Ben Thorp 

Cafe Brioso — Ben Thorp is a Principal Consultant and Agile Coach at Cardinal Solutions, an IT consulting company. He is currently working with AEP as an Agile Coach, Scrum Master, and Project Leader. He is passionate about improving software delivery and the lives of IT professionals by coaching and training Agile and Scrum principles and practices. He’s also a big fan of audiobooks and zombie fiction.

Would you introduce yourself?

Sure. My name is Ben Thorp. I work at Cardinal Solutions, which is a full service IT consulting company. We do project management, .NET, Java, mobile, data solutions, the whole gamut.

Ben Thorp
Ben Thorp is a Principal Consultant and Agile Coach at Cardinal Solutions, an IT consulting company

I moved to Columbus in 2009 from Kentucky, so that my wife could be closer to her family. We have three kids: a nine year old and twins who are six years old. They’ve been my world for many years now.

Your side project, or even full time project.

Yeah, exactly. Work is probably more of a side project at this point. I was a .NET developer for a dozen years. I say “was,” although I would like to say “am,” but I haven’t really written any code in two years, so I’m not sure that I can say “am” anymore.

I still love development and would like to stay involved with it. I went to the University of Cincinnati and got a computer engineering degree, so I come from that background. Even though I’ve stepped out of the coding side, I still want to maintain my technical chops, so to speak.

Kentucky isn’t that far away, depending on which part.

I grew up in Florence, which people know by the infamous “Florence Y’all” water tower. Everybody thinks we’re a bunch of hill jacks. I was born and raised there, so it’s about two hours to get back to home. It’s a weekend trip, easily.

How did you get to your current role at Cardinal?

I started off as a C# developer and I didn’t really have much web experience. A lot of what I did was on the backend, but I wanted to get into IT more, so I joined Cardinal. I learned enough ASP.NET, CSS, and JavaScript to add new features, although I wouldn’t consider myself an expert.

I did that for a few years while slowly moving into a coaching, Scrum Master role. I’m now a team lead at Cardinal, so I have people who report to me, but really I’m their person to go to if they want to change career direction.

Two years ago I became a Scrum Trainer, so I can deliver the Scrum Foundations course, as well as the Scrum .NET Developer course. I’m actually a project manager now for a new big data project they’re spinning up at AEP. It’s really kind of strange how I ended up there, almost like a bait and switch situation.

My role is difficult to pin down, but it’s more of a leadership and coaching role right now. The mentoring side is what really fires me up right now. I try to be that connecting piece to help developers be awesome at their jobs.

What are you doing at AEP?

AEP is preparing for the big utilities data tsunami. Every fifteen minutes they get all this data: voltage, temperature, and usage, from their advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). They want to mine that data to do predictive analytics on it, but they don’t have the platform in place, which is what we’re standing up.

It’s a really interesting project. I never realized how vast the world of data really is until I started working on it. It’s not in my domain at all, so it took me out of my comfort zone quite a bit. The challenges have been a lot of fun so far.

I find that there’s a fine line between being excited and absolutely terrified when you’re outside of your comfort zone.

Yeah when I was told, “Oh, by the way, you’re going to be the project manager for this project,” I had that kind of moment. I had been anti-project manager for a long time [laughing], so my initial response was “Uhhh, hold on for a second.” I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be in that role.

It’s an endorsement for the work you do and you as a person.

I like to think so, hopefully.

My role is difficult to pin down, but it’s more of a leadership and coaching role right now. The mentoring side is what really fires me up right now. I try to be that connecting piece to help developers be awesome at their jobs.

How did you transition from a developer to Scrum Master? When were you introduced to Agile?

It was five years ago as part of my first client project with Cardinal. We were part of their transformation to Agile and it was such a drastic difference from where I came from, where everybody’s off in cubes and nobody’s talking. I actually had a boss who would say, “Get back to work, I don’t pay you to stand around,” if he saw you talking with a co-worker for too long.

It was such an eye-opening experience to see how empowering working as a team could be, although even in an Agile environment, the development team wasn’t being served as well as they could have been. That’s when I realized that I had more of a skill for coaching developers.

