September 2009

A lot is happening in the world of Scrum recently.

Ken Schwaber departed Scrum Alliance abruptly, most probably after an internal conflict over the introduction of the CSM exam and he is starting something called Scrum Alliance is now led by Tom Mellor – a guy mostly unknown in the European Scrum community. And the Alliance announced exams will be introduced Oct 1st as scheduled, but for some unknown time everyone will get a passing grade, which basically is the same thing as before. Last Friday it was also leaked on a discussion group that a new certificate – Certified Scrum Developer – is not only planned, but already offered as a course by… Microsoft. Scrum Alliance representatives on the list reacted with surprise – at the same time this program’s description can be found on

It remains to be seen how things will develop in the Scrum community. The whole exam fiasco is clearly a result of some internal infighting and it damages the Scrum Alliance’s reputation a lot. The introduction of an exam that is not really an exam and doesn’t prove anything is a typical compromise from the world of corporate politics, much worse than just another postponement. Unclear circumstances of Ken’s departure and his surprising new Scrum-related venture put more clouds over Alliance’s future.

But whatever happens out there amongst the Scrum gurus and luminaries (and whatever they will fight for – if they will) Scrum as a method – a simple framework to consistently deal with complex problems – is as sound and effective as it was before. This is what counts in the long run and what will cause Scrum, I hope, to continue to be adopted despite all the bad things that happen around the organization created to promote it.

UPDATE: Good news – Mike Cohn joined Scrum Alliance’s board! Now, I know Mike and I’m glad he’s back at the board.

Someone sent me a link to a recent Michael Shermer’s column on people believing in conspiracies – “Paranoia Strikes Deep“. An interesting article that reveals more about its author’s biases and limitations than its intended subjects.

Basically, Mr. Shermer thinks that people who believe there may indeed exist some secret groups – especially within government – conspiring successfully to influence politics, society and economy on a large scale are basically irrational idiots not thinking straight. According to Mr. Shermer such conspiracies are very improbable, because in a large conspiracy maintaining secrecy would be next to impossible. Doing that within government is especially hard, because bureaucrats are incompetent and stupid:

But as former Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy once told me (and he should know!), the problem with government conspiracies is that bureaucrats are incompetent and people can’t keep their mouths shut. Complex conspiracies are difficult to pull off, and so many people want their quarter hour of fame that even the Men in Black couldn’t squelch the squealers from spilling the beans. So there’s a good chance that the more elaborate a conspiracy theory is, and the more people that would need to be involved, the less likely it is true.

(my emphasis)

Seems like a very good argument: if someone famous for failing at conspiring says it is hard it must be true, right?

But, seriously: is it really the case? Is it really impossible to create a big, successful secret operation within government – and keep it so for a long time – because people will talk? Let’s examine this claim carefully.

First, it is absolutely clear that such a rule would apply at all only within the context of modern, Western democracies. In Soviet Russia, for example, everything was secret and classified by default, from genocide and mass resettlement of whole nations through the whole portfolio of weaponry development projects to civilian plane crashes. Same happened in Nazi Germany and routinely happens to this day in modern totalitarian states. Who knows, for example, what Chinese government is up to? Certainly not the Chinese people – or shall I call them ‘subjects’?

But even within the Western world large scale secret operations were successfully hidden from public for decades. My favorite example is the Ultra/Enigma case.

Everyone knows the basics – during the Second World War Allies were routinely reading much of German encrypted radio traffic and were distributing intelligence gathered to dozens of Allied commanding officers giving them incredible advantage over their German counterparts.

What’s interesting here is that after the war ended no one knew anything about it until 1973 when Bertrand’s book was published providing the public with its first glimpse of truth. Movies were made and books were written – including scientific research in the fields of history and military tactics – analyzing allied victories in numerous battles without that crucial knowledge. Amazing, but somehow for 28 years everyone involved, on both sides of the Atlantic, was keeping their mouths shut.

And we are not speaking here about a small group of people. Hundreds if not thousands were involved in the operation and knew the Ultra secret. This includes the Bletchley Park staff of a couple of hundreds cryptologists, analysts, technicians and clerks, then hundreds of soldiers in the SLU units distributing the information to commanders (and taking every dispatch back!), commanders themselves and numerous politicians and intelligence officers both in the UK and the US. Not one of them spoke about it for 28 years after the conflict was over.

This makes it even more interesting. It is easier to understand why everyone involved was not talking while the war was ongoing. All were in the military, penalties for loose talk were harsh, press was censored anyway – plus all involved did understand their mission was important and didn’t want to compromise its security. But why after the war? Especially 10 or 15 years after? Germany was divided, part of it was already considered an ally in the Cold War. But somehow no one said a word.

Amazing, isn’t it, Mr. Shermer what Her Majesty’s government was able to do? Maybe they were not as inept as Mr. Liddy?

But even in the US some bureaucrats were much better than Mr. Nixon and his staff at hiding secrets. Let’s just take the case of NSA. NSA – arguably the biggest sig-int organization in the world – was officially created by Harry S. Truman in June 1952. Again, not only the general public, but also large parts of US government – including the US Congress – didn’t even know this organization existed yet alone spied on Americans until 1975 Church Committee hearings. And we are not speaking here about a small organization – NSA employed thousands and its operations spanned the globe with listening posts in Australia, UK, Turkey and other places.

I think those two examples show very well that Mr. Liddy is wrong and so is Mr. Shermer. Conspiracies can be pulled off by government agencies without being compromised for quite a long time even in Western societies of recent time.

Someone may say that both cases are from the secretive field of cryptology and military intelligence. Can there be conspiracies of a different type – ones with political and social agendas on huge scale?

History, again, serves us with an excellent example – Soviet Union and unprecedented social engineering that took place there was exactly a product of such a successful conspiracy. Lenin and his pals were able to use destabilization of Russia following the First World War to grab power, ruthlessly eliminate opposition – and then implement the crazy social agenda they all firmly believed in. No place to explore the details here, but it is a very interesting story in itself.

And yes, it can happen again. One of the fallacies of the modern world is to think that old problems of humanity – wars, dictatorships, cruelty etc. – are a thing of the past, because we are modern – mainly more technologically sophisticated. But technological advancement doesn’t change the human nature which remains strikingly unchanged through recorded history (which is why Greek tragedies are so understandable to us thousands of years after they were written) – it just makes the damage we can potentially do bigger.

Does it mean that 9/11 was an “inside job”? No. It just means arguments of those who say so should be looked at and discussed, not them snared at just for asking questions or having doubts about the official version. History shows that a conspiracy on such a scale is hard to pull off and thus improbable – but definitely far from impossible. But first, of course, one has to know history – without that it is easy to fall for naive simplistic arguments like the one made by Mr. Shermer. Ignorance strikes indeed deeper than paranoia…