The following is a series of personal thoughts and reflections on eight or so years of learning my way around what it means to be a senior quality assurance or engineering manager. As some of you know I have recently found myself once again looking at the future of my professional career and wondering what it holds. The man who made the decision to change the entire organization of my department this week gave me some great advice. In our long and unofficial exit interview he challenged me to write down my thoughts on things I can personally take away from my successes and failures over a decade of different management roles.
Since I over share (according to everyone who loves me) this is the medium I’ve chosen to use. No names will be changed since I have no desire to name names or otherwise talk about specific instances, people, or companies.
A while back I worked for a company that was purchased by Monsanto. Monsanto meant business when they purchased our admittedly small little outfit in downtown San Francisco. They wanted everyone to feel like they were special and to know they purchased us because they had no idea how to do what we did and thus had no interest in telling us how to do what we do or interfere in any other manner. They purchased us because they wanted us and our data and our data models all to themselves. They spared no expense instilling the impression that both we were still going to be us but that we were also now in the “big boy pants” leagues. They chartered a jet and flew all of us out to three different facilities throughout the middle parts of the United States. We were given access to top research scientists, laboratories, executives, and even had an intimate dinner with the C-level executives and several board members. I got to meet men and women in one day who did everything from build Maker Faire sort of wild machines designed to strip genetic information from seeds without destroying them to people who advised Presidents and Prime Ministers on issues of national importance. Everyone I met on this magical mystery tour was very nice. They were to a person cheerful and helpful but most of all every single person from the assistants to the front desk personnel to the geneticists were all passionately committed to the idea of solving the world’s current and looming hunger crises. These were not Jurassic Park scientists playing with expensive toys. These were dedicated botanists, geneticists, engineers, and explorers who sought out, cataloged, studied, and genomed every single variety of crops like corn and wheat in existence looking for answers to complicated problems. When they couldn’t find answers in the species they realized they had to look outside the species. That’s when GMOs came on the scene.
Since I had what was essentially a captive audience who claimed to be willing to talk about anything, I asked the President of Monsanto directly why he thought his company’s public image was so wildly divergent with what I personally experienced just chatting with everyone. He told me it was one thing they completely screwed up a long time ago and didn’t even try to correct until lately. They didn’t look into anyone except the farmer’s buying their seeds and herbicides. The stopped at the primary connection in their value chain.
You see as much as a lot of people hate Monsanto, farmers around the world love love love them. Monsanto has done an amazing job of working with farmers, listening to their problems, and rapidly (in terms of seed) changed course several times to address their pain points. In most ways their movement into GMOs was a direct request from farmer’s who’s crops were being destroyed by climate change, water contamination, rapidly evolving pests & diseases, and the regulation of most herbicides out of existence. For decades Monsanto thought that was enough. When the suddenly felt the pain of people reacting emotionally to the idea of consuming what to them felt like “Franken-food” Monsanto reacted like the scientists and engineers they are by simply telling people to look at the science and research. To which what seemed like an entire planet replied with the phrase “Nuts.” Monsanto got hammered and is still being hammered. They’ve become the symbol of everything people don’t like about our current society and a repository for all the fears we have for what seems to be looking more and more like a bleak future. They ended up trying to enter a very pernicious and embedded opinion based on a decade or more of rumor armed only with facts.
Looking back at his now I wish I’d learned it years ago and had remembered it recently.
When you’re a manager (and especially a senior manager) you are responsible for a lot of things. Your team can feel like the most important thing that need concern you. You have reports and meetings with your direct manager who may be a director, vice president, or even chief officer of some sort. You have customers you need to keep happy be they external to your organization or internal to it. You can fall into the trap of making sure you do the best job possible, your team is chugging along fantastically, and your customers think you’re amazing. You want to believe that is more than enough to secure your reputation. Every company says it’s a “no drama zone” or something like it. Technology companies in particular like to say they’re data driven and that the rely on things they can measure. The reality is while you’re intensely focused on your primary relationships you are neglecting your secondary and tertiary relationships. These relationships are vitally important for the long term health and opinion of you and your team.
There is a tool consultants use called an influencer map. They use it to rapidly assess everyone on a project who has some sort of influence over the success or failure of that project and how they perceive it. People with direct influence are given priority but importantly people with indirect or even outlier influence are also mapped. The different people are mapped around who they can influence rather than where they occur in an org chart. Your job as a consultant is to be aware of people with influence who can have an effect on your outcome. You then turn around the ones you can to be supporters or even interested in your work. If you can’t change their stance you try and isolate them so they can’t scuttle your work through their attitude. As a manager you need to be aware of everyone in your organization in the same manner. it’s not something you need to address all the time but you don’t do it at the risk of how people perceive your work.
You see perception is often completely at odds with facts. People don’t trust facts or they selectively pick the ones that will support their perception. If a manager or director or a vice president forms a negative or even questionable perception/opinion of you or your team they will start to notice things supporting that viewpoint. You can present them with lots of Key Process Indicators (KPIs) showing you are doing great but they’ll come away remembering the one thing that may not have been awesome. At that point you are fighting a losing battle since you are actively working against an opinion formed from nothing. If you have enough time you can mitigate this issue with personal intervention and salesmanship but it’s a holding action until the opinion changes. If something like a re-organization or change in management happens before you’re turned that around you will find yourself on the list to be changed.
The best way to avoid The Monsanto Challenge is to never find yourself in it. Your first month as a manager should be spent personally meeting every other manager in your organization and every upper level manager in the company. You need to meet with them regularly and let them form their own impression of you, an impression you can hopefully control. Take the time to talk about the great things your team is doing and showcase their success. Ask them for advice or go to them with intelligent questions they can answer. Controlling your image in this manner provides some inoculation against other influencers who may be spreading a message you don’t want spread. It won’t prevent you from having your budget cut or being laid off or having your project shut down. These things happen all the time even in large companies.
It will remove one of the ways things like lay offs can happen in spite of success.
It’s a lesson I’ve paid the price for not following now at least twice and perhaps three times. I did not get on a plane and go meet with people face to face (the value of which I will talk about in another blog post). I didn’t control the message about myself and my team. In all of these occasions there was a price to pay; sometimes it was a very dear price indeed.
