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Emily Bache: You Need Practice to Achieve Greater Harmony in Your Team

In this episode, Richard interviews Emily Bache. Emily is the author of The Coding Dojo Handbook and Technical Agile Coaching with the Samman Method. She is well known in the software development community for her work on the Gilded Rose Refactoring Kata and her technical agile coaching. She tells us about her secrets of achieving harmony in teams of any size. After you finish listening to the episode, connect with Emily on Twitter, read her new book, and visit her website.

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Richard 00:11

Hello friends. Welcome back to With Great People. The podcast for high-performance teams. I’m Richard Kasperowski. Our special guest today is Emily Bache. Now, this is cool for me. I’m a big fan of Emily and her work. This is actually our first time getting each other so I’m really excited about this. I know Emily through her work with Coding Katas like the gilded rose. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I do it a lot actually. And through her books like the Coding Dojo Handbook and Mocks, Fakes and Stubs. I recommend these books very highly. I know Emily has a newer book out as well and I hope to learn more about that while she’s with us. To support this podcast, visit my website. Kasperowski.com.

Richard:

Hey, Emily. How are you? Thank you So much for joining us.

Emily:
It’s really nice to be invited. Thank you.

Richard:
My pleasure. What else could you add on to that intro?

Emily:
I think you got most of it. You mentioned my new book.

Richard:
Yeah. [crosstalk 00:01:11] new book? What’s the title?

Emily:
Its called Technical Agile Coaching with the Samman Method-

Richard:
Okay.

Emily:
… and that’s kind of what I’ve been doing for the past few years now. Coaching using this method. I’ve been writing this book over the past year or so and I’m really pleased that actually got it finished and published in January.

Richard:
All right. Congratulations. What is this method called again and what is it?

Emily:
I decided the style of coaching that I’m doing needed a name to make it possible to discuss and search for in the internets and things. I chose this word Samman which is a Swedish word because I live in Sweden and Samman is a word that basically means together and I chose this name for it because a lot of the coaching work that I do involves ensemble working.

Emily:
Whole team programming. Mob programming. It’s also known as ensemble working. It’s the way I like to describe it. And ensemble of course is a French word that means together.

Richard:
Okay.

Emily:
It kind of made sense to me at least.

Richard:
Yeah. Cool. This is a podcast about teams and I like to ask people about the best team they’ve ever been on in their life. How about you? Best team of your life? This goes beyond work teams. I ask people this question, sometimes they think this is work. We’re only talking about work here.

Richard:
This is really like any group of two or more people. Before we started recording, we were talking about husband, family. This is Annie group of two or more people aligned with some shared goals. What’s your best one of those?

Emily:
Right. I was interpreting it as you are. You gave me this beforehand that I should prepare to talk about a team and I was thinking work team, of course. Now, I’ve realized that actually I could… I sing in a choir. It’s a very good choir but we haven’t met for like a year practically and sang together.

Emily:
It’s amazing singing in a choir of people that is really singing well together and I’ve been singing with this choir for 15 years I think.

Richard:
Wow.

Emily:
Actually, I kind of prepared to talk about a different team really.

Richard:
We can talk about any team you want but I actually want to know more about this choir. What is the music? Have you been doing anything in the last 12 or 13 months? Not seeing each other face to face? Tell me more about the choir.

Emily:
It’s a church choir. We’re attached to [Masthuggskyrkan 00:03:47] in Gothenburg which is one of the larger churches in the church of Sweden. It’s a chamber choir. We’re about 30 people roughly. We sing quite a lot of Baroque music, quite a lot of Bach and other Baroque composers.

Emily:
We also sing a lot of modern classical music because one of our choir members is a composer and he composes very modern pieces with a lot of clusters and unusual harmonies which is really fun as well. We just skip all the rest of the music tradition in between Baroque and contemporary. We don’t basically do any of that stuff.

Richard:
Okay. That’s really cool. The size of this group is interesting. It’s 30 people. You were talking about ensemble work. When I think about work teams… I’m thinking approximately five people. This is way more than that. What’s it like to work with a group this size? 30 people?

