Alan Atlas at Scrumtisch Berlin


Posted:   |   More posts about S3 Amazon Scrum Hadoop
At the last Berlin Scrumtisch, @AlanAtlas gave a presentation on how he introduced Scrum at Amazon (starting as early as back in 2004). Introducing Scrum at Amazon by that time seemed natural due to a few factors:

  • Amazon was and is always very customer centric. The original methodology of working backwards in time - that is starting with the press release, from there writing the FAQ and manual and finally get to the code - really made people concentrate on the product.
  • Teams were sized according to the two-pizza rule: Each team is supposed to be no larger than can reasonably be fed for lunch with two pizzas. Turns out that is about five to ten people, given regular american pizzas.
  • Management didn't really care exactly *how* the job of software development was done. They only cared *that* it was done. This proved as both - an advantage as it gave quite a bit of freedom - and a disadvantage - as indifference leads to impediments in the process that cannot be easily resolved.


The goal of Alan's team was to build an infinitely scalable, zero downtime storage system that had a web service based interface - it was the S3 team. Given the task at hand, it was clear that the task wasn't going to be anything even close to trivial. Alan's idea: Try Scrum on that.

He himself came to the idea after attending an Agile conference and hearing about Scrum for the first time there. Alan requested a Scrum training from his manager, who approved it, provided it took place in Seattle - close to Amazon HQ that is. Turns out, the Scrum trainer available in Seattle happened to be Ken Schwaber.

The idea of Scrum basically was spread by word of mouth propaganda: In the hallways, in the smokers lounge, close to the coffee machine. People started adopting it - with some teams doing better, some worse. Allan himself got two days a quarter to give people an introduction to this funny new methodology called Scrum.

18 months later, S3 was shipped - as a side effect, the number of subscribers to the internal scrum mailing list had increased from three to 100, there were 150 CSM graduates, still three teams using XM, reputation of scrum was mostly positive.

In January 2007 others started giving their own introductions to Scrum. Developers generally liked it, there were significant failure cases, lots of resistance and misunderstanding mostly on the management side who sometimes confused it with lean production.

In June 2008 Allen became a fulltime internal Scrum trainer. First thing organised was a Scrum gathering - in an open spaces like setup people were invited to discuss their issues and questions on Scrum.

In January 2009, about 50% Scrum usage was reached, their were 600 subscribers on the Scrum mailing list, 450 CSM graduates, reputation of Scrum was as good (or bad) as months before. However it became more and more clear that further restructuring would only be possible against a lot of resistance.

There were a few lessons learned from introducing Scrum in other companies as well:

  • You cannot introduce Scrum if there is no notion of comparably stable teams (as in for at least six months, not five projects at a time per developer).
  • You need permission and ownership of committments to really get going.
  • You need to know at least the basics of Scrum.


There are a few factors that make introduction easier: Community matters. People need to be able to talk to each other, exchange experiences and learn from one another. Coaching matters. More support, immediate success in lots of cases is the result of getting a coach on the team. Credibility for management increases, Scrum implementation is easier understood that way, skepticism and resistance reduced. Management matters. Middle management must be part of the process. They will mess up scrum if not educated correctly. Going bottom-up works up to a point - but to go the whole way, you do need management.

For Amazon, that is the point where implementation got stuck for Allan: Management was neither interested nor really involved in Scrum. However there are some impediments that cannot be fixed w/o. Still Scrum is working to some extend - teams are still trying to get better and improve the process. So it is not really "Scrum, but". Even going only part of the way helped a lot already.

As for the questions: There were a few unusual ones - e.g. on what to do with a team that is itself skeptical about Scrum introduction - especially if that was done by higher management. There are a few ways to remedy that: Point out success to the negative team member. Make that member a Scrum master to let him go through the process and really understand what is going on. And above all make the reasons for going that way clear and transparent. Including promises and wishes from that change.

Another question dealt with how to convince management of Scrum. Clearly better performing teams with happy developers ("you cannot buy developers with money only") are some valid reasons.

Yet another question dealt with convincing customers. Allan's way is to sneak Scrum into the process: Speak the customers language. If he does not like spring planning, call it a project status meeting.

Asked for cases of developers feeling like they work in a hamster wheel when doing Scrum, the general consensus was that it needs to be made sure that people do not only get more responsibilities but get the benefits from Scrum as well. Otherwise Scrum with all its numbers and measurements can be perfectly abused and turned into an amazing micro management tool.

Asked for other bay area companies using Scrum - yes, apple does so, Microsoft at least tries to. Google certainly uses the ideas, without calling it Scrum. Facebook seems not to use it. Xing (not bay area) uses Scrum. There seem to be about 50% of all software development companies worldwide who are using Scrum.

After the talk there was time to gather and have some pizza and pasta, time for drinks and discussions. I really appreciated the comments and ideas exchanged after the talk. Hope to see you all next time around.