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Exclusive Interview: Agile Alliance Managing Director, Phil Brock

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While many industry conferences are contracting in size and even cancelling their shows, the Agile Alliance is worried about a different kind of problem: how do you curb the overwhelming success of your event and prevent it from growing too big?  After all, who wants to attend a crowded show with over 2,000 people clamoring for space and face time with speakers? You want to go where everybody knows your name. 

The Agile 2009 conference, which was held in Chicago this past summer, brought together about 1,400 agile enthusiasts and practitioners.  The size of the event speaks to the growing industry momentum behind agile, as more organizations move beyond pilot projects towards large scale agile adoption. Those who work diligently behind the scenes to create and manage such conferences often get a unique perspective on the pulse of an industry.  DZone's Shana Deane had an opportunity to have a conversation with one such individual, Phil Brock, who is the Managing Director of the Agile Alliance. In this interview, Phil talks about agile trends he's observing, the Agile conference, and future directions for the event.

The complete transcript of the interview has been provided below. 

DZone: I'm sitting here today with Phil Brock, who's the managing director for the Agile Alliance. Welcome, Phil. It's a pleasure to have you here today.

Phil Brock: Thank you for having me.

DZone: Nice to see you. I just wanted to start off by saying that the show has a lot of energy. We're excited to see the crowds back this year. Can you tell me a little bit about your response? Now that we're two days into the show, how do you feel the show's going this year?

Phil: Extremely well. I think one of the things people are surprised at is the size of the crowd that we have this year. This is not our largest conference, but this is our second-largest conference on record. We have between 1,350 and 1,400 attendees. I don't have the exact number, but it's a good number, in any case. And as far as our sponsor participation, this is the largest year for sponsors, on record. So I'm feeling very good about the show.

DZone: Fantastic. Well, congratulations. I think, in the midst of a recession, that's an accomplishment that certainly stands out. And that sort of leads me to my next question. I think that what we're seeing here is an adoption of agile that's sort of in an interesting phase in its history. A lot of people feel that agile is right on the edge of exploding and about to take off in terms of its adoption. Could you speak a little bit to where you think agile is in its adoption in the market and what you see, moving forward, for the alliance in supporting that growth?

Phil: Well, where are we on that curve? I think that the term "agile" is extremely well-known. And I acknowledge the fact that the term "agile" is a buzzword. I am not convinced that agile has crossed the chasm into the mainstream. We are beginning now, however, to see adoption of agile in a larger way in some of the larger corporate entities, and that gives me great hope. But that represents, really, a sea change in terms of culture. Large corporations are like large ships, and they move very slowly when they change direction because they're dealing with the caution that comes out of business and huge amounts of dollars. But we are seeing adoption there, and so that's very encouraging. It's an exponential growth, but we're now just on the cusp of seeing greater adoption with larger enterprises.

DZone: That's true. I feel that the culture of agile, from our perspective, is sort of a cool factor. It was sort of a marginal thing. And as we see larger companies like IBM making announcements about deploying across massive scale, what we see is a maturation of the product model. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit -- you mentioned that this year's sponsors and the vendor community have come out in force at the largest scale it has so far. You say that the word agile has been adopted, is well-known...

Phil: It's known.

DZone: It's known. Where do you think the gap is? Where do you think the gap is between folks who think they're adopting agile or they're moving in an agile way, versus the reality of agile adoption and transformation?

Phil: I'm not sure I would put it quite that way. What I mean to say is I think people are aware of the word agile, and they have a notion of what that might mean. That, as opposed to the businesses and enterprises, the departments that are actually starting to engage in the process of agile adoption. And now I'm completely losing my train of thought. [laughs]

DZone: Well, I have a question about you. We were talking a little bit about how agile gets adopted. Several of the thought leaders we've talked to this week have talked a lot about how agile often is sort of born out of a bottom-down engineering, that the team in the pit, if you will, will adopt agile and agile methodologies. But then there seems to be a challenge at the adoption at the middle tier or at the management tier. And one of the trends that we've seen, in speaking with some of the larger companies, the IBMs of the world, is that there seems to be a movement to establish leadership tools, to make sure that we're bringing middle management and upper management into the agile transformation.

