The Heart of Flash
Behind every story lies a story. This one begins one Saturday morning in Malmö. To be precise, Saturday 7th March at the single-day, single-track Beauty in Code conference. I’m speaking in the afternoon. Just before nine o’clock, however, I’m still upstairs in my hotel room, taking it easy.
Just then I receive a WhatsApp message: “Are you coming down?” It’s from Alistair Cockburn, who’s giving both the opening talk of the day, Getting back to the Heart of Agile, and the closing one.
“Yes, but not for a few minutes. Got caught in an email.”
“I’m going to ask you to write and read at the end a flash fiction:). How much time do you need?”
WTAF?! Alistair knows I write flash fiction, but this is crossing the streams, mixing the tech part of my life with the writing part. But, as in Ghostbusters, I’ve learned that “don’t cross the streams” is ultimately the advice you ignore to get the most memorable effect. I’m in.
“Depends how long the flash is. Is this for the end-of-day talk?”
“Nope. Assignment is to use the 4 words of my talk. Not use the word agile. Use the concepts if you can.”
“And when do you want it? End of talk? Do you want an actual story? Or…?”
This time, however, no response. It’s 09:05 and I guess Alistair’s been messaging me while the conference is being introduced. Now he’s on stage. And I’d better get downstairs.
Spotting me as I enter, Alistair interrupts his flow and, across the audience, (re)sets the challenge. Not much extra info, except now I’m here and the clock’s ticking.
Basically, I have about 20 minutes to write a work of fiction from scratch, using the four key words of The Heart of Agile, not using the word agile, and incorporating anything else — words, concepts, whatever — from the talk.
I decided on the way down that I would categorically avoid writing about software development — too obvious! — but knowing what you’re not going to write is not the same as knowing what you’re going to write. I figured it needed to be lighthearted, but that’s tone not tale.
I listen and make notes and false starts… and then the flame catches and the words — 350 or so of them — follow. One quick edit pass later the story gets a spoken-word debut to a few hundred software developers.
And without further ado, here’s the words…
Kokoro was late. Kokoro was lost. The supermarket was a maze, but no compass would save her. Alistair was coming round for dinner.
“What do you like to eat?”
“Oh, pretty much anything.”
“Yes, but what would you like?”
“Oh, I dunno, surprise me!”
How was she supposed to work like this? He couldn’t — or wouldn’t — tell her exactly what he wanted, but she was supposed to make something? And something good.
“I hear you’re a great cook.”
All the pressure, none of the information. No plan. No clear goals. How could she deliver?
Alistair was coming round for dinner. It turns out that was — she looked at her watch — in less than ten minutes. Not five hours as she’d assumed — all day to plan and cook.
“I’ll see you in 15,” he’d messaged.
“What?! I thought you said ‘dinner’.”
“I did! Sunday dinner. You know, the big meal of the day!”
Dammit. Alistair from Yorkshire. Kokoro thought she knew English. She’d lived in the US, lived in Australia and now, in London, for five years. But Yorkshire. Bloody Vikings. Dinner on Sunday was lunchtime everywhere else. An off-by-one meal error.
She had no idea what she was going to cook, but she was running down the aisles filling her basket. Carbs, coffee, protein, wine, random vegetables — no nothing frozen — tins, more wine, sauce — you can’t create something real without sauce, always trust the sauce, the sauce is the truth — but which one? All of them. More carbs, more tins, more wine. Checkout, credit card, run.
Three minutes. Takes 120 seconds to her front door.
Alistair still wasn’t there. Unpacking was a luxury of time she couldn’t afford. She poured her bags out on the counter. She reflected on what was there. Anything was possible. Everything was possible. But what?
The doorbell went.
“You look hot,” said Alistair.
“Why, thank you,” she raised her eyebrows and the corners of a smile.
“No, I mean, you’re sweating.”
“What’s for dinner?”
“I thought I’d surprise you. I’ve brought a set of possibilities, kept the options open. And there’s wine. I thought we’d cook together, collaborate and decide, and drinking wine improves everything.”
“Perfect! What a great idea. I think you’ve found the way to my heart.”