Friday, 5 April 2013

5 Questions With Pete Walen

Next up is my fellow Grand Rapids resident, Pete Walen

1) Congrats on your recent move to being an independent. How's that working out for you?

All in all, it was a very good move.  There are good and bad points, of course, but broadly and generally speaking, it has been very good.  (He says while taking a break from working on taxes.)  

Aside from the dangers of finding one has an idiot for a boss there are some great learning opportunities, both personal and professional.  The paperwork is crazy (says the guy taking a break working on taxes) and it forces you to be crazy organized.  Well, compared to my normal “sort of organized.”  Then there is the problem of lining up work. 

I was extremely fortunate to have been in a position to “decide” to go independent.  A fair number of people I know kind of had that decision made for them – positions were eliminated, opportunities for full time positions were limited and land in contract land.  I went in with a reasonably strong position, as in I had options.  

The contract I have seems fairly long lived and seems likely to continue if all parties agree.  This saves me a great deal of the “contract/consultant blues” of making sure there and gigs lined up or under negotiation or any of the other things that go with work assignments measured in months.

The huge advantage for me is that I have the opportunity to consider ideas more broadly than I did with the previous employer and am able to look for things of interest to me.  Projects where I can learn as well as teach or share ideas are important to me.  It helps me stay energized and fresh.

2) You're the organizer of the monthly GR Testers Meetup - what do you get out of these meetings? Don’t you ever run out of topics?

Many of the topics I suggest are ones I am interested in considering more deeply.  Sometimes they are ones I am wrestling with.  Sometimes they come out of other meetings.  And sometimes, they are ideas that are reasonably comfortable to me and, frankly, I want to hear other viewpoints or ideas.  

The great thing about this group is there are so many bright, thinking people who contribute to the conversation.  As most of the meetings the last 18 months or so have been round table discussions around a selected topic.  The flow of ideas is astounding.  I cannot think of a single session where I did not have a gobsmacked moment in the conversation.  

Many of the regular participants are experts in their own right in their own domain.  It strikes me how interesting it is that smart people come together and exchange ideas, simply to learn from each other.  Frankly, I think I achieve my goal of not being the smartest gut in the room fairly often.

Experience is a different question.  Alas, there are bright attendees who have not yet been tested by the weird twists and turns of projects that don’t follow proscribed paths.  In that area, those few of us who have seen problem projects again and again can lend advice or at least empathy as others relate the complexities they are struggling with.  I find the mix refreshing and uplifting.

What happens when I run out of topics or draw a blank?  That one is EASY.  I ping you or Matt Heusser for a suggestion.  

3) Have you ever been a testing zombie?

Ouch.  I want to say “no.”  I think that might be a bit of a stretch though.  

I think part of what makes me what I am as a tester, rather passionate/focused/annoying to certain persons, is when I think back to when I worked in a shop that was looking for repeatability and best practices and control and KPIs and CMM levels (CMMi had not rolled out then) and… stuff.  I remember how at times it was simply follow-the-steps-as-documented and you’ve done your job.  Someone else (smarter or more experienced or something) figured out what needed to be done and did the thinking that was that.  

I also remember when if you did not complete a given number of “tests” in a given time, un-good things would happen and you would be considered a slacker at the least.  Then there were other times when I and the other testers were so overwhelmed with what was going on and the problems uncovered that other problems were simply not noticed.  

During these times, I knew there had to be a better way.  I knew that these things made no sense and I went looking for doing testing better.  So I found myself some online forums and magazines and web searches lead me to Kaner’s “Testing Computer Software.”  This led me to more questions and reading varied blog posts and articles.  Shortly after that I encountered “Lessons Learned in Software Testing.”  

Since then I have been less of a zombie anything than I was before.  It is the awakening of the sapient self that keeps zombies at bay, I find.
( Insert your favorite zombie film reference here.  Mine is Shaun of the Dead – so we go to the Winchester have a few pints and packets of crisps until this all blows over… - editors note: Grand Rapids actually has a Winchester pub)

4) I like the historical references that you often sprinkle into your blog posts - what can a tester learn from history?

I think most, perhaps all, of the social sciences or what once was considered the bulwark of a liberal arts education, can inform us well beyond its face value when we choose a profession founded in knowledge or information work.  Professions that require the ability to think abstractly and yet acutely at the same time can benefit from people trained in things beyond mere technology.

I use history as a reference point for several reasons.  First, simply, I have a broad interest in history.  Additionally I find it useful as a tool to present examples of where people demonstrated the ideas I want to talk about.  I tend to use examples from older periods, rather than more contemporary for the simple reason that factual statements can be made and “other considerations” don’t easily come into play.  

It is easier, and lest politically charged, to write (for a predominantly American audience) about U.S. Grant and his campaigns in 1864 and 1865 than, say, corresponding campaigns in Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan.  The problems and lessons that can be learned are similar, but, alas, one is more sensitive than the other today.  The World Wars, meanwhile, have been studied and talk about and movies and television shows have been done on them.  The Hollywood version of history is so deeply engrained that concepts presented with accurate information are lost because the historical lesson presented conflicts with the “John Wayne History” people “know.”   

As far as what can a tester learn from history?  Consider this: our purpose is to consider divergent viewpoints and values and find paths that can inform others of what we find.  In software terms, we are looking into how the software behaves.  In other terms, we identify the nature of a target, composition, size and nature.  

In one context, we are testing software.  In another we are scouting enemy forces.  We may also be spending time determining what really is happening, what has happened in the past to bring us to the state we are currently in, and evaluate paths to move forward.  

The last is the essence of exploration, which for me is central to what a tester does. 

5) What books are you reading at the moment and why?

OK.  Ummm.  A bunch.

I have this weird rule that says I cannot start a new book until I finish the one I’ve started.  This can be a problem, like, when I’m given a pile of books for Christmas.  So, I’m working on a terribly academic tome by Gordon S. Wood called “Empire of Liberty.”  The dear daughter gave this to me for Christmas a couple of years ago.   This covers the period in US history from 1789 through 1815 in astounding detail.  I find it interesting in that it fills in things I did not know, did not remember or, my favorite, makes connections between events and people I had not considered before.

I also have several books on the go right now of a testing variety.  Weinberg’s “Becoming Technical Leader” (refreshing my memory before STPCon) is on top of the pile.  Along with that, I have Weinberg’s “Introduction to General Systems Thinking.”  Additionally, there is QSM Vol 2 – First Order Measurement” except I am not sure if picking out chapters or sections counts as reading.  

There are others I reference fairly frequently, so much that they never quite get put back on the shelf.  Does that count?

And for simple escapism, easily read that helps the brain decompress, I’m rereading Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series following an officer in the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era.  
I find I tend to reread light reading as often as I do more technical writing.  What I like about O’Brien’s writing is his attention to get things right, including the terminology for the period.  Dr. Maturin, ships surgeon, physician and “natural philosopher” – what we now would call a “scientist.” I think something valuable is lost in the change of terms.

Phil - Thanks Pete
 - BTW, that was Grant pictured at the top, this is Pete

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