Next week, I'll be involved in discussions over who gets the Agile Alliance's Gordon Pask awards. I'm writing this blog to bust a few myths about the award and selection process.
Despite rumors that the award is an "old boys club" selected by past winners, I've been on the committee from the start. I'm female and automatically out of the running, as a board director of Agile Alliance.
The Creation Story
We were nearing the end of an Agile Alliance board meeting, the day before Agile2005 conference was due to start in Denver. After a full-day retrospective, facilitated by Esther Derby, we had been focused on identifying strategic goals for the upcoming year; board members were keen to have something tangible to announce at the conference. When our outgoing chair, Brian Marick, impetuously proposed the award. As I remember it, Brian said something like "I want the Agile Alliance to give away some money at the conference! I propose an an annual award program to encourage people to go out and do something!" He proposed an amount and a committee (himself, Dave Thomas, and me) and the board duly approved. The weird name of the award came later when it was announced at the start of the conference.
Picking winners while Agile2005 was going on was hard. We met in an empty ballroom while the Google sponsored reception was going on. After I was disappointed to find that my name was drawn as winner of an iPod but I wasn't there to claim my prize. Instead, while the fun went on in the next room, we deliberated long and hard into the evening, over names hand-written on index cards laid out on the table, much like we would with stories in a planning game. For each person, we reviewed why they were nominated, what we knew about their achievements (writings, community building, ideas) and crucially whether receiving the award would encourage them to do more.
We were very conscious from the start that singling out individuals for a "reward" can upset people who feel that their own contributions were more deserving of recognition. Although the award comes with a cash amount, this is not intended as a prize to recognize achievement but money to support the recipient spread their ideas more widely. Several years, there have been conditions attached to the use of the money, such as it can be spent on travel expenses to speak at conferences on two different continents.
The first recipients of the award were: Joe Rainsberger (who is the present program director) and James Shore. In later years, the award has gone to: Steve Freeman & Nat Pryce, Laurent Bossavit, Jeff Patton, Naresh Jain, Kenji Hiranabe, Arlo Belshee, Simon Baker & Gus Power, and David Hussman. You can read a short summary of why these people were given the award here.
The ControversyOver the last year, I've seen the award get some flack over twitter. For instance, Jean Tabaka recently tweeted "so what are odds a woman will get #gordonpask award this year? So far, I hear age and no beard are barriers." Clearly, this is intended as a humorous jab. Age and sex are not reasons that Jean hasn't received the award. Her success as a published author and prominent speaker around the world are what put her out of the running. Other well-known industry figures, such as Mary Poppendieck, Mike Cohn, and David Anderson, have been nominated over the years. Why don't they get the award? Because they are already recognized thought-leaders.
Crucially, we give the award to people who do not have wide industry recognition and who need a boost to go out and spread their ideas further. The award website says "In order to grow the next generation of Agile thought leaders, the Award is given to people who aren’t already routinely invited to conferences, presumably because their reputation is not yet widespread." So if you're already on the A-list then you don't need an award.
However, the Gordon Pask award is also not an award designed to recognize performance on an agile team. Every year we get nominations from teams who'd like their coach or local evangelist to get the award for doing a great job in their organization. We're delighted that so many people feel this way about someone they work with. But performing well is not what the award seeks to recognize. The Gordon Pask award has a different purpose to encourage the lesser known community builders and thought-leaders do more. By giving them an award, we hope to make them more visible and encourage people to emulate them.
Why No Women?
So now the question that keeps coming up. Why has a woman not received the award yet? Agile software development occurs in a male dominated industry. I've been working in software development since the late 80's and I've gotten used to that. There are only a few women nominated for the Gordon Pask award. Although I'm glad to say every year we have some female nominees up for consideration. However, as a woman, I would be most upset to have the recipient chosen because that person is a woman rather than someone who we'd like to see emulated because of their ideas and contribution to the agile community. As someone who works hard in a male dominated industry, I hope women are up to being considered on equal terms and we don't select a "token woman" because a few people gripe about it on Twitter. If a women receives the award she can be confident that she got it because of her work not her gender.
I'm delighted that this year the Agile Alliance has a new Diversity in Agile program (lead by Mike Sutton) which is working to shine a light on Women in Agile. To "seek to discover, record and celebrate what little gender diversity we do have" by sharing recorded interviews with women nominated for their exemplary work. The interviews will be exhibited in the Open Jam area of Agile2010 conference. These interviews take a lot of volunteer effort to create, I know as I was one of the guinea pigs for the questions during a practice run at Agile Coach Camp Germany!
Diversity in Agile is explicitly not an award program from the offset and hopefully there will be no accusations of unfairness that has been leveled at the Gordon Pask award program. Although Lisa Crispin's blog on Gender Diversity notes that there has also been some confusion about this.
The Weird Name
Finally, the biggest mystery about the Gordon Pask award is the name. This is not explained on the award program website. Brian Marick was the creator of the award; he named the award after a british cyberneticist because the field of cybernetics depended on a few great men who did not foster other to follow on their work after their deaths.
Back when Brian proposed the award, people in the agile community were a little too dependent on words of wisdom from the early gurus, like Kent Beck and Martin Fowler . I'm glad to say that these gurus are still alive well-respected but there are now plenty more thought-leaders who've worked their way up the ranks. Agile Alliance may not need the Gordon Pask award to encourage this.
I'd like to think that recipients of the Gordon Pask award have gone on to inspire others. I hope that they were all spurred on by receiving the award (most of them were surprised to even have been nominated). Some have since published books while others have written blogs about their work and presented their latest thinking to new audiences. However, I'm also glad that there are many more agile stars who have gained industry recognition without an award to give them that boost and that many of them are women.
This blog is based on my own personal recollections. I am only human and I don't always remember things exactly as they happened. I have not asked Agile Alliance, Brian Marick or any of the Gordon Pask Award committee to review what I have written. However, I will be happy to make corrections and hear your comments.