Friday, February 3, 2012

The problems we can't fix ...

Testers are often the ones who are deeply involved in finding problems in software.  But they are more than this.  They are a core part of how problems are solved.

It has an unfortunate mental affect on many of us, which I think we're not aware of.  We get used to the idea that we can fix any problem.  It’s what makes us positive people around projects - our managers can be panicking about the latest showstopper defect, but to us it’s something we’re used to dealing with.

We get very good at feeling there’s not a problem that we can’t work with.  Sadly there are limits.  Away from our test labs, not every problem or issue can be so easily solved.

It’s an unfortunate fact that life can be unfair, and sometimes quite brutal.  We tend to invent things like religion, karma or ‘what goes around comes around’ to make it feel fairer.

I’ve just sent a friend a copy of a book “The Road Less Travelled” by M. Scott Peck, which kind of touches on some of this.  Its theme is very much that life is complex, and we often expect it to be simple and fixable, but we have to learn to accept that it’s complex, and accept those limits of what we can do.

Back in 2010 I lost my close friend Violet.  She was someone very special in my life, in some ways I’d want to say best friend, but she was also a mentor.  In your life you will meet only a handful of people who will champion you and see qualities within you especially when you can’t see them in yourself.  This was what Violet was to me.

Her death came as a bombshell.  It was upsetting, and I was so angry.  For about a fortnight my mind kept going over and over how unfair it was, how could it have happened.  Part of me really wanted to make it not so.  Much later I realised how much we really feel if we protest about something enough it’s like a soccer match where footballers feel if they protest enough to a referee, they can get him to reverse a decision.  But unfortunately God’s not a referee.

It was an awful feeling – my best friend was dead, and there was nothing I could do to “fix”it.  There would be all these moments and achievements in my life I’d now never get to share with her.  There’s an enormity in realising this friend is gone forever, that you never seem to be able to come to terms with.

It’s something we’d really not like to think about, but during our working life there are going to be moments of extreme upset in our personal life, and also times of tragedy.  There’s an awful Superman myth in some organisations that professionals should leave their personal life at home and give their all at work.

To an extent yes, we can’t turn into work and be snappy and irritable with our customers and co-workers because we’re going through a bad patch.  But we're not machines.  Sometimes we have to realise that if we are going through a bad time, maybe work isn’t the place we should be headed.

2011 was a terrible year for my team, my co-workers were put through the wringer in various ways – family bereavement, divorce, long term injury, house washed away.  What shone out was the way everyone tried to be supportive and sensitive within our team.  And this was echoed by my company really stood out as one where people's wellbeing was vital.

I know for myself I was aware that the company provided a limited number of counselling sessions.  And a year on from Violet’s death, I’d still not really got closure over it.  You get to a point where you feel inside just how much impact this person had in your life, but you're also aware that just as their life is over, yours needs in some ways to move on.  

I took the courage to book an appointment with the company's counsellor.  I say courage because taking such an appointment can feel like an act of weakness, and it’s a hard thing so admit “I can’t deal with this myself”.

But the session helped a lot.  Overall I was told my thought processes to Violet’s death were pretty much spot on, the problem was I was trying to go through the grief process to a timetable (typical tester on a Waterfall project there).  I just needed to accept this was going to take time.  I needed to hear that, and it was a huge weight from my shoulders.

This is in many ways a follow on to my post that we need to let go of our need to feel like Superman.  When bad things happen to us, we need to be wary of just soldiering on.  There’s no shame in being upset about it – just because we’re a professional doesn’t make us emotionally neutered.  Sometimes we need to stop, and take time to deal with it, and not feel ashamed for doing that (although obviously we should always be wary of overly lingering and dwelling on any event to the point that we never move on).

Sometimes the thing that most needs to be fixed is ourselves …


  1. Most companies have some form of staff counselling scheme in place to allow employees to talk about any issues that are causing concern ...

  2. Thank you for putting me on to this. I hope you've found some peace.