Thursday, 21 July 2016

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Making Luck

This week I've accepted a permanent role at River, the company that I've been consulting with since February. The title of the role is immaterial - what matters is that I'll be helping both Product Owners and Testers to develop themselves and their functions within the company.

I'd like to share the story about how I came to working in River. I apologise if it comes across as self-indulgent - I think there are some valuable lessons there for those focussing on their careers in demonstrating the value of the effort that we put into our professional development over time.

An Eventful Day

The events of my day on 18th January ran something like this:-

  • 8:00am - at train station as normal ready for work
  • 8:05 am - receive calendar invitation on my phone for "all company" meeting that morning. Predict redundancies.
  • 8:30am - get to work.
  • 10:00am - discover am being made redundant along with a number of colleagues
  • 11:15 am - in pub
  • 1:00pm - in Cafe eating disappointing sausage sandwich in pathetic attempt to soak up copious amounts of beer before going home
  • Afternoon with family sobering up
  • 7:00pm - At Cheltenham Geek Nights. Cheltenham Geek Nights is an development community event run in Cheltenham by Tom Howlett (@diaryofscrum). I'd become aware of it through communicating with Tom previously when he approached me to do a talk on Testing Big Data in Agile. The speaker on this occasion was David Evans. I had already been looking forward to taking the opportunity to catch up with David having benefited from his expertise in the past and maintained an amicable relationship since. After the events of the day I was particularly interested in his insight on the roles and team structures he was seeing develop through his work consulting in the fields of Agile Testing and Specification by Example.
  • 9:30pm - back in pub
  • 11:00pm - taxi home. Speaking to Tom and David that evening was the perfect antidote to my bad news and I ended the day on an optimistic note.
  • 5:00am - awake with hangover and worrying about future

During the next few days I was genuinely overwhelmed with the number of people who got in touch with me. Some contacted me just to wish me good luck, or to ask me what had happened. Others provided suggestions of possible roles or options available to me, and some even came in with direct offers of work. I can't overstate how valuable this communication was to me. Whether or not I followed up on every suggestion, the fact that so many people got in touch was hugely reassuring in an uncertain time and to those folks who got in touch - I can't thank you enough.

One of the options that I did follow up on was when Tom suggested a possible contract Product Owner role at a company he was consulting at. It turned out that he was looking to create a team of Product Owners to help to alleviate some of the challenges that they were facing in their Agile development adoption. This was exactly the kind of option that I was looking for - something that would allow me to get back to work quickly, in a very different organisation and provide some time for me to decide on a next long term move.

Landed on Your Feet

Over the ensuing weeks and months I've found that the nature of challenges presented in a very different work context have been refreshing. The experiences of working with such an amazing, close knit team at RainStor provide a constant reminder of how effective teams can be if you

  • Structure them with the right combinations of skills and experience levels
  • Allow them sufficient stability of members and technologies to confidently establish and meet release forecasts
  • Provide sufficient trust combined with flexibility over the delivered solution to fully engage the team in the creative process Having this knowledge is a powerful tool in looking where to focus to help add value in a new company.

When I've told people about my new position in a local organisation, a number have used a phrase like

'You've landed on your feet'.

This is an interesting one, as it implies a strong element of luck. Of course I would agree that the timing was somewhat fortuitous, however let's look at some of the events that led up to the situation:-

  • The contract role was suggested to me by Tom based on a conversation at a community event that I attended
  • The reason that I knew about the event was because of this blog and talks I'd done in the Agile/Testing communities had prompted Tom to ask me to speak at the event in the past
  • The reason that I specifically attended the event that day was because there were people there who I already knew from the software community
  • The reason that Tom felt confident in suggesting the role to me was because he had read my work, spoken to me personally, engaged me to do a talk and was confident in my abilities

This option, and other suggestions or offers that folks so kindly extended, made me really thankful for the time that I'd taken to invest in being an active member of my professional community.

The Slight Edge

I recently started reading the Slight Edge by Jeff Olsen. Whilst I'm not big on self help books, this one had been recommended to me and the concept interested me. One of the principles that the author presents in his book is the idea that it is not one-off Herculean effort but repeated incremental effort over time yields long term success. Many trends in modern society revolve around the concept of instant gratification: the lottery win, the talent competition, the lean start up overnight success. What Olsen suggests is that, far more reliable success comes from incremental effort to improve, applied over time. It comes from sticking with something even if it doesn't yield immediate results.

I've been writing a blog now for 6 years, and hit my 100th post last year, and I'd like to think that the effort that I've put in to blogging, attending meetups, making connections and generally working to improve myself through sharing ideas with others made that possible. If I hadn't invested that time over those years , then I wouldn't have interacted with so many different folks and would not have built a network of contacts and a body of work that allowed other professionals to place their faith in me.

Writing a blog is not easy, particularly when you have a busy job and a young family. For example during the first months of writing a software testing blog I had no idea whether anyone at all was reading it - it was 8 months and 10 posts before I got my first tweet share. In later years, particularly during the 'creativity vacuum' that comes when your small company is taken over by a large multinational, I have a couple of times considered stopping writing. I really started the blog from a desire for validating approaches rather than networking, but it was through redundancy that the realisation came as to just how valuable the effort was in building a great network of contacts to provide opportunities and guidance when needed. It is never nice losing a job involuntarily, yet ironically it was at exactly such a time that the extra effort in committing to something beyond the day job really showed its value.

I'm of the opinion that it is better to commit to one thing and stick with it than take on 5 things and give all of them up weeks later. I've given a specific example of writing here, however there are innumerable other areas where success comes not through moments of inspiration but through perseverance:

  • Keeping on top of emails
  • Keeping a backlog or to-do list up to date
  • Maintaining a sprint/status board
  • Writing unit tests
  • Testing with the right user roles not just admin
  • Adding testability/supportability properties to code
  • Having regular catch ups with team members
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Not having a cigarette (10 years so far for me)

The takeaway is that commitment matters here - you don't see the value, or get the power of incremental improvement, unless you stick at something. One of the great powers of the internet, blogs and conferences is that anyone with a great idea can contribute massively to their professional community. Looking at those people who enjoy universal respect amongst the groups that I communicate with, it is the ones that are persistently contributing, always putting in effort and maintaining their commitment that attract the greatest admiration.

image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bejadin/17147146227

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