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Tampa Bay Tech Leaders: Fred Mastropasqua, President of Clearly Agile

Fred Mastropasqua, President of Clearly Agile

Fred Mastropasqua, President of Clearly Agile, met up with us at Zydeco Brew Works, where we had a couple drinks while chatting about the state of tech in Tampa. Fred minced no words, and we love the discussion that resulted.

Roxanne Williams: You’ve been working with Scrum since 2010. In addition to making a career out of that, you’ve also been active in the community hosting meetup events such as Lean Beer, which was featured in our 7 best tech meetup groups.

Fred Mastropasqua: Nice, thanks!

Roxanne: What made you get into Scrum and why is still something you’re so passionate 8 years later?

Fred: 8 years ago, I found myself leading a team of 28 professionals in software development. They were all over the board: developers, architects, QA, UI designers, UX, QA automation – basically a huge team of 20 people. We were building another version of a healthcare compliance application, which is still running in hospitals across the US today, and so I was tasked with starting the Tampa office and building out the next version of the product. It was a multi-million dollar healthcare compliance product for Wolters Kluwer, a five billion dollar per year company that got me into Scrum.

Matt Vaughn: Simple stuff.

Fred Mastropasqua, President of Clearly Agile - Agile

Fred: Yeah. I had worked on the previous version. I started up the downtown Tampa office. I actually found that office space, did the buildout, and spent probably 6 to 8 months interviewing people until I found the right candidates. But once we started doing the work, I realized there had to be a better way than what we’ve done in the past. Fixing things in production isn’t Agile. ‘Agile’ wasn’t even a term in my vocabulary back then. ‘Software development lifecycle’ was, so I was looking for a better way to manage the overall process. I was reading a couple of different books on software development lifecycle, and a couple of them mentioned this thing called Scrum, and I was like, “What is this thing? I’ve never heard of this term before.”

I kept reading about it, and it didn’t really make sense. So, I looked up a class online, ended up getting trained, and getting my Certified Scrum Master and Certified Scrum Product Owner. Being the person running the whole office, I came back that Friday, and by Monday, we were doing Scrum. It was a disaster – we failed, we argued, we were confused. But after we did a few two-week sprints, I started seeing the difference in the process. Seeing the change it made and the transformation we had, I was sold. I saw the benefit of it.

Matt: Why isn’t everyone doing it?

Fred: Yeah, why isn’t everyone doing it? You have lightweight requirements, you can pivot really quickly, you get feedback right away, you can get work done a lot faster because you have a business integrating with the team on a daily basis. It was pretty eye opening.

Ever since then, I just kept following that path. I left that company, and helped a friend out as COO. I was heading up the product management side of the house using Agile, and I slowly became an Agile coach, then started going down the training path. I was already teaching within the company at Wolters Kluwer. I was teaching other teams in my own Scrum class. It wasn’t certified, it was just me just wanting to share the information. That’s kind of how I got into it 8 years ago, and now I don’t do anything else.

Matt: To kind of tie into where that led you, how did you meet Ed and end up founding Clearly Agile?

Fred: Wolters Kluwer is where I hired Ed as an architect. So, I hired Ed, and hired a bunch of other smart guys. There’s a guy named Kaung Yam that I’m still trying to get, but he doesn’t talk to me anymore. Some people are mad at me that I left the team, and they’re like, “How could you leave us?” Kaung, if you’re reading, still got a place for you. I had hired another guy, Jeff LaFavors. When I left WK, I went to work at my friend’s company, and I took Ed with me. Jeff had already left to work on a startup. My intent was to go back and get some of the other players on the team like Kaung, but at the time, there wasn’t room for them.

Ed’s a hands-on developer at the ground level, typically more at the higher vision level and coordinating project efforts. It’s a pretty good team – I’m a risk taker and Ed’s much more conservative, so we balance each other out in a lot of different ways. If I can convince Ed, then it’s probably a good idea. If I can’t convince Ed, then it’s probably not a good idea.

We started noticing things in the corporate environment. There were issues at the ground level that we weren’t allowed to communicate to the client. There were practices of hide-the-information-from-the-client-because-everything’s-roses. It just started to become kind of shady, how companies deal with clients, not involving them or giving them all the information. It wasn’t something we really wanted to be a part of.

There was a client we were working with that only Ed and myself knew the technology. I talked to Ed, and we realized we could just do this for ourselves. Ed has always put in 40+ hours a week, and he’s never seen any real benefit from it. So we decided, let’s start our own company, we’ll be transparent, we’ll be honest with our clients, and if we put in 60-70 hours a week, there should be an upside to that as well if we’re part-owner of the company.