Emily:
Oh, yeah. Of course, we sing in sections. Each section is about eight people, four parts or we often sing in eight parts. In fact, more of the time we’re singing in eight parts actually. Then you get to know the other people singing your part very well. There’s that.

Emily:
Most of the time we stand mixed so that the people I decided you’re not singing the same part as you. We finally get much better intonation when we’re listening more carefully to the other parts. When you’re singing clusters… A cluster is where you have basically…

Emily:
If you think of a scale has got eight notes like major C. Eight notes. A cluster is basically when you kind of take from those eight notes. You take like six or even seven or even eight and in different octaves and singing them at once.

Emily:
It’s like a chord with a huge number of notes in it. You have to be completely accurate with your intonation. It’s all unaccompanied basically what we do. It brought music off and we have musicians but all the modern stuff is basically unaccompanied. The intonation that you have to use is the natural intonation where you’re singing pure fifths and pure thirds.

Richard:
Right.

Emily:
Not the tempered notes that you get on a piano.

Richard:
I was going to ask about this because I’m a pianist and when I sing, I’m singing to my piano or to my guitar. What’s it like to sing to each other?

Emily:
You just really have to be listening so hard to really hear when that… because the physics of it when you get a perfect fifth, the wavelengths just completely align and the fifths on a piano actually aren’t perfect so you have to learn to hear the difference between a perfect fifth and a piano fifth and sing the perfect one.

Emily:
Often, this modern music you’re changing key. You’ve got this cluster with a bunch of notes and then suddenly the chord changes and the role of your singing… Maybe singing the same note as in the previous chord but it’s [inaudible 00:07:16] chord has changed. Maybe it’s become the third and then suddenly you have to pitch it again.

Richard:
The same note but it’s different.

Emily:
Yeah.

Richard:
Can we keep talking about this group? I love this.

Emily:
Okay.

Richard:
All right. Okay. This is a group that you’re active with. Have you been doing anything together without meeting face to face?

Emily:
Last March, we were just in the middle of rehearsing for the first performance of a new piece. One of the choir members had composed and we just stopped. After the summer when we thought that the COVID rates were coming down a bit and things looking all right, we tried again.

Emily:
We tried to start meeting. Half the choir at a time socially distanced and then somebody in the other half of the choir got COVID and we lost our nerve a bit and it stopped again. We haven’t met or done anything basically.

Richard:
Yeah. When you think about this group… If you could… We’ve been talking about the experience. Some of the technical details of the group these clusters and perfect harmonies versus tempered harmonies which is actually really fascinating.

Richard:
You and I probably talk about the physics of this all day but when you’re together with that group… When you’re singing together and when you’re making music together, what does it feel like to you? Could you summarize the way it feels with one word? What would that one word be?

Emily:
When we’re mid-performance singing something, it’s intense concentration. That’s really strong thing. Just the complete the absorption in this sound and this concentrating on what I’m supposed to be doing in my part.

Richard:
Okay. In terms of concentration and absorption. What’s that like?

Emily:
That’s also the breathing part. You’re completely focused in your mind in the concentrating and listening but then there’s also the breathing. There’s a enormous amount of muscle control getting that sound out. The amount of air that you have to control to make sure that you’re getting the…

Emily:
All the muscles are in place so that the air is coming out with the right pressure and the right intensity. I used to sing soprano up until a couple of years ago and my voice is getting low with my age so I switched to alto. Particularly when I was singing soprano, there is so much muscle.

Emily:
Just the physical act of getting those notes out at the right volume and pitch… That was a huge challenge. As well as all this intense mental concentration. Your body is doing stuff you have to be in control of.

Richard:
Oh, that’s so cool. Now, how do you know this is such a great team? This group. Subjectively, what does it feel like? What else goes into how it feels or objectively how do you know this is a great team? What could somebody else observe? That’s what I think when I say objective.

Emily:
Right. Subjectively of course being part of this, you can feel the harmony and you can hear the people around you and you can hear when it’s clicked. The conductor as well. A conductor gives us great visual feedback and you know when you’re completely aligned with what she is.