So apparently in the year I was gone from being a presence on line what I would term as a shit storm seems to have sprung up. I probably should have known this would happen. I gave a talk a year ago at STPCon titled ACCelerate Your Agile Test Planning. My talk was an extended session break down of a four to five hour training workshop I’d developed for a useful process I’d developed when planning rapid testing cycles and building a coherent strategic vision at the same time. I brought together multiple tools and procedures I’d tried over the years. Some of the concepts were very deep while others seem self-evident to most people. Out of that entire session I spent perhaps ten minutes on how traditional functional testing as a specialized discipline was sliding into obsolescence. I assumed this would be self-evident to a room full of testing professionals spanning a wide swathe of technologies and disciplines. I had slides with Ted Talk numbers and everything.
Ten minutes at best on that topic.
Even during my talk the whole thing was almost derailed by the audience breaking into two camps to debate this point. A vocal group wanted to prove I was a fraud so they could discount everything I was saying by challenging me on my data and methods. Another group rushed to defend me like the knights they saw themselves. I’m a good speaker so soon enough we were back on track but most after session talk was still around that one subject.
One thing I brought up once in two hours.
Now I sign in to Twitter for the first time in a while and I see a giant swirling mass of comments about how Context Driven Testing (CDT … that took me a second to decode) is a fraud because it’s leading thinkers are refusing to answer serious challenges about it. I’m still trying to sort out what is being debated but so far it appears to be the following.
I’m debating whether I should answer any of these in future blog posts. For right now let me address the larger implication by stating as unequivocally as I can this debate is completely senseless to me. Context driven testing is not a school of testing like “agile” or “standard” or whatever rings you want to put around a craft. The idea put forward by Bret Pettichord about this subject was proposed nine years ago and I’m sure he’s evolved since then in his understanding.
Just as agile only states you should approach software development with an agile mind to continually seek out waste (tasks done for no end other than the act of doing them) contextual testing only states you should only do what is necessary to see if you are delivering “value to some person at some time.” Just as agile is a guide against lazy thinking and rigid processes that cannot adapt to changing circumstances, contextual testing guards against the same. The contextual tester does not like acting unless they know why they are acting and can relate it back to the customer and their perception of value. The contextual tester finds no “quality assurance” in a series of actions that are done only to say you have done them. The contextual tester also finds no satisfaction in following a defined process because a guru has stated it is what must be done.
We have people with ideas. We listen to them. We think about that they’re saying. We use what we find useful. We move on. Contextual testers act on what is and not what should be or what was. In this manner a contextual tester can obtain an ISTQB certification and implement a long term strategy to obtain CMMI Level 4 adherence within a phase gated development structure without any fear of ideological purity. I’ve worked with more than a few clients who were attempting to move away from that when their customers and entire industry were not at all ready for that change. A contextual tester will feel the very appropriate need to point this out. Since we are moving toward stable and accepted automation practices a contextual tester embraces this change as a way to add to their skills available to them as circumstances change.
So in short the only thing a contextual tester will push hard against is orthodoxy.
My fiend Johonna (aka Josie) Nutter turned me on to the following blog post written by Katie Thomas at the Hackbright Academy. The titular focus of the article is suggesting questions to ask of people interviewing you in order to determine if the overall culture is more or less female-friendly. It’s a great post and you should read it now.
I hope you actually read it as I’m not going to summarize Katie’s excellent advice. Instead I’m going to comment on it since these questions struck me as some of the exact questions I should have asked at my last startup, the one that ended up being a sick cliché of almost everything wrong with SF startup culture. My concern over the initiate or inexperienced candidate asking these questions, and the reason for this post, is to explain why I think these are excellent for ANY person and how people interviewing you can lie to themselves about what’s really going on around them.
“How often do people ask questions? How do people ask questions?”
I love these questions. As a new employee your job is to ask questions. All the questions. As a manager if I found a new hire asking only a few questions within at least the first 90 days I would be concerned about their long term success. As you move upward either technically or management wise this rule becomes more and more important and the time period should be extended further and further. Software testers are especially good at this since one of our primary duties is asking the questions no one else wants to ask or didn’t think to ask. We’re a curious and insatiable bunch that way.
Most interviewers if asked this question will reply with some sort of pat answer about it being a collaborative environment where new ideas and opinions are welcomed. That’s generally a fib in most companies. It’s a well-intentioned fib but it’s still a fib. What you’re looking for here is a reaction to people raising basic questions or asking about things that “aren’t their job” or even things that are tribal knowledge. As an example, within my first 90 days at my last position as a manager I was called into the VP of Engineering’s office and taken to task for asking who should be on an interview panel and which team was supporting which product. None of that was written down on a central repository, if it was written down at all. The issue was most management had been with the company for several years and so knew all those questions before they were moved into team management. My asking questions about this sort of thing was taken as a sign of possible (sure) incompetence as a manager since everyone else knew it.
As a new employee you run the same risk. Unless the company, department, and team are open and accepting of what seem like basic or redundant or even “semantic” questions then you will be facing a wall of expected omniscience you will more than likely fail to overcome.
“What practices do you have in place to ensure high quality code and continued learning?”
Code reviews are awesome. Everyone does code reviews in this day and age, mostly because they’ve been told how awesome code reviews are by a blog entry or expert on some sort of topic. When done correctly code reviews are great as one method for defect prevention while also sparking debate that can raise the level of code quality for all participants. The same is true for style enforcement tools, unit tests, or [insert thing here]. My only complaint with this question is you need to dig deeper. How are these practices and tools used? How are they enforced? Are there different rules for some people? If I check in some code for review how long do I usually have to wait for comments or approval? What is the general nature of those comments? Who can block my checkin and for what reasons? The same questions should be asked of all tools, especially style guides. Who set up the guide? Why did they choose one pattern over another? How often is the guide updated?
As another personal example, I once had a high priority fix delayed by a week as I sorted through several days worth of blocking comments. 30% of the feedback dealt with style issues such as how to format comments or spacing of wrap arounds. 60% of the remaining comments were attempts by various senior codes to make my code conform to their patterns, even if two or more of the patterns directly conflicted with each other. 10% of the comments were issues I missed and helpful feedback around how to do it better next time. All of these comments were marked as blockers to submitting my changes. All of these comments were entered in different days as each person found time to look at my checkin and tell me what to do.
