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24 October 2012

The future of Open ALM; an interview with Stephan Dekker

Stephan runs an ALM community group in Melbourne. It’s charter is to advance the ALM community’s knowledge and value by encouraging cross-discipline collaboration.

A few months ago Stephan invited me along to one of the meet-up sessions where we discussed a range of topics including non-functional requirements, flow and quality. There were analysts, testers, developers, and ops management people in the room. It was a rich discussion where a bunch of people who were really experts in their fields shared their experiences and insight.

I think what Stephan is doing with the group is very interesting and worth sharing with this audience and invited him to this interview.

Stephan, what motivated you to start the group and what do you hope it will achieve?
Pure frustration to be honest! :-)

I have been working in process improvements for a long time and have either worked in a process improvement organisations or helped set up one. At National Australia Bank I had the opportunity to create one from scratch, which is very unique. I took on the challenge, but soon come to realise how little is actually out there.

As an industry, we really suck at Knowledge Management of IT Practices. Many very frequently used artefacts are not standardized, or there are 100 standards to pick from. For some reason there is no authoritative place to find those.

There are frameworks and BOKs available, that’s absolutely true. However, they are either outdated or you need to pay for them. No one should be forced to pay for basic standards! That’s not how the IT industry can get the confidence back from our Business Sponsors..

I embarked on an, what turned out to be a 12 month, academic brain experiment where I was trying to figure out how to overcome all the major collaboration and technical issues that would prevent me from creating “The one standards library that will rule them all” :-). I managed to find answers to pretty much all of them, so I set out to put the theory into practice. I am yet to find out whether or not I had a blind spot, but I seem to manage all the hurdles so far!

Who or what influenced your thinking around this?
There are many people that I owe so much for helping me. First and foremost the community members that are currently shaping the ALM Library.

Two people who deserve special attention are Leigh Fort and Brian Mills. We did a couple of brainstorm sessions whenever I found my thinking to go around in circles. Their in depth understanding of IT “stuff” was vital to the success of the design of the collaboration system.

The biggest source of information is academic papers and History. We have been doing this for the last 20 years.

What I’m doing is, in essence, not very new. The tools have evolved that allow me to do global collaboration easier (and overcome some other techie issues), but the ISO, CMMi and ITIL people have been doing this for years and as you might know, quite successful.

The other influence was a quote I picked up somewhere along the way: “Fools who think they can change the world are usually the ones that do”. Which if freely translated into: “Don’t give up, you might be one of those fools”. I’m confident my wife would agree about that last bit...

I have been reading articles about how Wikipedia started and how they managed to be so successful. That is really interesting as they went through a lot of uncertainty and managed to get out on top.

The last source of inspiration are all the conversations I have had since I have come up with the idea. It just makes soooo much sense!

What do you hope for from the ALM group 

I hope that the community will achieve become truly global, with local communities collaborating across competencies in their own city, cities collaborating across their country, countries collaborating in global forums.

I want it to create and maintain THE authoritative, current, standards library that contains most commonly used practices (80-20 rule) that are agreed by the communities.

We also want to stimulate a mindset where the communities will actively be looking to remove their own standards where possible, so that the library remains lean and very powerful.  Many, if not all, companies to have an on-premise instance of the ALM Library, receiving updates from the Global ALM Community as they are published and ready to be used internally.

And while we are at it, let's create academic curriculums for universities across the globe to teach proper Software Engineering practices.

I think the term “Standards Library” will one day become a phrase that will trigger happy feelings instead of the negative which it has at the moment. I want senior people to teach Juniors: “Why don’t you JUST use the standard?” (Where the Junior will rebel against, obviously, until he/she has become as experienced :-))

So, not very ambitious goals or anything...
Its funny how it puzzles my friends sometimes though... They usually looks very puzzled when they realise I’m not joking when I’m talking about World Domination! :-)

What ideas do you have for scaling this idea globally? How will you reach from Melbourne to say London or Shanghai?
The trick is to find people like myself who are interested in running a local ALM Community. Because it all comes down to face to face meetings and discussion these topics. ALM is a cross competency territory, and the only way to truly fix our ALM processes is to start talking cross competencies.

