Agile Coaching – Motivation, Education, Application

The first thing you learn as an Agile coach is that when
people ask you, “What do you do for a living?” you better
have a good answer ready or you look like an idiot.

“So… what do you do for a living?”

My current title is “Senior Agile Program Leader”, but that
doesn’t mean anything to anybody, not even me. Let’s start
somewhere else.

I tend to unleash my job description in phases,
depending on my assessment of my listener’s level of
knowledge and their genuine interest in what I do.

Phase I: “I work with computers.” If you get this answer
from me, it is because I have come to the conclusion
(rightly or wrongly) that if I provide you with more
details, then your entire body will perceptibly shift
towards the red as you drop out of our conversation with
relativistic velocity. I believe that you probably don’t
care about my answer, so let’s make things easier on
everybody. This is the answer I give to customs agents and
neighbors walking their dogs.

Is this answer condescending? Perhaps it is. I don’t
mean it that way, or at least I try not to mean it that way.
But you could also see this answer as an expression of mercy
on my part, not dragging people into conversational waters
where they are unprepared to swim. “Dude, why are you
trying to explain test-driven development to me? I just
want to make some smalltalk while I eat my hors-d’oeuvre.”
Any (and I do mean any) expression of interest on your
part will take us immediately to Phase II.

Phase II: “I’m a software process improvement consultant.
I help organizations that make software do it a little
better. Improve quality, reduce effort–that sort of
thing.” Now we’re getting closer. This answer says
something that is recognizably similar to the work that I
do, and it points to the practical effects of my work, which
is, after all, the whole point.

One problem with this answer is the phrase “software process
improvement consultant”. I have done this enough that all
four words roll out of me as a single unit. If I watch
closely as I say it, I can see the effect on the listener is
like pithing a frog–paralysis and mounting terror.
The second sentence of Phase II is designed to relieve all
distress and confusion, however, and usually does so. Most
folks seem to be happy with this answer. Still, it could
use some work.

Some folks still want to know more, however. That leads us
to Phase III. This phase almost exclusively happens in job
interviews, but it is also deployed when speaking with folks
who are interested in becoming coaches themselves.

Phase III: “There are three main aspects to what I do:
Motivation, Education, and Application. I do other stuff
too, but these categories cover most of what I do on the

“The ‘motivation’ part of my job means that I help people
get excited about the prospect of applying Agile methods in
their organization. You can think of it as a sales role, if
you like. I help sell the value of these new ways of
thinking, and I get people interested in learning more.

“If I succeed and people do become interested in learning
more, then that’s where the ‘education’ part of my work
comes into play. I can teach people about what the term
‘Agile’ encompasses and about ways that other folks have put
Agile values and principles into practice.

“Once they have learned what Agile is, I can help them apply
what they have learned to their situation. That’s the
‘application’ part. As they start changing what they do, I
keep an eye on their progress, help them with their
questions and problems, and do whatever I can to help them
get a good start.

“So Motivation, Education, and Application are the key
aspects of my job.”

There’s a lot I like about this answer, though it borders on
speechifying. It is relatively short and sweet, which makes
it nicer for everyone. People seem to walk away actually
knowing something about what I do–which is the whole point
of Phase III. And it rhymes, which of course makes it true.