Mentors of Michigan Tech: Tom Meloche & The History of Agile Programming
By Laura Cowan
Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.
Helene Gidley and Tom Meloche of a2agile give us a tour of their space in Office Evolutions co-working space on Eisenhower. Each room is a space for a different team.
Tom Meloche, a long-time agile programming advocate recalls: "We taught the first class with 'agile' in the title in the tri-state area, maybe in the country," he says. "We tested the word agile in advertising instead of extreme programming, and it worked better. Now the word is overused, but that's what people are searching on."
Meloche met Cronicle co-founder Archie Cowan around a decade ago, when he was working at Menlo Innovations, at the time the primary advocate in the area of this new thing called agile programming, which involved paired programmers working together to quickly iterate a type of software development that could course correct mid-stream. He moved on to other consultancies, launching a2agile with a colleague he met along the way, Helene Gidley. They get along great. In true agile pairing practice, they sit across from each other at a single desk in the Office Evolutions co-working space on the south side of Ann Arbor, where teams can rent private smaller office spaces to collaborate like agile teams do without disturbing other groups.
"We switch seats every other day," Helene laughs. "In some co-working spaces you can't really collaborate because everyone has their earphones on." Helene and Tom really do believe in the importance of collaborating. It's part of the agile process.
Tom says he wanted to see agile at scale, so after traveling and consulting with larger companies on the practice after leaving Menlo, he decided to stay local and founded a2agile to help corporations. In that process, Helene was one of his first training students. She says she embraced the process and dove right in. "It was hands-on training," she says. "Instead of lecturing, he had us break into doing work. It was a new technique of how to manage work with all these pieces of folded paper. It was a visual planning method. Helene left her role of project manager at Pfizer in 2003 and joined Tom, who had sold his stake in Menlo.
What does agile coaching look like now that agile has gone mainstream? "Instead of evangelizing, we focus on good business practices lost in agile going mainstream," Helene says. Tom agrees. "There's a ton of stuff that got left out of agile that large companies desperately need."
Tom launched a book called Ceremony: A Profound New Method for Achieving Successful and Sustainable Change at a LeadersConnect group by Rob Pasick in 2017. Helene leads the annual Agile Coach Retreat in Ann Arbor, and is the founder of Agile Groupies, a Scrum Alliance Meetup, based in Ann Arbor with over 300 members located in the southeastern Michigan and northern Ohio area. Both Tom and Helene speak at Agile & Beyond conferences, and Helene at PMI Chapter meetings.
What does agile coaching look like now that agile has gone mainstream? "Instead of evangelizing, we focus on good business practices lost in agile going mainstream," Helene says. Tom agrees. "There's a ton of stuff that got left out of agile that large companies desperately need." They call it "Appreciative Agile."
The Office Evolutions conference room can be rented out for events hosted by member teams.
a2agile now focuses on the problem of product ownership in agile, and how individuals can manage their work process being more agile within large corporations where they can't influence the entire culture. "We want people to find more happiness, productivity, time with family and not have to change their environment to be sane," Helene says. "How do you do agile to be more happy and productive without expecting culture to change?"
Another book by Meloche, published originally in 2011 and on its second edition.
We asked Tom how this agile thing got started, before everyone saw the value. He laughs. "Menlo was the easiest thing I ever did," he says. "A bunch of owners who wanted to work together the same way? People were always asking, 'How'd you get people to work this way?'"
When it's not like that, Helene says, the best way is to work with the individual. Tom says he was recommended by Menlo co-founder Rich Sheridan as a "consulting team" on agile, people not realizing the team was just Tom. Tom ran into a lot of people who were super enthusiastic about learning more about what was going on back at the Menlo offices. He once suggested people take tours of Menlo, expecting that to die out pretty quickly. Today they still run tours and breakfasts on a regular schedule.
"We want people to find more happiness, productivity, time with family and not have to change their environment to be sane," Helene says. "How do you do agile to be more happy and productive without expecting culture to change?"
Today, a2agile coaches internal coaching teams to have a greater impact within large organizations. Tom says that along the way, he realized their best practices had a lot in common with psychotherapy techniques. "It's a continual investment in yourself," Helene confirms.
"We screen people out," Tom says. "If you don't want to change, let's find something else for you to do." They both spoke enthusiastically about a class they taught together. Why was that so fun? Seriously, they always seem to be having fun. It probably has a lot to do with psychological hygiene of what they teach: this is a team that cares a lot about how they treat each other. Helene says, "This was a class where people had self-selected to come in." They were already enthusiastic and ready to learn. It's in their classes where everyone wants to be there, as opposed to sent by managers, that the real agile work gets done.