Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Noise to Signal: An Attempt to Understanding What Smart People Have To Say

Where I've been

Frankly, I don't know how to start this thing.  Perhaps it belongs in my bedroom when I was in high school writing little programs.  Perhaps it belongs just a few years back.  I have and am constantly looking to, in some way, do better for whatever "better" is for me.  I don't pretend to have answers for everyone or even that there is a static answer for myself.

In my bedroom I had finally found an interesting productive task.  I was learning to program.  I would search for hours for that one little magic bean to get me moving along again.  To use a game metaphor, I was leveling up in my knowledge at a rapid pace.

At my first testing job, I did firmware and hardware testing.  I sat around, watching machines work and sometimes break down.  As there was a large hardware component, I found quickly there was little to learn in rapid fashion, so instead I leveled up my political and social abilities, talking with the leads, learning how the organization worked.  I became a lead, and saw that it too was a trap, with just more paper pushing, so I found a different area to do more software-oriented testing.  I learned about LDAP and Kerberos and, and and ....  I was on the path to leveling up.  I was still programming in my bedroom, still writing games, and later different applications I found a need for, or an interest in developing.

Skipping a little, I started developing my own automation.  I built framework after framework, learning what things I didn't like and what I did.  I started in on teaching people.  I have mentored several people, sometimes more successful than others.  I leveled up in different areas around testing and development.  I had built my own testing tool, which admittedly has been neglected for years at this point, but I gained a lot of insight into the underbelly of an automation tool.  I even did market research to see if it was worth starting my own company.  I didn't start my own company for reasons not within scope of this blog, but it appears to have been a wise choice.

All of these things I did on the basis of my judgment and learning.  Isaac might have been a something of a mentor, I did read a few books, but mostly I did it on my own.  The last few years I have been looking at where to go from 'here'.  I have done most of the interesting difficult forms of automation, I have even worked towards pioneering my own methods and frameworks.  So in looking for what's next, I've been trying to learn from smart people and what they have to say, and not just within testing.

What do smart people say?

If you Google about what smart people know or do, you are bound to find pithy pieces of generic advice.  Not to say there aren't perhaps hidden gems in this, but these gems are minor.  Frankly in the world of wisdom, anything involving a list seems like someone who doesn't know what they are talking about but hope there work gets hits.  Add exclamation marks for further effect, and it feels less like real data and more like an advertisement.  Let me give you some examples:
  1. Work Hard!
  2. Don't Quit, Even When It's Hard!
  3. Never Stop Trying!
  4. Ignore Everyone Else and Do What You Think Is Right!
  5. Don't Look Back!
These are all easily disqualifable, be it too generic to be useful or falsifiable (E.G. Ignoring your past makes you a future fool ; another pithy statement, but sometimes true).  So seriously guys, how do I get better?

Well let me give you something that looks like a list but is rather a set of sources I have considered.  These are not quotes, but roughly the idea I took from them.
  • Don't set goals, use systems. - Scott Adams
  • Find things that don't scale in a linear fashion. - Scott Adams, Randy Pausch
  • Change is inevitable. - Robert Heinlein
  • Progress comes from people trying to solve a problem in a more effective/lazy way - Robert Heinlein, Paul Graham, Dr. Richard Hamming
  • Luck matters, but only a little - Too many to list
  • Knowledge and productivity compounds, the earlier or more you learn, the more you'll know later. - Dr. Richard Hamming, Steve Yegge
  • I have managed doubts in what I 'know', and that is okay. - Dr. Richard Hamming, James Christie
  • People's requests and errands take time, up to all of it. - Heinlein, Paul Graham
For those interested, I will include some links at the end of this blog for where I got some of my ideas.  I will stop there, because this isn't meant to be a final list of smart people's knowledge. Instead, I'm going to talk about the challenge Heinlein, Dr. Hamming, Paul Graham and Steve Yegge have all presented in some way or fashion.

Do you know what problems matter?  Why aren't you working on them?

After thinking about this mind-blowing set of questions, it makes me ponder what answer can I give?  I could give answers for my own company, but that feels too small.  I could give answers to the world's problems, but that is too big.  So maybe I can give answers around my industry, with a focus on testing:
  • Why do testers leave at year 5?  
  • Why do automation efforts fail so often (and is that related to people only staying in testing for 5 years or less)?  
  • How should we be teaching the next generation of testers?  Do we have accessible training designed to get people to the 5 year mark?  What about beyond that?
  • Why is only a small percentile of humanity appear useful to me (and am I in that percentile)?  
    • For that matter is my definition of useful a good and valid definition and would investigating that provide me with an interesting problem?  
  • How do we extract the most useful data in the world and provide it to the people who care?
  • How can I get machines to solve most basic problems?  
    • What do we do with those who were working before these problems were automated?
  • How do we effectively train the next generation so they don't repeat the same mistakes as the last generation?
  • When are particular methods of testing more or most productive?
  • How can we significantly improve testing without additional resources (E.G. Tools)?
  • How do we improve or prevent the conditions for sweatshop-like development companies?
  • How do we improve security in our software development?
This list was developed over one night and is not complete, but the important question to me is am I working on them?  Any of them?  However, I didn't write this blog post for me.  The real question is...  Are you working on problems that matter?  And if not, why not?  If you are working on important problems, then let's talk!

[Some] Sources:
Edit, Additional Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKmQW_Nkfk8

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