I met Francesco Cirillo 7 years ago when I attended an XP workshop put on by his company XPLabs.

In the years since then I’ve had a number of occasions to work with him and listen to his talks. I’ve always liked the way that he is able to take his in-depth knowledge and wide-ranging skills and shape them into the ideas and enthusiasm that pervade his life and infect the people around him.

When I saw that he was on the BetterSoftware2010 #bs2010 panel (Dinamiche di team di sviluppo), I thought it might be interesting to ask him few questions:

PierG: Francesco, I thought programmers were lonely stars: why are you talking about teams in your speech?  

Francesco:  PierG, we’ve both been in this field for awhile and as you well know the reigning model of that time, what we all dreamed of doing, was to Be the Best Programmer of All – the Star – and to have a team of assistants: some to do the debugging, some to organize and print documentation and perhaps meet with clients, etc… It’s even been codified as an organizational model: it’s generally referred to as ‘the Surgeon and his Assistants". This model aims to employ the human capacity to manage – though a single mind in a single place – an entire intricate knowledge of a system.  In other words, the surgeon would save time by answering his own questions :-). It was thought that the star could manage hundreds of thousands of lines of code, give or take a line. People who were able to handle truckloads of code and slough off collateral hassles (meetings, documentation, bugs) were recruited. But over time the stars who took this approach were subject to brain burnout caused by the increasing complexity and a sense of obligation and guilt. Under the burden of these responsibilities, it’s pretty easy to end up working 16, 18, 20 hours a day and be miserable. Some of the questions I’ve always asked myself:  how can a group of people work under a single mind in a way that is sustainable and pleasant? What effects does hierarchy have on efficacy? How can we develop shared knowledge and authentic collaboration? I think this is why I became a mentor and coach. And this is why I’m giving a speech on working in teams.

PierG: So, what suggestions would you give to team members (starting from managers 🙂 ) ?

Francesco:  First: Don’t work to motivate others. There are ethical reasons not to (it is always a kind of manipulation whether conscious or not) and anyway, it doesn’t work 🙂 . I don’t let anyone tell me why I should work: it’s my energy and I decide what to do with it 🙂 This is an important point: if it’s ignored, failure is sure to follow. Not right away, but inevitably it will happen when you face a problem that calls for a cohesive team with a unique vision. I’ve recently written a post about this I Don’t Want To Be Motivated By Anyone But Myself. Second: don’t make teamwork into group therapy sessions. First of all because we don’t know how to do it and in any case it just doesn’t work. It’s not a good idea to interpret, make things personal, place blame and then have to get out from under that. On the other hand it’s a good idea to make a collective effort to understand the objective causes of problems. Third: Practice 100% responsibility. Being 100% responsible feels good and it leads to the enjoyment of accepting new and greater responsibilities. It’s good for everyone. In my experience, without these three points it’s impossible to think about an effective and reactive team, nevermind one that self-organizes.

PierG: Francesco, you are a very prolific entrepreneur: XPLabs, AgileMethods, the Pomodoro Technique so you know it’s not easy: why is it so difficult to start your own company in Italy?

Francesco: Ah, but this is just the beginning 🙂 . There is no lack of good ideas in Italy. It’s just difficult to get them going. As most Italians know, absolutely anything you do, from ordering a cappuccino (in the exact cup at the exact temperature and with the exact combination of coffee, milk and who knows what else requested) to getting to the office with public transportation (with the potential aggravating factors of precipitation or strikes) can turn into an authentic adventure. This likely adds to foreigners’ fascination with Italy. If I had two weeks’ vacation, I too, wouldn’t mind heading out for a place only to ‘change my mind’ when it turns out to be impossible to get there by lunchtime. This mentality generally becomes less acceptable when it causes a continuous stream of obstacles – arising from unpredictable combinations of unattributable inefficiencies, useless abuses of power and self-congratulatory obstructionism – that beat down a project. But it’s an ideal environment in which to learn to be Agile 🙂 I think explaining why Italy is the way it is isn’t easy even for Italians, nevermind foreigners. It’s not that there’s a lack of ability; it’s a question of ‘desired incontrollability’. I think that every Italian feels that being perceived as  subject to control (as in ‘do what what you are expected to do as per your role’) is an unpleasant, lowly condition that determines scarce personal worth. Perhaps the explanation that best matches reality can be found in Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel "The Leopard". This is part of what makes things difficult.

How can a company located in Italy win against efficient foreign competitors? Never accept the ways of working imposed by the Italian ‘system’; concentrate instead on developing all of your abilities in the direction of reactivity, efficiency and agility. The ceaseless unpredictability of events here means that rigid, inflexible plans will inevitably meet with failure.  How could you predict that when you go to the Italian Post Office for information about shipping costs, that the clerk – without any apparent reason – will tell you that neither he nor his manager has time to answer your questions? But this cloud has a silver lining. New tools and solutions have to be invented all the time to turn each of these obstacles into an opportunity for a better solution. To do this we need ideas, and luckily, in Italy, there is no shortage of people with good ideas.This is an ability that we have developed over the years. And we are proud to be able to export this knowledge. If Swiss companies call on our Italian company to improve their organization, it means that we’ve learned something valuable.

PierG: What are you working on now?

Francesco: My next project….As you know I’m writing a book. At the moment the project is secret. It’s not an easy book to write but I think that it will be able to help a lot of people in the work they do every day…(but it’s got nothing to do with the Pomodoro 🙂 ) I feel like a big opportunity is being given to me with this. Unfortunately I can’t tell you anything else for the time being 🙂


I met Francesco Cirillo 7 years ago and every time I meet him again it’s always a pleasure … so I can’t wait watching his presentation at BetterSoftware2010 (have a look at the interesting special Twitter discounts , it’s a kind of new at least to me)