A situation like the one I mention above is a giant red flag for a lack of discipline and coordination between people and teams in your organization. As testers we often span groups when we move beyond the mind-numbing verification & validation activities best done by developers in any event. If two or three interviewers cannot agree on how code is ensured then you can expect a lot of tension when attempting to test across functionality to where 75% of all bugs live.
“Are there any women on the team? If so, what positions do they hold?”
I’ve been to and spoken at a lot of conferences and smaller events. I may have a unique perspective since I don’t just go to testing events. Based on that perspective I can be reasonable sure the software testing and software quality assurance profession is one of the most diverse professions in the larger tech industry. We can do a lot better, but we are by no means atrocious. Development engineering events, on the other hand, are still giant sausage festivals. Most of the diversity numbers you see coming out of the large tech companies this days are completely crap for that reason. All the ones I’ve seen lump development engineers in with testers, marketing, project management, and design. Unfortunately for them even when they play fast and loose with statistics they STILL end up with only 20% females and even worse in the numbers of ethnic and racial minorities or self-identified members of the LGBT community.
The sad truth is this question will help you determine the likelihood of your promotion and salary parity should you join the company as a software tester. If women there are a lot of women in development engineering positions it’s a good sign the company is willing to treat difference with respect. Software testers are different. We think different and we focus on different things than a development engineer. At some companies difference is assigned a value judgement and it’s usually more negative. Managers hire people like them because managing these people is the video game tutorial of people management. Since a startlingly high number of companies don’t care much about people management they promote awesome technicians to positions of authority. As a tester this means there is a ceiling you will hit at some point even if you are a rock star. Unless you change careers you will never move above that level at said company since you are different.
I feel I should also clarify something here. I don’t believe women software engineers are inherently and inevitably all that different from male software engineers. The paradigms and skills making a male an awesome developer are the same one making a female an awesome developer. The same holds true for members of the First Nations, African Americans, Latinos, trans-gendered, or anyone else. I did a talk at Electronic Arts on this very subject and did a thought experiment. It was pretty cool. You should ask me for it since I can’t post it anywhere. Freaking Ted Talks agreement. Anyway … what I’m talking about here is perceived difference which is actually worse since there is little you can do when trying to combat it. The people deciding on your career perceive you as being inherently different (ie: inferior) so that’s what happens. Unless you want to battle that it’s best not to join the playing field in the first place.
Vivre la difference.
“What kinds of things do team members do together besides work? How central is drinking to social events?”
WARNING!!! WARNING!!! HIP STARTUP AHEAD!!!
Katie mentions this question as catching “brogrammer” culture but my experience is something different. A distressing number of software companies have fetishized youth culture as the secret to creating a great company. The culture then reflects this fascination. The perfect employee at these places will be under thirty, moderately attractive, and residing within a small radius of the company. Company social events will revolve around evenings spent drinking or hanging out in bars/nightclubs. Even company offsite team building events in the woods will include an open bar and events that do things like rock climbing or wake boarding.
This is an issue because a lot of companies these days put great weight on “cultural fit.” Not attending these events because you have a family or will need to drive 40 minutes home afterwards will be noticed. Eventually you’ll be pegged as a “poor fit” or even a dreaded “nine-t0-fiver.” Companies that truly care about their employees’ happiness and productivity and commitment will have a great mix of events. One company I worked at had evening keggers where the young could congregate and pretend not to be flirting. They also had family-focused barbecues and outings to sporting events such as baseball and soccer. My oldest daughter got to pet a real zebra at one of these events.
Finding a company that caters to people in multiple points and times in their lives is generally a sign that same company is looking at the long term viability of both their business and their employees.
Hey there, reprobates and iconoclasts! Sorry I’ve been away for a while but I’ve been busy with work and playing a very interesting video game, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The video game itself is interesting after a fashion and I logged more than a few hours inside it when it first came out on PC. I went back to it because the PC version has this amazing symbiotic relationship with their customers. Bethesda Games released a creation engine (basically a rich set of level design tools) for free. These tools were released for several very important reasons. Allowing gamers access to design their own experiences and (more importantly) share them with their peers creates a rich set of downloadable content at zero cost to the production studio. This “DLC” greatly extends the life of a game oftentimes by years. The peer review nature of these downloads generates a lot of really valuable user data for the production company. By watching what’s popular, what’s being discussed, and what’s being downloaded they can more easily design a richer and more rewarding gaming experience the next time they want to release another installment or even a brand new intellectual property. The final things they gain are an instant hiring pool from which to draw and a free set of dedicated and very intense testers. Some of the first DLCs produced by the people using these tools are usually what are called “unofficial patches,” which means they went through and fixed all the bugs and weirdness and outright insanity left in the game by the studio. Of course after those you’ll start to see the usual nudity and chicken guns (this is the internet after all) but soon enough a lot of visual enhancements, physics tweaks, skeleton models, and even entire side quest worlds are submitted and essentially voted on by your customers. The most successful of these designers are now working at Bethesda or were at least offered a high paying job if they wanted it. So that’s why I’m back playing this game after a three year(ish) hiatus. The mods and DLC I can now download have made it into a gorgeous, rich, engaging, and altogether brand new experience … and it only cost me the time it took to download the content and tweak out the conflicts.
So what does this have to do with test managers, you may well ask? Ha ha … you must be new.
Video game companies are notorious for treating testers poorly. Thankfully that has been changing for a lot of the new kids on the block, but at the old guard it’s still very much a job reserved for teenage monkeys who would rather follow a written script in a dimly lit room than work at the Hot Topic again this summer. The other thing they have not usually done all that well is design games for someone else since “the customer” is some vague notion of a blob that sort of resembles them since they like to play games. This is one of the reasons girls didn’t start gaming until relatively recently. A giant majority of the people making games were boys and man-boys and they liked to design games they’d want to play. This is why most video games have giant men with bulging muscles and strange satires on women who could never exist in nature even with surgical help and a team of assistants helping them get dressed. To combat this problem of myopia, video game companies began creating open spaces for anyone who wanted to join. These were originally places where people could post their game hacks but some smart people decided to nurture them by assisting them to make things. They essentially backed off and admitted they might not know everything there was to know about gaming and gamers. Rather than forcing their market into conformity with their assumptions, they stepped back and let their market tell them what to do.
