That Agile Guy – My Journey (So Far)
Yes. I know. That question has been burning in your mind.
That question — “Who is Jon Spruce?” — simply must be answered.
But seriously. I’m going to get a bit more personal in this article. Because I think our personalities and our attitudes toward life in general help determine how natural or alien Agile will seem to us in a work environment. We can all get there, of course; it’s simply a matter of how much personal distance we have to cover to get close to it. And, yes, other things are involved, too — the client, our coworkers, our leader. But our own experience with Agile will, I believe, be determined largely by who we are, and how that’s shaped by our experiences and environment.
You’re in the army now.
I come from a family with a tradition of military service. Both of my mother’s parents served — my grandfather was a captain in the medical corps (having entered as a private — yeah, he had some drive on him) and my grandmother was an army nurse. My father was in the Royal Engineers. One of my brothers, a highly qualified medic and weapons instructor, is now a captain in the British Army. Another brother saw multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan as an engineer and tank commander. And so I, too, went in for a hitch.
When I joined up, my father gave me some excellent advice — and it wasn’t advice that every man’s dad gives him when he enlists. He didn’t tell me to keep my head down or try to stay out of harm’s way. He told me to “volunteer for everything.”
It was good advice. I was a plucky little guy from North Wales, and I had two solid assets: I was curious about everything, and I wasn’t afraid of anything. My father knew that, and he knew that if I was going to get the most out of my military experience, I needed exposure to as much as possible.
Well, I did that, and I’m glad I did. I started training as an avionics engineer and discovered the joy of helicopters.
But my army tale was cut short. A long loaded march — a tab, as it’s called — done while carrying a huge bag on my back twisted my left knee so badly that I was pensioned out. So there I was, with a neck like a wrestler, a body full of energy and curiosity, and a mind stuffed with more knowledge and experience than I’d ever had. But now I also had a fucked-up knee — and, amazingly, no helicopter weapons system awaited my talents in the civilian world
Go into “computers,” my son.
This was pre-Y2K, for those of you who remember that delightful era of the late 1990s. I had always had an affinity for technology, having taken the family computer to bits when I was ten and put it back together again — with very few spare screws left! And so I decided to retrain in IT.
Being that I have to do everything double-time, I consumed and completed a three-month training course in two weeks. Then I did another course — this time compressing six months into five weeks. Not knowing what to do with me while they waited on my certificates, the training company sent me on a certified instructor course which I completed in just shy of six weeks. I was a certified instructor of Web Design and IT Skills at around 20 years old.
Halfway across the world, Google was still being hacked together in a garage, the founder of Facebook was only 15 years old and the first iPhone had 8 years before it would be shown to the world by Steve Jobs. During these early years of the internet and technology, it really felt like there was some kind of future in it.
Okay, I was still wearing cast-off suits handed down by my 6’2” uncle, because, despite everything, I wasn’t making much money. But I was being the best teacher I could be, and before long I found myself training lads I’d been in school with. They’d left school and spent their time building the local bypass, then run out of work, so they, too, had decided to give IT a try.
So I was teaching these men from a building site about database building and normalisation, how to use spreadsheets and print documents as well as design and hand-code websites. Whether through osmosis or my teaching style of finding common ground between lessons and their experience, the training seemed to land well, each person getting qualifications and starting new chapters.
Then, one day, while I was enjoying a cigarette in the car park outside the place where I worked, a former schoolmate of mine that I had trained rolled up in a red convertible and greeted me.
“Hey, Mark. Nice motor!”
“Innit? I’m working as a web designer in Chester now. Just landed a job worth a mint, and the car came with it.”
Fuck, I thought, slightly uncharitably, six months ago, this guy was working on a building site. I knew because I’d retrained him. Now he was making three times my salary and had a flash set of wheels.
I looked across the car park at my old blue Ford Mark 2 Fiesta. (It had a spare oily gearbox sat on the back seat and a broken driver side door handle.) I looked at the too-long arms of my hand-me-down jacket and the rest of the suit that was literally four sizes too big for me.
I took another drag. And I made a decision. It was time to move.
Don’t be the guy who says, “I don’t make the coffee.”
