On Winning the Gordon Pask Award at Agile2010

On Friday August 13, I accepted the Agile Alliance’s Gordon Pask award at the Agile 2010 conference in Orlando.

I wasn’t even aware that I had been nominated, so when David Hussman called me at home shortly after 7:30AM on Tuesday August 10 to tell me that I had won, I was beyond surprised. Gobsmacked? Flummoxed? Yes, those words fit. Also grateful, honored, and delighted. I immediately made arrangements to go to Orlando to accept the award in person.

Even now I find it difficult to articulate what the award means to me. I am amazed to have been nominated. To have won? I am enormously pleased to have my work in the Agile community validated by such an honor. I think back to the prior winners and am ecstatic to be in their company. And I feel incredibly flattered to have been chosen alongside Liz Keogh who I respect and admire tremendously.

My inability to articulate my feelings led to near-paralysis in the days leading up to the official (short) ceremony. I had most of Tuesday and all of Wednesday and Thursday to organize my thoughts, but I made very little progress.

I thought about what to say during the long flight to Orlando on Thursday. When we landed in Orlando I had no more idea what I would say than when we left San Francisco.

Confessing my uncertainty about what to say to Matthew Barcomb during the banquet on Thursday night, I joked that I could use my time on stage to help him find his missing VGA adapter. “Thanks for the award!” I said, “Now, where is Matthew Barcomb. Yes, there you are. Stand up. OK, now who borrowed Matthew’s VGA adapter? Could you go over there and return it to him please?”

Matthew laughed. Brian Marick chimed in. “You could thank me,” he joked.

“OK,” I said. “What shall I thank you for?”

“For resigning from the Pask committee so that I’m no longer there to blackball women or testers.”

We laughed.

Then we drank some more. As a group we found our way to “Mexico” in Epcot Center where we hung with the Version One folks. Then we meandered over to “England” where Shane Hastie put some delicious but deadly concoction of a cocktail into my hands. We made our way to the Dance Hall on the boardwalk where we danced to pounding music and I lost track of my head.

Keenly aware that I had to be onstage between 9AM and 9:30, I switched to water at midnight and made my way back to my hotel at 1AM. Before going to sleep, I set two alarms, a primary for 7AM and a backup for 7:30AM. Then I fell asleep, blissfully unencumbered by any thoughts whatsoever.

Friday morning dawned.

The “strum” sound from my iPhone woke me with a start. It was my backup alarm. That meant it was 7:30AM. I shook away the cobwebs of a surreal dream involving Craftsman architecture and escaping cookie dough. Bleary-eyed, turned off the alarm. No time to hit Snooze.

I wondered why my primary alarm on my iPad, set for 7:00AM, hadn’t gone off. I looked over at the iPad. The display showed the alarm clock app prompting me to dismiss the alarm. Apparently it had gone off, but silently. Whoopsie. Good thing I always set two alarms. I turned off the alarm clock on the iPad and shuffled toward the coffee maker.

I took a mental inventory. I felt better than I had any right to given that I’d been in California less than 24 hours prior, had flown across country, and had been out partying until 1AM. I congratulated myself for not overindulging the night before, at least not too much, and for going to bed early enough to get 6 hours of sleep.

My mind turned to preparing for the day. 7:30AM. That left me an hour in which to make myself presentable, have some coffee, and reflect on what I would say on stage before I had to walk over to the Dolphin. I still needed to iron my shirt, but I would have plenty of time for that. And I could organize my acceptance speech in my head while I ironed.

Then my glance fell on the hotel room clock.

As a general rule, I don’t use hotel clocks. I find the alarms on my iPhone and iPad tend to be more reliable, and their time is usually more accurate.

But this time I wished that I had consulted the hotel room clock sooner.

It read 9:17AM.

If it really was 9:17… then I was due on stage RIGHT NOW. I could picture JB or Jim Newkirk calling my name, looking for me.

My mind raced. Which clock was right? I looked outside. Bright. Sunny. Of course. It’s Florida. Bright and sunny are normal. That didn’t mean much. I checked my own internal sense of time. Because I’d slept in 3 different time zones in the space of a week, my internal sense of time was completely broken.

My iPhone now read 7:33. I recalled my stop-over in Denver. I have had my iPhone get “stuck” on the wrong time zone before. And given that my iPad was another Apple product, it was possible that it could have the same issue.

Nagging doubts remained. If it was really that late why hadn’t someone called me? Surely someone would have called me. But maybe they couldn’t find me. I was staying at the Yacht Club because the Dolphin was full. And maybe they didn’t have my cell number. Another doubt surfaced. If the problem was that my iPhone and iPad were “stuck” on Denver time, why was it not an exact 2-hour difference? Why did my iPhone now say 7:34 and the hotel clock said 9:18?

But I had to admit to myself that it was entirely plausible that the hotel room clock was closer to correct than my own devices.

My stomach plummeted.

I quickly searched my address book for cell phone numbers of everyone I could think of. Phil Brock. Jessica Ambrose. JB Rainsberger. David Hussman. No luck. All my contact information was on my computer back in California. In an attempt to travel light I only had my iPad with me and it didn’t have all my contact info. So I had no way to contact anyone at the conference.