My mind kept going meta and I couldn’t help but think about ways to improve the development process at a higher level. I decided that I needed to leave the development to the people who had the ability and passion to really focus on it.

It’s so nice to have an advocate who can make my job easier. It can be draining to fight through the organizational impediments.

This may be a dramatic way of putting it, but over the first ten years of my career I was really abused by the organizations I worked for. They would wring you dry to get everything they could out of you. At the end of the day I would come home to my family with nothing left. Now I’m in a role where I can really help people avoid that type of situation.

What’s Agile Development, for the uninitiated? How does Scrum fit into it?

Agile is really just a set of values and principles that color the work you do. Think of it as a lens, not a process. Agile was intended to be a movement towards having frequent collaboration with customers, adapting versus following a plan, avoiding contract negotiation scenarios, and allowing scope and requirements to change. Those types of things are what Agile is.

You can be Agile and use lots of different process frameworks or no process frameworks at all. Scrum is like a guardrail or a type of light framework that allows you to develop an Agile process.

What’s the most challenging part to implementing Scrum for an organization that’s new to it? What are common stumbling blocks for stakeholders and developers?

For an organization the most difficult part is recognizing the need for culture change. Management can’t just declare that they’re Agile without being willing to adopt a continuous learning environment. You have to cut out a lot of red tape and you have to be bold, which is often hard for them to do.

As for stakeholders, the issue I see most often is an adversarial relationship between business and IT. This is due to delayed deliveries, business not getting what they want, and a perception that IT is difficult to work with, so that’s a challenge on that side.

Once more iterative development is established the stakeholders are the ones who seem to like Agile the most. They now have a voice, they have frequent reviews that demonstrate progress, and they can give their feedback and see that reflected in the product.

A frequent challenge is carving out the time for the product owner to spend time with the team. Stakeholders are typically very busy. This is an issue that I’m currently dealing with because my product owner is only available a couple hours a week. It’s just not enough time.

With Scrum a developer can be a partner in product development, instead of just a cog in the machine.

For a developer, it’s either they love it or they hate it. Some see the value in it, while others don’t want to work in that environment.

The biggest challenge for me, coming from an anti-developer environment, was resisting the urge to prove myself, to show my value as an individual. We’re encouraged to promote our own contributions over those of the team. Think about a typical performance review, it’s all about, “What did you do for the company? What are your accomplishments?”

When you join an organization with a real team mentality it can be difficult to point to work that you personally delivered. Even at the end of a two week period, what did you do? For me my contributions were elsewhere, like helping other developers, participating in planning future projects, and sitting in on design reviews.

What do developers love about Scrum? What do they hate about it?

Developers love seeing the value of their work. Scrum shortens the cycle of development, testing, and delivery, so there’s more frequent feedback. It’s either, “Thumbs up we love it. Or sorry, but that’s not what we’re looking for.” With Scrum a developer can be a partner in product development, instead of just a cog in the machine. You can go home at the end of the day and actually feel like you’ve accomplished something meaningful.

On the hate side, when Scrum is poorly executed the practices often turn into requirements that aren’t conducive to creative work. It’s a failure to realize that software development is an artistic activity in a lot of ways. You can’t shove people into a room and force them to collaborate for eight hours a day. As a developer you need time alone to get into the flow and really make that magic happen.

I’ve lately read a lot of pushback against open offices from developers. What are the pros and cons?

I’ve often heard developers say they can’t focus in open office plans. That’s a challenge for teams because you want to optimize the output of the whole, but what’s best for the team may not be best for the individual. It’s hard to find a balance. You’ve got to sacrifice some individual productivity so that you can be in a collaborative environment.

A lot of organizations have gone with a balanced approached where you have the team room, where most of the work gets done, as well as breakout rooms. Those private spaces have internet access and whiteboards so that a developer can go heads down to escape the chatter in the office. A working environment needs to support the both needs of creativity and collaboration.

I haven’t seen a default of having your own space, which is what I support.

What are your favorite tools for project management?

