I’ve held this story back for a number of reasons and for many years.  I was concerned about how this story might impact some of my colleagues in the remote work and agile industries.  Mostly, I was concerned about how it would impact my family and my own livelihood.  But with the increasing division in the world, I hope this story can bring more understanding and acceptance of what “different” can be when working together.  This is also my story of differability — my ability to find different ways to work.

I’ve been part of the agile work community for many years.  First, agile revolutionized software development.  Developers needed a different way to work and to connect with customers to deliver their best work.  There were many obstacles then to developing a useful product and very few of them were technical. I was one of those developers tired of developing software that didn’t quite meet the need.

The values and principles of the Agile Manifesto — released in 2001 — inspired me to connect more with others.  I connected more with team members, leaders, stakeholders, and customers.  I found some early success in meeting many of their needs in more efficient and even fun ways of working.  I wanted to share it with more people.  I also found some of my gifts in experimenting safely with ways of working in business as well as teaching, facilitating larger groups, and listening for and responding to needs.  These discoveries surprised me as I considered myself a introvert (as Susan Cain would define an introvert).

The principles of agile development then became attractive for other parts of the business world and for me.  The concept of “inspect and adapt” was becoming my normal way of working.  I became dissatisfied with anything routine.

In 2008, I joined the amazing agile coaching team at Rally Software where I leveraged my gifts, expanded my skills, and helped clients in many different industries.  I worked with product development teams, marketing teams, sales groups, large corporations, and non-profit organizations.

One of those skills that I continued to develop was working remotely.  I had often worked with remote teams and while agile experts always preached face-to-face work, the words “inspect and adapt” haunted me.  How can we be agile and not try another way of working that allowed different people to collaborate?

I found ways to adapt well in remote environments. I came across very effective remote teams.  I even helped build some of those teams.  I discovered it was a true alternative that worked well for certain people and organizations.  I never believed remote work would fit all businesses and individuals, but I felt strongly that it should be a choice.  I even found businesses that made that choice well before Covid-19.  Look at the history of Automattic as one example (See this April 2020 story and this Oct 2021 story).

In 2014, I had two other key changes in my work-life story.  First, I was invited to join a cybersecurity company named Sonatype to help them build their agile remote working culture.  That became a wonderful six-year journey where I was given tremendous freedom to help the organization experiment with better ways of organizing and maintaining a global product organization.  We had well over ninety percent retention of staff as we rapidly built this organization in a highly competitive cybersecurity market.  I was told by one of the senior executives that our remote agile culture was one of the motivations for the purchase by a private equity firm in late 2019.  I left in early 2020 to continue to share my experience in building successful distributed agile teams after co-writing my first book with Johanna Rothman.

Now let me explain the second key change in 2014.  This change emerged slowly at first but became critical to how I leveraged agile principles.  In my last couple of years at Rally Software, I noticed traveling and working with clients was becoming more challenging.  I couldn’t quite identify the problem, but experiencing dizziness and disorientation would occur while working with some large client companies and traveling frequently through airports.  At first, I assumed fatigue to be the main cause of a busy work schedule.  However, the episodes of dizziness and disorientation became slowly more intense and more frequent as months passed.

After visiting three different neurologists since 2015, I still don’t have a clear diagnosis for my condition.  I only know that it’s slowly intensifying each year.

For me, symptoms can be triggered very quickly and produce increasing dizziness, disorientation, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and a severe impact to focus.  Currently, it can be difficult for me to stand, walk, drive, or even carry on a conversation when the condition is triggered.

One of the most curious symptoms I found was during the Agile2016 conference (usually more than 2000 people in attendance).  Walking into the vendor space, I would be speaking with someone and all I could hear was the crowd noise.  The crowd noise would increase for me, dizziness kicks in, and the other person’s voice would fade out no matter how hard I concentrated.  Stepping out of the crowded space didn’t matter once my condition was triggered.

Once I experience a trigger, there is no stopping the process.   A good night’s sleep seems to be the only way to reset my system.  So if I’m triggered in the morning, my day finishes.  If I cannot end my day, I only focus on very tactical things.  I find I can still do some writing.  But presenting, teaching and facilitation don’t go well when the symptoms show up.

You might be wondering what triggers I’ve discovered.  In short, anything  involving multiple indoor conversations seems the strongest trigger.  This can include busy restaurants, busy stores and shopping malls, crowded theaters and concerts, busy airport terminals, cruise ships, open marketplaces, and any similar spaces.  In my prior roles as agile coach, this meant big room planning, large sprint reviews, retrospectives for anything beyond a single agile team, and any high-energy collaborative in-person activity — like all those agile games — becomes triggers.  And yes, in-person conferences have become the most difficult place.

Being in high-stress situations becomes another easy trigger.  I had most of these scenarios mapped out by 2017.

Over the years, avoiding these trigger scenarios or finding ways to distance myself from the center of a trigger scenario becomes the best prevention.  If I go to a busy store with my wife, I can’t stay long and will go outside.  We no longer eat at restaurants.  House parties with friends are no longer a party for me.  I stay home. And while in-person conferences have come back after the Covid-19 pandemic, I don’t tend to go or apply to speak anymore because it’s difficult for me to be in crowded public spaces.

So was my agile coaching career over?  Could I no longer meet the need of customers?  Did this mean collaboration was over?  These questions ran through my head since 2012.

Other conclusions overrode those concerns:

  1. I knew how to help individuals, teams, and organizations work better together online. Collaboration, work, and connection did not require an office.
  2. Some people and some types of work require colocation.
  3. I truly loved teaching, coaching, and mentoring others to find better and more pragmatic ways of working.
  4. I enjoyed being a practitioner more than a pundit of remote work.

Most of my past blog posts address the first two points.  I need to work remotely now because of my condition, but that is a personal decision.  I’ll always argue that many need that option and others need an office and it should be a personal choice.  Some of my remote industry colleagues may want to argue that.  For me, it’s not worth the argument.  This is why I have disengaged from the noisy remote work community.  I’ll share more on that another time.

For the second point, the agile community also seems to be running back to colocation.  Look at the number of agile conferences that have gone back to in-person gatherings with no remote option.  I’ll share more on that later as well.

However, the last two conclusions were also somewhat surprising.  Developing and running my own business proved too stressful (trigger). As an early solopreneur, you don’t truly get many opportunities to collaborate and you have to truly have a clear vision to pull you through some difficult times.  My vision became clouded by my condition.

Finally, I missed working within organizations to help build them from within.  I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I was back into a small consulting business and finding many ways I could contribute, collaborate, teach, and mentor others. As an agile thinker and big believer in transparency,  I’ve been open with my new employers so they are aware of my limitations.  They have already seen how I contribute to project/program management, employee engagement, business development, research, and other areas.  It feels good to be collaboratively building an organization again.  The company name describes the culture — Sprezzatura — "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it".[1]

So once again, I found a way to work differently and collaboratively.  I have made some observations as to what has enabled that. I may occasionally post some general insights on my blog.  But I’ll share more personal insights on what it means to find your ability to work differently in my new newsletter on Substack.  Substack is becoming more of a collaboration tool between writers and readers.  So that potential for collaboration with you becomes very attractive to me.

I’ll continue to work remotely, explore different ways of working better and share with those who are interested.  I’m also continuing to work on my book with April Jefferson and that is shaping up to have many stories on working differently.  I hope you connect and collaborate with me on Substack where I’ll continue to share the journey.