This is why you need a software manager even if you are one of those full stack team organizations companies seem to love these days since everyone wants to be sexy and lean startups are sexy. The almost universal hierarchy of a software development company has developers and architects at the top with everyone else following behind them. If you want to get seed funding for your startup, you’d best be a developer or be partnered with a developer. If you want to rise above a management role you’d best have the last few stints as a developer in your CV if you started out in a different profession or discipline. Usually this is not a bad thing, but it does cause conflicts when this person attempts to manage other professions … by which I mean testers. The average software developer/coder does not really know anything about software testing. It’s not their fault. Software testing does not excite them. They don’t read articles on software testing unless they feel they have to since they’re now managing testers. They don’t attend software testing conferences. They don’t follow software testers on Twitter. They don’t attend software testing meetups or participate in weekend testing events. In short, they have zero qualifications when it comes to helping drive the direction and practices of the testers working under them. They are also horribly unqualified to advise these people on their long term professional growth should they want to stay in software testing. In places with this sort of setup and expectation the testers will usually find themselves either managed and directed as if they were software developers or worse, ignored and simply told what to do when the time comes to tell them.
There is a different way and it’s the same way some video game houses have followed. The software Sr Director/VP/Major Domo can simply let go and admit they don’t know everything there is to know about all things software related. They can find the person or people in their company who are deeply engaged in the professional knowledge they lack and let them pursue their passion as they see fit. Even in a self-sustaining team there is a lot of cross team interplay at healthy companies. Someone needs to nurture that interaction and keep the momentum going when people stumble onto something awesome. That person is usually called a “manager.” It’s their primary job. They make sure the people they’re nurturing have the tools, resources, and backing to pursue the things their experience and passion say are worth pursuing. They help get people to understand when something is just a little failing and when it’s a flaming disaster. They make sure people feels safe to do so. You cannot accomplish this if you lack the authenticity of actual interest.
Let me say that again. You cannot inspire passion in people if you do not feel passionate yourself. Period. Mike drop.
If testing is important to you and you want passionate testers, you need someone with just as much or more passion leading them. When you get that you’ll soon see a massive return on your investment, just like the makers of Skyrim found out when they went against industry canon and helped people hack their game.
That’s a software testing manager and that’s why you need one.
I love me some insider gossip. If it’s gossip about the tech industry I feel a little tickle in my lizard brain driving me to ingest it as soon as possible. If it’s juicy gossip about the self-styled Masters of the Future and the Present we find in droves here in the SF Bay area, that itch becomes a burning sensation that only the ointment of reporting will …..
Okay, I seem to have gone off track. Suffice it to say I like reading Valleywag to pass the time. Among the stories about bro-grammers behaving badly, the obviously impending tech bubble implosion, and the founders of companies like Google treating their workforce like a personal harem, a few stories have emerged about the demise of Facebook. It seems a lot of people are asking if “the Zuck” is too old to run Facebook anymore. Then the numbers came out and Facebook stock was down 17% in a single quarter, along with many of the more recent darlings of “the Valley.” And only yesterday a reporter attended the F8 conference and remarked it was “the performance of a dull man who’s become the leader of a dull company, and is fine with being boring.”
So what’s going on with companies like Facebook? The problem with these companies is the same problem faced by the pop music and fashion industries in the early 70’s, right after they rebranded themselves as “youth culture.” You see back in the 2000’s the startup hubs in areas like Silicon Valley, New York, and London were struggling to recover from the massive ego and fear driven tech bubble that almost took down the burgeoning computer industry. At the same time the makers of actual products such as shoes and expensive eye liner were staring with impotent fury at a vast market of X, Y, and Z(?) generations who seemed to completely defy their spreadsheets and carefully crafted market research data. Into this void stepped people like Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page. They had the brilliant idea to give away a product people wanted to use so long as they voluntarily let you attach tracking devices to them. The people in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris who’s incredibly expensive cocaine and champagne habits depended on being able to talk about marketing segments were intrigued, but they didn’t bite. In order to get them to start shelling out the morally contemptible amounts of money the engineers thought they were entitled to make, the Lords of the Future and the Present needed something more.
They then reached back to an earlier, halcyon time and crafted a myth. It was a fine myth. It helped define principles and seemed to have enough historical precedent that people could let themselves believe it. The myth these men (and they were and are men) crafted was simply a spin on the old “youth culture” trope. Young men right out of (or still in) college were thrown forward as being guides for navigating this seemingly impenetrable jungle of unwashed youth. Only another young person could relate to these young people so it naturally seemed like only a young man could produce a product these young people would use. The myth of the “teenage tech millionaire founder” was officially written into cannon.
Of course it’s all complete bulls**t. Most companies that make succeed, even here in the Valley, do so because they are being run by experienced people who understand their markets and know how to do things like not tolerate extreme harassment of women in the workplace. Your average early-twenties guy is going to be an idiot about most things. I can speak with some authority about this subject having been, at one point, a guy who was in his early-twenties. He might be brilliant, but he will still be an idiot. If you take that guy out of the usual gauntlet of sticks and rocks we call life and put him into a padded echo chamber of elitism, he will never have the idiot beaten out of him. At that point you get a guy who beats his girlfriend for an hour and a half ON CAMERA and doesn’t think it’s any big deal. or you get a guy who sets up a “love nest” and bills it to his company as being work related, or just fill in the blank with whatever you want here.
But let’s say you luck out as an investor. Let’s say you pick a dude with a reasonable amount of empathy who takes his role seriously. He works at being the CEO founder. He takes courses on business management and seeks out mentors. He listens to people who know more about certain subjects than him despite being smart himself. The company does well as a result. Of course you still have a problem. Unless that guy is Dick Clark or Peter Pan he is going to age. The company was sold to customers, investors, and the world at large as “hip” and “disruptive” and “fresh” and “young.” People bought into the sales pitch because some pink-cheeked man was tossed up on a stage to talk to a room full of men with salt-pepper hair and paunches about what “the youth of today” want from their experiences. It’s been more than a decade and those infante terribles are now either staring down thirty or went sailing past it already. Companies like Google have tried pivots into other markets and products, but companies like Facebook have no other products and have painted themselves into a corner as far as that is concerned. They cannot move into new markets without diluting their brand or completely hiding what they are doing from the world.
