Pacing Ourselves Well

For any software tester or any software professional it matters to be curious about the industry we choose to be a part in, to be knowledgeable about the people we work with and the tools we use to perform our best work. It helps to be aware of existing practices and be in the loop with the news, well, because that’s how we find solutions to problems, and sometimes more problems to solve. We use the software we test. We find answers on the web. We try applications that could maybe make us be more productive. We network with people like us on the internet, and we go online, study, and digest whatever we can. That’s part of how we improve our skills. That’s part of how we grow, and help others along the way.

But learning takes time and effort and energy. It’s not just about reading and watching everything, taking every online course and going to every conference there is. Our minds does not work like that. We have to pace ourselves well. We need to take breaks in between, we need time for details to sink in, we need contemplation and scrutiny to guide us where to move next and why exactly. Some reflection happens in discussions with colleagues, family, and friends, while other realizations occur only when we are truly alone with ourselves.

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Takeaways from Margaret Heffernan’s “Willful Blindness”

To answer a question about exploratory testing, Alister Scott recommends testers to read a Margaret Heffernan book, titled “Willful Blindness“. He tells us that we have to be less blind when we’re exploring in order to find bugs in systems under test. We have to keep on looking, we have to continuously question things, we have to choose to know and understand how the system works. Reading Margaret’s book has helped me realize what being willfully blind meant and how we become blind without noticing. It has helped me be more aware of the different ways I can misjudge things, and thus helps me get better. Cognitive limits, biases, division of labor, money, hierarchy, relationships, feelings of belonging or ostracism, all these and more play a part in how we behave in various situations. They affect how we perform our software testing too.

Some takeaways:

