Interview with Brian Marick – Intent of the Gordon Pask Award

Aaron: I was reading your old blog and found, “We in the Agile community need to do more to promote and encourage the rising stars of tomorrow”. What was happening at the time that prompted you to assert this?

Brian: I was at that time hanging around with a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois, who was writing a book on the British cyberneticians; very larger-than-life figures, but who had no effect. Eventually they retired, or died, and that was kind of the end of it. The first wave of people failed to build up the next wave. At the time I was wondering if we would have a next generation in Agile.

Aaron: How then did you feel that providing an award in Agile would help keep that community strong?

Brian: It would be a way of saying, “Look at this person. This person has things you need to hear.” So rather than tagging along behind Ward Cunningham at conferences, look up J.B. Rainsberger or James Shore. That’s essentially it. Listen to these people, give them opportunities to speak.

Aaron: What were some of the challenges in instituting the award?

Brian: There were none.

Aaron: There were none? Interesting because it says, “One day before the start of Agile2005, the Agile Alliance board voted to create the Gordon Pask Award for Contributions to Agile Practice.” Did you guys discuss it for a while? Was there something that led up to this vote?

Brian: We were at the end of a 2-day retrospective. Not much of immediate visibility was accomplished. It was more along the lines of: we will set deadlines, we will investigate the following in the future and I asked, “Well, why don’t we just do something?”.

I proposed the Gordon Pask Award and I probably ranted on about cyberneticians. Everybody said, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea!”. So somebody said, “How many people?” and we said, “Two.” and someone said, “How much should the award be?” and somebody said, “Well how about let’s make it something substantial like ten thousand dollars for the two of them?” and everybody said, “Great!”. It really went very fast.

Aaron: I was also noticing on “Luck” that there are some flaws to the Gordon Pask Award. Have you seen any of these troubles?

Brian: Yes, in the sense that at any given moment there are a bunch of deserving people. We always worried a lot that it would feel arbitrary. There was some talk that because of the issue we should maybe reward it to an idea. People like awarding it to a person over an idea, even though often that person represents an idea.

There have also been some worries that we could get locked in. The first two people who got the award were programmers. I’ve gotten complaints that it’s too much of a programming award and not enough of a management award and that could well be true.

Aaron: Are there different things you do to temper concerns people have?

Brian: The people involved in giving the award are all the past award participants plus the original three (Brian Marick, Rachel Davies and Big Dave Thomas) bring up the issue when we have the actual meeting.

Aaron: What comes to bear when you get together to discuss potential awardees?

Brian: We have basically divided it in to accomplishments and service. I remember in the first award I looked on my machine and saw that J.B. Rainsberger had contributed fully 37% of the posts on the test driven development mailing list. Looking through them a lot of it was spent answering questions. That’s contribution to the service, to the field. People who are active in user groups, for example.

Steve Freeman and Nat Pryce are both active in the Extreme Tuesday Club, which is where a lot of real good ideas have come from. That weighs in to it.

Aaron: Was there such a big pool that it was easy to draw from and has become tough over time?

Brian: The toughness is that there are multiple candidates. An issue that repeatedly comes up is that in theory we would like to believe that there is a person poised on the edge of some sort of break through and we can tip him right over the edge. One of the discussions we continually have in the meeting where we do the selection is, “Does this person actually need our help?”.

Aaron: I would assume that adds some difficulty in finding people that can really take advantage of what the award has to offer. Getting somebody’s name and their word out there.

Brian: Yeah, exposure. We’ve always had a discussion about, is handing somebody a check for $5000 the right idea? A better way to do that is to say the money is for speaking somewhere.

Aaron: And the idea was there because of cybernetics and knowing how much was lost through that. Was that somewhat of a prompt for you?

Brian: That was a prompt for me, yeah. I don’t know that any body else cared about that. I think they all thought, “Oh there he goes again with that ‘wierdo stuff’. It’s a good idea no matter what the motivation.”

Aaron: So I guess that ‘wierdo stuff’ is what got it to be called the Gordon Pask Award?

Brian: Right. The interesting thing about him is that he worked with communication. He had this notion of communication as a cooperative and competitive game. At the time it resonated with me when I thought about Alistair Cockburn’s stuff about projects as cooperative games and I think that was when I first heard of “pair programming ping pong” which has very much the style of Pask behind it. Of all the people he seemed to fit the closest to Agile.

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