Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Prequel, of Sorts :): A Meandering Walk Through Twenty Years of Software Testing

Well, I thought there might be some amused interest at my post of my "former rock and roll self" in yesterday's blog post, but I did not expect the volume of response that I did get (on Twitter and Facebook, as well as emailed and personal comments). Some people wanted to know what led me to this point and how I traded in rock and roll for software testing. The trade in happens later, so I won't be talking about that very much here, but the lead up actually has a fair amount of amusing and interesting details that I don't think I've ever touched on before, or at least, not directly, so for those interested...

One cannot start a discussion with me about my early life, childhood and teenage years without a very simple detail being put out there, so I'm going to start with it. I have ADHD, and by some accounts also have mild spectrum disorder. I'm aware of all of this, I've dealt with it in various ways over the years, and have managed to be medication free since 1988. I mention this for one reason. My personality is such that I am easily distracted. "Ooh, Shiney!" has my name written all over it :). There was also one tell-tale anti-pattern that is still with me today, and that is what I call "The Obsessive Fixation". I am not content to dabble in something. If I get involved in anything, I go all in, and I often exhaust the knowledge, trivia, minutiae and peoples' patience the way a forest fire consume all available fuel (and air) that surrounds it.

I've had many obsessions over the years. My first that I can pinpoint was dinosaurs. By the second grade, I knew the timeline and taxonomy of just about every dinosaur known to the western world (at least those known in 1974-1975). Likewise, by the end of 2nd grade, it had run its course, and I was done with it. I still enjoy reading about and seeing shows and stories about dinosaurs, but nothing like the level I did when I was that age.

Over the years, I could fill in tons of "year long obsessions" that dotted my youth.

- 3rd grade it was American History and the Revolutionary War (hey, it was 1976, it shouldn't be too hard to see why ;) )
- 4th Grade it was Chemistry
- 5th Grade it was the band KISS
- 6th grade it was playing Soccer (what the rest of you lot outside of the U.S. call Futbol ;) )
- 7th grade it was performing in a repertory group and singing in chorus at school
- 8th grade it was playing guitar
- 9th grade it was martial arts
- 10th grade it was skiing
- 11th grade it was photography
- 12th grade it was bodybuilding  and modeling.

Also, as an undercurrent and continued "obsession" was an interest in music that crossed just about every known genre, from Classical to Punk Rock, from Funk to Metal, from The Beatles to The Jam, from the English Beat to the Sisters of Mercy, from Black Sabbath to Black Flag.

Each one of these things was not just an "interest", it was an all consuming passion, and in each case, I actually did something with each of them. Many of them had natural barriers of price, proximity or availability for me to really get too far into them, and most of them, after they had run their course, I was done and went onto something else.

In a way, that all changed my first year in college. When I met some other musicians, I thought it would be fun to form a band, and just have a lark at being a musician. I realized that performing in repertory theater as a kid, having learned how to play guitar a little (and bass as well) plus having sung in chorus, and my experience working as a teenage model for a little bit (don't make too much of that, I spent way more money to support that pursuit than I ever made :) ), I felt I could help develop and guide a band to where we could play some gigs.



I expected this would be a short lived obsession like so many others, but that was not to be the case. I spent almost ten years working to develop my skills as a musician and the marketing skills to get a band out in the scene and perform. Being a musician certainly had its perks. It also had some tremendous drawbacks. I was planning to spend two years at a community college and then move on to a University someplace. Due to my all consuming focus to make it in my various bands, I took a job delivering pizzas at night and on weekends, and practiced in the afternoons, which left morning hours the only time to take classes. My unit load went from 15 units, to 9 units to 6 units, and a two year stay drifted into almost five years, most of which was classes that were all over the map.

I took classes in Astronomy, Philosophy, Creative Writing, Music Theory, a BASIC programming class, which I failed spectacularly in, but I got an A in the Computer Lab itself, because I was able to sit with other people and talk about the problems they were having and help them think through the problem they were having... I thought this was just because I liked being social. Instead, I think it's my earliest inclination that showed I was genuinely interested in asking questions of a product, not so much an interest in making the product myself.

