What advice would you give them?Where do you start?

I think there’s a lot of people out there that are already coaches.The project managers I mentioned before.The ones that are invested in delivery, and trying to understand what the problems are, and then figure out what they can do, or who they can challenge.It’s not just solving problems for people.That’s some of the SCRUMlanguage that really bothers me.That the SCRUM Master protects the team.That feels really broken in a lot of ways.I get the idea is not to just to have people doing drive-by’s where they’re in it as long as the team is responsible.If the team is irresponsible, that’s part of tough leadership, asking people to step up and take ownership, and not just be a programming victim.

There’s also a lot of tech leads and engineers that I meet, that say, well I don’t do any real work anymore.That’s a tale that usually means that person has had to figure out how to solve problems outside of the programming space.So I think one advice for people would be, how broad is your skill set, because if all you have is very traditional management skill set, you’re going to really be in for some challenges when it comes to coaching. Because we, in most cases are producing software;there’s an engineering discipline too that a programming, whatever word you want use.

The group of people producing the software are calling themselves the makers lately.I like that term, because it’s the testers and the tech writers and the developers, and I think the traditional manager might not view themselves as part of that group.I think you have to be ready to immerse yourself.That’s why coaches is a challenging metaphor, because when the game is playing you’re not playing, you’re watching.You only get to interrupt the game, especially in fluid games like soccer.You don’t get to interrupt basketball, hockey, those games go and the coach has to be able to say, I hope I gave these people the right challenges and the right skills, because they are going to play the game.

Maybe wait for the break and then give them some advice.

Yes, and the thread there again is the dynamic activity.

The coach metaphor is very good.Now I’m a runner, but if the running coach is not a runner,I don’t think I would take their advice.How did you get your first client at DevJam?

WellDevJam really isn’t fair, because I started two companies beforeDevJam that went for a while.How I got my first company, or client, any client or clients in that agile space?

Probably agile.

That’s probably a more appropriate story.So was working on this project, and I was the tech lead.I was one of the people I was just describing.I found myself getting further and further away from the code, and because we were struggling and I was like, what is the problem.I had four people working with me that were very skilled, and very passionate, and we were trying to do the process, and trying to use the use cases.The use cases were written by this brilliant woman, but they were just quite frankly, too big.So we were doing a bad job decomposing them into small work units, and I stumble on Ken Becks first white paper on extreme programming.Which I don’t even think it was even called that then.

It was written I think when he and Ward Cunningham and a few people were working at a company called Techtronics, trying to solve problems.They started fostering this notion of, let’s have a dialogue, let’s work on these narratives.We’re going to call them stories, let’s meet everyday, and that resonated with how I cut my teeth, like a small child. I’m from western Minnesota.So I started doing that and my team was successful and people started coming to us and saying, what are you guys doing.Then I started becoming part of this internal group at that company.When I left that company, I had already a lot of requests for people who that heard about what we were doing, and that’s probably pretty close to whatDevJam does.We’re sort of tragic marketers, so we get most of our work based on word of mouth.Which I like, because experience is the best sales tool.Success and experience I would say.

Apart fromDevJam, what are your hobbies and interests? Do you still do music?

I do.I have a 19 year old daughter, and a 9 year old daughter, both who play cello.My 19 year old daughter, when she was somewhere in her early teens, I put a pickup on her cello and she and I played music together, and she loves music now.I think it’s because she loves music, she has a lot of music in her life, but a little bit of it is because I played music with her.I play music with my youngest daughter right now, so we have a lot of instruments around the house, they’re all over the place.

My hobbies, I still absolutely love music.Like one of the things we’re going to do atDevJam here is, one of the other coaches has a friend that teaches African drumming, which is a real communal event.Like Tabla music, it’s not a western thing that’s setup in structures of three’s and four’s, it’s an interesting subdivision.The essence of the music is a cadence.You have to throw out your one-two-three-four, and you kind of have to establish this cadence, and it’s really different.It’ll probably be really hard for me.So I love those kinds of things.

I’m a big film person.I love reading, and especially read, most of the things I read, don’t have anything to do with software.This goes back to your coaching questions, and somebody might say.Well how do you learn about being a better leader when you read about great people in history?You read about people who have been thinking about these concepts for a long time.So books that I’ve read in the last four of five years that I really like were Freakenomics, The Check List Manifesto,The Black Swan, whose author is a philosopher, because I think they’re all a meta dialogue about humanity.The Check List Manifesto really blends that stuff together; it’s a scary book if you’re going to go into the hospital.

So if you would leave the audience with one last thing, what would that be?

Jokingly a few years ago I was starting to get a little bit frustrated because I watched a lot of people, and maybe they had first process that they really connected to, but they’re so worried about whether they’re doing the process, it comes back to your first question, but they’re not really thinking about whether they’re getting value out of the process.So jokingly I created this thing that’s like based on Ohm’s Law.Ohm’s Law in electricity says that current is equal to voltage divided by resistance. And if you apply resistance and voltage remains at a constant flow, then current flow goes down.So we atDevJam have this thing called, Dude’s Law.Dude’s Law says that value is equal to why divided by how.

         VALUE = WHY / HOW

And it’s the same kind of equation, because people are always thinking about how do you do this, how do you do that, and not why.Then they tend to get less value, and I think that’s a good funny and simple message for people to look at.

And if the audience wanted to get in touch with you, look at your work, what’s the best place to send them to?

Two things that should look at.One is that I did a video series for The Pragmatic Programmers.And it’s nine, one hour videos and it’s live in front of an audience, so it’s not just looking at a talking head.And it’s interactive and there’s exercises.The first three are about coaching.And the second three are about customers and product development, and the last three are about planning.So Pragmatic Programmers, the series is called Cutting an Agile Groove, or you can actually come to our website, it will not be as lame as it is today.

So what is the website?


Or you can send me an email at That’s a good one. So thank you. And to the audience I would say, that if you got value out of this send David an email, or connect with him on LinkedIn. Thanks for sharing, drop him a note to say thank you.

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– Samir Penkar

About Samir Penkar

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