Two things are resulting from this inevitable conflict. Investors and taste-makers in the startup world are out looking for the new kids on the block they can toss up in front of the money people and the former darlings of the world are having to grow up … fast. Investors around the globe are waking up in a strange bed and looking at their investments in the full light of day without the blasting club music to cover up the pickup lines spouted last night. Former studs are asking if they want to go get some breakfast, but all the investors seem interested in is either grabbing their purses to escape or desperately attempting to figure out how to spin this to their friends who watched them pick him up last night. The kids, on the other hand, are finding it harder and harder to just wink and toss their heads toward the door when seeking out capital injections. They need to actually work on things like “business plans” and “stability” and “profits” where before they could just toss out words like “new paradigm” and “total experience.” They’re seeing a new crowd taking over the old haunts and are realizing it’s time to grow up.
And yes, growing up is boring when compared against spending your entire paycheck on parties and exotic trips. However boring is what lets you retire at 65 and not live off cat food and heating oil checks from the government. Unfortunately a lot of companies have nothing else to offer. Their business model is “all night party” so they’re sort of stuck. Either they need to move aside or change their entire company.
It looks like Mark Z is making an attempt to turn the aircraft carrier that is Facebook. He might do it, but I’m betting it’ll still just slowly run out of fuel and drift around like LiveJournal and MySpace before it.
Over the years I’ve had more than a few chances to chat with consultants, candidates, and contractors in circumstances that can best be described as “exploratory.” The specifics leading up to the events are usually as varied as the events themselves. The one constant is the actual conversation itself. By that I mean it’s just that, a conversation. The meeting is a chance for me to get to know this person a little better in order to take a wild guess about whether they’d be useful, compatible, or even “not crazy” if we were to invite them into our cozy little corner of the professional world. I’ve often joked that it feels like a first date and it seems like that specific piece of humor resonates with people. There are points of overlap between a “first date” and an “interview” even though the two are actually quite different. Taking that viewpoint I’d like to see if I can help people who find themselves in the position of talking to a possible new presence in their work life. I know there are several hundred (thousand) blog posts, articles, and even books on “effective interviewing” but this will not be another of those. I’m not going to give you tips on how Microsoft, Google, or Amazon recruit and interview people successfully. The best interview technique is one that feels natural to you. Reading interview questions off a printed out sheet is an awesome way to kill the enthusiasm of a talented and sought after interviewee. They’re looking for clues about you, remember, so it’s best to give them a taste of the real you … unless the “real you” is pretty dreadful. In that case please have someone else do the interviews or read from a script of prepared topic points without deviation.
So what are some of the things you should watch for when chatting in these circumstances? I’m glad I asked. Here’s a quick list of five things I try and suss out while having the sort of informal and free flowing conversation I find works best for me in an interview.
Does this person know anything about your company or team?
Years ago, when I first started in the software industry, the internet was still a relatively new thing. Companies bad websites and were all scrambling for a “web presence” but it was by no means common. Certain companies had brand visibility but most companies still used printed out materials for company communications and advertisements. At that time the only way to get any information about the average company, much less the specific teams, was to know someone on the inside already who was willing to talk candidly. That is no longer the case. In today’s world almost every company out there has a public facing website. Most search engines can easily return nearly too much information on the financials, operations, and news stories of a specific company. Social media sites allow you to quickly poll information on the people working at specific teams and departments with differing levels of anonymity.
To put it bluntly, the only reason a person would come into this sort of meeting with you unprepared is either a lack of access to technology bordering on Luddism or apathy about the position itself. Simply asking a person what they know about the company will probably get you a rehearsed response unless you’re dealing with a talented salesman. Reserve judgement on this topic until you’ve had a chance to talk for a while. If the person seems to be going off on unrelated tangents or leaping on topics that aren’t at all relevant, then perhaps you should dig into what they actually know about you and why they want the position.
Does this person use a lot of “buzz words?”
As I mentioned before, buzz words are an excellent tool for obfuscating an actual lack of practical knowledge or benefit. Buzz words are different from jargon in that jargon has an actual practical application for the realm in which it is used. It’s easier to say “sproc” that to say “stored procedure” just like it’s easier to say “cloud computing” than it is to say “a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.” Buzz words are an attempt to make the easily understood sound arcane … and therefore valuable. This is the difference between “cloud computing” and “The Cloud.” It’s the difference between “agile software development” and “Agile Software Development.” A good rule of thumb is if you can read or hear words being capitalized and they are not proper nouns or acronyms, you’re probably reading or hearing a buzz word.
Does this person seem rehearsed or fake?
A person who sounds rehearsed, false, or otherwise disingenuous is a pet peeve of mine. The meeting we’re currently having is usually to determine whether or not we can work together as colleagues or in some other professional role. It’s best if we’re both honest and true to our natures or there will be some unfortunate surprises later. The “surprise” part is the one that particularly puzzles me. I know people who spend time reciting “best” answers to practice interview questions. I also know people who spend a lot of time and effort researching ever more intricate and elegant interview questions to toss out at everyone who meets them. What is the success criteria for this strategy? Unless you are a brilliant performer attempting a new art piece, the task of being this foreign person forty plus hours a day is going to prove impossible. Eventually the “real you” will surface. This is going to cause problems because the people around you agreed to work with the other guy, not you. Over the years I’ve learned to watch for people who think they can trick themselves into a job. If they can’t or won’t leave their script on the table then you’ll need to be concerned about who and what you’re inviting into your team environment.
Is this person interesting?
Usually when we’re looking to bring on a new person it’s because either we need to replace someone who left or we need to augment what we’re already doing. Unless you’re in an unfortunate situation this is an excellent opportunity to breathe some new ideas and life into your community. I’ve found the best way to do this is to look for interesting people. People I find interesting are ones who have no problems discussing things that are new to me or who cause me to look at something from a new perspective. Because I like learning new things, I will immediately perk up. I love “interviewing” people who end up feeling more like we’re having a really interesting chat over chai somewhere. I detest “interviewing” people who reference the same old ideas and concepts in the accepted manner that have been agreed upon by the usual governing body. I’ll hire the best reciter if that’s all there is available, but I’ll overlook at lot if I feel a candidate is going to take me and the rest of the group in new directions that might yield amazing things.