Emily:
She’s directing us and we are following her every move. That’s a great feeling. Actually, our conductor a lot of the time she encourages us to take initiative and sometimes she will actually kind of start us off and then just go and sit down and then we have to rely on listening to one another and bouncing off cues and the rest of the choir to keep together.

Emily:
That’s really challenging because often we just slow down and slow down. It’s a great exercise in having to pay attention to one another and not just the conductor. Subjectively, it feels really good when we actually achieve that and don’t slow down too much and get to the end the same time.

Emily:
That’s really fun but then there’s the objective. How we know it’s a great team. Great choir. Of course, we do concerts and lots of people come. We also do ask concerts and services in the church. Local people come. We fill the church regularly.

Emily:
We sang in various choir competitions as well. We sang in the European choir competition most recently I think. That was 2019 I think. Summer 2019 we competed and that competition was actually in Gothenburg. Even though it was like a European competition in their various categories and we competed in two categories and we did very well. I think we were the highest place. Swedish choir at least-

Richard:
Oh, cool.

Emily:
… in our category of church music. We competed in the world choir games as well in Riga a few years ago. They award you points. A panel of judges give you points and they give you feedback and we won a gold medal although that just means we got a certain number of points.

Richard:
Really?

Emily:
Yeah. We came away from a competition in Limerick in Ireland with the Best Conductor Award I remember conducting. We compete quite a lot as well.

Richard:
Okay. This is cool. There’s definitely some objective metrics here and those metrics. Things that we could observe about the team. You fill churches. You win awards. This is great. What are some of the concrete behaviors that go into this group being so good?

Emily:
One of the concrete behaviors is that everyone turns up or at least almost everyone turns up for the practices. It’s noticed if there’s somebody missing and there are certain people who have very high-powered jobs in the choir and sometimes they’re often on business or whatever and that’s difficult.

Emily:
Missing one or even two rehearsals… We noticed that. That’s one of the behaviors. Just consistently turning up is definitely a success factor for us. Putting a little bit of time in between rehearsals although not everyone is so consistent about that.

Emily:
What else are success behaviors? We have a great conductor who is a fantastic musician and is so patient with us. She doesn’t shout at us. She’s very careful to make sure nobody feels pointed out as it were. When she’s giving us advice, it’s always like, “There’s something going on in that section or in that part of the room.”

Emily:
She’s not pointing out an individual. She’ll just take it again and again until we get what it is she’s trying to say that we’re not doing yet. That thing in software about psychological safety in a team? That comes really from the top. From the leadership in this choir.

Richard:
Okay. I was curious about this. I was thinking about the conductor. Is there an analog to a conductor in work groups?

Emily:
I guess it’s the manager but the manager doesn’t direct at the level of detail that the conductor directs the choir and they shouldn’t. She’s listening to us all the time. She is so sharp. She can hear one person doing the wrong thing in a choir of 30 people. That’s an amazing skill.

Emily:
The way she handles it… As I say, not to make that one person feel like they’re a failure. Applying this to work groups. It’s about feeling safe and the feeling that also somebody does notice what you’re doing actually. I think it’s not a success factor in other teams that somebody is actually noticing what you’re doing in a good way in order to support you.

Richard:
I love the sound of that. Nobody’s said that to me before that somebody is noticing what you’re doing in a good way.

Emily:
Yeah. She’s really good at that.

Richard:
That’s fascinating because I’ve played music. I actually just picked up playing music again. I picked up playing piano again during these last 12 or 13 months. The joke is I literally picked up piano. Somebody left a digital piano out in their trash and I picked it up and carried it home.

Richard:
I’ve gotten quite good again after not really playing piano for like 30 years. I used to play with other people a lot but it was like pop music, rock music without a conductor. It’s really fascinating to me to hear about what it’s like to play with a conductor. I totally know this experience of flying conductor less and going slower and slower and slower.

Emily:
Yes. She does it to make us listen to another because that’s an important skill for a musician. To bounce off the energy in the rest of the room and what’s going on. We don’t improvise or make stuff up as we go along as more contemporary music. I say contemporary music. This is contemporary music.

Richard:
It is.

Emily:
Singing what’s on the page rather than making it up but still we have to be able to respond to what the other musicians are doing.

