The rise of White October




You may have noticed that I use a testimonial that I received from the managing director of my former employer, White October, a UK web agency, based in Oxford…

“Ed transformed our company and the way that we work…The quality of our work shot up; our relationships with our clients became closer and more constructive; our planning became easier and more realistic.”

— Dave Fletcher, White October

Ten years of WO

White October started in 2003, so this year marks the 10th anniversary of the company. I recently came across the interview that I embedded above that Dave did for BBC Radio Oxford, last month.

Since I left two years ago, White October’s doubled the number of employees,  won an award, started not one but two tech conferences (jQuery UK and the brilliantly names All Your Base), and helped foster the web community in Oxford. Sounds like they are really going from strength to strength.

You might find the interview interesting to hear how he started up the business (from his bedroom) and some tips about how he grew to where he is today.

Dave Fletcher and I

Dave was kind enough to say lots of nice things about me, so I’m not sure why I’m pulling such funny face in the photo of us.

Obviously, WO’s success is mainly due to Dave’s hard work and business acumen; building a great culture, getting great people, and finding stimulating work that sustains all of this. However, I like to claim a little bit of the credit for their continued success, even though I was only with WO for a year and a half out of their ten years 🙂

I’m really pleased to say that later in the year, on an trip back to the UK, I’m going to stop in and provide a bit of agile/lean training for my former colleagues and more recent arrivals. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the company has grown, and to inhabiting my old haunts in Oxford!

Why I am not a ‘Sensei’

This article is where I reveal why I call myself “Projects’ Little Helper”. It also contains martial arts, but possibly not in the way you think it will.

Head shot of the most badass web developer I have ever met

The most badass web developer I know

If I ever got into a fight. This web developer is who I would want as a wing man. His name is Tony, and I met him when looking for developers for a team I was putting together. He’s a great developer, who worked well and communicated well with with everyone on the team, not just his fellow devs. He is also a top bloke.

He was coding in .NET with us at the time, but was really passionate about Ruby on Rails, and has since been able to use his Rails skills on professional projects like, the crowd-funding site for authors. He’s also the person who taught me about Behaviour Driven Development.

In the twelve or so months that I worked with him, he also taught me a few other things…

“You’re like a project’s little helper”

When our team broke up, and he moved on, I decided that breaking out of command and control mode (AKA Standard Operating Procedure), was the way that I wanted to continue working. So I decided to start up this site, publish some thoughts and ideas, and build an identity.

The question then became, “What do I call myself?”. I didn’t really want to call myself “Agile Ed”, or “The Lean-gile Guru Ninja Sensei”, or “A Future-nator Thinkologist Alchemist”. That type of thing did not really sit well with me, however I did want to call myself something apart from just Ed Wong, so that people could tell me apart from Edward Wong of the New York Times, or Edward Wong the Hong Kong business magnate.

This is where another aspect of Tony’s brilliance emerged; he’s the reason that I decided to call myself Projects’ Little Helper. He said something along the lines of, “Ed, you’re good at helping people work better together; helping to create the conditions for getting good stuff done. You’re like a project’s little helper”.

I had a think about it, and thought that this really describes not only what I do, but the real reasons why anyone should contemplate “going agile”, or “doing lean”, or whatever, in the first place. Photo of Tony and Ed (and Chris)

Every braggart will be found an ass

Who knows himself a braggart,
Let him fear this, for it will come to pass
That every braggart shall be found an ass.

— William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, Act IV, scene 3, line 369.

Another thing that I  learned from Tony is that if you’re a true badass, you don’t really (need to) go around telling everyone how good you are, or calling yourself a guru, ninja, sensei or The Maestro. It took a while for us to find out that Tony was pretty damn good at Aikido. For example, he would be teaching 2 or 3 nights a week, so we had to organise trips to the pub around this, or he would book off a week to go and “train in Norway“.

Eventually, I realised he’s a 4th dan, and has been training since the early 80’s. This was a man who could probably snap my arm off without even trying. Take a look at the photo below, of him performing an aikido throw. Effortless.

Of course, once we realised, we obviously started asking him stuff like, “Have you ever been in any fights?”. To which he’d reply along the lines of “It’s better to have a good pair of running shoes on”.

Photo of an aikido throw

In my opinion, it’s much better for someone else to say how good you are. So if you’re wondering, my references are available 🙂

Going Extreme! My first taste of agile.

AKA “Being agile without Going Agile”.

Ye olde project wiki

In 2004, I started working on a project where the lead developer said, “I’d like to use Extreme Programming“, also known as “XP”. This bemused me slightly, as it conjured up images of white water rafting, and ironing in strange places. I went along with the idea though, and I found what I could on the web. At the time, there was a lot less material out there than there is these days. In particular, I remember gleaning what I could from the Extreme Programming wiki.

This project was my first involvement in what could be called an agile project. The lead dev and I had daily 15 minute meetings, we broke up features into smaller pieces, we had a list of features (which the business ordered/prioritised), we had 2 week iterations, and we increased our shared understanding on a wiki. We also had a form of acceptance criteria for the different functions on each page of the product.

We didn’t officially call it “Agile”, we just said to the business, “We can deliver what you want more effectively if we do it like this.” Because we had framed it in this way, we didn’t need air support from upper management. The business stakeholders, didn’t have time to dislike the idea, because we just started, and began to show them results as quickly as we could, as often as we could.

I had a hybrid role in all of this. I was called the Project Manager, but in reality I functioned across a variety of roles. As well as doing “PM” stuff, I also performed Business Analyst, (sort of ) iteration manager, and Product Owner duties. I also functioned as a (kind of) user experience designer. I used a pencil and A3 sheets of paper to create paper prototypes/wireframes, which is something that I advocate to this day, as one of the best techniques to use on a project. I also went out to customers and ran test of early versions of the product.

It’s still one of the projects that I look back on most fondly. A few years later, that product got “updated”, by a different team, who switched it to a different system. This supposedly increased the features available to users, but in reality confused, and didn’t add any value for them. There was a backlash about the “improved” version, such that the company decided to roll back to the version that all of the customers liked, used, and found valuable. It remains one of my finest moments at that job!

Unfortunately, I had to go back to “Standard Operating Procedure” on my next project. I’ll tell that story in a future article, that has the working title, “Retrospective, Retrospective, Retrospective!”