Do you feel passion when they talk?
The final one is the one that trumps them all when you come right down to it. If I’m chatting to someone about coming on board to help us do a security audit, I’m going to want to hear the energy in their voice when they talk about things like DDoS attack detection and encryption algorithms. I’ll want to hear if they’ve read books, attended conferences, or listened to speakers at a local Meet-Up on their subject. This is a specific point of error for me as even today I still find myself talking to a lot of people who treat software test engineering as a stage in their longer computer software career. All to often it’s not just a stage, it’s the initial stage. I’ll be chatting with someone about a test engineering position only to hear them become passionate as we casually chat about the mobile app they’re developing with a friend in their spare time. It’s awesome that you’re passionate about mobile application development and it’s definitely something you should pursue. I, however, am hiring for software testers today but I’ll definitely pass your resume on to our HR department. The danger in missing this clue is passion breeds excellence faster than any morale event or annual stock bonus. If you look for and hire passion you’re job as a manager is pretty much done. The only thing you then have to do is herd the puppies and keep them sort of going in the same general direction.
And honestly, who wouldn’t want to work with a puppy herd?
Over the years I’ve had more than a few chances to chat with organizations in circumstances that can best be described as “exploratory.” We’ve all been there. You’ve been invited down to the offices and are spending a few hours (or days) with the team and key members of the management staff. You’re being walked around the office. Everyone has made great pains to point out the free chai/coffee/jelly beans/whatever in the break room. If you’re particularly “hot” you might even be talking to a hip company that has things like free parkur classes over the lunch hour or a selection of single malt scotches lined up for the Thursday evening tasting mixer. My personal favorite was the time I spent an afternoon chatting with people at a (now defunct) company who shall remain nameless where everyone I met made sure I knew there was an onsite gymnasium with an on-call masseuse and physical trainer.
Ignore all of these things. The perks and benefits of the workplace are not a good indicator of how much or little the company values their employees as people, much less how well the team works together as a cohesive unit. Things like stock grants, vacation time, and commuter packages are nice but they are pretty close to the least effort a company can expend when proving itself it cares about its employees. I’m hoping to impart a few lessons I’ve learned over the years so everyone involved can have a more fulfilling and enjoyable experience. Before reading forward, please remember this list of five things should be in no way considered either exact or comprehensive. For every point I make I’m sure there is at least one awesome company out there who would fall into this category if you caught them on the wrong day or met with the wrong people. Unfortunately that can’t he helped. This is an inexact process when you boil it down. Going on a Meet-and-Greet is an exercise in awkwardness topped only by first dates or possibly any meeting resulting from an online personal ad or profile posting. The following points are to be taken illiterally and with a very large grain of salt.
Does everyone seem to agree on the major issues?
A lot of times these meetings will consist of a series of people you meet at various times over the day. You’ll hear a lot of the same questions being repeated which can be an indicator of a lack of coordination of communication, but it might also be nothing. Of greater concern to you should be the sense that people are operating under completely different concepts about the whole process and what the successful end game will look like. Nothing spells quick failure for someone coming into a new situation than disagreement on the core reason they’re being asked to join in the first place. Being asked the same question multiple times is annoying but having four people think you’re there to help them with five unrelated issues can be an indicator of much larger problems with communication and cohesiveness.
Where are the mid career folk?
Really good companies are ones where people have a path to grow and build themselves a future. These are the companies who first look to themselves for the senior staff and leads before putting out the general call for help. Sometimes a company wants to start a new effort or the staff they have available to them is not the correct fit for whatever reason. Being asked to interview for a leadership position is not an indicator of a lack of career growth opportunities. Not seeing anyone you’d consider the equivalent of a non-commissioned officer in the military, however, is a giant red light that should be spinning in your face. Companies without a clear channel for moving along in a person’s career have one thing in common, all the mid-level people quit. At some point in time an entry level person gains experience and wants to advance to new challenges and … let’s be honest … more pay. Companies that see their employees as more than a specific role or series of tasks to be performed will usually take full advantage of that by offering them a way to move upward and keep their tribal knowledge in house. Companies that don’t won’t make a move until they’re threatened by the employee putting in their notice. Really bad companies won’t care since they only see the employee as a series of tasks so replacing them shouldn’t be a problem.
Do people seem to bring up amusing anecdotes about problems or other departments a lot?
We all like to think we’re witty and personable. Many people use humor to defuse tense or awkward situations. Humor is a wonderful coping mechanism but “funny” can only occur if the other party has some frame of reference for your jokes. The other side of this coin is humor used to obscure actual unresolved tensions. During the turn of the century many people in the United States were feeling the pinch of an economic downturn. People were losing their jobs and farms were in trouble as commodity prices dropped. Into this mix came a large wave of Asian, European, and Baltic immigrants. The newly arrived immigrants were willing to do pretty much anything to find a toe hold in their new country. This caused some tension between the “native born” people and the immigrants from places like Italy, Poland, and Ireland. It was at this time the popularity of things like “pollack jokes” gained traction. Otherwise tolerant and normal people would give in to their tensions through (what they hoped was) a useful artifice contained in a joke. Rather than simply say “I hate the Jews” a person could tell a joke about a Jewish merchant and feel somewhat safe because it’s just a joke, right? The same mechanism applies to the people you’re talking to in these meetings. Do they seem to have a lot of “funny stories” about situations that would otherwise be considered massive failures? Do they talk a lot about friendly rivalries between departments? Does it seem like they spend a lot of time talking about “others” rather than talking about everyone as if they were all on the same mission and team?
Does everyone seem happy?
This is a hard one to precisely define but I bet most people by the time they reach a certain age will have more than likely developed enough intuition or empathy to be able to take a wild guess at this one for themselves. The trick to this one is to not try and parse out the “Why” of your instincts. Rather than deconstructing your impressions you should rather focus on the things people seemed happy about. Did it have anything to do with their jobs? Did people seem to suddenly light up when they talked about the generous flex time benefits or the employee discount? Did everything seem sort of flat until you began chatting about their band and the show coming up in two weeks? The company where you want to land is probably the one where people seemed at least excited about what they’re being paid to do all day.
Does it seem like a diverse group?