Two months later, I was working at a new company. I was developing websites, and, in the main, doing the same thing I’d already trained hundreds of people to do. But there was one vital difference: I remembered my dad’s advice, and I got stuck into everything.
Sales. Marketing. Design. Build. If it needed doing, I did it. I was a one-man department.
This kept me interested — it’s safe to say I’m easily bored — and it got me noticed. The wide range of experience to which I was exposed taught me the full end-to-end lifecycle involved in delivery, rather than the small piece of the whole one usually sees. That exposure in a growing firm, while I was also developing sales, design and technical experience, set me up to be noticed.
Other firms started to knock on my door with questions. Eventually, I got headhunted by a larger firm. And because this internet thing was still a new gig in business, I was given a pretty broad remit: “Build a digital department. Take us from creating leaflets for T.K. Maxx to whatever this online thing is.”
Well. Okay, then.
I’d been at the same place for two years when I got headhunted by JWT. I was offered three times what I’d been earning to work for them in London. My office in Knightsbridge had a rooftop garden overlooking Harrods.
My first client? Shell Global.
I was doing well for a scrappy lad from North Wales. And it didn’t stop there. My reputation as a fixer and someone who got shit done preceded me. I was called into a number of big agencies to fix their deliveries and approach. I began working with the biggest clients, the craziest deliveries, the most brilliant teams.
“It’s just a fucking website. No one’s going to die.”
So what was I doing? It wasn’t anything magical — it was, to me at least, practical, empirical, and logical. I was looking not only at the goals people were expected to reach, but how they were reaching them and what was really standing in their way. I was looking at the people themselves.
I was also maintaining perspective, which is one of the first things to go out the window when a big client calls. More than once I’ve been known to observe, bluntly, “It’s just a fucking website. No-one is going to die if it doesn’t launch the second it should or sell a million trainers five minutes after it goes live.”
I saw the pressure and stress teams put themselves under to deliver to 100% specification and 100% perfect quality by a fixed deadline. Quite simply, it was insane. Instead of flexing the scope and delivering iteratively, they were working late nights and even weekends. All to meet an impossible ideal set by people who were, in many cases, no longer involved in the project or even with the business.
It was working with crazy clients and building cross-functional teams that made me and the people I worked with “agile” — before I knew that Agile was a thing and had a name. We were just trying to do what worked.
It was pretty obvious what didn’t work. A lot of handoffs from client to account manager to project manager to team. Teams that worked in isolation from each other. Creatives selling shit that either simply didn’t exist or looked good on paper but wasn’t really achievable in the real world or client budget.
By the time something was passed to the people who were supposed to produce something, the majority of the budget had already gone on meetings, and there was no time or money left to do the actual work. Testing was squeezed to nothing. Whatever did get done was often late or poor-quality.
Sounds familiar, right?
We changed things around. We pulled teams together so creatives, developers and testers all worked in one area. We prioritised with the client regularly and delivered valuable stuff to customers, regularly and iteratively. It was that challenging and that straightforward. That hard and that simple.
It was this cut-through-the-bullshit approach to delivery that smashed pedestals and took down ivory towers. In essence, we were fixing something we hadn’t realised was broken: structure. We found quickly that morale picked up, quality improved and innovation was able to blossom.
In the intervening years, as I’ve worked with increasingly bigger (and more demanding) clients, I’ve discovered that the fastest way to explain myself is this: I’m a fixer. At work and in life. At times, to my detriment. But it’s who I am. That proclivity combined with experience has taught me that I can best support people through coaching teams, training leaders and consulting on organisational change in ways that support agility.
Three years ago I even started www.agilecentre.com to do just that with my two mates. We applied our varied experience and knowledge to build a truly agile organisation with a high performing team. It’s crazy, it’s hard, it’s fun and it’s never a dull moment.
Agile is something I evolved into. But its roots lie in that initial willingness, back in my youth, to have a go at whatever was on offer — to care more about trying something new and learning than about the risk of failing — and, above all, to value getting things done in sane, productive ways.
That’s what I’ve been doing ever since, and that’s what I’ll be doing until I’m done, done.