Richard:
Yeah. Another one of my guests who’s a CEO but also a musician. He was talking about the thing you mentioned about not just turning up. In my American English, I would say showing up but putting in the time to learn your part. He was telling me that it’s really obvious when somebody hasn’t learned their part.

Emily:
Yeah. We do that. Not everyone is… I know for myself that there are some weeks where I haven’t looked at my part in between the sections. It does show. You’re right.

Richard:
I’m really familiar with this. I was actually in a sort of big band jazz ensemble when I was in high school. Actually, we had a conductor now that I recall and I was the best at not learning my part. I thought I could just improvise my way through it but actually I wasn’t good enough.

Emily:
Yeah. There is a skill to being able to read the notes off the page and sing them directly. Sight reading. I’m fairly good at that which means I can bluff my way a little bit than is actually healthy. I should be spending more time learning my part.

Richard:
How about advice for listeners for whatever kind of team they’re interested in? How could they take some of the success of this group, this team and apply it to theirs?

Emily:
One of the things is that it’s been together for so long. I’ve been in it for 15 years and I’m not the longest standing member. Although there are new people coming in but the rates of change of people is slow enough that the culture is preserved.

Emily:
The standard is very good and I think that’s partly because of the continuity. I think that’s a success factor trying to get… and people stay of course where they are happy. I’m in the squad because I’m still enjoying it and we’re still singing new music and it’s still really fun and new even though I’ve been doing it for so long.

Emily:
It’s that balance between continuity but still trying new things, new challenges, new pieces of music that haven’t been sung. There’s no recording you can listen to. That’s really fun.

Emily:
Trying to find it, make it challenging and keep people interested for the long term… That’s been part of the success. Definitely. Of course, there’s also the social side of the choir. We go away. When we go to competition, it’s so we all travel somewhere. We have dinner and we go out and we have fun. There’s actually liking the people you’re with as well.

Emily:
There’s still not a group that I see in any other context. We’re not best buddies as it were. I think that’s a prerequisite but I think it’s good that when you’re together, you can enjoy each other’s company. I feel I should say something more about software development.

Emily:
As a musician, I like all the analogies with the ensemble working. Term that I’m using is trying to reference ensembles of musicians and the same kind of feeling of joining a group of people who are creating something together, that are bouncing ideas off one another, that are supporting one another and at the right time and staying quiet when it’s not the right time.

Emily:
That whole dynamic of being a music musician ensemble comes up again when you run a programming ensemble. I think that’s one of the things I’m after by calling it that. There’s this whole thing with Code Katas you said at the start. I’m quite known for my Code Katas because I maintain the Gilded Rose Kata which is-

Richard:
I’ve known you for at least a decade through the Code Katas.

Emily:
Yeah. It’s not the only one I’ve got on my GitHub page but it’s the one that’s got a thousand times more attention and stars and all that. It’s a really fun exercise of test of skill. In music, you have that too. You have a piece of music that you… that’s there as a test of skill that is also fun to, to sing or play and you can use to help you to get to the next level.

Emily:
If you’ve got the piece that you’re trying to sing that’s pitched at just the right level to be just a little bit harder than what you’ve done before but still possible, then you can… By practicing that, you can improve your level of singing.

Emily:
You can call that a study or you could just call it a piece of music. That’s like the similar idea with the Code Kata that you can… If you pick five minutes on the right kind of difficulty level, you can use it to improve your programming skills. It’s kind of a related concept to the idea of Code Kata.

Richard:
I love that. I hadn’t thought of katas like that. This thing about music and I’ve been studying piano lately.

Emily:
Yeah.

Richard:
I’ve been going through the traditional finger exercises from the 1800s. Each one is a little bit harder than the previous one. They’re katas basically. We don’t call them katas back then. They’re finger katas.

Emily:
Yeah. They call them studies sometimes.

Richard:
Oh, yeah. This word studies.

Emily:
Yeah.

Richard:
One of the next thing is I’m going to move on to that I did when I was a teenager… I’m going to go back to my American accent. I don’t know how to pronounce this stuff. The Chopin etudes.