Full disclosure … I am a middle-aged, white, English-speaking male who had full access to a modern (and free) public education system that did an excellent job of preparing me for a career in pretty much whatever it is I decided I wanted to do later in life. With that out of the way, let’s talk about diversity.
It’s important. It’s important to you as a prospective worker bee even if you are some one like me. I will give the caveat that, again, you should go with your instincts and not talk yourself into seeing diversity where none actually exists. Hiring people from all over the world can be seen as diversity, but if they are all males in their mid-twenties from engineering schools who binge drink after work and wear khaki pants with popped collar shirts is that really a diverse group? Diversity means “differences” to my mind. Does it look like the people you’re meeting are actually different from each other? Are you getting different feelings from each of them or does it all sort of feel rather generic? This is important because a management team that cultivates a culture of conformity is not one that will be open to differences of opinion or things which are truly innovative for the organization. A homogeneous culture will reward adherence to the norm even if that norm is not serving the better interests. It’s best if you don’t get involved unless you are comfortable in that sort of environment.
Are people using a lot of industry buzz words when talking to you?
Language is a funny thing. The English language is particularly funny since it’s a mashup of several languages from different linguistic groups all together. As a result the English language can be used to wonderful effect both for explaining and for obfuscating. A particularly telling habit of some people and organizations is the use of what are called “buzz words.” These are terms used commonly throughout certain sectors that have varying levels of popularity at different times. Sometimes these terms are actually descriptive of actual concepts for which there is value, but more often they are actually a wall of noise thrown up by people in the absence of actual knowledge or ideas. The problem has become so rampant the British Civil Service has actually banned some phrases in their official Whitehall Style Guide. It’s a subject for a larger post of its own but for the purposes of this entry suffice it to say that an organization that uses such terms as “promote” (if you’re not a marketing company) or “advance” (if you’re not an education company) or “synergy” (if you’re any company) is practicing obfuscation through verbosity. People use terms like “disruptive innovation” because they don’t actually know what it is they do or how they will make enough money to keep the lights on.
As a last piece of advice, I’d ask you to come up with your own list. What are some of the warning signs you’ve come to trust when meeting a team or company for the first time?
I keep hearing the topic of diversity raised at regular intervals since moving to the SF Bay area. Having moved to what is unarguably still the center of cutting edge innovation in software development, it’s impossible to avoid references to “this thing we do.” I imagine this must be what it’s like to live in Los Angeles or Mumbai and work in the film industry. There are other industries around and plenty of people making money in other ways … but what you do is so vitally important to the local economy that industry insiders are local celebrities. All that was by way of giving context for why I can’t drive into work or watch television or attend an evening lecture without standing a better than average chance of being subjected to a talk on why there are so few [fill in blank] in the software industry. It’s gone from interesting to amusing to noise. Mainly because I think the entire premise is wrong.
To explain what I just said, I’ll refer you to a seminal work authored by Psychologist Howard Gardner back in 1993. The title of the work is Frames of Mind and Multiple Intelligences and the concepts if not the work itself should be required for any manager working with any team. The basic theory proposed by the work is that everything you know about intelligence is wrong or at least very narrowly defined. Dr Gardner first asked the question that had plagued psychologists and behavioral analysts since the adoption of the “intelligence quotient” in 1912 when the German psychologist William Stern first proposed using it. The problem was namely one of description. If the intelligence quotient (IQ) was a good descriptor of intelligence and cognitive ability, why did some people who scored high never seem to do well while others who scored lower seemed to excel? The attempt to reconcile this seeming problem lead people to such ideas as “cognitive maturity,” “fluid intelligence,” and a host of others all premised on the idea that IQ was not a flawed theory in itself but rather had a problem with a lack of tools to help explain it.
Dr Gardner took another approach. He proposed the whole concept of how we looked at “intelligence” as a hierarchical structure with certain cognitive abilities at the top was essentially wrong. The problem as he stated it was that there were/are approximately seven distinct types of cognition rather than one. The intelligence tests and point system were designed to only measure and grade one type, meaning people who excelled in the others were ranked as having low or lower cognitive reasoning ability.
The seven types proposed by Dr Gardner as as follows:
Those of you who work in software development or IT in general can probably see where I am going with this article now. Those of you who don’t or can’t, let me spell it out clearly.
The software industry is almost completely dominated by people with deeply evolved logical-mathematical cognitive abilities. It is nearly impossible for anyone else to even enter this work force, much less rise to a position of authority. Over the past few decades I’ve seen a lot more people with highly evolved cognitive abilities in linguistic cognition start to make inroads, but they are still a deep minority.
And to the people who correctly for some reasons want to see more [fill in the blank] represented in the software industry, I say go for it but stop saying hiring more of said person will result in “diversity of thought.” If your entire culture is geared toward training, recruiting, promoting, and rewarding only one sort of intelligence then the only solutions or innovations you will generate are the ones available to that sort of intelligence.
It’s also an issue when you start looking at who you can make a team lead or a manager. You can’t train someone to have high levels of interpersonal cognition with a few weekend seminars anymore than you can teach them to be a mathematician with the same … and yet that is exactly what we do in the software industry because we cannot conceive of anyone except a logical or possibly linguistic thinker being of any worth.
So if you want our industry to move into the 20th century you should stop trying to make everyone just like you and start looking for people who are not like you at all, but still have something to offer.
And in closing, here is the Ted talk by Temple Grandin that started congealing these ideas in my head back in 2010.
“Q: What are the three signs[ of a Miserable Job]?
So what does the above quote have to do with our performance review, you might be asking. Well hopefully that’s what you’re asking. You might be asking yourself what an essentially useless activity you and your team are forced to conduct semi or annually solely for the purpose of arguing about who should get more, less, or the same amount of money has to do with performance. If you are, please stop reading. You’ve just answered the question for yourself. In your case performance is harmed because you and your team are being asked to stop all productive work just so you can devote a week to two weeks (or possibly more) filling out forms and completing online surveys about why you aren’t more productive and why the guy sitting next to you is driving you insane because he keeps popping his knuckles.
