Sunday, August 30, 2015

Hanging With the Cool Kids and Self-worth

I don't remember what grade I was in while at school that I realized I was not one of the cool kids. I was not one of the guys good at basketball, I was OK at football, but there were loads of folks better. I was slow, had terrible hand-eye coordination (can't be that astigmatism that has been addressed partly with my cataract surgery a few years ago...) - and as sporting ability was one of the defining points for cool-kids at that school, that was a significant handicap.

Then there was "social standing." My parents were nominally "middle class." At one time, they might have been considered "artisans" but to some folks, how much money one makes determines significance in society.

Alas, that seems to have not changed very much in the intervening years.

How much money one makes determines how important one is.

When I was in elementary and high school, that translated into the material goods the kids in school had - the shoes, designer labels, the other sundries students needed or wanted.

I expect that has not changed much either.

Since I was not very good at most sports, and my parents did not have loads of money to throw around - well, that was two strikes against me. So, I carried on as best as I could. I expect most people do.

Some folks made a point of rejecting the cool kids. Looking back, that seems a defense mechanism. "They did not reject me, I rejected them." I've seen it my kids and grandkids. I expect I did something similar.

So, on to college/university and hung with people who worried more about what we did and learned than what our parents did or how popular (and why) we were or who wanted to be seen with us and who we  wanted to be seen with. I guess, the folks I hung with then had an influence on me now.

and now...

I'm not a cool kid when it comes to testing. At one time, I thought "Gee, since testers are not among the cool kids in software, we must be all pretty decent folks."

Then I learned people did not really all think that way. There were folks who had significant ideas what testing was and was not. They were convinced they were right. Those who agreed with them were right also, and were "cool."

Except the folks who disagreed with them were also convinced they were right. The people who aligned with them were "cool."

Except there were levels of "cool" within both groups. There were the ones who leveled everything on a couple of issues or points. Maybe a single issue. If you agreed with them on that issue, you might not be cool, but you were not "misguided" or "wasting their time."

At least, not completely.

They may not let you into their "inner circle" but they'd talk to you at conferences. Maybe. Kind of like the cool kids who knew your name in school and sometimes spoke to you in the hallway.

It became clear to me some time ago that I am not a cool kid among testers.

I thought I wanted to be. I have learned clearly, that I am not. There are people who want to be included with the cool kids, one group or another. There are people who, like the hangers-on at school, want to be included and gleefully repeat the words of the cool-kids and retweet them and, and, and...

And so many people turn off their brains when the cool-kids speak. They so want to be accepted that - yeah - they are good with that. No matter what it is or means. They are fine with that.

Screw the cool kids.

Look to yourself. Look to your own journey. Find the things you think are important and work on those things. If some "major name" won't talk to you because you disagree? Screw them. They are not worth your trouble or effort.

Look to how you can improve the people around you. Help them get better and help yourself continue learning. Sure. The cool kids are all talking about some book. So what? Do you feel compelled to read it or quote it because they do, or because it makes sense and has a bearing on what you are trying to do?

Challenge your beliefs. Do you believe them because the cool kids said this is what you need to believe? Or maybe, you believe them because you have seen how things work in the wild?

Or maybe you reject some idea from the cool kids because you have not found they are true for you.

When you get to the point of thinking for yourself - you will realize that you can redefine what it takes to be a cool kid. Do what needs to be done. Learn what needs to be learned and share it with anyone who will listen, read, whatever.

Then you know what that means?

You are the cool kid.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

On Facing Forward

The lady-wife and I were enjoying a glass of wine in the quiet evening last night. I was relaxing from a crazy-busy week at the day job. She was recovering from her own week of challenges. We both commented on the end of summer.

Mind you, we both can read a calendar and we know when summer "ends." We have had remarkably mild weather the last week or so. For August, it has been very cool. We have had a decent mix of rain and sun. The garden is absolutely loving it.

The squash are flourishing as are the tomatoes and the various plants in the salad garden. The potatoes are looking good as well. Still, the weather has been very cool - more late September than late August. I'm not minding too much, the air conditioner has not been running, so lower electric bills. The rain has been consistent enough where the rain-barrels have not really been empty since mid-July. So, lower water bills from less watering.

Looking Forward

We are looking forward to our annual excursion in a couple of weeks to the Wheatland Music Festival outside of Remus, Michigan. Absolutely massive weekend of music and friends and an excellent way to mark the end summer. We volunteer with the recycling crew, as we have for the last 20 years or so. The lady-wife talks with people about ideas for recycling and projects and simple things that people can do at home that save them money and are good for the environment. I do less of that and more of "immediate need" stuff - like dealing with compost-able materials from the various kitchens and food vendors. Which includes shovels and work gloves and improving the quality of the soil - in a couple of years.

