James the Shoe Shiner

A few weeks back I was humbled by about 100 graduates.  They attended an event called Level Up hosted by ThoughtWorks in Johannesburg.  I was speaking last and everything that I wanted to say was said by the time I stood up.  So, I went impromptu and spoke about why we change jobs, that a focus on design will see you through in the world of software, and that life is a cycle and we will do well to do the same as is being done to us right now to start our careers.

Then I rushed off to the airport, and the content of my improv talk hit me fully with stark reality.  When the airport is quiet, like it was that Saturday evening, I know that business is bad for the shoe shiners.  Here was James, the only shoe-shiner around.  It was 6.30pm.  He finishes work at 7pm.  I asked him how much short was he of his daily quota.  It was a slow day, he said.  I opted for an expensive shoe shine so that James met his quota.  I know that if James didn’t meet his quota, it is taken off his weekly wages.

James, it turns out, is from the Eastern Cape.  He graduated last year with a Diploma in Electrical Engineering.  He came to Johannesburg to get a job.  It is a tough job market, but he was finally offered a job.  But he couldn’t take it because the job required him to have a driver’s license.  Now he shines shoes to save money to take driving lessons, then he enters the job market again.  That job won’t wait for him.

My talk from half hour before of why we change jobs hit me hard.  In John’s mind, the only thing he needed was an education, and everything will work out.  Then he discovers these hidden constraints.  He changes jobs – temporarily, he hopes.

This moment has lingered with me for weeks and it clarified three things only today.

  • Indignity is imposed, humility is a choice.  To make a person kneel before another to polish shoes is an indignity.  That a person has chosen to polish shoes as the needs to an end is humility.  The work we do is not what defines us.  We define our work.  I have heard several agile coaches telling people that if they are unhappy, then they should change their company or change their company.  Most have changed jobs feeling an indignity that was imposed upon them.  I wonder, though, whether life would have been better when that same “horrible” job was embraced with humility.  I know sometimes we have to flee.  In my life, when I fled too quickly, the real issue was never resolved.  It just surfaced some time later.
  • Living in the promise of the future or the longing for the past is to live in limbo.  The past ends in this moment, and the future starts in this moment too.  We live in the present.  That is part of being truly agile.  Just changing jobs because of something in the past or the lure of the future somewhere else is to lose what we have in the moment.  It is not enough, though, to live in the moment.  To be in the moment demands an awareness.  Adjusting a course based on awareness beats reacting to stimulus.  Reacting to a stimulus puts us into a fight or flight choice.  Adjusting with awareness keeps us in a contemplative place.  Agility is about continuous transitions, each so tiny, that we can’t see the jagged edges over time.
  • Unexpected constraints take us into uncharted places.  James needing a  driver’s license is his unknown constraint.  Now he shines shoes.  We don’t know who he might meet shining shoes that may take his life on a different path.  Similarly, the truly agile team will embrace an unexpected constraint and look for opportunity in the uncharted beyond.  The process religious agile team will try to reject the unexpected constraint, fearful of the great beyond – like anti-bodies fighting a virus.  To be truly agile, we need to just embrace the unexpected as it pops up.  I see many teams attempting agile software development by just tweaking settings on known constraints.  That works for a short time only.  Our  software, after all, is only one requirement away from being hopelessly invalidated.

One shoe at a time, James’ life is changing.  James is agile.  Working with humility, embracing the unexpected constraint of needing a driver’s license, living in the moment, being aware of an empty airport and short of his daily quota.  That is how we should build software – living in the moment with awareness, letting it change our life daily.

I believe this is possible.

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