Friday, January 3, 2014

An awfully big adventure - reads in 2013 ...

With moving to Datacom and taking on the title "test manager" instead of "senior tester with some test leadership", so began a new chapter in my career in 2013.  One that when I started in the industry in the 90s, I could not have expected.

Like many people I got into the I.T. industry because I had a fascination with "technical stuff".  Despite having worked as a teacher, so called "soft" or people skills were not my strengths.  But over the almost 18 years I've been involved in I.T. it's become clear that making software is not a lone wolf's role, but a team endeavour.  Developing those soft skills and an understanding of people is key to developing yourself.

There follows a list of books I've read and really enjoyed in 2013, and a brief explanation of why I found them so influential.

Behind Closed Doors - Johanna Rothman and Esther Derby

I actually bought this book on a whim at the beginning of the year, and didn't really expect to find much from it.  But I really enjoyed - in fact it's become my Bible in many ways, and I find myself referring to it a lot on a day-to-day basis.

The book uses a fictional narrative, talking through the arrival of a new manager and the various problems he encounters, together with how he addressed them.  And then goes on to explain the reasons for those actions.  It's a great way to learn - almost learning done as gripping soap opera - and a device used both in my own The Elf Who Learned How To Test and another recommendation on this list (The Five Dysfunctions of a Team).

It's a great method to use for books - it's very easy to do the theory, but create a fictional setting and it gives the theory context.  It also can make for uncomfortable reading, because we all of course recognise a similar situation we've been in ourselves.  Even one where we've been the more unreasonable individual.

This book really sold me on the importance of  private one-on-one meetings as a method of reporting to your manager, and ways to keep in touch with those who report to you.  Before this I would "get this", and spend time at their desk to direct reports to find out how they were doing.  But you need to take people away from where they work, somewhere they can be more open to speak.  The one-on-ones are a method of really getting people to open up, and sometimes challenge/mentor them.  Doing them in private means no-one has to lose face in what you cover.

It also helped me refine my technique - I tend to be a big talker, and I've learned that I need to stop feeding people in meetings with what I say, but listen more, and give them more room to talk.  This echoes a book I'm reading at the moment about Harpo Marx, "Harpo Speaks".  In it he says about the many people he's spent time with, both the great and the small.  Unlike his brother Groucho who was the one with the quips who was the life and soul of any party, Harpo attributes his success socially to the fact he listened, and because of that people were comfortable in his company.

This book taught me to be more like Harpo and less of a Groucho when having my private meetings.  It also taught me a valuable lesson about organising my tasks.  I might be a Test Manager, with a bit of management and a bit of testing - and yes I can still (and do) test.  However when push comes to shove and things get tense, my group has only one manager, and the management role has to take priority.  Because of this, any testing I do needs to be the "less critical pieces", because when things get tight and I need to focus, I need to do so on management role.  If I have critical work assigned to me, then both I and the team will fail - because either the critical work won't get done, or the team will be without a manager and have to fend for themselves (and despite them being quite self-organising, this would be another distraction for them).

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team - Patrick Lencioni

How I came to read this book is a tale in itself!  I shared a one of my posts on how Les Mills instructors are mentored with the manager of Hutt City gym, Mid Thomas.  It seems that she was behind the introduction of the model they use, and is a bit of a guru on mentoring and feedback.

Even though we're in very different fields - I.T. versus the fitness industry - at the end of the day we're managing people, and the people factor means there is a lot more commonality than you'd at first expect.  But then, people are people.  Shakespeare's plays are still popular today because although the world and language has moved on considerably since Elisabethan times, the motivations of the characters still apply.  People still fall in love across cultural divides (Romeo and Juliet), are still manipulated through their jealousy (Othello), and those swayed by flattery often follow it with tragic consequences (King Lear).

Much like Behind Closed Doors, this book follows a similar pattern, telling a tale first, and then analysing the behaviours within.  It's not a long book, but I just couldn't put it down.  Though I felt Behind Closed Doors is more comprehensive and detailed in the overall office relationships, The Five Dysfunctions really focuses down on a smaller aspect.  But this works because by focusing, it really creates a cracking read.

I found overall by the end that I probably followed about 80% of what this book suggests.  However I pretty much dealt with it on a case by case manner, whereas this offers a continuous model of values to hang and fit your behaviour and the culture you're trying to build within your team with together.  That is a culture of trust and challenge.  You need the trust and relationship to be able to challenge others in your team, without it becoming a threatening experience.  This it turns out would be something I spoke at WeTest about in Managing Management Relationships.

Hiring Geeks That Fit - Johanna Rothman

In the past I've recruited contractors when we needed them at Kiwibank.  The great thing about contractors, especially when provided through an agency like Qual IT is that if they don't really fit or work out, you can talk to the agency about replacing them.  I've only had a couple of instances of people who didn't fit, and even with contractors you try and work with them to help them fit into your group or organisations.

When you hire someone as a permanent member of staff, you're making a much bigger commitment.  You want to do everything you can to promote your vacancy in the right circles, and when it comes to hiring, although (and as someone who was interviewed myself it felt it) it seems unfair, you don't want to hire someone who "seems okay".  If you hire someone and they don't fit or work out, it's unfair to both yourself and the person you hired.

But at the same time, you need to be realistic.  We've all scoffed at the jobs which "talk about an entry level position ... ideal for someone with five years experience in the industry".  Erm.  The book talks a lot about how you need to hire for someone whose personality will fit into your team - this is something people tend to be unchangeable on.  However, don't be too hung up on skills - you can send people on training and add a skill if they're a general fit.  How do you get along with the person in the interview?  If you find you or them are having to explain themselves a lot to be understood, how will that translate into the office?  Will they fit in with the personalities you already have?

I've been involved more in recruitment at Datacom - you can find out more about our job opportunities here (please, though I love people getting in contact, don't send me your CV).  And once again, this book has helped to guide me through these initial steps into this area.

Other books ...

Those books obviously involved more "management" areas, but other books I've dabbled reading during the year,

Exploratory It - Elisabeth Hendrickson. I enjoyed this book on exploratory testing, and indeed it taught me a few new tricks, which I've incorporated.  It's a nice easy-read size, and much like Five Dysfunctions, I found I couldn't put it down as I went through.  One area I found lacking was about "how do you record and debrief from your sessions", but really this is something you need to find yourself having a dialogue with your customers and working out "what you need" over being hung up on recording too much.

The People's Scrum - Tobias Mayer.  Another addictive read, looking at the way people are using Scrum, and re-evaluating the spirit of scrum, and the principles behind it.

Perfect Software And Other Illusions About Testing - Jerry Weinberg.  Looking at common misconceptions non-testers have about the things we do.  This book has helped to prepare me for some of those difficult conversations.

Pirates In An Adventure With ... - Gideon Dafoe.  Oh, you didn't expect I only read text books do you?  Even these books with their blundering overconfident Pirate Captain have a lot to ponder on.  The pirate crew bump into a whole series of historical characters, and turn historical events on their head.  They're books for adults, but written in a readable and fun style.  Arrrrgh!

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