Saturday, July 25, 2009

How to Be Happy, Though in a Non-supportive Environment

Jerry: Here's another email consulting dialogue that Larry found helpful.

Larry: My name is Larry. I am a software test manager at an insurance company east of Chicago.  I have faced challenges when trying to do what I consider good testing.  These challenges include standards that mandate scripted test cases, fellow managers who don't want to discuss work, and security policies that don't allow us to quickly get tools that will aid in our testing.

A while back I discovered Cem Kaner's web page and it opened me up to a whole new world of software testing.  I learned of people like you, James Bach, Michael Bolton, and several other great thinkers.  I wonder how many people spend a career in software development/testing/ management without ever learning of these great people.

Jerry: Quite a few. To have a great career in any profession, you have to reach out and find sources such as these. You need to participate in a conference once in a while (the AYE Conference in November would be my number one choice in your situation). After that, our Problem Solving Leadership workshop would be an ideal goal to aspire to. You should certainly join your local interest groups, and participate.

Larry: This has led me to a question that I hope you can help me with.  How smart does someone have to be, to be happier when they read your books?

Jerry: Sometimes, just reading is sufficient, but most of the time, the reader has to begin doing something they weren't doing before. Like the suggestions above. Or like tackling one of the problems you cited--the standards, your fellow managers, or security policies. Or some smaller problem that nags at you.

But only ONE at a time, to learn what works for you and your organization. And what doesn't work.

(If nothing works, you want to be looking for a better place to work.)

Larry: It's almost like you know me. I think I have an NT temperament (QSM Volume 3 helped here) and based on some of the other research I've done it is definitely true that when I have a lot of tasks and become stressed I almost lock up. I rationalize that it is because I can't devote enough time to do a good job on any one thing, but I know I need to just suck it up and handle on item really well. That may go a long way to improving my happiness.

Jerry: From the little I know, I think if it were me, I'd try to find (at least) one of my fellow managers who is willing to spend some time with me discussing things that we could accomplish to improve matters for our company.

But any little thing you could move forward would be educational--even if it "fails" you can extract some learning from the attempt.

Larry: I have read five of your books so far:

* Are Your Lights On?
* Quality Software Management: Volume 1
* Quality Software Management: Volume 3
* Exploring Requirements
* Weinberg on Writing

To be honest I probably can't say "read" in the same sense that you might. I read some areas in depth and browsed others. I'm making second passes through several.

Jerry: That's exactly the way I read.

Larry: My worry is that I feel less happy after having read your books.  They have shown me how much I have to learn, and I believe that I'm not in the right environment to continue this learning.

Jerry: At least you haven't run out of things to learn. Now THAT would be really depressing.

As for the environment for learning, no environment can stop you from learning, if you really care. But, yes, you may eventually decide to keep an eye out for an opportunity in a different environment.

Larry: Each step I take towards more critical thinking, a strong thirst for knowledge, a greater understanding of how much I really don't know is a step I'm taking away from my peers at work.

Jerry: As for your peers, by taking a step ahead of them, you may well be modeling a new way for them to be happier. It's called being a "leader."

Larry: This has led to a lot of work related stress and unhappiness, and I'm more unhappy than I have been in a long time.

Jerry: In volume 4 of Quality Software Management, you'll learn about the Satir Change Model, and why significant change is usually preceded by a period of chaos, which might feel unhappy until you realize that it's a natural step on the way to happy change.

Larry: That's interesting. My personal experience says that I do tend to have phases of unhappiness, but I come out of it much stronger. It is just hard to know where I am in my journey at a specific point in time. Am I climbing up or falling down?

Now, I'm not writing to blame your great books for my unhappiness. I just have a feeling that other people have had similar journeys, and I was wondering if you've encountered a similar phenomenon. Do you have any more insights for a young unhappy software tester?

Jerry: I suspect my newest book, Perfect Software might be a good read for your manager and your fellow managers

Larry: I actually forgot about that book on my list. It is sitting on my desk pointing anyone who walks in. I'm hoping someone will pick it up and be interested, but that hasn't happened yet.

Jerry: You need to be more patient, and more aggressive, at the same time. Not easy!


Markus Gärtner said...

One could replace Larry with Markus and we could have had a very similar discussion on this. A friend of mine stated the path of unhappiness in a quite easy expression: "You're always sitting in the mess, just the depth varies." Keep patient and move forward, I'll remember that.

Phil said...

and replace Larry or Markus with Phil and I can really relate to this discussion, especially the
"My worry is that I feel less happy after having read your books. They have shown me how much I have to learn, and I believe that I'm not in the right environment to continue this learning"

Fortunately I've been able to move to an environment where learning is encouraged

I also really like your response As for your peers, by taking a step ahead of them, you may well be modeling a new way for them to be happier. It's called being a "leader."

Time to re-read your Becoming a Technical Leader book

kathleendvorak said...

Hello Larry (and everyone),

I was a test manager for a number of years and, while I loved and believed in my work, I don't think anyone who hasn't been in that job knows how difficult it is. Also, insurance companies (I've worked in a couple) have a very entrenched, rigid culture and you're probably bumping up against that, too.

Do I guess correctly that you are working a staggering work week trying to prove your worth? I never met a test manager who didn't, but if I had it to do again, I wouldn't. When work became my life, I was invariably miserable. We can always find a way to justify overwork because it's the culture of the IT industry.

Instead, I'd invest time in forming alliances with as many people in the user community as possible - people in Claims, Underwriting, Marketing, etc. Usually, I found my greatest allies were either the users/customers themselves, or the people who had to deal with them -- consultants, systems engineers, and customer support.

I agree with the importance of getting connected in communities such as the AYE conference and blogs like this ( is great, too). Had I done so sooner, I could have saved myself suffering and costly mistakes. You will find a sanity check, good suggestions, and a wealth of support.