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My ThoughtWorks Journey: Patricia Mandarino

11 March, 2021 | 25 min 55 sec
Podcast Host Neal Ford and Alexey Boas | Podcast Guest Patricia Mandarino
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Brief Summary

Our employee No. 1 talks through her experiences of winning over agile skeptics, pair programming refuseniks and TDD doubters, along with her account of the winnebago come mobile computing lab otherwise known as the mythical Thought Mobile. Neal Ford and Alexey Boas join Patricia Mandarino to hear about her ThoughtWorks journey.

Podcast transcript


Neal Ford:

Hello, and welcome to the ThoughtWorks Technology Podcast. I'm one of your regular hosts, Neal Ford. I'm a director software architect and a meme wrangler. And I'm joined today by one of our other regular hosts, Alexey.


Alexey Boas:

Hello, everyone. This is Alexey here speaking from Sao Paulo.


Neal Ford:

And one of the series of podcasts that we do at ThoughtWorks is take thought workers who have had an interesting career journey within ThoughtWorks and to chat with them about some of the things that have happened along the way and the people they've met and the projects they've worked on and the good and terrible things that have happened to them since they've been at ThoughtWorks. And maybe nobody is better qualified for this for reasons I'll get to in just a minute, than Patti Mandarino. Welcome to the podcast, Patti.


Patti Mandarino:

Thank you. Thank you. I am happy to be here.


Neal Ford:

And we can actually start with one of the icebreaker games that were common when I joined ThoughtWorks, was the two truths and a lie, a little party game. And I remember Patricia was particularly devastating at this because she had a really great entry in this game that fooled everybody. She's a famous trivia question at ThoughtWorks because Patricia is, in fact, employee number one, and that was the thing she was fooling everybody with at two truths and a lie. So how did it come about that you are employee number one at ThoughtWorks and not Roy, the founder of the company?


Patti Mandarino:

Well, I think and I can't be sure, but I think it has to do when we set up PeopleSoft, at the time, my last name was Hall, which came before Singham. I'm pretty sure that's how it happened.


Neal Ford:

That is the rumor that in fact, when they got PeopleSoft, there were a small enough number at ThoughtWorks that you were the first alphabetically. So you became employee number one. So I believe in PeopleSoft, you are still labeled as ThoughtWorks employee number one.


Patti Mandarino:

Yeah, it's 10,001 because we set up PeopleSoft to allow for growth of up to 10,000 people.


Neal Ford:

Okay. Well, we're actually going to hit that before long. Would you ever have imagined when you first set up PeopleSoft that ThoughtWorks would ever get near that barrier?


Patti Mandarino:

Not in my wildest dreams. I think we just hit 8,000, right, in January?


Neal Ford:

Yeah. I think it's constantly growing and since January, of course we've been acquiring other companies, so we're adding people much more quickly now. So can you give us an idea of what it was like in the very early days of ThoughtWorks? Because we're an 8,000-person company now. It's very, very different than what it was when you were a 20, 30, 50-person company. It didn't actually start out as ThoughtWorks, right?


Patti Mandarino:

No. We started out as Singham Business Services and it's a very cliche start where we started in Roy's basement and we started off of credit cards, Roy's credit cards basically funded ThoughtWorks. Yeah. And at the time, we did everything. There was five of us and we did sales and operations and the consulting work. We started doing consulting. We were the implementation partner for a lease accounting system. That's how we started because it was five accountants and Roy. That's basically how it started.


Neal Ford:

So the terrifying thing is Roy was the technologist when the company started.


Patti Mandarino:

Roy was the technologist. Yes, yes, yes, yes.


Neal Ford:

Yeah. Many people don't realize it started really the leasing company and had deep, deep knowledge in leasing. And the first software systems we built were leasing. And in fact, I came into ThoughtWorks many years later, about 10 years later, more than 10 years later, and we were still doing a lot of leasing systems.


Patti Mandarino:

Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. We hired folks that had leasing expertise. Yeah. And then we started doing our own software development when one of the clients really wanted something outside of what the package could deliver. So that's how we started doing software development.


Neal Ford:

And that was in Forte, correct?


Patti Mandarino:

That was in Forte.


Neal Ford:

Virtually no one who's listening to the podcast will have any idea what Forte is but it was a fourth generation language that was popular at the time for building business systems, but then quickly moved over to Java.


Patti Mandarino:

Right. Yeah. The irony is that the five of us and then Roy, four of us and then Roy, none of us were technologists. We were all accountants. Basically we all had accounting background and we learned. So I was listening to Pat Sarnake’s podacst. He's a technical, one of the technical delivery principals. I would be classified as one of the non-technical delivery principals.


