Sunday, April 22, 2012

On Passion, or Be Careful What You Wish For

Recently I was reminded of something that was said several years ago.

The Several Years Ago part: In the middle of a project that was simply not going well, in fact, it was a bit of a train-wreck.  Nah, not a bit.  It was a complete and total train-wreck.  Pick something that would go wrong and it did.  In spades.

Yours truly was QA Lead and was overwhelmed.  A "target rich environment" does not begin to describe what was going on.  Massive effort, huge amounts of overtime to try and control the damage, stop the flooding, stop the bleeding, well, pick a metaphor.

Fact was, the testers were putting in a lot of effort and, frankly not many others were.

So, sitting having an adult beverage, or several, with one of the development managers on the project, he looked at me and said, "Pete, you have a real passion for what you do.  You're better at testing and understand software better than an awful lot of people I've worked with.  You are really passionate about what you do.  That is great.  Be careful though.  If you're too passionate you can burn out."

That struck me as odd, at the time anyway.  How can one be "too passionate"?  Is it possible that one can be too involved? Too close to the work? Too passionate?

After all, we have a lot to do and scads of work and... whoa.  Why is it that some folks are diving in and going full bore and others are, well, sliding by and doing what seems to be the minimum.  Why is it that some people just, well, not as deeply into making the project work as others?

The Reminder part:  So, talking with another tester I know, she was muttering about a project where the developers just did not seem to care, about deadlines, quality of the project, impact on, well, performance reviews, raises, bonuses, and the like.  She looked at me and said "Its like they just don't care!" 

SO,  why is it that some people just, well, are not as deeply into making the project work as others?  I don't know.  Maybe it depends on what is expected, or what the normal approach is for the shop or company or, whatever.  Maybe it depends on the nature of the project leadership.  Are people being managed or controlled, compelled.

While what is often called craftsmanship is something that seems hard to find.these days, in some places (maybe many places, I don't know) I remember hearing many people speak passionately about being, well, passionate - as a tester, as a developer, or as whatever it is that each one of us is.

I got to thinking some more Friday night and generally over the weekend about this.

When looking for places where everyone is passionate about their work, what does that look like?  How do you know when you find it?  I used to think I knew.  I've worked at places where the majority of people were very passionate about what they did.  They wrapped much of their view of their self-worth into their work - so if the project was a success, their efforts were "worth it."

Then, I started wondering what a project that was a success looked like.  I suspect it rather depends on the software development group's target audience.  Are the people who will be using the results of your work all working for the company you are working for?  If so, "market" is a hard concept - unless the results of their work, with the new system, improves so much that the company as a whole performs better because of the many long hours and weekends in the office and ... yeah, you get it.

If the company makes software that will be bought by other companies for use in their business, the combination of sales, licenses, recurring/renewal of contracts around the software and the like will be one measure of how your efforts contributed to a successful project.  Likewise, the customer-companies being able to conduct their business better, more efficiently, is another measure of the success of the project.

And so, what about the other signs?  What about the places where people are not passionate about their work.  What do they look like?

That's easier to find examples...

People use "process" as an excuse to not do something.  "I'd love to do this, but I can't do X until D, F and L are in place.  That is what the process is."  (Whether its true or not does not seem to matter.)

People lock into rituals and stay there.  Arrive 5 minutes after the "start time"; start laptop/desk-top computer; get coffee; drink coffee, eat breakfast; sign on to network; get more coffee; sign on to email (personal)... etc., leave 10 minutes before official "stop time" to "avoid the rush".  Use the, "well, I work a lot of extra hours from home and over the weekend" reasoning.  (Oh, laptop is still in the dock on the desk as they are heading home.)

The appearance of work counts more than actually doing work.  Lots of reports being filed, status reports, progress reports, papers being shuffled up to leads and supervisors and managers and, of course, process management.  This is different than using process as an excuse to not do something.  This is taking the literal process and ignoring the intent.

