Our fifth installment of Fresh Agile Voices features my interview with Chicago native Jeff Singleton. Learn about Jeff and his agile coaching experience.

Interview Transcript

Anthony: So welcome everybody. I’m really excited today to be hosting Jeff Singleton. I know Jeff through the Agile community in Chicago and especially the Agile Professional Learning Network and the Agile meetups, and we’ve never worked closely together. So I’m excited to be joining you and learning about Jeff. Jeff welcome and how are you doing this fine morning?

Jeff: Thanks Anthony, good morning and I’m warm thanks to a space heater here and everything. So don’t let the tropical background fool you. So just an aspirational place.

Anthony: I think we’re all using space heaters, so anyway, Jeff, thank you so much for coming on this interview. I’d like to hear a little bit about, start with where you grew up and where you were born, that sort of thing.

Jeff: Sure. I was born and raised on the South side of Chicago. So kind of well-known area for better or for worse. I was born and raised on the South side and one day and my grandfather used to take me to the baseball games all the time.

And one day we went to Wrigley field. And I don’t know, I was probably about seven or eight years old and I said, Gramps, why are we at Wrigley field? I know you’re a Sox fan. I’m a Sox fan. You were born and raised on the South side. You’ll always be a Sox fan. That’s your birthright.

But it’s okay to root for the Cubs, especially if the Sox are not in town and that’s, that was the whole situation. The Sox weren’t in town and he was a baseball fanatic. So he said, it’s okay to root for the Cubs, as long as they’re not playing in Sox.

Anthony: Where did you start your career? How did you get to where you are today? How’s that?

Jeff: I started 40 years ago at a company called Illinois Toolworks ITW. They gave me my first job as a programmer and I loved it. I just kind of geeked out on it. And it wasn’t even called information technology back then it was called data processing.

We did it all. And so, yeah, I think being in a smaller environment, I got a chance to wear a lot of hats. And do a lot of things expose me to a lot, but my career has advanced through a lot of different industries throughout the year.

Anthony: Do you remember when you first got into agile ways of working? is there a distinction there or were you always agile?

Jeff: 2005 is the short answer 2004, 2005. I went to do some work for a company called at the time Hewitt. And they were kind of a traditional project management organization, but they had this little experiment going off on the side and somebody suggested, hey, you might be a great fit for this. And so I went and joined that team and it was an eye-opener.

I had already started reading about agile ways of working back in 2004. And, but I had no opportunity previously to really expose myself practically. So joining the team was really it was a boon for me. It was an eye-opener. I sat down with the guy who was the product owner. And I said, and he was a true product owner.

I mean, he owned the future of the product that we were building and he said we’re going to try this agile thing. And I said, oh, okay, so great. I’ve been reading a little bit about it. What are we going to do? He’s like, I don’t know. We’re just going to figure this out, keep digging into those books and let’s figure it out.

And so we just kind of modeled our way along, basically reading the stuff that was, that had been published and figured. There were no classes. There was no training. The training was read the book and let’s figure this out for ourselves.

Anthony: Wow. That’s really cool. Looking back over the, it sounds like 10 or plus years that you were doing coaching, like which engagements stick out or, or are there any that are impactful or memorable?

Jeff: Oh my gosh, I think a lot of them are impactful and memorable just in their own right. I got into the aerospace and defense industry and it was an interesting foray and I fell in love with it. First of all, I have a passion for aviation. And so I got invited into that industry and it can be rather insular like some other industries, but I got a chance to work with people that were actual rocket scientists and stuff. And so that was an eye-opener to see what was going on beneath the surface, had the great fortune to work with places like NASA and Lockheed Martin and folks like that. And so I think for me, I assumed being large lumbering and sometimes, governmental entities, they had no interest in anything agile. But that was actually contrary to what you might believe.

Anthony: Well, what’s ironic about that prior to agile, of course, I think it was Lockheed Martin where they developed like the skunkworks, the whole idea of having a team that’s focused. They would often take them off-site, small insulated from the bureaucracy, and use that to do new product development, right?

Jeff: Absolutely. I’m so glad you know about that. There are so many people that are totally unaware. Kelly Johnson back in 1948, once the skunk works and he had these 14 principles. Gee! Very similar to the 12 principles. And if you look at those 14 principles, they parallel very closely a lot of the stuff that is embodied in our 12 principles.