Neal Ford:

So what roles have you done at ThoughtWorks? Because when I first met you, you were doing what I think is the most difficult job in ThoughtWorks by a long stretch, which is resource management and assigning people to projects and figuring out who goes where, when, but I know that before and after that, you were doing project management.


Patti Mandarino:

Yeah. Yeah. So it's technically project management before we knew what that was, business analyst, trying to understand what the clients needed, what they wanted, and then working with the developers. That was the business analyst role. Project manager to program manager. Now what we call delivery principle, which is just more delivery responsibility at a greater scale, larger scope, larger clients. As far as internal roles, so I've gone back and forth from client-facing or what we call professional services to operations. Operations roles, yes. Called it resource manager back then. It's now called staffing. That was actually the hardest role. So there was resource management. There was what we called office principal.


Patti Mandarino:

So I was responsible for the Chicago office, people, sales, community, and number of working with the clients, all the clients that were deemed Chicago clients, working with their leadership teams to get them up-to-speed, set expectations. That was probably my favorite role, even though there was a lot going on there and a lot of responsibility. I was an agile trainer for ThoughtWorks Studios when we had studios and we did agile training. That was actually really fun, very, very fun. Internal roles. I think that's it for internal roles. I don't know. I'm probably missing something.


Neal Ford:

You've touched a lot of parts of ThoughtWorks since I've been here and you obviously predate me by quite a bit, so you've seen lots of the parts of ThoughtWorks. So can you give us an idea of what it was like? So in the early days, we weren't even doing software development and we quickly became known as an agile software development shop. So how did all that come about?


Patti Mandarino:

We were on a project. We were in a bit of analysis paralysis on a project. And there was this new thing called agile. And of course, Roy brought in, and he may have gotten it from somewhere else. I don't even know, but it became important to us to take a look and see how it could help us with this particular project and client we were working with. And so the client was willing to give it a shot. And we all got trained. We started writing our first stories for this project in my living room. Actually, my dining room, because there was a snow storm and people couldn't get out and we could only get to my house. And it's all history from there.


Neal Ford:

Well, Roy does have his enthusiasms. He was well-known for getting very nuclear, enthusiastic about things and making sure they happen.


Patti Mandarino:

Yeah. It was good. We did our homework. We learned a lot about what was good about it, what wasn't good about it and what needed work. And I think every engagement, we tried to apply the fundamentals, but there was always some customization that was needed to accommodate the current situation. And it's grown a lot since then, too.


Neal Ford:

I remember even when I started, the first conversation we had with every client was to convince them that this crazy hippie agile thing that we were doing was not going to bankrupt them and we could actually produce software but now we don't have to have that conversation much anymore. It seems like it's become a lot more mainstream, even in places like governed organizations now are starting to adopt a lot of these practices. So it's a very different kind of a landscape of convincing people now.


Alexey Boas:

The convincing part is interesting. And I was having a good conversation with a senior colleague some other day, and we were talking about, well, do people still have the same understanding of agile the way you used to? Because back then, everybody who was trying to do agile was also capable of convincing other people to do the practices because that's what you had to do. Otherwise, it wouldn't be able to do that. So Patricia, how have you seen that change over the years? And then how was it right at the beginning, especially when you had to try new things and new projects, new contexts, and how was that convincing part?


Patti Mandarino:

Yeah. I think it's consultant's life. You're always influencing your client in one way or another in an empathetic way and understanding what they're going through, and to change a process, to change the way they work was huge. So there's a lot of change management and a lot of empathy and understanding. The key is to show the value of it and anything we do. And that's one of our biggest challenges as a consulting organization is to show and articulate value. So to show the value of these practices, comparative to what they're doing now, and some of it was a leap of faith.


Patti Mandarino:

They give you a leap of faith and you had a little spike or a little small project that you can play with. And then they started, they would see the outcomes and they would see the results. And then it just went, then it was easy. But that initial, this is why you do this, this way, it was a little bit of influencing, a little bit of negotiation. But we had to find those courageous executives as we used to call them, ones that were willing to give it a try. And then the results usually spoke for themselves.


Neal Ford:

A lot of people now who assume that agile is just the way you build software and it always has been, do you see a lot of people now who treat agile practices as just cargo called, as you do it because you do it and they don't understand why you do some of the things you do and have a hard time articulating why you would do something? It's just, oh, we just always done it that way. You talk to a lot of younger developers now, and they can't imagine an era before continuous integration because continuous integration is just the thing you do. Why would you do something other than that? That just doesn't make sense.