Heroic Behavior is rewarded  more than steady solid work.  Now, I'm not down on heroes.  I've been in that role, and was recently called a hero as well.  I mean the false-heroes, the ones who dawdle and obfuscate and put things off and delay, and miss interim deadlines and miss delivery deadlines - partly by using the first three behaviors - and then work massive hours the last week of a project to pull things together and deliver something - and let everyone know how hard they worked. to "make this happen."

I bet you can come up with a bunch of other examples.  I stopped there simply because, well, I did.

Now, What to Do?  If you find yourself working at a shop or department or company that you find described above - where it seems you are the only one who cares - what do you do about it?  Ask yourself, "Has it always been this way?"  Maybe something changed recently, or not so recently.  Maybe the change has been gradual.

Sometimes, it takes you being the one to be burned by this behavior to notice it.  Sometimes it has been going on with some people and not others and it is your turn to work with these people and - what a mess.

You can say "Maybe they learned their lesson from this and the next time will be better."

Don't bet on it.  There is likely some other reward system in play that they value more than the rewards workmanship, craftsmanship and passion for doing good quality work can provide.  Ironically, they may get rewarded from their supervisors for being heroes (even though they created the situation that needed heroes) or "preserving the process" or, whatever.

So, back to what to do.

Your choices are limited.

You can try to "change the culture."  This is easier in small companies than in large Borg-like companies that grow by assimilating small companies into the Collective.  I know people who have tried to do this.  Some were successful; those dealing with the Borg Collective were less so.

You can try to "change the environment."  Here I include "process" as well as the nature and flow of the work and communication.  You can ask questions and field inquiries and take part in improvement task forces and, and, and... don't let the project slip.  I know people who have tried this - myself included.  It may work, you may feel more engaged and more aligned with improving the company.  At some point you may look back ans wonder what has been accomplished.

You can stop resisting - Accept it for what it is.  Turn off independent thought and go with the flow.  Collect the paycheck, take the "motivational development" courses and continue to collect the paycheck.

You nuclear option - Leave.  Go somewhere else.  That is what I did with the company in the first part of this post.  I packed it in.  I do not regret it.  My other options seemed so improbable.  I tried them - the engage thing, the culture change thing.  I could not bring myself to stop resisting.

Please, never select to stop resisting.  Never conform that much.  We are testers.  We can not be good testers if we stop questioning.  That is what is required of that option.


  1. Burnout is not caused by being too passionate. It's not caused by caring too much. It's a chronic inability to engage (in something that you once engaged in) caused by exhaustion and disappointment. Burnout is essentially a sickness-- like hypothermia. It's avoidable, and if not avoided it's certainly curable.

    I avoid burnout, these days, by knowing my limits and keeping by expectations lower than my aspirations.

    1. That makes sense, James. I think what this kind-hearted (and equally passionate dev manager) meant was that disappointment and disillusionment would follow as I realized that so few people at that shop simply cared about making a good product - which was how the project got to be in such lousy shape.

      That was early in my life as a tester/lead. I would like to think I'd take a different tack now.

  2. Pete,
    very good post and one that quite a few people must have encountered.

    I saw the false Hero problem quite a few times. What gets me about it isn't the "Hero" that first does a Cowboy job, then gets rewarded for turning the self-inflicted problem around but the people that reward this behaviour. The Managers that can't see through that crap.

    About people who do a 9 to 5 job or less - I'm a bit cautious about those. They may have been very good at some point and got burned out. Or they have the potential but not the right guidance or personal problems, partner ran away, family member died, etc. With some work not all but some of those can be turned around.
    I think that in many ways work is easy. Family and the problems arising from that can be more challenging than any work stress I have encountered and like many I've seen my due.

    The ability to disengage when being passionate doesn't take one anywhere fast is something I struggle with. Wanting to make "it" better as a natural driver but knowing that disengaging NOW is the healthy choice. That feels like a defeat but the result is burnout. James' approach seems a wise one to me that I tried but sometimes missed the target - less now.

    One factor that you didn't mention which to me is huge is the work culture. Some Managers have it and create a place where people learn and become passionate. Other Managers destroy even the most passionate people. I think that's of vital importance when looking at why and where people are passionate or not.

    Good post, thanks for sharing.