I’m on the flight home from Vancouver having spent 10 days in Baltimore and Vancouver. I was supposed to go to San Francisco as well, but that didn’t happen (to be explained below).

Baltimore was for an Agile Alliance board meeting from Friday to Sunday, the first since the Agile 2012 conference. Declan Whelan joined the board and we selected the new office bearers. We discussed the strategic direction of the alliance and upcoming conferences. Planning is already underway for Agile 2013 – it will be another great conference.

As always, the time spent with my fellow “boardies” was very special – we are able to have good discussions, tackle hard questions and work together as a cohesive team, it’s a privilege to work with such a great bunch of people.

I only had a short time in Baltimore and would like to get back at some stage. We stayed on ten waterfront, wonderful harbor side activities. It’s great how harbor cities around the world are refreshing their port precincts and turning them into vibrant public spaces.

From Baltimore three of us were heading to Vancouver to talk in the Agile Vancouver conference. Declan and I arranged our flights so we could travel together. It gave us an opportunity to get to know one another. He’s another passionate and dedicated agilist who shares the vision of humanizing the world of software development. It was great to spend some time together.

Our flights were supposed to be Baltimore to Chicago and Chicago to Vancouver. Unfortunately the plane had a hydraulic problem on the first flight and we had to land at Denver to change planes. The explanation given was that the hydraulic system that controlled the nose wheel steering had failed, however I suspect there was a lot more broken than simply the steering mechanism. We landed after a very long, slow descent amid the emergency vehicles (“just normal routine” – yeah, right).

They towed us from the far runway to the gate and we were able to change planes fairly quickly, and head on to Chicago. We eventually got to Vancouver at 01:00, ( two hours later than planned) cleared customs and immigration and took a cab to the Renaissance Hotel where the conference was being held. A 02:30 the fire alarm strobe light in my room started flashing – I checked with Reception and there was an alert but we didn’t need to evacuate the hotel. The light continued flashing until 03:30, which really meant I couldn’t get to sleep.

08:00 came around way too quickly, and I dragged myself it of bed and down to the conference. The structure of the conference was a bit different from many I’ve been to, and I was a bit skeptical at first, but it worked really well.

The opening session was a facilitated discussion among the attendees to get them to identify topics they would like to tackle over the two days. There were three parallel tracks with speaker talks of 60 mins each, and each talk was followed by 60 mins of open discussion around the topics chosen during the opening session, so you had a combination of structured sessions and open space discussions. Participants put their choices on PostIt notes and these were clustered into topic areas to be addressed in up to 9 parallel conversations after the formal presentation. S the presenter spoke for an hour on their topic, there was a half hour tea break then three topics were discussed in each of the rooms for the next hour. It worked very well, and participants seemed to enjoy the combined structure.

My talk “Agile, Tragile, Fragile” was well received, with lots of discussion in the break afterwards, then we moved into the first of the open space sessions. There were three groups in my room tackling three different topics – writing good user stories, how to estimate agile projects and getting management buy-in. The groups quickly self-organized and I spent most of the time talking with the group who were discussing estimating.

Monday afternoon I needed to rest, so didn’t attend any of the sessions. The conference party on Monday was a great event, held in the revolving event room at the top of the hotel. More than a few people thought the drink was getting to them when the revolving mechanism was turned on about half-way through the evening.

The view from the 19th floor is fantastic.

Tuesday morning had Paul and Ian Culling telling the story of Version One’s ten years as an agile development company. There was no product plug, just a good discussion about the challenges, mistakes, successes and stories of growing a company with the specific intent of applying the agile values and principles as an underlying philosophy that guides their decision making. An interesting and enjoyable talk, and really refreshing to hear not just about their successes but the failures along the path as well.

I then attended Declan’s session describing how he and his partners are using Lean Startup and Agile principles in the formation of a new venture Print Chomp – another story telling talking about real world application of these approaches, warts and all.

Tuesday afternoon I had work to attend to, so didn’t attend any of the sessions.

Tuesday night was the conference dinner for speakers and conference organizers. We went to a great Japanese restaurant – serving a tapas-style meal. It was a great evening with a really great group of people.