  • We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs.
  • Most people marry other people very like themselves: similar height, weight, age, background, IQ, nationality, ethnicity. We may think that opposites attract, but they don’t get married. Sociologists and psychologists, who have studied this phenomenon for decades, call it “positive assortative mating” – which really just means that we marry people like ourselves. When it comes to love, we don’t scan a very broad horizon. People may have an interest in people who are different from themselves but they don’t marry them. They’re looking for confirmation, for comfort.
  • All personalization software does the same thing: make our lives easier by reducing overwhelming choice. And software is doing it the same way that our brain does, by searching for matches. This is immensely efficient: It means that the brain can take shortcuts because it is working with what it already knows, not having to start from scratch. When we find what we like, part of our pleasure is the joy of recognition. But the flip side of that satisfaction is that we are rejecting a lot along the way.
  • We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us – or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe. And those feelings of familiarity and security make us like ourselves more because we aren’t anxious. We belong. Our self-esteem rises. We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently. The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.
  • Bias is pervasive among all of us, whether we think we’re biased or not.
  • The argument for diversity is that if you bring together lots of different kinds of people, with a wide range of education and experience, they can identify more solutions, see more alternatives to problems, than any single person or homogenous group ever could. Groups have the potential, in other words, to be smarter than individuals; that’s the case put forward so compellingly by James Surowiecki in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds. But the problem is that, as our biases keep informing whom we hire and promote, we weed out that diversity and are left with skyscrapers full of people pretty much the same.
  • But while it’s true that all of us now have access to more information than ever before in history, for the most part we don’t use it. Just like newspapers, we read the blogs that we agree with – but there we encounter a virtually infinite echo chamber, as 85 percent of blogs link to other blogs with the same political inclination.
  • Our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values. And what’s most frightening about this process is that as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more – even as the landscape shrinks.
  • Indeed, there seems to be some evidence not only that all love is based on illusion—but that love positively requires illusion in order to endure. When you love someone, he or she may even start to adapt to your illusion of him or her. So there is a kind of virtuous circle: you think better of your beloved who starts to live up to your illusions and so you love him or her more. It sounds a little like a fairy tale, but kissing frogs may make them act like princes or princesses. It is indeed a kind of magic, illusions transforming reality. We don’t have to love people for who they are but for who we think they are, or need them to be. This is something everyone does: overlook the flaws, discount the disappointments, focus on what works. Our love for each other allows us, even compels us, to see the best in each other.
  • One of the many downsides of living in communities in which we are always surrounded by people like ourselves is that we experience very little conflict. That means we don’t develop the tools we need to manage conflict and we lack confidence in our ability to do so. We persuade ourselves that the absence of conflict is the same as happiness, but that trade-off leaves us strangely powerless.
  • Because it takes less brain power to believe than to doubt, we are, when tired or distracted, gullible. Because we are all biased, and biases are quick and effortless, exhaustion makes us favor the information we know and are comfortable with. We’re too tired to do the heavier lifting of examining new or contradictory information, so we fall back on our biases, the opinions and the people we already trust.
  • People stay silent at work—bury their heads in the sand—because they don’t want to provoke conflict by being, or being labeled, troublemakers. They may not like the status quo but, in their silence, they maintain it, believing (but also ensuring) the status quo can’t be shifted.
  • Hierarchies, and the system of behaviors that they require, proliferate in nature and in man-made organizations. For humans, there is a clear evolutionary advantage in hierarchies: a disciplined group can achieve far more than a tumultuous and chaotic crowd. Within the group, acceptance of the differing roles and status of each member ensures internal harmony, while disobedience engenders conflict and friction. The disciplined, peaceful organization is better able to defend itself and advance its interests than is a confused, contentious group that agrees on nothing. The traditional argument in favor of hierarchies and obedience has been that of the social contract: It is worth sacrificing some degree of individuality in order to ensure the safety and privileges achieved only by a group. When the individual is working alone, conscience is brought into play. But when working within a hierarchy, authority replaces individual conscience. This is inevitable, because otherwise the hierarchy just doesn’t work: too many consciences and the advantage of being in a group disappears. Conscience, it seems, doesn’t scale.
  • Human beings hate being left out. We conform because to do so seems to give our life meaning. This is so fundamental a part of our evolutionary makeup that it is strong enough to make us give the wrong answers to  questions, as in Asch’s line experiments, and strong enough to make us disregard the moral lessons we’ve absorbed since childhood. The carrot of belonging and the stick of exclusion are powerful enough to blind us to the consequences of our actions.
  • Independence, it seems, comes at a high cost.
  • The larger the number of people who witness an emergency, the fewer who will intervene. The bystander effect demonstrates the tremendous tension between our social selves and our individual selves. Left on our own, we mostly do the right thing. But in a group, our moral selves and our social selves come into conflict, which is painful. Our fear of embarrassment is the tip of the iceberg that is the ancient fear of exclusion, and it turns out to be astonishingly potent. We are more likely to intervene when we are the sole witness; once there are other witnesses, we become anxious about doing the right thing (whatever that is), about being seen and being judged by the group.
  • It is so human and so common for innovation to fail not through lack of ideas but through lack of courage. Business leaders always claim that innovation is what they want but they’re often paralyzed into inaction by hoping and assuming that someone else, somewhere, will take the risk.
  • The greatest evil always requires large numbers of participants who contribute by their failure to intervene.
  • Technology can maintain relationships but it won’t build them. Conference calls, with teams of executives huddled around speakerphones, fail to convey personality, mood, and nuance. You may start to develop rapport with the person who speaks most—or take an instant dislike to him or her. But you’ll never know why. Nor will you perceive the silent critic scowling a thousand miles away. Videoconferencing distracts all its participants who spend too much time worrying about their hair and whether they’re looking fat, uncomfortable at seeing themselves on screen. The nervous small talk about weather—it’s snowing there? It’s hot and sunny here—betrays anxiety about the vast differences that the technology attempts to mask. We delude ourselves that because so many words are exchanged—e-mail, notes, and reports—somehow a great deal of communication must have taken place. But that requires, in the first instance, that the words be read, that they be understood, and that the recipient know enough to read with discernment and empathy. Relationships—real, face-to-face relationships—change our behavior.
  • The division of labor isn’t designed to keep corporations blind but that is often its effect. The people who manufacture cars aren’t the people who repair them or service them. That means they don’t see the problems inherent in their design unless a special effort is made to show it to them. Software engineers who write code aren’t the same as the ones who fix bugs, who also aren’t the customer-service representatives you call when the program crashes your machine. Companies are now organized—often for good reasons—in ways that can facilitate departments becoming structurally blind to one another.
  • We want money for a very good reason: it makes us feel better. Money does motivate us and it does make us feel better. That’s why companies pay overtime and bonuses. It may not, in and of itself, make us absolutely happy—but, just like cigarettes and chocolate, our wants are not confined to what’s good for us. The pleasure of money is often short-lived, of course. Because there are always newer, bigger, flashier, sweeter products to consume, the things we buy with money never satisfy as fully as they promise. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill: the more we consume, the more we want. But we stay on the treadmill, hooked on the pleasures that, at least initially, make us feel so good.
  • Motivation may work in ways similar to cognitive load. Just as there is a hard limit to how much we can focus on at one moment, perhaps we can be motivated by only one perspective at a time. When we care about people, we care less about money, and when we care about money, we care less about people. Our moral capacity may be limited in just the same way that our cognitive capacity is.
  • Money exacerbates and often rewards all the other drivers of willful blindness: our preference for the familiar, our love for individuals and for big ideas, a love of busyness and our dislike of conflict and change, the human instinct to obey and conform, and our skill at displacing and diffusing responsibility. All these operate and collaborate with varying intensities at different moments in our life. The common denominator is that they all make us protect our sense of self-worth, reducing dissonance and conferring a sense of security, however illusory. In some ways, they all act like money: making us feel good at first, with consequences we don’t see. We wouldn’t be so blind if our blindness didn’t deliver the benefit of comfort and ease.
  • Once you are in a leadership position, no one will ever give you the inner circle you need. You have to go out and find it.
  • We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. We can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?