We cold camp among pine trees with friends - play music and share food starting Thursday afternoon (we get up before the festival opens to help get stuff set-up) through Sunday afternoon. Coffee made on the camp-stove, prepared food we heat up and enjoy - along with various adult beverages being passed around and songs and tunes shared all make it a special weekend for us all.

It is something we look forward to all year.

When we first began volunteering, we did what we were told. We did what needed to be done. We shared laughs and, in my case, a fair amount of manual labor. We drank beer and coffee and had a good time. One year, we cooked bacon and eggs Sunday morning in the recycling tent as we had brought way more than was needed - and the food needed to be used. So, we shared.

There were "crew leaders" and "shift leaders" who made sure everything that needed to be done was done - when it needed to be done. Now, 20 years on, we are in those roles. Our "crew" this year includes the kids of people who were our crew and shift leaders when we started. One year, our oldest grandson was part of the volunteer crew.

It is strange, to some folks I expect, that part of what we are doing when working at this Festival, is teaching people what we know about composting, recycling, teaching and learning. We are also teaching people to take over our jobs - to do the things we are doing at some point in the future. 

The work I do at this Festival, really is "young man's work." It is physically demanding - even when you do manual labor on a regular basis. I expect this might be one of the last years where I actually do that level of work, instead of scheduling others to do it - and coach and encourage and cajole.

We do that anyway - it comes with the territory. But, us old folks jumping in and working as hard as the youngsters helps set an example to them, and to the casual observers walking past. I rarely end up with my clothes being anything but filthy at the end of a shift. That may be coming to an end as well.

A lot of things are that way.

In a matter of weeks, I will move from "Member of the Board of Directors of the Association for Software Testing" to "Former Member..." I am in the middle of transitioning away from being the Conference Chair for CAST - and returning to a back-bencher.

Several people at this year's CAST mentioned, off-the-record of course, the energy of the conference. The observation so many people made ran something like "Wow. The energy at this year's conference was amazing. There were loads of people who were eager to talk and share ideas and it was fantastic."

That made me feel very good.

Others commented on something else - "Wow. There were some really fantastic speakers and not very many were 'big names.' There were a few present and the tutorials were fantastic and lots of good ideas were shared. And still, these were not the major names people look for at conferences and they had great information and ideas to share."


That folks, is part of handing things on to the next generation of testers.

The amazing thing to me is that, stepping down as one of the "experienced" members of the board - I am wrapping up 3 years of service. The members who were not up for re-election have all served one year. All are experienced testers. They have management experience - and they are taking up the reins to direct AST.

They have knowledge and ideas.  They have energy and drive.

I am excited for the future of AST.

Getting something into good shape, or the best shape you can get it, so it can be handed off to the next generation is part of what makes the world what it is. It takes people being willing to hand over the responsibility to the next generation. It takes people in the next generation being willing to take on and do the jobs that need to be done.

That is part of people, old guard and new, facing the future together.

Face Forward.

Eyes to the Front.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Creating Spaces for People to Learn - Confessions of a Recovering Jerk

When I was a hard-core competition drummer, an up-and-coming serious competitor who was building a cadre of drummers who could do amazing things, I was a jerk. At least as far as some people were concerned.

I was busy with band practices on Sundays, for 5 hours, and two weeknights - one for my band and one for the student band. Then another night each week, I taught private lessons. Another night every other week, I taught group or sectional lessons. The other night I did yard work, house work, and whatever else needed to be done that I had time to do. Because when weekends rolled around during the "competition season" I was leaving town Friday afternoon for a Games or Festival on Saturday.

All that work paid off. We won a lot of contests, I collected a stack of trophies and, in time, prize money from professional solo contests. People in other bands looked at us and shook their heads in amazement how we could win so consistently. We talked of the hours of practice we put in - individually and as sections and as a band.

As time went on, people wanted lessons from me. If they were not interested in getting up to competition standard then the answer was flat-out "no." I did not have time. My very limited resources were being put into getting people to play very well, very quickly - and maintain my own level of play as well. I demanded much from my students and from myself.

The people who were turned down walked away not understanding why I was not interested in helping people who wanted to play drums, particularly in pipe bands, for fun.  A fair number decided I was not a nice person and rather a jerk. There were other words spoken of and to me, but this is the "G-Rated" version of the story.

As time went on, the workshops blended together. The years and contests and games blended one into another. I made many friends - became acquainted with a fair number of good folk and scoundrels. There were some memorable times - and evenings. Bottles passing around the circle, stories being told. Some of them were true, I suspect.