On Wednesday I gave a workshop titled “Turning Distance into Advantage” which is based on the Geographically Distributed Agile Teams course Johanna Rothman and I built. A small group people attended, and we had a lot of fun together.

Straight after the workshop I got a cab for Vancouver Airport to catch my planned flight to San Francisco, to spend two days consulting with a customer there. I checked in with time to spare and waited patiently in line for the US immigration check (the US border checks are done in Vancouver, which lets them treat the arriving flights like domestic ones).

I presented my passport to the large man behind the desk and he asked me the purpose of the trip – consulting with a customer in San Francisco. He then asked if anyone would pay for this service, to which I replied honestly that yes, money would change hands. This caused his eyebrows to raise and I was taken into the “supplementary processing” area – shut off from the main immigration processing area. Behind the doors are a number of counters with people who must be trained to be as imposing as possible behind them. I was told to sit and wait, and for the next 60 minutes I was largely ignored, while my passport was examined minutely with lots of head shaking and quiet muttering. I was called to come before one of the counters and had my finger prints taken (individual finger by finger, not the normal whole hand scan) and sent to sit down again. Unfortunately the computer system didn’t store that set of prints, but I didn’t know that at the time. After another 30 mins or so I was called up again, and was quite surprised to see that my suitcases were behind the counter on a trolley, they had not been put onto the plane. By now I was really worried about making the flight as we were 30 mins away from the scheduled departure time.

I was told not to worry about the flight, and was subjected to a detailed interrogation regarding my trip to the USA, and the type of things I do on my travels. My fingerprints were taken again, in the way that you see being done in police dramas, albeit not with ink but straight into the scanner. I discovered that my prints were sent for a criminal record search, which (surprise, surprise) came back clean. I was then placed under oath and had to go through the whole explanation again, after which I was told that what I planned to do in the USA constitutes “work” and that the electronic visa granted to NZ citizens does not permit me to work while in the USA. This was news to me, as I’ve been traveling to the States very regularly since 1998 and the nature of my activities has been pretty much the same every time.

The formal statement was then printed out for me to sign and it was taken to a supervisor for a final decision, and I was denied entry to the USA. Obviously I’m a really bad person.

My flight to New Zealand was booked for Friday night from San Francisco, and when I asked how I should get home there was a totally unsympathetic “don’t care, but you can’t go into the United States”. My electronic visa was immediately cancelled – I received an email telling me that I am not allowed to enter the USA under that program within an hour. To go back to the USA I now have to get a Business visa for sales visits, and a Work visa if I’m going to deliver training or consulting where money changes hands.

A Canadian border control officer was called and I was escorted back to the Canadian side of the airport, fortunately as a Kiwi I am allowed to be in Canada!

There was a direct flight from Vancouver to Auckland that evening, but I had missed it by the time I was escorted back.

I phoned the office and the travel agent, who moved heaven and earth to get me on the Friday night flight back home (no Vancouver-Auckland flight on Thursday), and arranged for me to go back to the Renaissance hotel. Thanks Sarah-Jane, the best travel agent I’ve ever worked with.

I felt sullied and traumatized by the treatment by the USA department of homeland security, and I suspect that future trips to the USA will entail having to prove that I’m abiding exactly by the letter of the visa I will now have to apply for.

I went back to the Renaissance hotel, checked in again and got some dinner, by which time it was nearly 11:00pm. I struggled to sleep that night, and woke at 09:00 to call the customer in San Francisco to let them know that I can’t be with them this week. We will probably get a local partner to do that engagement; fortunately we have very good relationships in the agile community.

Thursday I tackled some of my backlog of other work, and went out for a long walk.

Walking around the Vancouver shoreline is a great way to de-stress – I walked along to Stanley Park and made it about half-way round. They have a totem pole display with totems from a number of the first people’s of British Columbia, it’s a very impressive display.

I called Susan, one of the organizers of the Agile Vancouver conference, to let her know that I was still in town.  Needless to say she was shocked, and genuinely sympathetic. We had had a chat at the conference about outdoor activities, and Chris (her son) kindly offered to take me out on Friday to commune with nature, which offer I gladly accepted.

My next entry will have the story of a day in the BC wilds, fishing and boating…