Asking More Questions

What problems do we face everyday that nobody seems to be trying to solve?

What’s something that’s true for me but a lot of people do not agree with? Why do I believe the opposite?

Where do we want to explore next?

What do we stand for? What values do we deem irrevocable?

Which habits do we need to exercise? Which ones should we stop?

Are we doing something for fun? How did we end up doing this particular thing we’re into now?

What questions do we need to ask someone?

Who do we need to thank?

Which stories about ourselves should we rethink?

Lessons from Lucius Seneca’s “On The Shortness Of Life”

One interesting topic I’ve come across this year in a few podcasts I listen to is Stoicism. William Irvine introduced the school of thought in an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast and Ryan Holiday wrote a practical guide about it for entrepreneurs on The Tim Ferriss Show. It has practical applications in daily life, and because of that I’d like to eventually learn more about what to practice and its how’s and why’s. For now though, I thought that reading up on Seneca’s essay ‘On the Shortness of Life‘ would be a good starting point.

Here are some notes from the essay:

  • It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away. So it is: the life we are given isn’t short but we make it so; we’re not ill provided but we are wasteful of life.
  • Look at those whose prosperity draws crowds: they are choked by their own goods. How many have found their wealth a burden! How many are drained of their blood by their eloquence and their daily preoccupation with showing off their abilities! How many are sickly pale from their incessant pleasures! How many are left with no freedom from the multitude of their besieging clients!
  • What foolish obliviousness to our mortality to put off wise plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to want to begin life from a point that few have reached!
  • The person who devotes every second of his time to his own needs and who organizes each day as if it were a complete life neither longs for nor is afraid of the next day. For what new kind of pleasure is there that any hour can now bring? Everything has been experienced, everything enjoyed to the full. For the rest, fortune may make arrangements as it wishes; his life has already reached safety. Addition can be made to this life, but nothing taken away from it – and addition made in the way that a man who is already satisfied and full takes a portion of food which he doesn’t crave and yet has room for.
  • I am always astonished when I see people requesting the time of others and receiving a most accommodating response from those they approach. Both sides focus on the object of the request, and neither on time itself; it is requested as if it were nothing, granted as if it were nothing. People trifle with the most precious commodity of all; and it escapes their notice because it’s an immaterial thing that doesn’t appear to the eyes, and for that reason it’s valued very cheaply – or rather, it has practically no value at all.
  • The greatest waste of life lies in postponement: it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future. The greatest impediment to living is expectancy, which relies in tomorrow and wastes today. You map out what is in fortune’s hand but let slip what’s in your own hand. What are you aiming at? What’s your goal? All that’s to come lies in uncertainty: live right now.
  • There is a common saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents we were allotted, and that they were given to us by chance; yet we can be born to whomever we wish. There are households of the most distinguished intellects: choose the one into which you’d like to be adopted, and you’ll inherit not just the name but also the actual property, which is not to be hoarded in a miserly or mean spirit: the more people you share it with, the greater it will become.
  • Honors, monuments, all that ostentatious ambition has ordered by decree or erected in stone, are soon destroyed: there’s nothing that the long lapse of time doesn’t demolish and transform. But it cannot harm the works consecrated by wisdom: no age will efface them, no age reduce them at all. The next age and each one after that will only enhance the respect in which they are held, since envy focuses on what is close at hand, but we more freely admire things from a distance.
  • It is nevertheless better – believe me – to know the balance sheet of one’s own life than that of the public grain supply.
  • In this mode of life much that is worth studying awaits you: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, knowledge of how to live and to die, and deep repose.

