Who is Mary Poppendieck (@mpoppendieck) ?

The next (already nr 11) person in the “Who isserie is Mary Poppendieck. I have seen Mary talk already in a few occasions. I remember posting a video of a talk she did on my blog, but even I can’t find it back so I guess it must have been in my dreams. (I hope Tom won’t be mad at me that I dream of Mary ;- ) )

On a more serious base: I really met Mary for the first time at Agile Train were I enjoyed discussing with her. I was scheduled to follow her class at AgileEE 2009, but that was cancelled due to Toms illness. What amazes me most about Tom & Mary is that they are now talking all over the world talking about lean & agile in what I would call their second career.

I think many agilists consider Mary & Tom among the top agilists, and yet they stay so accessible. The last x years I have send mails to both of them on small and large questions and I always get an answer, and usually one that blows me away. And Tom deserves a mention as probably the agilist that read most books. When I walked around with my booklist at agile 2010 I think Tom was the only person who know and probably had read all books. Impressed. Oh and Tom is the un-official (or should I say official) photographer of all the agile conferences he goes to. And he was so nice to let me use one of his pictures for our New years video of 2009. (Did I mention already they are nice people? )

Brust-FamilyWhat is something people usually don’t know about you but has influenced you in who you are?


The biggest influence on me was my mother, a math teacher who had wanted to be a doctor.  Her father – an eminent physician – told her she should become a nurse, because that’s what girls did.  Well, that was all she needed to decide that she was NOT going to be a nurse. She chose the hardest subject she could – math – and got a Master’s degree. (I also have a Master’s degree in Math.) My mother was 29 when she married; never one to do things half way, she had 11 children in 15 years. The picture (above) is my family when I was 13. My mother often talked about how she was going to write a book, and perhaps this is what kindled my interest in writing. She used to type essays for me, until I learned to type them myself. I got my first job as a programmer in part because I could type!


If you would not have been in IT, what would have become of you?

I was thinking of becoming a math teacher, but then I decided that teaching was the thing girls were expected to do, so being my mother’s daughter, I could hardly do that. I considered becoming an actuary, because it required a lot of math.  But there was this new thing – programming computers – that intrigued me. So I took the road less traveled, and it turned out to be a good road. But I’m sure the other roads would have been good roads also – you always take yourself with you wherever you go.


What is your biggest challenge and why is it a good thing for you?

The biggest challenge for a writer/speaker is to constantly come up with new ideas. To do this, Tom and I travel a lot and learn from the many people we interact with. Tom is a voracious reader, so he is a constant source of new ideas. Often I have to propose a topic for a conference talk months in advance, so I try to pick a topic which I think is becoming important, intending to learn more about it in the next few months. The challenge is to have something meaningful to say about the topic by the time the conference arrives.  Sometimes I look at the abstract I wrote months earlier as I prepare for a talk and say to myself “What was I thinking?” But I never change the topic; instead I try to imagine why someone would come to the talk and figure out what they are interested in hearing. Some of my best ideas have come to me as I developed a particularly challenging talk.


What drives you ?

I write because I would like to do a little bit toward making it possible for people who develop software to love their job.  I always loved programming, and when I returned to the world of software development in 1999, I was appalled to find that the job has become largely one of drudgery instead of passion. This felt wrong to me.


What is your biggest achievement?

During the 1990’s I worked on developing new products based on polymers. When I left 3M in 1999, I returned to the world of software development and encountered terms I had never heard of before: “waterfall” – “maturity levels” – “earned value” – terms like that. These concepts did not make sense to me, so I decided to write a book that challenged the prevailing thinking about software development. Along with the hard work and efforts of many others, I think the book and its sequels have helped to change the way software development is thought about and managed today.


What is the last book you have read?

I’m currently reading a couple of books:

In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson, about Berlin in 1933.

Specification by Example” by Gojko Adzic

The Clean Coder” by Bob Martin

Probably my favorite, however, is Henrik Kniberg’s mini-book “Lean from the Trenches”


What question do you think I should also ask and what is the answer?

You should definitely ask about Tom.


When I left 3M I had five years left before retirement income started, so I needed a way to make some money. I decided to go back into software not because I had done it before, but because Tom was a software architect in a consulting firm. He had been reading widely about the latest developments in the field and suggested that it held a lot of opportunity in a rapidly growing market. The first talk I gave – on object-oriented technology – was one Tom had prepared for a local group, but he had to travel, so I gave it for him. I had to learn a lot about object-oriented technology in a very short time! When Tom first brought home Kent Beck’sXP Explained,” I was annoyed by some of the ideas – especially pair programming. It took a long time for me to buy into TDD, and in fact, the biggest failing in my first book was that I had not yet completely bought into the idea, despite Tom’s best efforts to convince me. Tom is not so much a writer as he is a photographer and physicist (in that order), and that makes him a very deliberate thinker with an amazing ability to analyze situations and find patterns. He is probably more of a co-author than most, because he co-authored all of the ideas in our books. And he is undoubtedly the best book reviewer in the business.


Who do you think I should ask next?

Update: if you liked this, please buy the “Who is agile” book. It contains similar answers from other agilists. And Mary’s answer to the question: What is your favorite leisure activity?