John Schrag, standing outside on a sunny day with mountains in the background

My story (and why I did this work)

While I was studying at the University of Toronto, I was very split between wanting to work in technology, and wanting to understand people better.  I ended up graduating with a degree in computer science and linguistics, and found my sweet spot in a graduate course I took on the relatively new field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).  This science was all about where humans and technology met, a practice that required understanding psychology, anthropology, design, and technology.

When I started to work full-time as a programmer, HCI principles (what would now be called User Experience or UX) were unknown to most software engineers.  I understood that paying attention to the people in a system would lead to better software, and I spent a long time as a UX advocate and teacher, finally moving my whole career to design and UX work.  I spent years building software tools for designers, incluing illustrators, typographers, data visualizers, 3d artists, scultors, automotive designers, animators, game designers, and visual effects artists (including two Academy Award winning software packages.)  As a researcher and designer, I spent countless hours visiting customers,  studying how they worked and thought so I could understand their needs and design for them.

My employer adopted Agile development processes in the early 2000s.  This engineering-centric development process quickly taught me the impact that process change could have on both product quality and workplace engagement.  I teamed up with my boss Lynn Miller and my colleague Desirée Sy to modify Agile to include user experience work -- to make it more human-centred.  I was asked to lead two Agile business transformations at my own company; one for a single team, and one for an entire division.

The process we came up with, now called Dual-Track Agile, became quite popular after we shared it at Agile and UX conferences.  At various workshops in different cities, we taught our process to hundreds of people from hundreds of companies, hearing their stories and challenges with it over the years. 

Running business transformations, and talking to hundreds of people about their experiences with their own process changes led me to an epiphany -- it showed me how the same process and ideas that worked beautifully in one place could fail in another, or meet implacable resistance.  I realized that the culture of a workplace dictated the success of any particular process change

Great work requires great people and processes.

Great processes -- and keeping your great people -- requires a good workplace culture.  Culture was fundamental to good hiring, morale, retention, innovation, productivity, and decision-making.

That became my new focus at work, as I was promoted to Director.  I started running workshops on psychological safety both in my own company and at conferences.  I was taking the same research and design skills and applying them inwards.  I found this part of my job -- teaching, coaching, and facilitating -- so rewarding that I decided to make it my whole job when I retired from my executive position.

I'm still a designer at heart.  A designer, by definition, is an optimist -- someone who believes anything can be improved if you pay attention and care about it, whether that's a piece of software, a process, a meeting or workshop, or your workplace culture.