BOSTON – The ReDev B0st0n Conference, put on by the Mass. Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC), brought together software engineers and other technology professionals for a day of breakout sessions and keynotes. Turnout was similar to last year’s event, which was held in August, while the location changed from the Samberg Conference Center at MIT to the Federal Reserve Building. Like last year, a career fair followed the conference as well, this one with noticeably more employers than a year ago.

The day began with the opening keynote, and it was delivered by a unique individual in J.J. Sutherland. Currently the CEO of Scrum, Inc., this is his second act after a career at NPR in which he won every prestigious award in broadcast journalism. His keynote focused on, as his company name suggests, using Scrum, one of the main forms of agile. He started by noting that getting teams to work with it is not terribly difficult, and noted when he tried it at NPR while reporting on the Arab Spring with a team. It led to his awards, but it did not come easily given the challenges involved.

In talking more about using Scrum in corporate settings, he talked about many things related to team dynamics. He noted how after a storm, everyone suddenly starts working together, but silos don’t stay away for long – usually they come back once there is no longer an emergency. There is also the time-tested idea of adding people to a project that is late, but there is a problem: that makes the project even later due to a variety of factors (known as Brook’s Law). Also noteworthy was an experience with a big and successful engineering and electronics conglomerate where he found three managers who had bonuses based on how their teams performed. This might sound good in theory at first, but what happened was that teams didn’t get along and very much kept to themselves.

Sutherland continued to talk about what can make great teams – things like transcendent goals, autonomy and cross-fertilization – and talked about issues involved in getting there. Finally, he had some ideas on what to do to get to the ultimate point: have stable teams, meet for about 15 minutes a day instead of an hour once or twice a week, plan for problems (expect them), have small teams, call on people to be more than just one thing, and don’t wait on something or someone.

The talk was very well-received in all, and was a great start to the day. And as he talked about teams, it was hard not to think about one team in the area having quite a run of late, the Boston Celtics, and how at first glance they appear to fit a good deal of what he talked about.

With that out of the way, it was on to the breakout sessions, and the first one was an easy choice considering my current employer being a medical device company. In Developing for the Healthcare Space, a panel convened to look at some of what goes on in an industry that is very big in Massachusetts. Jesse Johnson of Verily, an Alphabet company, moderated the panel, and a lot of the discussion was on telehealth/telemedicine. Sarah Sossong from Mass. General Hospital noted that since just over half a decade ago, there has been more interest in that at MGH, and later noted that one challenge she has is that many projects involve enough departments – including Partners corporate – that team size gets to be much bigger than is often recommended for agile processes (and she referenced Sutherland’s mention of this).

Roy Schoenberg, the CEO of telehealth platform company American Well, had a lot to offer given what he does. He noted early on something that has been mentioned at this conference before, which is that the medical industry has what might be generously called an uneasy relationship with technology. There is more of a need to prove that a new system delivers an advantage, and there are many stakeholders – it starts with doctors and patients, but also includes nurses, assistants, medical office staff, and insurance companies, among others. All of those challenges don’t even get to the regulatory aspect, which he later said one cannot minimize and described as “a tax you have to pay” to be in that space.

A very good audience question cut to the heart of the challenge all of the panelists and their organizations face: can we build a culture that caters to the specialization that happens in healthcare, and build empathy for the many end users who just get more and more software thrown at them all the time? That also gets to the matter of being user-friendly for a wide range of users, something not easily done but essential all the same.

A last highlight was comments about the regulatory aspect of the industry. Citing the examples of state doctor licensing, Schoenberg went on to note that he could see some regulations being removed once seen to be unnecessary barriers to providing quality care for patients.

The next session looked at artificial intelligence (AI), a subject that has admittedly been a challenge to get a good feel for in much detail. In Forget about AGI, let’s make usable AI tools!, Katherine Bailey of Acquia started off by noting contrasting ideas about AI from the likes of Ray Kurzweil (a champion of it) and Elon Musk (who appears to be a little cautious about it).

She went on to show a couple of examples where this has come into play, at least one of which many of us are probably familiar with. There is a smart reply, which can seen in Gmail courtesy of none other than Ray Kurzweil, and LinkedIn has a form of that as well. She also cited Stitch Fix, which is ironic because there is a story about them in the most recent issue of Harvard Business Review that I read en route to the conference.

When this came to a close, so did the morning. There is more coming up later on the lunch keynote that featured several women at Amazon and the afternoon sessions.

 

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