Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rising From the Ashes or Finding Motivation in Disaster

This has been an interesting year.  There have been many fantastic things happen this year that at times it seemed like I was an observer, and not the one participating.  I've presented at more conferences this year than I attended any year before this.  People write emails asking questions, looking for insight or help with a sticky problem, as if I'm an expert. 

I've written before about not feeling like an expert.  This is not about that. 

While preparing for STPCon this past October I had an interesting in a couple of thoughts.  While working on the presentation, and a couple of papers, I mentioned one of these thoughts to a fellow member of the GR Testers group.  We chatted (cyberly) for a moment on how failure can be a great motivator.  We talked about people who had overcome problems and adversity to rise to great things.

Of course, there are also many examples of people who break under adversity.

I don't know what the differences are in those scenarios.  I don't know why some people crumble, others recover and come back to where they were and others rise to greater success than they have ever known.  The last group, to me, resembles space capsules, like the old Apollo capsules, that would whip around the moon to accelerate even faster than they were going.  Yeah, in Star Trek Kirk did the same thing with the Enterprise around the Sun.  Cool, no?

The second group, I kind of think of as being a bit like a rubber ball.  Not a fancy "Super Ball" that used to be sold with the assurance that it would bounce higher than where it was dropped from (and rarely did as far as I know) but a plain bouncing ball.  Comes back to where it was, but somehow not quite the same.

The first group, like I said.  I don't know why people fail to recover.  The just don't for a variety of reasons. 

Me.  Hah.  I was moving up.  I had left one company where I was simply unhappy, and joined another company as a Test Lead.  There were "issues" there.  I was hired to improve testing and change the way testing was being done.  Well, things were not working out.  I had a series of "those meetings" and the last one was handing me a package and me walking out the door.  (I'll be happy to give more details over adult beverages sometime, if you really want to know.)

So, I went home, popped in a video, cracked an adult beverage and said "What happens next?" 

Short term, I knew what had to happen - I needed to get ready to teach drum lessons that evening.  So, I had a single beer, watched a movie, fried some bacon and eggs and felt sorry for myself for 3 hours.  Then I made a strong pot of tea because I had work to do. 

I made a list of what I was good at and what I was not good at (no PC here, not right then.)  I went through the list of what I was good at that and highlighted those I liked to do and those I wanted to get better at doing. 

I then went through the list of what I was not good at. I split that list into "so what?", "consider improving" and "fix it".  I then considered a list of things I had read about and had done very little with or knew very little about.  I also made a list of things I knew nothing about, but I'd seen mentioned in articles and blog posts and said "this might be worth looking into." 

I then went on and read what I could, learned what I could and did some serious soul-searching on what I really wanted to do.  I then looked at how I would fix the stuff I really needed to fix.  This was hard - really, really hard.

This led me to the next step - Updating the resume, looking at what I wanted to do and where I wanted to do it.  I knew that (at the time) West Michigan was not a hot-bed for top-flite testing jobs, project management jobs and my development experience was not in technology that was in demand.  On top of that, the economy was beginning its downward slide.  So, I figured it would be a good likelihood that I would need to relocate. 

I looked and I looked... and I looked some more.  One month, I applied to 158 jobs. All over the US, Scotland, Ireland and Australia.

I learned a lot.  I've been applying those lessons ever since.

First - Be involved.  Online, locally, within the company, within the team.  Look for ways to learn and improve.  If someone looks for advice, guidance or a sympathetic ear - do what you can.  If something sounds familiar to a situation you were in, talk with them about your experience.

Second - Share.  Now, in some ways, this is similar to the first lesson.  Write.  Blogs, forum posts, responses to posts or online articles.

Third - Learn.  Keep learning, keep reading, keep thinking.

Four - Dare.

Five - Repeat.

Four years ago, the foundations for these really, really simple ideas were where I started.  I landed a job after a stack of interviews.  Some I knew would not be a good fit.  Others, well, they decided it would not fit.  I was ok with that.  When I landed the gig I landed, I talked with people. I learned.  I learned their applications, their methods and their personalities.  I learned how they worked and did things. 

I shared ideas and experiences. I contributed when I could and asked questions when I did not understand. 

Then people began asking me questions - How can we learn more about... Have you ever run into...

As a result of one series of these conversations, I landed at TesTrek in Toronto, where I met Fiona Charles and Michael Bolton in person, for the first time.  I also met a whole slew of people I had never met before, Nancy Kelln, Lynn McKee and slew of other bright folks. 

That week in Toronto resulted in me getting more involved, helping revitalize/reinvigorate the GR Testers, then scrap my drumming blog and move to writing on testing.  That helped with presenting at conferences... and that led to, well, this most astounding year.

Where did this come from?  Getting fired.

You don't need to get fired/sacked/down-sized/happy-sized/whatever to do the same.  If you want to grow, then do it.  If you want to get involved, do it.

The fact is, doing these things may not make you a leader or a superstar or being called an expert.  But, if the world comes tumbling down around you, if you have been doing these things, others can step up and help.  If you have established connections and a reliable cadre of people, they can help just as you can help them.


  1. Hi Pete, I really like your approach to learning, in particular what you did with the stuff you didn't know and how you categorised it into "so what?", "consider improving" and "fix it".

  2. Thanks, Anne-Marie. I figured I could not master everything, I could do the jack-of-all-trades thing (which I have not problem with, and is rather where I am now) and I needed to categorize things. It was straight forward for me - and I still take the same kind of inventory from time to time.

  3. Hi Pete

    Great post, what a valuable life lesson. You say "You don't need to get fired/sacked/down-sized/happy-sized/whatever to do the same."

    While that's true, sadly I feel its often required to provide people with the motivation.

    I know more people who are now delighted after being downsized in 2000 when the bubble burst, then those that were kept on. Their life opened up, new paths came clear to walk on.

    Organisations could learn so much from these concept, to see failure or change as an opportunity rather then something to fight.


  4. Thanks Cuan. What you say is too true, many people are stuck in the "devil you know" syndrome - rather than swallowing hard and taking the leap that is needed.

  5. Awesome post, on a personal level I'm glad you stayed in Michigan and didn't relocate :)

  6. Thanks, Phil. I look forward to you being a regular at GR Tester meetups!

  7. Hey Pete - the observation you had of people "bouncing back" (or not) I have seen can be directly related to their alignment with their true self and/or life's goals. If the firing (or quitting) is emotionally cathartic enough, it might bounce you out of something that is falsely rewarding (you might have even been good at it) but it was the wrong job, or wrong place, or wrong team. That means you might bounce back into something that's a better fit for your mind, personality, working habits, aptitude and ambition.

    I see this with functional and performance testers all the time - some bounce out of failing at one, only to find they are a good fit for the other.

    Best wishes - and Happy New Year!


  8. Hey Mark - I think you may be right. Even when you *know* something is coming, you can fight against it to make the "bad dream" aspects go away. If you are not self-aware, or if you are misaligned, it can boot you to a place to find where you should be. I need to think on what happens with others and why some don't bounce.

    Thanks for the prompt, I may spend some time reading SunTsu and/or Musashi this weekend.

    Know yourself...