Gorilla Review: Rally’s Agile Portfolio Management Product Launch

On December 6th, 2011 Rally held the first launch event for their new Agile Portfolio Management product. Hogarth and I were there.
My fingers were flying at the speed of bad bugs appearing in legacy code. The darkness of the room barely slowed me down and I mentally gave a thanks that my keyboard was so silent. I’d be caught up with the project plan by the end of the presentation at this rate!
“Isn’t this your project the Engineers are pontificating on?”
Curses! And I was getting so much done. I turned to peer into the darkness beside me. Only Hogarth’s gleaming teeth were clearly visible in the half light from the projector screen. “Hogarth I don’t have time. If I can get this report done while they present, then I’ll be able to report all deliverables for the project are on track.”
Hogarth lounged back in the chair picking his teeth with a fragment of branch. “So tell me, I thought you were running an Agile program?”
I sighed. I’ve tried ignoring him in the past and it never worked. Giving up I turned to look at him. “We are.”
“Uh huh, and you’re in the process of filling out a hundred line detailed feature matrix why?”
“Because I still need to be able to track the details, but we’re running Agile for the work. We have sprints and everything.”
Hogarth nodded sagely. “If all the street signs are in Polish, there’s pretty good odds you’re in Poland.”
“What?!”
“In other words, methinks you doth protest too much.”
Summary:
You can’t get a much nicer venue than the Rosewood Sand Hill. Anyone who knows Silicon Valley, knows Sand Hill road is famous as Venture Capital alley. So it stands to reason that the hotel on Sand Hill is one of the most elegant facilities you will find. As I trekked from the outer parking lot I first passed the black suited town car drivers, huddled in conversation as they waited to whisk their businessmen off to the airport. Crossing the cobblestone courtyard I passed a Porche 911, Mercedes McLaren, Bentley Continental and a half dozen other who’s who of the Top Gear cool wall cars, each one more costly than my entire annual  salary.
It certainly set  the tone for an event Rally is billing as their “first product launch.” The company clearly set out to make this an event to remember. Something to be said as this was the first of three such events to be held across the US. The hotel was the back drop for an elegant European style breakfast buffet and a ball room that I could easily picture dukes and duchesses promenading across in a grand march. Technology was certainly not lacking, either. The hotel itself gets another nod for the concealed projection screens and projectors that slid from the ceiling at the flick of a remote. The entire event was broadcast as a live web event, but not just any conference call webcast. The entire back wall was a mass of audio visual equipment and personnel, including two fixed cameras and a roving camera operator.
This free event was well attended, for the size of the event. I would say the number was between 65 and 75 participants with probably a good 15 Rally folks to see to their every need.
The venue was grand, the technical setup perfect and the Rally event staff was on top of things. That just left the content. With swings up and down the scale, but mostly on the up, Rally hit this ball for a good solid triple. I’m not prepared to give it a home run, but it came close.
Ryan Martens, Rally founder and current CTO, opened the event. He was skillful in establishing his and Rally’s bona fides without coming off as gloating. No mean feat when he talked about his presence at the Agile Manifesto 2011 reunion.
Getting Crossing the Chasm author, Geoffrey Moore, as the keynote speaker was an excellent choice. Speaking from the principles of this new book, Escape Velocity (every attendee got a free copy), Moore both outlined how he envisioned the power models of a successful company and tied it all back to Agile and Agile Portfolio Management. I’m certainly looking forward to reading the book, but the key take aways I’ve already picked up are gold in themselves. His description of Offer Power – Differentiation, Neutralization and Productivity  – opened my eyes to some components I know I’ve been missing in my own Gorilla Philosophy. Getting outside the yellow circle to be different and “good enough, quick enough” are key concepts I walked away with.
From here Todd Olson, VP of Products, got up to demonstrate the new product – it was a product launch after all. At its core, Rally’s portfolio management software is pushing into the “game changing” category for Agile software. This wasn’t an attempt to reskin existing product and cram it through the square hole to fit. The software is aligned to the idea of “Do the right things” as opposed to project level software which focuses on “Do things right.” There seems to be a fair amount on customization capability that will allow users to morph the product to fit their project. I did have some concerns and confusions but in the spirit of agile, “Done beats perfect” and this product is certainly done.
Nina Schoen, of Getty Images, provided the customer testimonial. She walked us through Getty’s process of getting control of their roadmap and portfolio. The success of the roll out was so good that their marketing department has started using it and the task level kanban process.