Emily:
Yeah.

Richard:
I cadenced the word correctly, right?

Emily:
Yeah. It’s French but I think for study.

Richard:
Yeah. There are some things that I want to learn and they’re just a little bit above where I am right now but not so far that I couldn’t do it.

Emily:
Right. That’s the essence of deliberate practice. Deliberately choosing the next exercise. You can do that with software development too. I go back to all of these Code Katas. I’ve got a large repertoire of them that I like to use.

Emily:
What I’m doing at the moment actually is just learning new programming languages. I’m coaching a team that’s using C. I’ve never really done C honestly. I’ve done C++ a bit and I’ve… Java and Python and stuff but C is another beast so I’m kind of doing Code Katas and C at the moment.

Richard:
Same. Because I was asking you for help with TypeScript… Actually, when I want to learn a new programming language, I pick up the Gilded Rose Kata and I do it in that language because there’s already some code there that works and then I learned how to do testing in that language and that platform and then I learned more about the style of that language and platform because the IDE tells me that this is bad style and then I make it better. I can pick up the enough about a new language to be able to do it with other people in an ensemble kind of way.

Emily:
That sounds good. That’s exactly good. It’s actually the right kind of way to use a Code Kata.

Richard:
Yeah. And it’s super fun. I know the kata but I don’t know the language. It’d be like learning the same piece of music on a new instruments which I do sometimes and then I know it better.

Emily:
That’s a good nudge. Actually learning it on a different instrument.

Richard:
Learning the same song on guitar, on piano with voice. Whatever it is.

Emily:
Yeah. I play several instruments as well but not very actively anymore.

Richard:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emily:
I can see that.

Richard:
What else? Is there anything else you want to add? Any other projects you’re working on that you want to share? More about this book and the Samman Method?

Emily:
I was going to talk a bit more about coaching because Technical Agile Coaching is what I do. Coaching teams, helping them to apply agile practices, test your development, refactoring legacy techniques for rescuing that situation.

Emily:
As well as coaching teams directly, the other thing I’ve started doing recently is coaching other coaches. I’ve got a couple of colleagues who are… They’re very good software developers and they’ve done some coaching and teaching and now I’m kind of supporting them as they do more coaching in the Samman Method really.

Emily:
I’m thinking that there should be more coaches. That was one of my motivations for writing the book that there is a lack of great technical coaching out there as far as I can tell. That could be because people don’t know how to do it or that it is even a thing.

Emily:
I just wanted to mention that if you are a skilled software developer and you already know a lot of these skills and you do Code Katas and you’re looking what’s the next step, then maybe becoming a coach could be your next step. I just wanted to mention that if you’re that kind of person, please pick up my book or go to my websites.

Emily:
I’ve got this website to support the book which is called sammancoaching.org. There I’ve got a bunch of materials that you can use for yourself in your coaching work. Copy them. They’re all creative comments So you just have to credit me if you use them. I’m hoping that this will encourage more people to do coaching and to do it well.

Richard:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emily:
That’s kind of the idea.

Richard:
Awesome. I love this idea and I’m so curious now about the book again. I’m going to get the book and then read through it. We’ve got the website. This website again was?

Emily:
Yeah. Sammancoaching.org.

Richard:
Okay.

Emily:
If you can make it, put it in the show notes.

Richard:
We absolutely will. How else could listeners contact you if they want to get in touch?

Emily:
I’m on Twitter quite a lot. Just my name. That’s Emily Bache on Twitter. I’ve also started a new Twitter account called CoachingSamman which is more focused on the encouraging other coaches aspect. That’s a good place to get in touch with me. Some may tweet or I’m on GitHub as well.

Richard:
It’s github.com/emilybache right?

Emily:
Yes.

Richard:
I’m there a lot.

Emily:
I dare it.

Richard:
Emily, thank you again. Thank you so much for joining us today. It’s really been a pleasure having you here and being able to chat, getting to know you a little bit. Thank you so much.

Emily:
Thank you for having me. It’s been great.

Richard:
It’s my pleasure. Listeners and viewers, remember to support this podcast. Visit my website. Kasperowski.com.

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