Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Reflecting back on 2016...

There has been a lot of talk about 2016 having been a particularly cursed year.  There were a lot of alarming and sad elements to it for sure.  A lot of celebrities who seemed to embody my childhood died, and we had a very disturbing year as alarmism managed to fuel shock election results of Britain's "Brexit" vote to leave the EU, and Trumps win of the 2017 presidency.

However for me personally, it's hard to imagine a year which led to so much change, and I want to spend some time on a personal retrospective on some of those elements.

Looking after my mental health

I've talked before about a past event - witnessing someone being killed - and dealing with the impact of that memory.

The start of 2016 saw me working on a challenging project, like the rest of my team, pulling in hours where we can to get it over the line.  One day on the way to work I had quite an alarming realisation ... the memory of that event forms a form of flashback.  It's like a looped tape in my brain, which plays at least once a day, and typically when I feel stressed or dis-empowered it plays almost on repeat.

But I realised that I'd not had a flashback in weeks.  Indeed, if I tried to access the memory, rather than it being like watching video footage, it was more like I was reading an account.  It was all hazed, like viewing through a fog.  [I'm not sure if my writing about memory has caused me to haze and distrust my own memories]

Now as odd as that sounds, it really worried me.  Worried because as terrible as they were, I'd gotten used to them and dealing with them.  Any change scared me that it could be part of something bigger - worse still I was worried that when the project ended it would cause the floodgates to open, and I'd be overwhelmed by it all.

When I've talked about mental health before, I know a key part of it is knowing something is up and taking action.  I didn't just notice something was amiss, but also formed a plan,

  • First - and it's very basic - I told people.  Not everyone, because not everyone 'get it'.  [I realise I'm being open here and telling all after the event, but I think it's important especially after the fact, to be open about these struggles]  But my wife, and a few close friends who get mental health.  Importantly it meant I didn't just stew on this wondering if I was going mad.
  • Secondly - I planned.  Importantly because of my worry about 'when the project was over', I booked some leave and down time when this occurred to let whatever was going to unravel do so.  I also recorded when I was being particularly worried about this and why.
  • Third - I checked in with a professional.  This was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before, not a "Mike's feeling a bit down, give yourself a day, take it easy and see how you go" I self-prescribe when I'm feeling low/rundown.  I was tempted to self-diagnose with Dr Google.  But instead I booked myself in with a counsellor who I've used before and trust, and laid out everything I was going through.

Everything went well, I went on a retreat to a monastery which was really helpful to just disconnect for a few days.  Regarding counselling - in actual fact it seems that losing the constant playback for me was a positive sign of letting go (more on that later).

I was actually quite worried - the memory is a big once for my identity.  I try to be a positive person who encourages people to talk out issues, because I've seen the worst that can happen.  If I stopped forgetting what happened I internally reasoned, maybe I'd change, maybe it'd make me a little nastier without having that constant memory to keep me in check.

My counsellor helped me realise I don't need to use something like that as my moral compass, and I can let go of having something so negative defining me, now it's up to me to choose new memories to define me.  It's done it's job, it's 25 years on, don't let something from when you're 21 define your whole life.

BTW - I'm hoping to propose/take part in a workshop on 'looking after yourself' for a future conference based on the "wellness recovery action plan".  I've been talking to Gitte Klitgaard about this - if it interests you, do let us know more.

On retreat

As that 21 year old, I'd made plans with a friend named Krishna to do a retreat at the year's end to a monastery.  Stuff happened and distracted me, and I never quite did it.  I found out about a local Buddhist monastery and arranged a retreat of a few days there, away from everything but my head and hard work (no phones allowed).

I have an absolutely great wife, because she understands I need to do things like this, and she gives me room to do so.  She was a little apprehensive with "you're not planning to run away and become a monk are you?".

I'm actually Pagan, and as such we're encouraged to be eclectic, to learn a little about everyone's faith as well as much psychology as we can handle.  It's all so we understand common elements, human needs to what makes us who we are, how we yearn for a place in something bigger than just us (in part as a way to tap into something immortal).

The monastery was an incredible experience, though not quite for the reasons I'd expected.  There are a lot of rules, and a lot of routine.  I got so much wrong to start with, but there was understanding of that, and I'd have a lot of little rules explained to me, so I'd get better at it - things like how to sit in a room with a Buddha (never point your feet in it's direction) and that you need to bow three times on entering and exiting a room.

When I was 21, the rules and the routine would have been really tempting.  The world is unpredictable and at times brutal, but we try as human beings to impose some level or order on it with rules and routine.

What I realised is as a human being I tend to embrace a level of chaos more than I'd think, and especially as a tester, my life is closer to some kind of trickster god (for example Loki or Coyote) than I'd think.  It was an interesting observation which I'm still reflecting on.

But also it made me appreciate choice.  I wake when I want, I have breakfast and lunch when I want, and I can choose what they are.  I have made a choice to be with my wife and my son.  I choose to go to work each day.

Life in a monastery is structure, rules and routine.  But there is little choice.  And choice is a freedom and a blessing, but used badly a curse.  But I like being able to choose.

Learning to let go

I talked a lot about this previously here.  I learned about defining what I'm responsible for, and if something falls outside of this sphere, I will escalate it in the first part, but be wary of letting it distract me.

Understanding what motivates me

This is a weird one.  I'm a passionate and creative person - I've made this blog a reasonable success, but a lot about it worries me, and always has.  Behind the blog is a whole series of trackers which tell me what's popular, which articles people like most etc.

What's always bugged me is the most popular onces aren't always those I feel most emotionally invested in, and it makes me feel upset at times.  My posts typically get hundreds to thousands of reads, which should make me do a fist pump.