The session was capped by a panel Q&A session. Here I came away with two key things. First is the name Dave West of Forrester Research. He’s a strong voice for Agile/Lean/Commonsense and not afraid to use his British wit and irony (“Our customers don’t want rapid releases from us?” “Maybe because your product is awful”) be to drive his points home. Rally certainly thinks highly of him as he’ll be their keynote for the Dec 8th event. The second is the simple reminder to not let perfect be the enemy of good. Or in this case, just start doing, improve as you go.
The Good:
I already highlighted a lot of the good points in my summary, but let me hit a few stand outs.
  • Geoffrey Moore’s presentation style: He’s got a sharp wit, a great presence and a passion for his topic. A joy to listen to.
  • Technical setup: I don’t know who the AV company Rally hired was, but they deserved a bonus. Everything ran smoothly.
  • Wired and ready: They didn’t just prepare for social media, they promoted it. Every slide had the events hashtag, wireless was provided and every Rally speaker gave their twitter handle as part of their introductions.
  • Did I mention Geoffrey?
The Bad:
I’m a project manager, I look for problems, I get paid to. My wife is also a professional event planner, so I’ve learned to see even more.  
  • Point the way: Rosewood has a policy of clean lines and uncluttered elegance. Because of this, they don’t have signage up. That’s fine, but make sure the concierge knows where your registration desk is.
  • Timeboxes keep on slipping, slipping, slipping: We lost some good QA time at the end for lack of good time boxing. Also, the post lunch break out sessions were only 45 minutes, not the hours advertised. Call a spade a spade in the agenda and list the meeting close as its own topic.
  • Hash marathon: #AgileNewLevel was the hashtag. I’ve only got a 140 characters to work with. Taking 14 of those away for a hash tag longer than the Titanic cuts into my ability to Tweet. Keep it under ten.
  • Just the facts ma’am: During Todd’s speech he showed off their timeline visual tool. It looks a lot like a Gantt chart. That’s fine, for the purpose of the tool it works great. What didn’t was his quote “Not a Gantt chart, this is based on facts, real data.” Gantt charts are just the visual output of data. It doesn’t care of the data is real or not. A well run Waterfall project has a Gantt chart based on “real data.” Agile doesn’t have the lock on that.
  • Feature fixation: My biggest gripe with the new product was the use of language. They did a great job of using “Goals” at the highest level of the portfolio track. Unfortunately the next level down they switch to “Feature” and even go so far as to “assign a feature to a product owner.” Ouch…
Words are very powerful and can create entire preconceptions. When I say “I met Sandy today,” the image most people get is that of a woman. Sandy just isn’t a common man’s name. When you use the word feature, my experience is that people naturally tend to move to the “how” and not the “what.” We lose sight of the user story and focus on a specific implementation. One sample “feature” Todd created had to do with setting up USPS priority shipping functionality. That’s a feature, not a user story. A lot of Product Managers have enough issues with understanding how to focus on the value, without giving them a tool that lets them easily fall into old habits.
  • Put the laptop down and no one gets hurt: The meeting is in full swing, the CTO is expounding on the dedication and focus of Rally. He’s selling us all on the company. And while he’s doing that, a good half the Rally staff was along the back wall of the room Mac Books open or doing the Blackberry prayer.
Seriously? This is supposed to be one of the most important events in your companies ten year history and you can’t put down the computer for a couple of hours? Yes, someone was monitoring the online attendees. That needed to happen. Go sit at the huge AV table with the other AV folks where you are invisible. But it didn’t take ten people to monitor online attendance. While the Rally CTO, Mr. Moore, Product VP, and distinguished customer were expounding on Agile, the back of the room was busy checking emails (I hope they were checking emails, if someone was playing Angry Birds, for shame).
If work is that important that it can’t wait, leave the room. If you are in the room, put the computer down and give the people on stage the energy they deserve. I can say that for me personally it made me have second thoughts about the dedication of the company if they can’t focus on one thing for three hours.
Final Call: If this were a book, I’d give my bookshelf index now. But its not and this is the first event I’ve ever reviewed, so bear with me as we find a standard closing measure. I’m certainly interested in Rally’s software and will likely check it out in more detail. I’m impressed with their events and would attend another. I worry about the product’s focus on more waterfall terminology and I really didn’t like the emailing wall.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Talker Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

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