Anthony: You’re in a professional coaching role, you’re out there working in the industry, you’re obviously an African-American. What is your experience working as a coach in the US? Are there some things that myself would take for granted or not feel impacted by that you were impacted by?

Jeff: I would say besides the overarching experiences that we see that we as black Americans, African-Americans have throughout the country, it’s easy to try to paint that you’re going to experience some adverse situations in a professional life. I’ve had the good fortune of not having a whole lot of that.

Now I can’t change people’s attitudes. Certainly, their perceptions of me when they first meet me. But all I can do is show them. This is the way that I’ve learned. This is what I’ve learned on my journey. And I’m here to share it with you regardless of what your thoughts are.

And so if people want to accept that, great. Then I’ve done my job. If they choose to not accept that, there’s a saying you can’t push a rope. And that’s the whole thing. So again, I’ve not observed any overt racism. Do I know that it exists? Do I know that there are attitudes? Absolutely. But I can’t say that I’ve had the misfortune of having a lot of the things that a lot of pioneers have experienced that were just total overt.

Anthony: Wow. I’m glad to hear that. And it sounds like your approach was be prepared. Don’t be shocked if something does happen and then you were pleasantly surprised to not encounter that overtly, as you said. Is that advice that you’d give others? I mean, do you think that’s helpful for other people?

Jeff: Yeah, I think so. I think the other thing to go with that is even if you’re walking into an environment that is totally foreign to you, you’re walking into a boardroom and this happens all the time where you’re having a meeting, well pre-pandemic. You’re walking through a boardroom and. Yeah, all the faces around the table are white.

It’s up to me as an individual to control how I feel. I can allow that to intimidate me, or I can choose to rely on this is what I know, the authentic and share that with those listening. And those that are truly open-minded, hopefully it’ll resonate with them. Those that have a closed mind, maybe it’ll open their mind, maybe it won’t, but that’s actually not my job to open their minds.

So I would say to other African-Americans, don’t hesitate to walk into uncomfortable situations. And if you’re a pioneer, you know what? There are lots of pioneers. Jackie Robinson Roosevelt. The list is endless. And if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be where we are today. And so I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to be willing to be the pioneer and put it forward.

Anthony: That’s great. Is there any steps that you would recommend for people like myself that we could do to promote greater social and racial equality?

Jeff: You know Anthony, I think probably the best thing is something like this. Maintaining an open mind though and suppressing any tendencies to jump to conclusions about somebody based on their ethnic background what they look like. And we all do it, I’ll be honest with you, let’s face it. You go to the grocery store and somebody’s got a nose ring.

And it’s hard to not focus on that, but the reality is you can draw conclusions that are totally opposite. And by closing your mind to the possibilities of what this person can contribute, it really robs you of the opportunity to get more insight on something. So maintaining an open mind, suppressing any of those tendencies to jump to conclusions, I think is probably the first step.

Anthony: Yeah, that’s great. Thank you. So in wrapping up here, I’d just like to say, how can people learn more about you or if they want to connect with you or maybe they want to hire you? I don’t know. Where are you where you’re at right now? I’m looking to be hired all the time. So where can people find you? And what’s the best way to get in touch with you, Jeff?

Jeff: I’m always on LinkedIn. So I’ve got a LinkedIn profile. Believe it or not there are a lot of Jeff Singletons out there.

Anthony: There are.

Jeff: I’ve got a doppelganger maybe. So reach out on LinkedIn, reach me by my email address [email protected]. But probably LinkedIn is the easiest and fastest way to get ahold of me.

Anthony: Great! Well, thank you so much Jeff, for taking the time on this snowy morning to talk about agility and your experience. I appreciate it.

Jeff: Anthony it is a pleasure and I look forward to seeing you again.

Anthony: Yeah. Look forward to meeting with you in person at some point.

Jeff: I’m hoping it’ll be just a few more months before we’re through a lot of the bulk of this.

Anthony: Stay strong. All right, Jeff, have a wonderful weekend.

Jeff: Thanks, you too. Bye-bye now.

This article originally appeared here and has been republished with permission