I started Clearly Agile initially by myself as an Agile coaching and training company in July of 2014. A year later, I convinced Ed to come join me. We negotiated with our former employer to let us have that one client, because they had no one else that could support them. It was like, “Hey, we’re leaving, and it’s your client so good luck, or we can take care of it. We can take him with us because I don’t know what you’re going to do. You’re going to have to hire somebody.”

So, September of 2015, Ed officially came over. We’ve been doing it ever since, and we brought Jeff on, who I mentioned earlier, last year. We were kind of hunting and staging him last February. He did some side work for us just so we could make sure. By July or August, he came onboard as a third owner, small minority owner.

I think that answers the question. That’s kind of where I met Ed, how we got together, and how we’ve pivoted since. We started Agile coaching and training, then we pivoted to customer software development. We were doing that for a couple years, and then we pivoted back to a training focus and coaching focus, and then we just pivoted one last time to being an Agile transformation shop, which encompasses all those prior things. So, we still do the customer software, we still do the coaching and training, but now we encompass it all and they’re an Agile transformation.

Matt: One cohesive solution.

Fred: Right. One cohesive solution. We can help you at any different level of that.

Roxanne: How many employees are you up to now?

Fred: Just to show the growth difference, at the end of 2017, we were at 5 to 6 employees and now we’re at 25 to 26. We’ll be at 29 by the end of the year. It’s been a 500% growth increase, and that’s revenue and with employee count. It’s been a huge year with explosive growth.

Roxanne: Can you speak about your Scrum certification classes for anyone who may be interested in becoming a Scrum Master?

Fred: Yes. I use a technique called ‘training from the back of the room.’ The idea behind that is it’s not a lecture class, it’s not I sit up and just talk, talk, talk, and you just have to remember things.

I connect you first to the material I’m going to talk about and by relating it to something you should already know. So, for example, if I’m talking about estimating possible work, I might ask, “How do you estimate your work today?” And that’s something you might know or can answer and have a discussion on. And then, I use that information to teach you the topic or the concept. Then I follow it up with a hands-on activity that enforces that knowledge. Every single module has a hands-on activity to help enforce the knowledge. The last part of that module is wrapping it up in some way. Either you’re teaching it back to the room, or you’re discussing with your table.

A lot of it is, I’ll give you the information you need, but then you teach yourself and you do an activity to really hone it in. In the Scrum Master class, it’s a great class because it’s hands-on, it’s active, and you build a product using Scrum. So, it’s not just, “Here’s the knowledge. Okay, goodbye.” It’s, “Here’s the knowledge, and as you learn it, you’re going to manage your work using Scrum and build an actual product.”

It’s not boring. People are in small teams of 4 to 6 people and they’re working together as a team, and learning together.

Roxanne: How long does the class take?

Fred: Two full days.

Matt: Excellent. So that’s for the newbies that are interested in getting their feet wet. I’ve been to a number of your Lean Beer Agile meetups and it’s fun hearing you and Mike and everybody else argue about who’s the right person, and who has the ultimate books on what’s happening, who’s the best thought leader. But for the people that already have their feet wet and have their certifications but maybe haven’t really dove deep into the world of the thought leaders, who are some authors or speakers that you think they should look up?

Fred: Yeah, I tell you, those conversations are always around scaling Scrum because it’s such an interesting topic. But yeah, if you’re new, obviously the class will help you. The only way to get a Scrum Alliance certification is to be in a two-day class – there’s no other way. They’re the biggest Scrum certifying body, whereas Scrum.org, you can just pay to get tests online, but who’s to know that you know what you’re talking about or didn’t just have someone answer the test for you?

Taking it a little further, Mike Cohn is a really good source of information. His website, Mountain Goat Software, has a lot of really good information. Braintrust.com is a great source of agile help. The other one I would always hit up is Jeff Sutherland’s site. He’s the co-creator of Scrum – scruminc.com. And he’s got a lot of good case studies on not just Scrum, but Scrum at scale, and with Saab and 3M Health Services. So, if you’re looking for data points to prove some of the patterns or things you’re trying to implement within an organization, you can get a lot of good data from both Jeff Sutherland and Mike Cohn. I love Lyssa Adkins for coaching. She has her own coaching course, and she’s really well known for her coaching abilities. Brian Rabon and Kate McGaw have mentored me. Jesse Fewell is another one. I’ve worked with them a lot. They are all really bright minds with executive-level thinking.

