Exploring Uncertainty with Kent Beck

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Kent Beck is a third-generation geek. His grandfather was a radio geek, his father, an electrical engineer, moved to Silicon Valley in the 60s, and Kent and his father built their first personal computer together. He’s the creator of Extreme Programming, alphabetically the first signer of the Agile Manifesto and most recently helped Facebook scale their engineering organization from 700 to 5,000 people.

Helping Geeks Feel Safe In The World

This is one of Kent’s creeds, and as a third-generation geek, he’s looking to help the fourth generation. As a mentor, he encourages younger programmers not to worry so much about finding their purpose from the beginning; instead, they need to get out there and try things, investing in new experiences, then connect the dots later. And feeling scared has two sides: some situations feel scarier than they need to feel, and others should feel scary. Knowing the difference – and how to handle each – is key.

Kent shares the story of how, on a consulting gig, he realized that one small tweak—rearranging furniture—was more important than sharing his virtuoso programming skills. The corner office executives were literally sitting in the wrong place. This lesson, Kent recalls, was the beginning of the course change that led to Extreme Programming.

Extreme Programming

Kent started by considering a conventional belief: programmers couldn’t be trusted to test their own code. So he began experimenting with ways to challenge that belief with automated testing. But there was a deeper disruption Kent had in mind: programmers being responsible for their own mistakes and for fixing them in real time. He and Barry dive deeper into what that really means, and how it resulted in the Extreme Programming framework and more.

The Truth About Courage And Innovation

Despite what people say to and about him, Kent doesn’t believe he’s courageous or innovative. Instead, he feels that he’s just doing what he senses needs to be done. Instead of over-analyzing and worrying if he’s got a perfectly formed idea, he starts trying it out. This is what Barry calls a ‘bias of action, and they dive into Kent’s way of behaving that makes him stand out. He has several habits to help him learn, and unlearn—fast; the first of those is to reverse and test any sentence that starts with ‘obviously.’ The second is to ask, “Can we try this?” Kent shares some practical applications of how he works and a few more habits and systems you can use in your own work.

Cycling Through Ideas

Cycling through ideas as quickly as possible is another strategy Kent uses to innovate, and he shares how he tends to make small changes quickly to see how effective they’ll be. And more importantly, how easy they will be to roll back if they don’t work.

He explains his latest concept of, Test & Commit || Revert. And Barry and Kent talk about how this principle applies not just to programming but can be used to launch new products, improve systems of work and entire organizations.

What’s next for Kent?

The impossible: he’s setting out to discover how to scale software collaboration beyond what people believe is sensible. Specifically, how to have software application with 100,000 engineerings, each deploying over a 1,000 deployments times a day.

Listen and subscribe to the Unlearn Podcast at
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