On the other side of the coin, I run a wargaming YouTube channel called The War Bunker with my son, and we put a huge amount of energy into this - we've painted a room downstairs for this.  But many of our videos only get 20-50 views.

So why do we love working on content for The War Bunker?  We spend a lot of time trying things out, and maybe that's half the thrill.  We've both become better at talking to camera, video editing, and putting more effort into our model work.

So why can you not be "successful" i.e. get lots of views in a project, and still find it rewarding?

It's made me question in myself what motivates me.  Trying things, wanting to push the limits of what I do (something I do a lot on this blog).  Back at work, it's made me think more how Richard Feynman's "the thrill of finding things out" motivates me.  I've managed to work in the last year with a lot of different arms of testing - things like performance, availability, accessibility, mobile, reliability - and it's been a thrill finding my feet.

So it seems I like a challenge, and I love doing a bit of research and development in testing approaches!  Especially in strategy.  I'm going to be sharing some of my "secret sauce" this year at TestBash Brighton.

Pushing my writing

To me, 2016 was very much about pushing what I could achieve in writing, picking up from my motivation talk.

I managed to pull off a huge series of articles in Java and automation.  Automation isn't finished yet, because I've had distractions, but it will be.

The work on those two threads inspired me to try bigger.  I've talked here about my plan for 2017 to launch an astronomy blog, which is currently planned out, with about the first third written up ...

On top of my 100+ blog posts for 2016, not a bad achievement.  Then I read a post from Dr Black, which inspired me.

I dusted off a novel I'd written 20 pages for and had started work on in 2003.  I'd attempted to work in earnest on it in 2008, but lost a lot of material to a laptop crash.  It's so old that Violet had helped me on the first part and it's initial concepts.

The problem was my novel called Melody Harper's Moon was a neat idea, but it lacked a defined story arc.  Dr Black's tweet gave me an idea, I'd already had a theme in there she'd tweeted about, but I decided to bring it more to the fore, and make it a central theme of the book.  I posted an extract here which seemed to fit the mood of the day.

Writing a novel was hard work - almost three months of coming home and trying to lay down an hour's writing a night.  I filled out my key pivotal scenes, then filled it all in, changing scenes as I went.  I would even write sections on the train and email them to myself to add later.

I got the first draft together, and I've sent a copy to a limited pool of alpha readers to get opinion on how the story itself holds together (I'm not worrying about grammar at this point).

If you're interested in being involved as a beta reader, do get in touch, I'd love to get your input!


A team of us from Datacom entered the Software Testing World Cup, and won our heat - you can see our winning exit report here.  This meant we got to go to Germany for the finals, as well as to Agile Testing Days.

Both were an amazing experience - we ended up coming third, which we're really pleased about.  It was also a great way to travel and bond with people within my organisation.  It was really nice to not be travelling alone.

I was blown away though to finally meet in person Lisa Crispin, someone who has been so supportive of my work, a great person to sound out ideas when I was a sole tester at Kiwibank, and who encouraged me to participate in her book with Janet.  What amazed me is seeing the number of people at conference for whom her voice and her encouragement were important.  It was also an absolute blast to meet her husband Bob, who I absolutely clicked with.

For me the amazing thing about the conference was the many private conversations and sharing of ideas which happened during the week we were there.  I met people like Gitte Klitgaard, Janet & Jack Gregory, Ash Coleman, an old work colleague Kevin, Matt Heusser, Lalit Bhamore, Sam & Concetta & Karen from S Africa, George Dinwiddie, multiple amazing Dragans (you could call it a Dragan's den), Meike & Hagrid, Keith Klain, Huib Schoots, Rob van Steenbergen (who was in the winning world cup team), Pete Walen and too many more (this is fast becoming an attendee list).

Something I was glad I did, I took a logbook, but knew I'd never fill it up, so went around people and just asked them to write in.  It was a nice thing, it made me remember to get around everyone on the last day (I can get a little shy when I'm tired), and also is a neat souvenir of everyone.

What was really lovely was a few people didn't know who I was (I was there to compete really over present), but when they worked out I blog as TestSheepNZ, they each had something I'd written which they'd found particularly important and inspiring.

I told Janet Gregory how important that feedback was.  As I'd said under motivation, I'm not really motivated by numbers.  If I wanted large readers, I could post, "oh my God, you'll never believe what happened to Justin Beiber".  Being reminded my writing can make a difference.  I'm hoping whatever I do with Melody Harper's Moon, it's something you'll get to experience.

Looking forward - politics

A lot of personal growth, but there is that specter about how politics is going, and that's unnerving.  Some of that fueled my writing within Melody Harper's Moon as a reaction.

Whilst on the retreat, there was a morning meditation which talked about "don't hang onto today, nothing is permanent, and things can change because that's the way of things".  Something that helped me.  The lesson though is as someone who is liberal, I expect people to "come to their senses" - didn't we all?

Meanwhile a lot of misinformation is being used to fuel votes.  Poltics is going to have to be something we're all going to get used to talking more about - I know it's considered social death in places.  But the risk of not having intelligent discussion is that people will otherwise just squeeze in misinformed opinion as solid fact.

I've been so alarmed by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's election, even though they're going on in another country, that I decided and joined the NZ Green party on the last day of 2016.  I don't 100% agree with them, I don't 100% agree with any party, but I agree with more of what they say than I disagree.

I'm not saying you should join your local Green party, but if either of those votes alarmed you, I'd encourage you to get motivated.  The far right has been obstructive and on their soap box for years hoping to get to this position.  If we want real change, we need to do likewise.

Now Playing: "Changes", David Bowie


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