Apply Within

“I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?” — Mr. Waturi, Joe Versus the Volcano

In one of my favorite movies of all time, the protagonist Joe struggles daily through a truly dead-end job while Joe’s boss talks constantly on the phone to the unseen character Harry about hiring concerns. Hiring and retaining the right people worry even this manager whose employees accomplish simplistic tasks.

At the suggestion of a couple of programmer friends, I recently finished reading Peopleware by DeMarco and Lister, which also focuses on the right person for the job from a management perspective. However, the authors advocate a different approach from micro-managing and oppressive Mr. Waturi: get the right people, make them happy so they won’t leave, and turn them loose. But how do managers know the right person when they see him or her?

Employee characteristics the authors emphasize:

  • intelligent, making thoughtful value judgments
  • creative
  • wants to accept responsibility
  • gets very involved in the outcome
  • energy and enthusiasm, hellbent for success
  • worthy of trust, ethical behavior
  • protect the well-being of the psychological self
  • dedicated to the best quality the individual can produce
  • believe strongly in the rightness of the product
  • loyal to positive environments
  • learner, improving skills over time, higher proficiency to deal with higher risk
  • internally motivated
  • the proper mix of perspective and maturity
  • building safety, bonding rather than pretense, forming healthy & satisfying communities
  • peer coaching
  • involved in process improvement
  • replacing chaos with order

Mr. Waturi never acknowledges Joe’s competence or gives him any autonomy but continues to hold him responsible for duties that he prevents Joe from executing. As a result, Joe feels essentially no involvement in the outcome of his work and his existing depression from post-traumatic stress only worsens.

A neurochemistry doctoral student friend recommended the book Flow, in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi tells us that “we must constantly reevaluate what we do, lest habits and past wisdom blind us to new possibilities” and “enjoyment depends on increasing complexity … the discovery of new challenges … the development of new skills.”

Joe simply accepts that his life will continue plodding on its weary routine way until he receives startling news that changes his life. Joe’s internal motivation is so weak that only catastrophic circumstances galvanize him for action. Csikszentmihalyi describes people in similar circumstances whose “vision to perceive challenging opportunities for action” change their mundane work into satisfying careers.

In her closing keynote presentation for STAREast 2011, Julie Gardiner encouraged us to take courageous action:

  1. Turn your job into a passion
  2. Retain your integrity
  3. Take your career seriously

But what does all this mean for us as software testers? In order to do our jobs most effectively, we must take these management concerns and internalize them, pushing ourselves and our companies to improve. We must take ownership of the quality of our products and encourage our non-QA team members to embrace it as well, taking pride in our skillful workmanship.

In an environment like this, we are most free to push the software to its limits. We can focus our creativity, intelligence, and judgment on the work at hand to produce better outcomes, such as more effective test cases and fewer bugs in production. We can be gentle catalysts and change agents rather than the “jolt” that Naomi Karten described in her STAREast keynote elaboration of Virginia Satir’s family therapy model.

It all comes down to self-discipline. We must first apply our intense concentration to the weaknesses within ourselves to build self-regard that strengthens us to deal with risk in a professional setting and ultimately achieve success.

Although Joe never learns to find satisfaction in his work, the movie closes with Joe hoping for a better future. We too can hope for a better future as we pursue a real-world self-transformation as the Believers but Questioners that DeMarco and Lister encourage us to be.

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