Patti Mandarino:

Right. Yeah. And I don't know that they ever have to convince anyone because that's what we do, but surprisingly, there are still practices, like pair programming, that we still have to have conversations with the client about the cost of two people doing the job of one. We still have to have some of those conversations. Test-driven development. Really what does that mean? And what does that look like and how much testing and how much of the code? I think you still have to have conversations, even though fundamentally, I think everybody understands that we want to do incremental delivery. And that's what they think about when you think about agile, but all of those specific practices, I think you still have to have conversations about them.


Alexey Boas:

So when you go back to taking the basic principles and applying them in different contexts, as you mentioned, and what we have today, which is lots of different practices that people are used to doing, do you think some of these values got lost in practices? So people do the practices but don't understand the values and don't get the end results at the end of the day.


Patti Mandarino:

I don't think so. I say that because we come across a lot of clients that have some level of what they call agile practices that they're doing, but yet we still see a lot of waterfall-ish processes that a lot of ThoughtWorkers question. If you say you're doing agile, but really this looks a little bit like waterfall, why not do A, B, C, and D because of these results you're going to get? I could be naive, but I really don't think that it's become that commonplace, that we still don't have to think about what the value is for some of these practices.


Neal Ford:

I think Jez [Humble] referred to those projects as scrummerfall projects where you're doing scrum, but you're really doing waterfall and you're telling yourself you're doing agile, but it's really not. [crosstalk 00:13:56]


Patti Mandarino:

Right. Right. The larger the organization we're in, the conversations are about how do you scale agile? How do you have large programs and how do you have multiple teams, dependent teams delivering to some common goals? And there's large organizations that have figured it out and there's a lot of methodologies out there. And some of the challenges too are still, how do we scale? And the other is agile planning. Agile planning wasn't part of the original conversation. And how do you do that? How do you do that planning such that it's flexible and you can accommodate, and you know where you are in a project so you can give a decent status and update of where you're headed and how you're trending toward your goals, both the value goals, as well as time and money goals? So there's still a lot of complexity around that in a lot of organizations that we're helping to bring those practices.


Neal Ford:

Well, and as you start going from project level to PMO level and organizing the projects of projects, that becomes challenging in the agile world, just like it is in the non-agile world.


Patti Mandarino:

Right. And ThoughtWorks has kept up with EDGE in definitely all of the continuous integrations and stuff that we do. ThoughtWorks has really kept up with how to address some of these challenges for large organizations.


Neal Ford:

And we're opinionated enough we keep writing about it. So we try to convince other people.


Patti Mandarino:

Luckily, we write about it in a way where we have examples in our experiences. So it works.


Neal Ford:

So would you say that the pair programming argument is the one you've had the most with clients to try to convince them that's not a crazy thing to do? Or which of the agile practices do you think you've had to convince people most was not crazy? Was it TDD or continuous integration or pairing? It seemed like pairing is the one that always comes up.


Patti Mandarino:

Yeah. Pairing is the one that just always comes up because it feels like it's direct cost-related. They tie it directly to cost. Yeah. So they're not thinking about the quality side of it. And that's the education part that we provide.


Neal Ford:

Well, I'm sure you have ninja level arguments now to support pairing.


Patti Mandarino:

I do. I leave most of that to the tech principles. Yeah. I leave most of that to my tech counterparts, but yeah, we have ninja arguments. I like that.


Neal Ford:

So I don't know if you remember the details, but this is one of those stories that I remember from the early days of ThoughtWorks. At some point, there was some suggestion about buying a Winnebago, a ThoughtWorks-branded Winnebago and driving it around and doing hardware installations or something.


Patti Mandarino:

Yeah. Yeah. It was the thought mobile. We bought it.


Neal Ford:

Oh, we actually bought it. I didn't realize we'd actually bought it.


Patti Mandarino:

Oh yeah. We had a thought mobile and it was this mobile computing station that we were going to and we did in one case, drive up to the client, plug-in and we would be able to work from the Winnebago. We did that once. Maybe more. I don't know but once for sure, I know. We used it a lot for recruiting events and it was very effective for recruiting events. And also maybe one or two party bus situations.


Alexey Boas:

So Patricia, one thing I'm curious about, in your view, what are some things that have not changed or some things that have changed that you find striking?


Patti Mandarino:

So what's changed? Obviously, we're a lot bigger, so it takes a long time to get answers. And if it's anything that requires any global answer or decision, it takes a lot longer. It's obvious. That's an obvious one. The good thing about the global focus is that it is part of our culture. We're global. And we have a culture and we have a mindset that we want all of our offices to have. So it's good that we have those conversations and we stay aligned on decisions that are being made for whether they're about people or process or tools or whether we acquire somebody. So I think that's good. It takes longer, but it's good that we keep that connection. Some of the other good things is we're finally addressing our operational systems. We've gotten so large that we have to. We can't operate on a shoestring anymore. We have to have real systems to support the organization as the size that it is. This gets into more what's good about growing and being a larger organization.


