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Agile isn’t new

Being agile isn’t something that one discovers after reading the agile manifesto and going to a two-day course. Agility is a mindset, and that mindset is present when there is a complex problem to tackle. With that complexity, there needs to be certain things present for the problem to be solved. In the following post we will review the story of Clifford Stoll, an astrophysicists, that worked through a problem involving the KGB and a hacker/spy ring across the globe. Through his story, we can highlight some key ingredients that were present for Stoll to successfully uncover a hacker/spy ring manipulating the predecessor of the internet to uncover classified information.

The purpose of this post is to show you that Agile Principles are not new. Truly, the Agile Manifesto codifies what should happen when we are given a problem to solve with little way of knowing how to solve it (albeit tailored to software). In Clifford’s Stoll’s own words, he says that he solved the problem with science. In other words, Stoll made assumptions, tested his theory, and received results that confirmed his theory. Many of us will recognize that approach as the scientific method. But, the way in which Stoll captured the data he needed to prove his assumptions leveraged people and interactions to overcome roadblocks in his work. In other words, Stoll demonstrates how an agilist navigates difficult problems.

An Agile Case Study

Clifford Stoll was an astrophysicist that lost his grant and began to work in the Lawrence Berkley computer lab servicing the network on campus. While reviewing the accounting reports, he noticed a 75 cent billing error. That particular error led to Stoll, investigating some more and discovering that a hacker was using their computer network in an attempt to find confidential information. Keep in mind, that this story happened in 1986, 15 years ahead of the Agile Manifesto. If you want to see the entire story, you can watch it here. The program was produced by Nova and is only about an hour. Definitely worth the time. The rest of this post will focus on events of the story and show how agile principles were used before anyone codified such things in the Agile Manifesto.

The Network

In a key admission throughout the story, Stoll admits that he wasn’t sure of what he was doing along the way. Recognizing that lack of knowledge, Stoll recruited others to help with his problem. He networked with other people that had the skills and knowledge that he needed to obtain more information and feedback. Stoll required knowledge of computer networks, the hardware to document activities on a network, and how to track someone over telephone networks. None of this fit into the circle of knowledge that a astrophysicist possesses.

So, rather than being roadblocked by his own experience, he reached out for help and built a network of people to help him solve his problem. He outlined the problem, and the network contributed their expertise. A hierarchy of titles wasn’t present. Stoll didn’t call the shots, but presented the problems for the network of experts to figure out. In this story, everyone contributes their sliver of knowledge to move the solution forward.

Inspiration Through Collaboration

At one critical point in the story, Cliff is stuck trying to figure out a way to keep the hacker on the line so that he can track that person’s location. The network trace led him to Germany, but in order to specify an exact location, telephone network engineers needed to have the hacker online for roughly an hour. Typically, the most time the hacker used was a couple of minutes.

In outlining his problem to his girlfriend an her friend, they came up with an idea to create content that looked confidential. In essence, they were advocating a honey-pot that would keep the hacker occupied for the necessary amount of time. The suggestions didn’t come from security experts. You don’t have to collaborate with the best in a particular field to solve a problem. Sometimes, there is value in the act of discussing a problem with those outside a field of expertise.

Self Organizing Team

Somewhat related to the idea of building or leveraging a network, is the idea of a self-organized team. The people that joined Cliff in his work weren’t assigned to him. They volunteered to help out when outlined the problem that Stoll was trying to figure out. Moreover, they were given latitude from their organizations to help solve the problem. Cliff’s boss ensured that he had the resources, access needed to continue to work the problem. Additionally, Cliff’s boss gave him the access, latitude, and space to run his experiments, gather data, and recruit others to solve his problem. Stoll was able to work his problem due to trust by his employer.

Applied Feedback Loop

Throughout the story, Cliff demonstrates the need for iterative work. As an example, in the early stages of trying to detect when the hacker is on the network, Cliff stays in his office next to a phone rigged to notify him that the hacker was active. This approach iterates to the use of a pager where he doesn’t have to physically be next to the terminal every hour. This change was a result of negative feedback from his girlfriend at the time who didn’t like the idea of him being holed up in an office day and night. This approach was a common occurrence throughout the story. Cliff tries something, gets feedback, tries to iterate on the approach by incorporating that feedback. Stoll leverages the scientific method and applies it to the dynamic environment and problem.

Cross Functional Teams

When Stoll was trying to figure out where the hacker was coming from, everyone else was at an impasse. The network engineer could give him the delays or relay counts, but it was up to Stoll to translate those data points into something meaningful. So, Cliff, as an astronomer, applies his unique knowledge. Calculating how fast light travels, Cliff was able to deduce where in the world the hacker could be. By using his expertise in a completely unrelated field, he was able to accurately deduce probable locations, which were outside of the United States. This instance shows how important cross-functional teams are in an agile setting. When it comes to solving complex problems, a cross functional team can take knowledge from other fields and apply it to the problem. Broader experience can translate to higher agility because there is greater room for experimentation and problem-solving.

Applying this to overall agility

For Managers

As an agilist, you can apply multiple lessons to this story. If you are in the management role, having an environment of trust is critical. Allowing your people to operate and solve the problem by getting out of their way is the best way to enhance your agility. This doesn’t mean that you should be non-existent. You should still have check points with your team. But, let the team focus on the problem and clear any roadblocks that come in their way if you can. Cliff’s boss mainly stayed out of the way of his work, but he did provide him the resources, access and materials he needed to solve the problem. I imagine he also provided the cover needed as well when other departments made demands for Cliff’s time, resources, or team mates.

For Teams

The other thing to realize is that your framework is less important than your interactions. Stoll was able to be probably the first to detect a network hacker. He did this without a daily-stand up meeting, without a formal retrospective every two weeks with his team. The means were less important than the outputs and progress on the problem. What matters is the quality interactions and collaboration that occurs in solving a problem. Branded agile frameworks, as Steven Denning calls them, are a means to enhance interactions and uphold the agile values. They aren’t a measuring stick for a team’s or organization’s agility.

For Individuals

The final takeaway from this case study is the ability to adapt. Cliff Stoll’s story shows the importance of being able to adapt. His journey started with an unexpected change — a grant running out as an astronomer. He wasn’t a network engineer, forensic accountant, or computer scientist. But, he was able to adapt, learn, and build a network where all those challenges could be solved. Your ability to adapt to circumstances individually will determine how well you are able to navigate uncertainty.

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David Bjarnson

David is an agile practitioner for 6 years in various capacities working specifically on software development for a number of different companies. David has his CSM, CSPO, CSP-PO, CSP-SM, and PMI-ACP certifications.

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