I took a studio recording and arranging class twice (because you could do that and get full credit due to the projects being unique each semester) and one of the things I did was help rewire the control room with my at the time keyboard player, who was an electronics buff. The point is, I took classes that interested me, but I did a lousy job putting together a cohesive transcript with good grades. Oh, and somehow, I tried taking multiple math classes, and ended up dropping each and every one of them. Not one of my prouder admissions, but it just wasn't where my head was at the time. In a later post I'll tell you about going back and taking almost nothing but Math classes for two years, but that's at least ten years from this period.

During this time, I had very kindly parents who let me live at home, go to school, work where I could. After the job delivering pizzas stopped making sense because I ran three cars into the ground in the process, I started working as a housekeeper, which again meant I went to school Tuesday and Thursday in the mornings, worked the other days, practiced in the afternoons with the bands I was playing with at the time, and did shows whenever and wherever we could.

The truth is, my bands were my obsession, and all of the work I was doing with them (developing songs, producing recordings, booking shows, marketing shows, developing a stage image, getting us radio play, getting us interviews in small music zines, etc.) THAT was everything I was "living for" up to that point. I was also racking up a considerable amount of debt in the process, because I believed that "big break" was just around the corner, and if I just financed "this PA system, this demo tape, this ad campaign, this [fill in the blank]", we'd get over that hump.

Finally, when I was 22, after several years of plugging away and being on what I felt was the crux of something big, I told my parents I couldn't play half way anymore, I had to go "all in". It was now or never. With that, I dropped out of school completely, moved out of my parents place and in with my guitar player and some other friends so we could share rent, and I devoted 100% of my attention to making the band a success. This was in the Fall of 1990.

It took me three months to come to a startling conclusion... I wasn't going to survive. I owed too much money, and I wasn't making enough performing or cleaning houses to make ends meet. I was officially living below the poverty line, and while that might sound dramatic and glamorous for awhile, it was really difficult and frustrating. The band was doing well enough for the time and the scene, and it definitely looked promising, but I needed something more stable, and I had to dig myself out of the debt hole that I'd made for myself. The question was, how?

The answer came from my drummer. He was working with a tech company in their sales department (he had the gift of gab, and out of all of us, was the one doing financially the best). Needless to say, I listened when he suggested I do what he did, which was go to a temp agency and just start developing some work experience, anywhere. Short of my being willing to start my own cleaning business and buy all my own gear to do it (which I really didn't have the funds to do, my credit already having been maxed out, and the thought of running a cleaning business the rest of my life really didn't appeal to me) I figured, OK, I really don't have anything to lose by trying this. The temp agency I picked was the same one that Taz, our drummer, used, and it was them that sent me to Cisco Systems.

So what can we make from this rather strange litany?

- From an early age, the idea of exploration and learning, of asking questions, and obsessing over trivia and minutiae proved to be an exceptional training ground for developing the kind of mind that serves a software tester well. Not just "what happened or how it happened, but why did it happen?"

- I had the chance to look at knowledge from many different areas, and in truth not from a prescribed map. In short, I took classes that interested me, and they brought lots of things to my attention that a more "focused" curriculum would never have helped me tune into.

- I discovered that I liked to solve problems through experience and learn how things worked, but I wasn't really all that excited about building it from the ground up. I just didn't have that kind of patience (and even today, I fight hard to work though stuff like that).

- I discovered that I liked to write, but not in the prescribed manner of the term paper requirements of the time. I wrote a lot of bad poetry (and really, most lyrics are truly bad poetry (LOL!)), but I also discovered writing from many different perspectives. I discovered philosophy for the first time, and found I liked talking about different ways of looking at the world.

- I discovered that a lot of skills come to the fore when you try to create a band. You are not just a singer or a songwriter or a performer. You are also an entrepreneur. You are a salesman. You are a technician. You are a logistics manager. You are a marketeer. You are a financial analyst. You are a designer. More than anything else, you are a creator, someone who has developed a brand, and put it out into the marketplace, and you have adapted and worked with it to help leverage the greatest level of success possible.

In March of 1991, it really looked like we were almost there as a band, and if I could just get my foot in the door of a job that could help me pay off some of my debts, and help me get some more money so that we could open up some more lines of credit, then we'd be able to make the big push and really get into the marketplace, get signed, put out a real record, get out and tour the country, and we'd be on our way. That was the plan, in any event... but as John Lennon so keenly put it "Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans", and life seemed to have some twists and turns I hadn't yet considered :).

More on that to come.
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