The first issue is to create ALM Communities in different cities. I have been deliberately talking to sponsors that are global, so arranging sponsoring for that particular city should be a breeze. If people want to setup their own local ALM Community, they get information on what works well for other ALM Communities, guidance for recording the meetings and the creation of the meeting transcripts are taken care of. So setting up and running your own ALM Community is too easy. And because all the recordings of previous meetings are all online, so that’s obviously also a source of examples.

The second issues, and I must admit that this area hasn’t been fully thought through, is the cross city communication. Most communication will be via the ALM-Community Blog which would work really well I think. For starters, Blogging is very simple and I like simple solutions.

By its very nature it supports keeping track of stuff that happened over time, which is a major requirement. It also allows people to tag content, making communication more streamlined.

If a person is only interested in stuff happening in Shanghai, he/she only has to subscribe to the Shanghai tag. Furthermore, everyone can leave comments, which means everyone has the opportunity to be heard. Having said that, there are still some unknowns, like how to prevent doubling up on conversations and things like that, but A) I will cross that bridge when we get there B) I’m not even sure we should prevent it to happen, because the same discussion should reach the same outcomes. Otherwise the two communities will have something to debate! C) Someone, far smarter than me, will give me a really simple solution at some stage.

And like I said: Simple = Good.

What have been the highlights for you so far?
The latest ALM Meeting, where we had Melbournes finest brain power in the room to start putting together the High Level ALM Process. That was the first meeting where we were truly producing content that has already made it into the ALM Library.

It’s hard to describe Highlights actually. I’ve been preparing these meetings for the last 9 months. Its a quite an innovative concept, so it took me some time to get the right people in the same room at the same time. So, the most recent meeting was really the kick-off meeting of what I wanted to get at and where all the prep work came together.

The meetings up until now, were mainly to fill the ALM Library so that I could demonstrate the vision and get people excited about it. I’m very glad I did as all the participants are now all on the same page, but it also means that I had a 9 month “delay”.

The other highlight is probably the meeting about the top 25 metrics. Even though we were with only a small group, the outcomes were amazing and I cannot wait to combine the results of that meeting with the process definitions that we are creating in the next couple of meetings. I reckon that alone will be invaluable already!

I read the transcript of that conversation and it sounded very interesting. How does your recording of events and discussions differ from other KM practices?
I record EVERYTHING and publish the full transcripts. The reason is that I want to go back and search for the reason behind a particular decision.

Many standards are not being followed because the users (Devs, Testers, BAs) don’t understand the reason for doing something. And who can blame them. No single person can be up to date with the latest versions of BABOK, PMBOK, Lean, SixSigma, Kaizen, ITIL, CMMi, Cobit, etc, etc. One would have a day job keeping up to date.

So I reckon it comes down to explaining why a particular standard is needed. And in order to do that, we need full history.

It also helps us when we start updating our standards, that we can look into history and find the meetings that a particular topic was discussed.

The knowledge Management around it is very different. What I thought of doing very recently, is that I can just say tags and the transcript will pick it up. So just as podcasters use “EditPoint” phrases that audio software can automatically find, so can I inject stuff into the conversation that I can later use to search for. For instance I should be able to say “Hashtag ALM001” and the transcriber then knows to insert #ALM001 when we are talking about standard 001.

It does touch on something vital to the progress of the conversations within the ALM Community meetings. We need to build on the success of previous discussions. So all knowledge is captured in a way that it will be reusable in future iterations of discussions.

Thanks Stephan.

If you lovely readers want to learn more - head along to a meetup soon. Or go read and watch some of the content published at the library. Perhaps even start your own group.