In your case just stop doing the performance reviews all together and move on with your life. Base any bonuses or promotions on what you’ve actually done for the company and call it a day. If the team has a kick ass year, hand out a few checks. Or better yet, have a kick ass party somewhere to thank everyone. At one company we did an amazing job with our launched product. It was more successful than anyone had ever imagined. That year upper management used some of the extra money to rent an entire private beach front hotel in Mexico and stock it with all the food and drink we could consume for a week. Was that a good bonus in comparison to a check? Let me put it this way, that happened about a decade ago and I still talk about it. The bonus checks and stock awards are soon out of mind and out of sight nearly as soon as they’re awarded.
Yeah … lying on a beach in Mexico with a whole passel of computer geeks just as hung over, flabby, and sun-burned as me. Good times.
So for everyone else, what’s wrong? You are supposed to be doing this activity which helps people become better and move forward in their careers. You honestly want to do this because you care. It also helps retain employees who know they’ve got somewhere to go. You’ve purchased the software. You’ve read the books. You’ve attended the training about “SMART goals” and “360 reviews” and “stack ranking” but it still feels like a chore to you. It seems like every year you pull up the documents you painstakingly wrote the year before only to feel that sinking realization we all feel. Most of what’s listed there is either out of date, unrelated to the work now, or makes absolutely no sense to you now. So now you have to map out the things your team did this year that “rocked” and the things that were “lame” (you can take the boy out of the Seattle grunge scene, but you can’t take the grunge scene out of the boy it would appear) and somehow map them to what you promised. That sinking feeling you experience is partly the knowledge of this task ahead, but also the absolute certainty you are going to run smack into the Dunning-Kruger effect or the self-serving attributional bias even if you are not a manager or lead. If you’re even mildly empathetic you’ll probably also be aware of how seemingly purposeless this whole exercise seems. The only thing people argue with passion seems to be whether or not they deserve a 5% or an 8% bonus or raise. It will often feel like this is an excuse for the employee to demand more money and the employer to demand less money. In short it feels like the initial salary negotiation has been converted into an annual event, sort of a masochistic bank holiday.
Why is this? Does it have to be this way?
No. No it doesn’t. However the alternative is very very hard. I’m not kidding. It’s hard because it involves a radical shift in how you view your work and your employees. Most people and companies don’t want to make this shift because … well … not to put too much emphasis on this, but it’s hard. The answer directly addresses the three states of being listed by Lencioni in the quote I listed above and in his excellent book, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers (And Their Employees) which I also linked above.
I’m bringing this up because of this blog post by Mario Moreira. I really hate to pick on him but I can’t help it. He just makes it too easy. He seems to recognize there is a problem with trying to define someone as a role and base their performance goals on that alone. He wants to somehow personalize the process. Unfortunately he appears both in his article and in our subsequent chats on LinkedIn to fall short because … it’s hard to do it the right way.
So in honor of Mario and his compatriots who want to do more of the same because what they’re doing now isn’t working, get ready for another multi-part entry from yours’ truly.
Hola, everyone! I know it’s been a while but I had to race off and get back on the startup carousel on more time. A small company out of downtown San Francisco made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I ran off to pursue passion and like most people who do that, I ended up finding something else.
So after seven months or so I have this to say about the experience …. wow. It was a ride and a half. I’m still sort of processing what happened and how it all ended but I’ve done some amazing things and learned a few more. I wanted to share them with you while they’re still fresh in my mind.
You’re welcome in advance.
The first thing I learned about myself was repeating the same mistakes is very possible if you’re not constantly on your guard. I used to joke about people who rushed into the same situations claiming it was going to be different this time because of this or that qualifier. I used to wonder at the lack of insight and self-reflection. Well I would officially like to apologize for that. You see it is entirely possible to go through a lot of debate, self-reflection, independent analysis, and advice seeking from mentors and friends and yet still find yourself right back in the same mess you’d thought you’d left behind. You see for every indicator you think you know, there are around 384 different indicators for the same thing. You can’t know them all. As a result looking for indicators is the wrong thing to do when making life decisions. What you need to do is look at yourself. Ask yourself if this feeling or circumstance feels somehow familiar. You’ll probably give yourself an intuitive response, but that’s often more valid than a rational one in these circumstances. I have a blog post or article in the works about how intuition is a tester’s best tool, so stay tuned for that. Digression aside, the answer you give yourself is going to be very instructive. Since you can’t predict things outside of your control, ask yourself if YOU are doing that thing you always do that results in being at that place you always wind up. If you are, don’t do it. It’s that simple. We can talk ourselves into anything so don’t try to do that. Just do something else.
The second thing I learned is I really want to work at a place that feels passionately about what they’re doing. I had a boon when the startup company and I parted ways. The week after it happened I was scheduled to speak at the SFAgile 2012 conference even though we had a major release scheduled to roll out the door at the end of the month. With the Very Important Release in the near future and things starting to get crazy, I was afraid I’d only be able to speak and perhaps attend the mixers at the end of the night. Well things changed and I was able to attend the whole conference.
It was an amazing experience. I met incredible people. I heard some amazing speakers. I finally got to meet or hang out with it seemed like 1/4 of my Twitter list. It was a powerful experience and the sense of it was infectious. Everyone involved could only talk about what a great conference it turned into. The common thread I finally isolated was everyone there felt passionately about agile, quality, and doing great things. I didn’t meet a single person who was attending because their manager sent them there or their company had a training budget they needed to spend or lose. Attendees showed up interested, prepared, engaged, and (somewhat) sober from the night before. A few days later I realized that’s what I’ve been searching for in a position. I’ve felt that a few times in my career. I felt it at Microsoft back when we were launching this guaranteed money-losing thing no one in the industry thought would amount to much called an “XBox.” I’ve felt it at a few other places as well, but it’s definitely not the norm for some reason. I want to go to work and feel like my co-workers are just as passionate about what we’re doing as me. I want to know that disagreements about rooted in something other than personal egos or perceived pecking orders. I want people to feel like they have a personal stake in what’s going out the door and that thing matters.
Anyway those are the two insights I’ve taken away from the past year or so down here in San Francisco. For those of you coming here for CAST 2012, I’ll be there as well. Toss a wet rag at my head if I don’t seem like I’m getting the hint that you want to chat. If you’re particularly amusing I might even take you to the Bavarian beer garden near there for a quick pint or two. I’m nervous and excited to see what this conference will bring. So if you’re coming, come prepared, come engaged, and come with passion or don’t come at all.
Okay, you can still come, but hopefully we can find some passion to put into your swag bags.