Everyday, Prepare Something To Be Curious For

Everyday, prepare a very specific question (or a task) interesting enough to warrant research for an answer within several hours without distraction. Sometimes for learning, sometimes for fun, hopefully most days for both. Everyday there must be an adventure to immerse in, albeit small, something to be curious for.

Notes from Creating Great Teams (How Self-Selection Lets People Excel) by Sandy Mamoli and David Mole

Here’s an always challenging question: how are great software development teams formed? Managers, scrum masters, we all struggle to create continuous progress within our groups. And we know that there’s lots of factors in why that is – communication, skills, individual quirks. Sandy Mamoli and David Mole tells us that self-selection is the answer, and their book, Creating Great Teams (How Self-Selection Lets People Excel), provides us with the details.

Here are some notes from the book:

  • Fundamentally, two factors determine whether a group will forge itself into a team: 1) Do these people want to work on this problem? 2) Do these people want to work with each other? Neither a computer program nor a manager can answer these questions. Only the employees who will do the work can.
  • Self-selection is a facilitated process of letting people self-organize into small, cross-functional teams. Based on the belief that people are at their happiest and most productive if they can choose what they work on and who they work with, we think it’s the fastest and most efficient way to form stable teams.
  • The best motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy provides employees with freedom over some or all of the four main aspects of work: when they do it, how they do it, who they do it with, and what they do. Mastery encourages employees to become better at a subject or task that matters to them and allows for continuous learning. Purpose gives people an opportunity to fulfill their natural desire to contribute to a cause greater and more enduring than themselves.
  • No one chooses to work on more than one team or project. Time and again organizations fall into the trap of optimizing resources rather than focusing on outcomes. People often believe that multitasking, having people work across several projects, and focusing on resource utilization are the keys to success, when in reality they’re not.
  • People communicate face to face. There are barely any discussions about process or how to communicate. Team members just talk and coordinate and collaborate as needed. Things are much faster that way.
  • In the spirit of letting people control their way of working, we never mandate whether a squad should run scrum, kanban, their own special creation, or a traditional way of working. Following Daniel Pink’s principles of motivation, one of the key forms of autonomy is being in control of your processes. Giving people autonomy over who they work with should be extended by letting them choose how they work together.
  • There are two agile practices we believe should remain mandatory: retrospectives and physical story walls (if you are co-located).
  • It’s fair to say that sometimes employees don’t want to work with each other. And that’s okay. People know whether they’re going to gel in a squad with a particular person, and if not, it makes sense they would choose not to work with him or her. Self-selection, unlike management selection, allows them to make that choice.

Be Brave To Ask People To Join You On A Quest

I have always thought of myself as a good listener. That’s what I believe to be particularly the reason why I have thrived working with both programmers and product owners, a software tester in the midst of all sorts of people. It’s a fundamental skill I have learned to be proficient in.

What’s not my strong suit at though is asking people for what I want or need. Of course asking for little things or asking probing/clarifying questions isn’t that difficult; what’s tough is inviting people to join you on a quest, asking friends to do something interesting together, or asking a fascinating lady out to lunch. It’s a fear which doesn’t get any easier even if I actually know the problem. And the solution is the same as with all skills: practice. It has been and always will be a struggle, so I need to continuously remind myself to be brave.