Can you talk to that a little bit? Does the alliance have its own plan for supporting management and the sort of executive approach to agile more effectively, as we see big companies really doing agile now?

Phil: Well, we're working on it. We're working on it.


Phil: The Agile Alliance mission is to support the adoption of agile software practices. And as you mentioned, that can happen from the bottom up. It can happen from the top down. It typically does not happen from the middle. Those managers are the ones who probably feel the most angst about that process coming at them, because they don't understand what it means to their own jobs and security. With that said, we've recently formed an advisory committee for industry to advise the Agile Alliance on how we can actually serve the needs of, probably, as much as anything, larger enterprises. I think we're doing a pretty good job of serving the needs of very small companies and consultants. That's many of the attendees that we have. We're not convinced that we're currently serving the needs of the larger adopters, yet.

But we have formed a committee -- I'm not going to mention the individuals, but from some larger enterprises -- to advise us on how to assist them. We need to understand what their pain is.

DZone: Over the past few years in these agile conferences, have you seen an evolution of the typical attendee? And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to any evolutions in the kinds of person who attends the conference, and also, with that, the kinds of questions or problems that you're getting the most demand for content against.

Phil: Well, you get into the content areas...

DZone: [laughs]

Phil: And I'm probably going to leave most of that for Joanna or Ahmed Sidky to respond to. But first of all, there is an actual, pretty consistent observation that I can make over the last four conferences. Well, this would be the fourth conference that I've been involved with. And that is, about 60% of the conference attendees each year are new.

Now, that number seems to surprise a lot of people. What that speaks to, I believe, is the growth of agile adoption, because people who are curious about agile and who want information are coming to the conference, obviously, to get those needs met. That's quite consistent.

Now, the other 35%, those are people who are part of this core agile group. Those individuals come year after year. They're the thought leaders. They are the people who are behind the evolution of agile.

I'm losing my train of thought again. [laughs]

DZone: That's all right. It's OK. [laughter]

Phil: We love editors. [laughter]

And they love us. It's all good. So I just wanted to ask a question about the agile conference, looking forward. We've had some conversations with other members of the board, and they've talked to an interesting... In a world where growth is just the greatest thing in the world, there seems to be a sense of caution in allowing a conference like the agile conference to grow beyond a certain size in terms of attendees, say, up over 2,000. Could you explain the sort of thinking that those..?

Phil: The rationale behind that?

DZone: Yeah, what's behind that caution? I'd love to hear more.

Phil: Yeah. And I'm not sure I would characterize that as caution. It's more a perception that the Agile Alliance conference has been comprised of these sort of two groups of attendees: those who are new to agile and the older -- I hate to use the word "older." [laughs] We're all young.


Phil: The important thing about the agile conference is that sense of community. The agile conference is unlike any other software conference, in the sense that this agile community, there are people who are known in that community. These people have this amazing passion for what they're doing. It's not just a bunch of software geeks. Quite a different group of people. Now, the concern on the part of the Agile Alliance board is to preserve that sense of community which is so precious. And the thought and the rationale behind restricting the number of attendees to 2,000 or so, the thought is that if the conference were to go beyond that, people would just simply become lost in the crowd. And we're not going to allow that to happen.

With that said, there is also quite a bit of talk on the part of the Agile Alliance board about the possibility of creating smaller, domain-specific kinds of conferences that would come under that same umbrella. But the annual conference, the Agile 200X conference series, that is the gathering of the tribes.

DZone: Now, one could say that perhaps there is an agile solution to your scale problem here. And I wondered... [laughter]

DZone: As a fan, and someone who sees us sort of at the bottom of the hockey stick, I hope that you come up with a solution that allows it to grow, and we look forward to the solution that you come up with. And thanks so much for putting on a fantastic conference.

Phil: Well, thank you very much.

DZone: We're thrilled to have you, and we appreciate you taking time to talk with us today.

Phil: Absolutely. Thank you.

DZone: Thanks, Phil.

Phil: You bet.

Published at DZone with permission of its author, Nitin Bharti.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)