Patti Mandarino:

There's a lot more opportunities for people. There's a lot more opportunities for people to grow and we create new opportunities all the time as we grow and as we get into different technologies and different areas to help our clients. So that's good. What hasn't changed? The culture hasn't changed. It is still a culture that has a passion for technology, solving complex problems, social justice. That really hasn't changed in the 20... years that I've been here. It really hasn't and it's impressive. And it is part of, I've heard this before, especially with the first sale, Roy's DNA is all over and it is become part of our DNA. And it's come from Roy and the founders, and everybody who works here who has the same passion for those three things.


Neal Ford:

Yeah. That was, I think, one of the concerns when Roy sold the company and transitioned was, can we keep the mascot spirit alive that Roy provided for the company? I think the current management has done a very good job of that, of keeping that culture, because I think that is the secret sauce of ThoughtWorks. And do you see any challenges? So, we're up to 8,000 people now, and we're continuing to grow at about the same pace. Do you see any challenges to being able to scale that culture? Is there some number where it finally starts breaking, or can we keep going for a while? We were talking about scaling agile. Can we scale a consulting company and continue scaling that?


Patti Mandarino:

I think at some point, we may not have the control. We have the control now to monitor that by our leaders, our current leaders. With the sale, with the couple of acquisitions that we've had, we have control over who we're acquiring, who we're selling to. I am not that close to it, but I would imagine that at some point we might lose some of that control, but I don't know when that would happen.


Neal Ford:

And even then, hopefully it would not affect the culture, whatever the organizing principle from a financial standpoint, hopefully we can keep the culture reserved.


Patti Mandarino:

Yeah. Ideally, and once the control of the future and the decisions gets diluted, once that culture gets diluted at that level, but right now I don't see it happening.


Neal Ford:

Okay. We're a little over a half an hour now. So is there anything, any other questions you want to ask, Alexey? Anything else you want to say, Patricia, that we didn't get to cover? Anything that came to mind as we were talking about this that would be entertaining and delightful to our audience?


Patti Mandarino:

Anything delightful. Any words of wisdom. No. I think if we talk about challenges, COVID obviously is challenging a lot of us in many different ways. One of the things that ThoughtWorks has become really good at is what we call discoveries or inceptions. And that's starting up work and doing that remotely has just challenged us in a lot of ways. And the distributed nature of our work, we've done distributed projects, North America, India, in North America, China, whatever, but we've always had that ability to connect in-person, fly to and visit and get to know. And we're not having that now. And it's really been challenging and it's really been hard, but we're making it through. I just can't wait till we can get back to in-person, have a nice two, three, four, six-week inception. I know you just got off of one, Neal, but at least do it in-person. It makes it-


Neal Ford:

And finish it off in the ThoughtWorks mobile as a party bus. It'd be great to have that around as a monument somewhere of the past. Yes. I agree with you. I've done an inception in COVID times and I'll end this with a plea to anyone who ends up in an inception in COVID times. Please turn your camera on. There's nothing worse than standing, talking to a screen of black boxes all day. So at least with your camera on, you get a sense that there's another human on the other side of the screen. And it actually makes it 15% better than it would be otherwise, which is still not great, but it's still 15% better than it would be otherwise. But that's definitely one of the biggest challenges we have right now.


Patti Mandarino:

For sure. For sure. Well, thank you. Thank you, guys. Hopefully, I shared some wisdom, some fun ideas, some thoughts.


Neal Ford:

I guarantee you that virtually no one who listens to this realized that the thought mobile actually existed. And did you know about the thought mobile, Alexey? You never heard of that story?


Alexey Boas:

There was the myth but to get the confirmation, wow. That's gold.


Neal Ford:

It's like actually seeing a Yeti in-person, hearing the source of the myth.


Alexey Boas:

Yeah.


Patti Mandarino:

I had a couple models. I'm sure somebody has them. There may be some, even in the Chicago office.


Neal Ford:

There's got to be a picture somewhere of everybody standing in front of the thought mobile. All right. Well, thank you very much, Patricia. It was a pleasure to talk to you. It's always a great pleasure to get your insights. And I hope you're here for another 20... years here at ThoughtWorks. Well, thank you so much and good luck on inceptions and I'm with you. I hope we get to do it in-person again sometime soon.


Patti Mandarino:

Thank you. Thanks a lot. Nice to meet you, Alexey.


Alexey Boas:

Thank you very much, Patricia. Bye.

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