The Perils of Parables

I’m a fan of The Pragmatic Programmer, and often use the parable of boiled frogs (which I first read in that book) when talking about organizational change. The concept is simple enough – rather than put the frogs (people) in boiling water (changing everything at once), put the frogs (people) in cool water; then slowly heat up the water (change things) until the water is boiling (you’ve reached the change you want). This technique works well for process-y things like cranking up which compiler warnings or fxcop rules you want to turn on, or raising the amount of code coverage you want developers to cover in unit tests.

The boiled frogs approach doesn’t always work as well with organizational change. With compiler warnings, for example, once you’ve reached your goal, it doesn’t “hurt” anymore – your comfortable in the boiling water. If you change the direction of an organization little by little, people may not notice right away, but eventually, they will notice that they’re sweating a lot and that their skin is bright red.

Of course, many people survive organization change – things change and they either like it, or are ambivalent to the change. Organizational change is an adaptive  challenge (as opposed to a technical challenge).  In Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linsky discuss adaptive challenges in depth and point out that with changes like this, sometime there are casualties – that some people, processes, etc. that just don’t survive the change. Some people may not have the capabilities to take on a new challenge, and in other situations, people just aren’t comfortable, or feel they’re at their best once the water is boiling. Casualties are ok as long as the reward of the organization change outweighs the loss.

I guess I am a casualty.

I joined the Engineering Excellence (EE) team at Microsoft nearly five years ago. Just over two years ago, I took over the Director of Test Excellence title. In the past five years, I’ve taught courses to thousands of testers, and met and worked with just about every senior tester and test manager at Microsoft. The work has been fun, challenging, and rewarding.

But EE is changing.

The changes in EE are good – maybe even great, and I think the org is headed in a solid direction – but the actual work has moved so far from what I really enjoy doing that I can’t do it anymore. I’ve wondered for some time what I’d do after I left EE, but I finally had the revelation that I needed to change something in December. Two things happened in one week that (as a colleague often says) made the scales fall from my eyes. The first was a team offsite, where we discussed the direction of the organization. The discussion was about how to deal with the parts of our job that were unfamiliar to us. Somewhere in the middle of wallowing and discussion, the lights went on – the job wasn’t for me anymore. The second “sign” was in the results of a medical physical. I signed up for an in depth health screening as part of Microsoft’s benefits, so I ended up getting two physicals in one year. The only problem with my second physical was that my blood pressure was up nearly 30 points. I thought it was a fluke since I’ve been 110 over 70 for as long as I can remember, but in a follow up checkup, it remained at 138 / 80.

I took the next three weeks away from work. I’m not sure if it was being away from work, or the mental realization that it was time for something new, but I’ve been able to drop it quite a bit since then. I’m confident that I can get it (and keep it) back completely under control from now on.

So, while I’ve been avoiding blogging and twittering over the last month, I’ve interviewed with some non-MS companies and have talked to a variety of Microsoft groups. When I first joined EE, it was really weird for me not actually testing products. I thought I would get used to it, but I never did. If I could change one thing about the last five years, I would have found some way to do more hands-on testing. One thing I heard (both directly and indirectly) as I looked around was worry that I was “stale” – that I had been away too long to be relevant. I suppose that will be something I’ll have to “earn away”, but I hope that it’s just a perception and that I actually know what I’m doing.

The good news, is that I’ve found and accepted a new job. I’m staying at Microsoft, and will be working for someone who I think is one of the best managers at Microsoft. The org is small enough that I think I can make a big impact, and large enough that it will be a challenge. Mostly, I’m working on a team that values experimentation, trust, and fun. I’m reunited with testers I’ve worked with a dozen years ago, and others that I’ve met and mentored as recently as a few months ago. I’m excited and can’t wait to be a “real” software tester again. I expect it will also give me an endless supply of blog fodder, and that the mental joy of software testing will give my health another boost in the right direction.

My last day in EE will be Feb 28. In the meantime, I have a mountain of transition stuff to work through, but do expect to be back on top of my social media game shortly. It’s been a fun ride, but I’m looking forward to even greater challenges.

8 Comments

  1. Wow. Congrats on finding a great place to land.

    I don’t think all change is good or all change is bad, but it looks like the way you reacted to this change will be good for both you and the team you were on.

    Leaving well is difficult to do. I’m working on that right now. I look forward to hearing about your new gig and I hope to hear your blood pressure is doing well soon. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Amen! And congrats. So glad to hear that you were given a direction and an opportunity. So many today don’t get both. Enjoy your waning weeks. Stay away from bridges and accelerants!

    Reply
  3. Congratulations, and good luck Alan!

    I’m sure it must have been a difficult decision to make. But like many of life’s important decisions, having made it, I’m sure you feel better.

    Please keep blogging to let us know how your non-tester-back-to-real-tester transition goes? That’s not always an easy move to make.

    -joe

    Reply
  4. Hi Alan,
    I love hearing stories like these, they are so inspiring.
    I look forward to your tales from the trenches.

    Anne-Marie
    Maverick Tester

    Reply
  5. Congratulations! I can’t wait to read about your new testing job while I’m figuring mine out as well. Some of my favorite bits of HWTSAM are the sidebars with your war stories.

    Glad your bp is getting better too. My husband, “Capt. Chris”, said to remind you that you can probably get it checked for free at any fire station 🙂

    Reply
    • I have my own cuff now. I’ve never really had a health problem before (and I avoid medication as much as possible), so I’m trying to keep close tabs on it.

      I too, can’t wait to hear about testing down under.

      Reply

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