Fred Mastropasqua, President of Clearly Agile - Coaches

There are so many certified Scrum trainers and thought leaders out there. And it’s different levels of coaching and different levels of thought leaders. My only concern is, have some base knowledge first because there’ll be some people you talk to that are so advanced they’ll give you information that you think could apply to you today, but it doesn’t. So, do it as you’ve been taught – that’s a phrase we use in the community a lot. When you learn to drive, you drive 10 and 2, hands on the wheel, windows up, radio off, eyes on the road, and you drive exactly as someone’s telling you. You’re like, “Okay, 100 feet before I turn, put on my blinker. Stop 2 feet before the white line on the stop line.” Right, and then in the hop stage, you’re master of some of the elements, you now can drive with your window down, you have one hand on the wheel, radio on, you don’t put on your blinker sometimes, you don’t stop before the stop light. And you know these are the things you’re supposed to do, but you just don’t do them and you know of the consequences of not doing these things. And then the restage is, now you’re driving with your knees while you’re texting or putting on makeup, eating cereal and you’re like, “Whatever.” And you’re fine with doing that, but you know that if you get into an accident, you’ll know it was probably because you were driving with your knees.

Some of these coaches are experts that you listen to, and they’ll say, “You don’t have to ever estimate. You don’t ever have to do a daily Scrum. You don’t ever have to do these things.” And you have to realize, they’re so beyond advanced that this works for them and they understand the consequences of not doing these things, but they forget sometimes that they’re talking to people that are new to the process. You just have to be careful of what you read or who it’s coming from. Are they telling you from best advice, or are they just telling you, not thinking about where you are in your journey?

Matt: I think something I’ve got to show some love for and have you talk about is how the Lean Beer for Agile meetup works. So, can you speak to how it works?

Fred: The idea is, you have everyone come to a gathering. Before the event starts, they can write down a question, a statement, or something they just want share related to Scrum and Agile, put it in a bucket, stir it around, and then you have someone randomly pull one out. Either that person can read it out loud, or the host can read it out loud. If it’s your question, you don’t have to admit it’s your question. And then, we’ll set the timer on the clock. It’s usually either 5 minutes or 7 minutes depending on how many things are in the bucket. If there’s a lot of stuff in the bucket, I’ll do 5 minutes, if there aren’t as many things, I’ll do 7 minutes. When the timer goes off, typically, I ask, “Does anyone want to continue the topic?” A positive answer is you raise your glass. If the majority of people raises their glass, we’ll continue the topic for another 5 minutes.

Matt: Continue the constructive, heated argument.

Fred: Correct. We just started the first Lean Beer in St. Petersburg this past Thursday. So, there’s now the second Thursday of the month in St. Pete, and then the third Thursday of the month we’re in Ybor.

Matt: Yeah, I always thought it was so cool that you give the ability to anonymously ask questions that feel intimate to their environment.

Roxanne: So, actually, since we’re on the topic of Lean Beer, other than your involvement with Tampa Bay Tech, do you do anything else in terms of community engagements?

Fred: Me or Clearly Agile or both?

Roxanne: Both.

Fred: I do speak at some of the Tampa Bay Agile meetups. I speak at some of the PMI events in Suncoast, and the one in Tampa. We sponsor WITI. We’re sponsoring Agile Open. I think we’ve sponsored 4 or 5 ScrumMasters Guilds in a row and also a Product Owner one. And it’s funny because the sponsorship is bringing the food, right? Well at the last guild I sponsored, someone came up to me and said, “I came because I knew it was going to be good food tonight.” Most of the time, sponsors will get salad or pizza or just really boring stuff – but when we sponsor, it’s Cheesecake Factory, Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill – it’s serious food. We usually spend $500-800 on catering. So, those are the main ones. Ed also did a sponsorship for a hackathon.

Matt: You held a seat on the securing committee at Tampa Bay Tech for 5 and a half years. We actually talked to Daniel not too long ago. Can you tell us about your involvement with Tampa Bay Tech?

Fred: I love Daniel. He had twins, my wife and I had twins. It was a lot of interesting. No, really just hanging out in the community. Other than we’ve been to a couple of the award ceremonies – we actually won a couple back in 2016. We didn’t submit for last year or this year because emails are so busy, I probably missed it. There’s no excuse other than I haven’t had time to actually fill out an application.

Matt: Too busy to win awards.

Fred: Yeah, too busy to win awards. That’s right, exactly. Need someone else to do this.

With Tampa Bay Tech, it’s been great, doing the interviews, meeting people, talking to Daniel, going to the various events. We’ve really just been involved in going to the different events, offering up knowledge or expertise as asked for. That’s the only involvement we’ve ever really done. It’s just making sure we’re there and always keeping in touch with Daniel and if anyone needs anything.