Full panic mode set in. I was seized with the notion that it was after 9AM. Despair and disbelief washed over me. I had flown all the way across the country just to accept the award. I felt so honored to have been selected. Then I stayed out too late and slept through my chance to say thank you. In doing so, I threw the honor back in the face of the committee. I’ve made mistakes before. I have disappointed people. But this would be among the worst of my screwups.

I threw on some clothes. Maybe, just maybe, if I got out the door fast enough and ran full tilt to the Dolphin, I could make it before 9:30. I would look like a disaster, but I would be there.

Grabbing my phone and room key I glanced at the mirror on my way out. It showed me an unforgiving image. I was a total mess. “What will people think?” I wondered. “How will they interpret my appearance?” Drunk, I decided. People would look at my hair and mismatched clothes and think I’m drunk from the night before. That’s the only reason someone would show up looking like this. My stomach sank lower.

I decided that showing up looking like a complete mess was preferable to not showing up at all. I raced out the door.

The nagging doubts resurfaced. The first thing to do, I decided, was to find out exactly what time it really is.

A hapless tourist wandered into my field of view. I raced up to him.

“WHAT TIME IS IT??!?” I demanded.

His gave me a look that plainly said he thought I was nuts. I privately agreed with his assessment. He checked his watch.

“About 7:48,” he reported.

The adrenaline that had fueled my scrambled exit from my hotel room abated. I shook with relief. My mind stopped racing. It would all be OK after all. I felt a sense of joyous reprieve. The sinking feeling reversed, roller-coasted into elation.

“THANK GOD! THANK YOU! I FEEL LIKE SCROOGE!” I shouted at the tourist with the watch. The bit about Scrooge made perfect sense in my head, but I suspect it served to confirm the tourist’s diagnosis of CRAZY.

I ran back into my room and spent the next 5 minutes just remembering how to breathe.

The remainder of my morning went as originally planned. In the next 40 minutes, I made myself presentable, had some coffee, and reflected on what to say on stage. And I laughed a little at my foolishness over the time confusion.

At 8:30AM (10:17AM HCT – Hotel Clock Time) I made my way from the Yacht Club to the Dolphin. I contemplated possible acceptance speeches as I walked, my heels thunking on the wood of the boardwalk.

I considered telling the story of my morning and the clock mixup, but decided it was too off-topic.

I considered doing an Oscars-style “Thank you to…” in which I would thank everyone I’d learned from in the Agile community, but decided that it was a massively long list, it would take too long, and no matter how careful I tried to be I would forget someone important.

I considered saying something about the past controversy around the award and the fact that two women had won this year when none had one before, but decided that was too divisive a message.

I considered gushing appreciations about the award and what it meant to me, but decided I’d probably end up babbling “Thank you I’m so honored!” over and over.

My mind was still churning even as the morning session began.

Mercifully, Liz was called up to the stage first. She spoke eloquently of community. I appreciated and agreed with her sentiments. But I knew that I could not get away with uttering, “Yeah. What Liz said!” I had to say something of my own.

Then it was my turn. As I walked up the steps I still did not really know what I would say.

But I had the germ of an idea. Brian had said I should thank him.

He had been joking. But he was right. I did need to thank him. Just not for the reason he suggested.

Brian is responsible for my starting down the path to learn about Agile, and he ushered me into the Agile community.

Brian started telling me about Extreme Programming sometime around 1999 or 2000. I ignored him for a couple years. Then at his urging, I went to see Kent Beck speak in 2001 and finally understood what Brian had been talking about. Set on the path to learning about Agile, I sought more sources of learning. I participated in one of Josh Kerievsky’s XP immersion classes. I finagled my way onto a Pivotal Labs project. I attended both XP Universe and the Agile Developer Conference (the forerunners to the Agile20XX conferences). Then Brian suggested that we do a session together at ADC2003 on Exploratory Testing in Agile. And so I started presenting at Agile conferences.

In short, if Brian had not introduced me to Agile concepts, principles, values, and the surrounding community, I wouldn’t be doing what I do today.

So, in my acceptance speech I said thank you to Brian. My words met with a few laughs, and I am still half expecting Brian to shoot me an email saying “WTF??!?”

But while I singled out Brian, I also want to thank members of the broader community. Fellow consultants and coaches. People I’ve worked with at my clients. Members of the AA-FTT community. Members of the BayXP and BayAPLN communities. Members of the local user groups that I’ve spoken to. The fine folks who work at Pivotal Labs, Atomic Object, CodeCentric, and Reaktor Innovations. Everyone who has come to Agilistry for events. Agile Alliance members.

All of you have been part of this journey. And I am immensely grateful to each and every one of you.

Communities take on a life of their own and deserve to be recognized and celebrated in their own right.

And I also wish to celebrate the individuals that make up the community.

So many, many thanks to all of you for being part of my Agile journey. I am honored. And grateful. And flattered. And extremely appreciative to be surrounded by a circle of such incredible individuals, part of an amazing community.