I love big visible information and tactile physical tracking of work with sticky notes, index cards, and whiteboards. You can’t get any more high fidelity and real-time than that. There are a lot of good electronic tools, but honestly we’re using Excel to manage our backlog. It’s working for us. We have all our cards on the wall to track our progress.

From a work tracking standpoint, it’s important to have an explicit policy about progress. Teams should be very specific about what it means for work to be in a certain state and how to transition out of that state. What’s the quality gate to go from in-progress to testing? A code review? What’s the definition of done? There should be lots of quality checks built into the process.

Do you have any suggestions for developers or PMs who want to transition to Agile?

The boring answer is to just learn it by doing it.

If you’re a developer I’d start by incorporating Agile methodology into your own work. Be a student of software development. Have your own kanban board. Be transparent about your work. Reach out to stakeholders to form relationships with them. Become allies with a manager or senior developer who has more influence. Take baby steps, but also be willing to be bold.

If you’re a PM and you want to be more agile, I’d recommend that you take a Scrum class. I’d also ask yourself if the status updates that you’re asking for are really in service of the developers or the organization? Can you start acting as the buffer in service of the team and the development of the product?

It’s very much a mentality change for a PM to transition to a role where all the power and the control lies within the team. If you take a development organization and you remove the developers, what’s gonna get done? Nothing. Let’s serve the team.

How do you handle work life balance?

First and foremost is doing work that you’re passionate about.

I have work and I have family. I’m also a husband and a son. I’m trying to get to a point where it’s less about the balance and more about integrating everything together into being a whole person.

If I need to do some work in the evening, I want to do it without the guilt and obligation to draw a hard line between work and home. Likewise, if I’m at work and my wife has had a bad day and I need to run home for a few hours, I just do it.

It’s more about prioritizing than it is about task management. Some things may feel very urgent, but they aren’t. You just don’t do them. You just focus on the stuff that’s really important, that’s going to move the needle the most.

What’s the best part about your job? What’s the worst part?

I thought about this last night as a matter of fact. This is going to sound so cliché, so I apologize for it, but I mean it, I really mean it. The best part of my job is forming meaningful relationships and working as a team to achieve something difficult. It’s not always fun, but that’s the most rewarding part for me.

The best part of my job is forming meaningful relationships and working as a team to achieve something difficult.

Yesterday I went to lunch with one of my favorite people in the world and I was so energized when I went back to work. I brought that back to the team space, so everyone else had that energy. Of all of the things that I do at work, it’s those interactions that really fire me up.

The worst part is the red tape, the bureaucracy, everything that gets in the way of doing great work. That’s why I made the transition to my current role because I want to cut through all that.

What are your personal interests?

I really love playing guitar, although I’m not really that good at it. I don’t have time to practice anymore either.

I’m also an audiobook addict. I have a long commute because I live out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a good forty to forty-five minutes, so I have a lot of time to listen. My guilty pleasure is zombie fiction and I love everything about the genre. I love the end of the world stuff and I try to put myself in that situation. What would I do?

Do you have a plan?

I resist creating a zombie survival plan for my family, but it’s fun to fantasize about it sometimes. I’m not one of those crazy survivalists, but I guess I’m a bit of escapist when it comes to that. I like fantasy novels and that’s my little bit of anti-reality. It helps pull me out of all the heaviness every once in a while.

There aren’t secret recesses of the AEP building that you could escape to?

Unfortunately, no.

How do I know that you’re telling the truth?

You don’t.

What are your goals for this year?

I want to regain the energy that I had when I first got into coaching. I’ve lost some of that focus as my responsibilities have grown.

This is going to sound bad, but another big goal is to bring more fun to my team. I can be too serious about the process of continuous improvement. I’m constantly saying, “Okay, that was great, but how can we get better?” That can be very tiring, so I want to bring in some lightness so we can get back to having some fun.

Personally I need to be more responsible when going out with my friends. I love happy hours and late nights out. My wife supports me in maintaining these relationships, but a lot of times coming home late is not good. It’s not setting a good example for my kids. I need to find other ways to maintain those friendships, so that’s another goal.