Roxanne: Kind of like an advisor.

Fred: Yeah. Helping out as needed or as asked.

Roxanne: That’s really cool.

Fred: We’ve been toying with an idea to partner with them to offer up to the community. I want to do an internship rotation specific to Scrum masters, product owners, people that are trying to get into that career field. Not for developers, just specific to Scrum. A lot of companies in Tampa could use either free or low-cost people that are willing to work or learn the Scrum process in a real environment.

I have to talk to Daniel more about it, but we’ve been toying around with that idea. Which companies can we get involved with that will join that coalition of two weeks here, a week there, two weeks there possibly. Someone rotates through all of Tampa Bay. That’s the goal, we just haven’t figured out how to put it together yet.

Matt: You’re were in the Air Force in the ‘90s. Can you tell us a bit about your experience there and what brought you from the Air Force to the world of software development?

Fred Mastropasqua, President of Clearly Agile - Automate

Fred: I always forget about that! I was into computers before the Air Force. It’s not as impressive now, because babies have iPads and they’re computer experts by the time they’re 1. But when I was 12, I built my first computer – that was pretty impressive at the time. So, I’ve been into computers since I was 8 – that’s when we got my first one. I tried to get into software development when I was 16, but the internet wasn’t like it is today, with 56k dial-up modems, and I would struggle with object-oriented programming at the time. I didn’t understand it. Every book I’d read, I’d only get so far before it went beyond my brain. My brain couldn’t handle it.

I ended up migrating towards networking. I went into the Air Force, and it was all about ground radio electronics, so I got a really rudimentary base knowledge course on electrons, voltages, and just circuitry in general for fixing radios. And that hardware knowledge of understanding how the electrons work at a molecular level really helped me understand computers. How does a CPU actually work? What are the electrons actually doing? How do the 1s and 0s actually work? How does a memory actually store that? Right? And so that knowledge coupled with my desire for learning software really helped, and building computers really helped me get a full 360 degree view of computers, and how they work in general. So in my early 20s, I was doing hardware and software repair. Then I got into networking.

They say a lazy programmer is a good programmer because they find ways to automate everything. So at my networking job, I automated everything with scripts through programming, light VB scripts. And I realized one day, “Oh, I know how to program now.” I got over that hurdle. Sometime between 16 to early 20s, I had gotten past that block I had. The Air Force really helped give me that knowledge of electronics in general, and that helped me be a better troubleshooter for computer hardware, which then led me into networking, which then led me back to software because I automated my networking job.

I realized that I hit the max salary I was ever going to hit as a network engineer unless I switched careers and became a manager, and I wanted to become a manager at the time. So I moved into the software side of the house, and I went back up the chain in the software side.

Roxanne: Wow – that’s awesome progression there. My next question is one that we ask everybody, because we love seeing different answers on this. But in your experience, how has Tampa served your hiring needs? Do you have a hard time finding technical talent in Tampa or has Tampa provided you with all the tech hires you need?

Fred: Oh man, there’s probably not a good answer, or a wide range of answers for that one.

Matt: Some people say the Tampa Bay line of “We’re a growing tech hub,” and some people say, “No, my tech is not entirely served, and I do have to look outside.”

Fred: So, I agree that Tampa’s a growing tech hub. However, not all the talent here is top notch. The talent that is top notch is not necessarily easy to find. I think it’s a growing area and there’s a wide pool of people that program, which is awesome, but the majority of them are awful. The most common skill here is .NET. Everyone and their mother does .NET and so if you want to find a .NET person, it’s “Oh I want $100,000. I’ve been doing this for 10 years.” Well that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve been doing it well for 10 years, right? That just means you’ve been doing it for 10 years but you’re maybe still not very good at what you’re doing. I find it hard to swallow to pay that much money when you’re no better than a junior to intermediate developer just because you’ve been doing it for a really long time.

And so, finding a junior to intermediate .NET person, sure, no problem, you’ll find that all day long. Trying to find someone that either has a computer science background and understands computer languages where it doesn’t really matter what the language is, they can really solve complex problems and they can read something online to suggest a complicated solution and understand it and actually implement it.

There are two types of developers or coders. There are ones that just copy something they see online and manipulate it to do what they want, and then there are ones actually created the original. That’s someone that’s really hard to find here.

