5 Easy Questions for Alistair Cockburn

The easier the question, the harder the answer.

I recently had the idea of asking a number of people in our industry the same five questions. 5 questions that are easy to ask. 5 questions that are important for software development managers like me. 5 questions that are probably a little hard to answer…

So I emailed this idea to a number of celebrities, and behold… I got several replies! I already published the answers given by Johanna Rothman a few days ago. And Alistair Cockburn and Scott Berkun were also very quick to respond. It's going to be very interesting to see how this series is going turn out…

Alistair Cockburn is the author of Writing Effective Use Cases, Agile Software Development and Crystal Clear, the books that finished at #12, #22 and #46 respectively, in the Top 100 Best Software Engineering Books, Ever. Alistair is "an internationally renowned project witchdoctor and IT strategist, and a several-time winner of the Jolt & Productivity book awards". He is also one of the guys behind the Agile Manifesto. Alistair has his own site at alistair.cockburn.us.

These are the five questions I asked Alistair, and the answers that he gave me. He told me he practiced stream of consciousness writing in his reply. So what you're reading is what actually went on his mind…

1. What has been the toughest challenge in your past?

Challenge in what respect? At age 7, I moved from an English grammar school
in Bangladesh to 3rd grade in Baltimore and then Cincinnati. I dressed
differently, spoke and moved differently, had been taught different material up
to that point, and was two years younger than my classmates. That was the
toughest challenge by a long shot. But is that what you're asking?

At age 3, I was in a fire that nearly killed me, and I spent the next year in
the hospital, and had skin graft operations for years after. But I don't
remember any of that. Was that the challenge you're asking?

I twice had to tell my boss or sponsor (when I was a consultant) that
he/she was asking for something completely non-sensical, and put my job on the
line, once just shortly after I moved my family to Switzerland, once on my first
freelance consulting job. Both were career threatening. But is that a "toughest
challenge"? Not compared to the first two.

I once had to somehow squeeze an outrageous amount of computer graphics
hardware onto a single board in a tight timeframe to meet a demo deadline. I
worked 90 hour weeks and created new algorithms and strange uses of standard
chips. This was a tough challenge, but only a technical challenge (well, and
staying awake), so probably it doesn't really count in your question

2. What is the main source of inspiration for what you do?

Watching people do almost anything they do well or enjoy. Also, watching
them avoid doing things they don't want to do. An unending source of inspiration
and information.


This can run the gamut from grilling salmon or kneading bread, to playing
world-class squash or designing a new algorithm. Or perhaps avoiding doing
homework or perhaps doing it really well, or skipping steps in a design process
and coming out with an acceptable or perhaps even better solution.

3. What activity should be on every manager's daily list?

I don't know that there is a "daily" anything – I'm not built to believe
such a thing.

However, the Toyota people have a phrase for "go to the source" – this
means, for a manager, walk around and see what obstacles people are really
running into, see what they are really accomplishing, not relying on their
roll-up synopsis in a meeting. If I had to pick one thing, that's the first that
comes to mind.

4. What can we learn from you in the near future?

Hah. I have this view that teaching is pushing a string, and learning is
pulling the string. Literally taken, your question is, "What strings will we
choose to pull from you in the near future?" The answer, quite obviously, is "I
can't possibly know the answer to that – that is up to you, not me."
I rephrase your question to what you possibly intend, it would be, "What are you
looking at these days, what are you likely to output for us to look at?" (i.e.,
"What strings are you likely to lay out for us to consider?), then there is
perhaps an answer.

These days I have three topics about software on my mind:

Outside of software, I have another three:

  • deploying my new web site, which has a new multi-media content-management
    system we designed (we call multi-media content "muffins" since there isn't a
    term for such a thing otherwise);
  • publishing my first book of poetry (see
    http://alistair.cockburn.us/ Two
    potatoes, groping in the dark (book) … that URL is currently broken, since my
    current site host "upgraded" to a new system that won't accept funny characters
    in the URL; one reason I need my new site to start working!)
  • starting a
    line of industrial-design products, primarily for consumers, the first of which
    being a new shape of flip-flops called Boomerops (see http://boomerops.com)

What will you learn from any or all of this? I have no idea.

5. What is more interesting than software development?


I like puzzle-solving, and, to me, software development is only one aspect
of puzzle-solving. I liked solving puzzles in school and college, did hardware
design for years enjoying mostly the puzzle-solving aspects, did programming for
years enjoying the puzzle-solving aspects, did project management for years, not
really enjoying it, frankly, because it's a hard, lonely, thankless profession,
but really enjoying the moments of creative puzzle-solving (yes, dear
programmers, there really are some :).

About as good as solving a puzzle, coding it up in software and watching it
run is working with a room full of people to solve a problem that can't be
solved by anyone alone. There is a buzz and elation as the group mind fits
together, the total IQ available jumps upwards and ideas fly. That combines both
connectedness between people and puzzle solving. And if I'm lucky enough to be
the facilitator, then there's a double energy, the second of which is the
real-time act of steering the room's energy into fruitful channels. Given that
the sum of the room's energy and IQ exceeds the facilitator's, there's an energy
rush to facilitating a problem-solving session that can feel like channeling a
herd of agitated bulls across an uncharted field.

Separately, I have a total fascination with the way the mind links with
reality. It manifests as a person does almost anything. I used to refer to it as
the boundary between mind and computer, but it's more general than that. It is
also the boundary between a person's mind and mathematics, for example (math
doesn't really suit the average person's mind very well – it's that mismatch and
the joining points that I find interesting), the boundary between rational
thinking and emotion, the boundary between a person and a problem the interface
between a person and a piece of software, the interface between a person and
almost anything. This is a deep well with endless fishing and terrific

Well, these are the answers given by Alistair Cockburn. I hope you liked them. Next time I will show you Scott Berkun's reply to the same five easy questions.

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