Some of these good people I still stay in contact with.

When the time came that I hang up my competitive kilt and drum sticks, I found I had time for other things. I took to teaching a broader variety of drumming styles. Jazz, blues, interesting mixes of styles and techniques for people who wanted to learn. I found myself teaching drums at a music shop in town, in addition to the "day job" of software.

Some people were not impressed and moved on. That is normal. Some stayed and took lessons for many years and got very good indeed. I found myself digging into the archives of my memory, finding notes and ideas from my teachers many years before. I passed on techniques to those who could learn and then master them. I did my best to honor the memory of my teachers by sharing their lessons with students born years after my teachers had died.

I did less and less with competitive pipe bands. Time moved on. For several years,  my contact with pipe bands was limited to phone calls or emails from former students calling to share their success at some major contest or other. Part of me missed the comradely good-fellowship. I know my lady-wife missed a fair number of our friends made over the years whom we'd see every weekend - or more often. I did as well.

A funny thing happened.

I found I could work in the garden and enjoy it - without the pressure of getting it done TODAY because tomorrow I was leaving for... somewhere. I found there was a life beyond competition pipe bands.

My lady-wife and I began going to some of the contests and festivals and games just to socialize and see old friends. I rather jokingly became a member of what I termed the "pith helmet highlanders" - the folks sitting around the beer tent at festivals wearing bits of band kit pontificating on how easy bandsmen had it these days... and regaling any and all and sundry with "Back in MY day..." stories.

At one of these local festivals, the lady-wife looked around and asked "Where are all the elders?" We had become the elders. I was now one of the people that young drummers approached with a mix of depredation and awe offering a beer in exchange for a tidbit of advice on how they could get better. I recognized them because I had done the same thing myself many years before.

My students now had students - and they were the ones who came up and asked - "Excuse me, are you Mr. Walen?" "Hi, I'm Pete, who do you play with? I'm very pleased to meet you..."

Now, it has been over a year since I've even been to a festival. And another funny thing has happened. I have people from local community pipe bands asking if I can teach their drummers. Instead of sending them packing, as I would have 15 or 20 years ago, we talk about how many drummers they have and when does the band meet for practices.

It has been several years since I taught at a music store. And I'm back to teaching private lessons one night a week in my kitchen - a classic location for pipe band lessons: the kitchen table.

Except, I'm not working on the fine points of some technique question. I'm not working with students struggling with a phrase in the 4th part of Alex Duthart's score for "Lord Alexander Kennedy." I'm working with people who want to learn the basics of playing with a pipe band so they can play parades and the occasional "Celtic Festival." No competition stress. No emphasizing the need to play scores of a given difficulty.

Instead, I'm helping them reach the goals they have for their drumming - play at a reasonable level of competence and not embarrass themselves in front of other pipe bands. I'm helping them reach the goals they need to reach to be successful in the measures that matter to them and their bands.

Are they ever going to compete at the highest levels of competition for the World Championship title as some of my former band mates and students do? Almost certainly not.

But, they can play at functions for the Legion or FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) and have people thank them for playing and complement them for sounding so good.

In doing so, I am giving them a foundation to grow on - if they choose to. I am giving them the technique and the vocabulary they need to continue their education and development in a manner that makes sense to them.

Along the way, I can gently guide people from "this is how we did it in marching band" (either school or university) to "this is how pipe bands do it and here is how they developed differently, and why."

I give them the context for the differences. I teach them the reasons for the differences in technique and approach - and the history behind how the differences developed. These are not "good" or "bad" approaches. They are different.

A couple of police officers I am teaching drums - part of the fledgling local police pipe band - pushed back at one point. Both had played drums in high school marching band, one with a local university marching band. We talked about the differences and I demonstrated what the differences actually were - One was amazed. He mentioned his instructor and said he had simply said "Do it this way, because this is the right way to do it."

I smiled and said "He was a student of mine several years ago." His jaw dropped. I did not say how sad I was that this student had learned so little from me.

When we do not take the time to explain why we do things the way we do, can we really expect people to take us seriously? Are we not like the people spreading some "teachings" about "This is right and everyone else is an idiot, block-headed, dim-witted and wrong" whether it is drumming, religion or testing?

No matter if it is the 57,356th time we explain something to someone - it is likely the first time they have heard the explanation. Do we not owe it to them to educate and not brow-beat them?

The drumming instructor I am today is more patient than the drumming instructor I was 20 years ago. That drumming instructor self really was a jerk. And a bit of an ass-hat.

I don't need to be that way when it comes to explaining software testing, either.