We’ve been looking on and off for an Ed clone, someone that has a computer science background, super senior, really can solve complex problems – and those are the ones that are hard to find. So, it’s either they’re really hard to find, or we find someone that thinks they’re that level, wants to be paid a lot of money, but in reality, their development work or coding skills are at the intermediate level and they’ve never gone past that, but they’ve been doing it for so long, they expect so much more money. I struggle with that. If I paid you based on how well you code, you’d be a $70,000 a year developer, not $110,000. They don’t seem to believe that.

So yes, growing community, strong community, but if you’re looking for a really senior person that can really take it home and solve those complex issues, that’s where I think sometimes Tampa struggles. I mean, I interviewed for 6 to 8 months when I built a WK team. It took me that long to hire enough people to build a team because I was leading through them so fast. I hired someone and fired them within a week once. I’m just like, “Nope.” Because it’s not just their coding, it’s their team fit. Do they have kindergartener skills? Can they share, can they get along with others? So, it’s not only knowing how to code well – you also have to know how to be a team player and fit within the culture of the company.

Matt: Off the record, because I’m not going to reference your competition in your own interview.

Fred: You can do it, it’s fine.

Matt: Oh great! Well one of the things that Leon Sabarsky did with WellCare was sitting everybody down and having them build marshmallows together.

Fred: Yeah, the marshmallow game! I totally want to do that too. That’s what I want. The book Joy Inc., is about a software company called Menlo, and they do what they call a group interview. You bring everybody that wants to come in for a job on the same day and you put them in teams. And the goal is to see how they interact; do you work well with others?

I talked to Leon about it, and I said, “I’d like to do this group activity thing.” And he told me how he did the marshmallow game with WellCare, which I was like, “Yes, I want to do that too! It’s amazing.” The marshmallow game is, you build a tower with 26 spaghetti sticks, a yard of string, and a yard of tape, and you have to get the marshmallow as high as you can.

He brought everybody in, he had the recruiters in the room and some of the HR people there. And the idea is you put them in teams of 4 to 5 and you tell them together as a team, “Build up the tower as high as you can get.” You’re looking for those social skills. Is the person dominating? Is the person getting along with others? Are they just checking out and don’t even want to help anymore, or are they really trying to achieve the goal?

One of the teams was short one member and Leon had told one of the recruiters that everyone had a team of 5 and this team had a team of 4. To make it even, he’s like, “Why don’t you go join that team?” And as the recruiter walked over, one of the people on that team said, “No, that’s okay. We got it.” Immediately, you saw all the other HR people were like, we don’t want to work with that guy, he’s just shutting down the person coming to the table. Either he’s arrogant or he doesn’t want to be a team player, he’s just like, “No, we don’t need you.” You can’t teach those social skills. Either you have them by now or you don’t.

Roxanne: Yeah. What do you hope to see in the next few years in Tampa when it comes to technology?

Fred: I’d like to see more tech companies working together to educate the type of people that we need here. I’d like to see more of that in 5 years, where it’s like there’s an established program of not just teaching people, but also going to work as an intern, bouncing between a bunch of companies, getting that real world experience, and then we hire those people. I don’t want to necessarily hire someone to pay for them to learn something then go work somewhere else. A collaborative effort of tech communities to train people and weed out the good ones from the bad ones maybe.

Matt: And one of our favorite questions, outside of Clearly Agile, who is a person and/or an organization, could be two separate things, could be the same thing that you think is doing something right and innovative in the area, and why?

Fred: The legacy that Stephanie Davis left at Valpak is incredible. They were doing Agile tours, they were truly embracing Agile from the top down. They truly kept their teams intact, they had their central area for their daily Scrums with the teams. Thinking at it from an Agile perspective, they’re probably the most interesting model to look at. I like what Stephanie Davis did at Valpak. Her legacy lives on.

Roxanne: Final question: any further thoughts or insights you’d like to share or anything exciting coming down the pipeline for Clearly Agile or for yourself?

Fred: Yes. We are working on a something to differentiate us from our competitors, and we’re excited about it. We’re investing a bunch of money into it, and it looks like we’re going to get some good investor money to help us build the product out. So, 2019 should be a really good year, God willing, for Clearly Agile.

About Clearly Agile:

Whether building enterprise software or mobile applications, Cleary Agile deliver quality solutions aimed at achieving business goals. They utilize an iterative development approach, inviting you to see the product as they build it.

They use the Scrum framework every day to deliver quality software products to their clients. Through practical hands-on training, their approach helps clients learn how to consistently meet product milestones, keeping delivery on time and on budget.

Roxanne Williams is the Marketing Director at Full Stack Talent, a technology staffing agency in Tampa, FL. Find her LinkedIn here.

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