Interview with Vernon Rowland – Part 1

Today’s post is the first in what we intend to be a regular series of interviews with people in the Agile community around the Twin Cities.  And we couldn’t have asked for a nicer guy to start with!  I recently sat down with Vernon Rowland, Agile Coach at 3M…

Tell me a little about yourself, your background.

My background – I grew up in South Minneapolis with a single mother who struggled with her mental health. Her struggle meant we struggled. I have an older brother and an older sister. We dealt with homelessness and a pretty chaotic childhood.

One of the roles I found myself in a lot was “peacemaker,” the kind of person that tried to make everything okay. As I reflect about why my role as an Agile coach fits me, why I enjoy it so much, I recall the role I played as a child. It’s just a natural fit for me. Some people call it servant-leadership, to ensure others have what they need. As long as everything’s okay for everyone else, I’m happy.

I lived with my mother’s mental illness until I was about 14. I realized I couldn’t be a good student and I couldn’t get to where I wanted to be if I stayed with her. I was very fortunate to belong to Salem Free, a small church in South Minneapolis. The assistant pastor, David Murphy and his wife, Mary,  welcomed me into their home. That opened up another set of fortunate events for me. I was able to go to the university where he worked.

I did well in school. I also did well in football. I was a D-III All-American and I played in the Aztec Bowl in Mexico City. At school I studied media communications. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I went out to LA, studied film for a semester, and interned with Gary Marshall.

Gary Marshall, that Gary Marshall?

Yeah, I interned on the film “Princess Diaries.” There was a funny story about it.  So there’s a scene in the movie where Julie Andrews and the limo driver have this really cool intimate moment, and they start to dance.

Well, when they started shooting that scene, my phone rang. And so they had to stop the scene and reset it. And I thought I turned my phone off, but all I did was cancel the call. So as they started the scene again, my phone rang again. So I’m just like “UGH!,” and I thought I was about to die because I’m an intern on this big production set.

They reset it, and I nearly broke my phone to make sure it’s off. They reset the scene and they started to dance again, and then the hairdresser’s phone starts to ring!  Everyone had a big laugh, and they’re like, “TURN YOUR PHONES OFF!”

So I interned for Gary Marshall for a semester, loved filmmaking and wanted to be a filmmaker, but I had to come back to Minnesota to finish my degree. I wound up staying here in Minnesota, and I did video production as a freelance producer. I also started working in the schools teaching a Media Arts class, first at De LaSalle, and then at Broadway High School, an alternative school for teen moms.

That led me to teaching Media Arts full time. I was able to teach while working towards getting my teachings license at the University of Minnesota. Unfortunately, that didn’t end well.  Because the school was not officially designated an alternative school and the students were not meeting annual yearly progress set by the “No Child Left Behind” law the school had a “fresh start” and everyone was let go.

When I lost my job as a teacher, I decided I was done with education. However, a buddy convinced me to look at St. Thomas to get my MBA. I wasn’t excited at first, but when I went to visit, I fell in love with the place, and so I went and wound up focusing on IT.

Why the switch from media arts to IT?

My interest in IT didn’t come from a long background in it.  I took a “skills interest inventory” test, and and at the very top of my test results was “IT Management.” When I looked up that role in the career outlook guide, I saw the salary, and I was like, “That’s the career I want to go for!” (laughs)  I interned at G&K Services as a project manager. That was a great experience. My first job out of St. Thomas was with Boom Lab (Three Bridge) as a junior consultant.

My first consulting gig was with 3M. I was on their global ERP cutover team, turning off legacy systems and turning on SAP. I did that for about 15 months, and for the very last cutover we had, I was in Sweden while my manager was stuck in Germany. Originally I was just supposed to be her support, her backup, as she led the team executing the plan. She ended up being stuck in Germany and I had to run the global plan in her place. It went really well! There were several European 3M leaders involved, and I gained a lot of positive visibility from that.

After the cutover, I got tapped on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to join the Agile team. I had no idea what “Agile” was – I had no experience or exposure. But I’ve realized in life that when a door opens, you walk through it. So I said, “Absolutely.” And I haven’t looked back.

I’ve been on the Agile team for about three years now. In my first role, I joined a very small team of about six people.  That team was struggling, and they needed a Scrum Master, so they had me step into that role.

We achieved a significant turnaround and were able to deliver on all of our commitments.  And then for the next release, I was involved in coordinating more complex, interdependent work across teams for the ERP system.

After about a year and a half, we opened up our “Dojo”, which is our immersive learning center. I was asked to coach in the Dojo, and I’ve been doing that since last April. I have really enjoyed working with teams in there. It is very satisfying to work with a team and see them make significant improvements.

When they asked, “Hey, do you want to get involved in this Agile thing,” what training or on-boarding did you go through?

When 3M decided to adopt Agile in their IT space, they hired Cognizant to come in and lead the Agile transformation. And so I went through training conducted by them.

And then you start to learn more on your own – you read a little bit more online, buy a book here, buy a book there, and find yourself fully immersed in the world of Agile, learning about Scrum Mastering and the other roles.

So I did a lot of independent reading, but when they first asked me to join the team, I had no idea what it was. None.

That’s impressive – you joined 3M as a consultant and then as an employee, and in a few years time you’ve gone from no Agile background, to being a hands-on Scrum Master, and then becoming a coach for new teams.

It’s been a privilege to work with our Agile teams. The teams are made up of incredibly dedicated, hard-working folks. They make it easy to work with them.

And I’ve been privileged to have these opportunities. It’s actually been pretty incredible.

Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow and read the rest of Vernon’s Agile story!