Friday, July 2, 2010

“The Laws of Jam” and the “Army of One”

I owe the term “Army of One” to Randy Rice, as he was the first to use it with me and share some of his challenges when he was in this situation (not sure where he got it, but since I first heard it from Randy, seems only fair I attribute it to him). Make no mistake about it, being an Army of One is fraught with challenges. Much of the time is spent making sure things get covered in a way that is satisfactory. I have no illusions of complete testing or total coverage. “Good enough” testing is an everyday reality and necessity to me. For those new to my blog, I refer to myself often as a "Lone Tester", but I've come to appreciate Randy's "Army of One" phrase a little more, since i think it conveys better the reality of being a one person test shop inside of a company.

However, just because that is my reality, does not mean that I have to like it or just deal with it. Make no mistake, I enjoy testing and I have given a substantial amount of my career to its practice. What I don’t like is what Randy also referred to as the “Law of Raspberry Jam”. This maxim is attributed to Jerry Weinberg, and it goes like this; “the wider you spread it, the thinner it gets”. In a testing organization try to cover too much and you get so thin as to be virtually ineffective. Doing this as an Army of One almost guarantees this will happen. However, there’s another law that Jerry points to that I have learned to take some comfort in and give me some different perspectives. Jerry calls this The Law of Strawberry Jam, and it goes like this; when you spread raspberry jam, it gets thinner and thinner with each stroke of the knife, but with strawberry jam, no matter how hard you try to spread it, some lumps remain. In other words, as long as it has lumps, it never spreads too thin.

This message gives me hope. I, as a tester, and more specifically, as an Army of One, have to make decisions about what I offer to the organization. With multiple projects, multiple products and multiple releases, all in need of my focus and energy, it’s easy to lose focus and become the Raspberry Jam, to try to cover all things and be everywhere at once. I’ve tried this, and the answer is the same each time. It’s not possible, and what I end up doing is a lot of stuff in a less than optimal manner, and quite often, nothing to an excellent level. If I automate, it’s whatever I can do quickly. If I do a feature test, it’s what I can accomplish in the period of time that I have. If  I accept those realities, I’m subscribing to the Law of Raspberry Jam. I do what I can.

Living the Law of Strawberry Jam is different. It accepts the fact that there will be lumps. It will not spread as far, it will not go thin. The chunks will be there, but they will have taste and some depth to them. As an Army of One tester, if I want to live this law, I have to demand that those lumps be allowed to develop. This means jettisoning the habits and practices that do not add value to the team, to document what needs to be documented with an eye towards effectiveness, not trying to satisfy vague platitudes or sloganeering. It means that some projects and stakeholders need to be told “no” for a time, so that later I can tell them “yes” when I am ready to give them my focused time and attention. As an Army of One, I can’t put everyone off and focus extensively on just one thing, but I can cycle that attention on a longer and more effective basis. It may require some time on my own to just disappear with a book, a laptop, or some index cards and just gather my thoughts together, and tell everyone else they just need to wait for this. If I do that enough, those lumps start to form, and they can become effective tools in my daily battle against bad software.

Does this kind of thing happen overnight? Of course not, especially when your team has grown used to you in a Raspberry Jam mode. Taking a stand and telling the team you cannot be all things to all people at all times is hard, but it hands down beats the alternative of trying to be and never being able to live up to such an expectation. Pick your battles, pick where you will let lumps develop, because at the end of the day, those are what will differentiate you. If you do not have a talent in a particular area, vow to develop it or commit to have no part in it, but make that stand. I’m fond of saying that I can have anything I want, but I cannot have everything I want. There’s just not enough time or life in me to do that, but I can pick anything I want and make a commitment to get better at it, if I’m willing to put in the time to make it happen. You know the phrase “ready, willing and able”? I’ll bet most of us have the biggest challenge with the middle one. We may be ready to do something great, and I believe everyone to a point is able to make great strides in just about any endeavor (though a person does need to know their limitations). It’s the willing part that takes the greatest amount of effort, willingness to woodshed on an area that’s an obvious weakness, willingness to go seek help from others, a willingness to challenge yours and others beliefs in a system that isn’t working the way it should, and ultimately, a willingness to say “no”. Not “no” forever, but “no” for now, so that we can develop something solid, something with true mass… something that cannot be spread too thin.

How about you? What areas can you make yourself more solid, and how can you stop being spread too thin? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

1 comment:

Markus Gärtner said...

After reading this, I needed to get out my copy of the laws listed in "More Secrets of Consulting". Here are some varying thoughts.

First, the most obvious jam law is missing, the Law of Grape Jelly: Nobody ever bothers to complain about grape jelly. If you don't expect too much, you'll never be disappointed. (page 4)
This holds for expectations others set in you, but also for expectations you set yourself in.

Jerry puts the Raspberry and Strawberry Jam laws into the context of teaching some other people. So, having a wider audience will lead to fewer people getting the message (in percentage), while you can deliver a successful message more easily in teaching just a few persons, i.e. a small group of 4-10 persons. That's the Raspberry part. The Strawberry part describes that as long as just a few persons still get the message, you did a good job, anyways.

While I read up your discussion here, I thought more about how to say "no" and decide what to do and what not to do. Fortunately Jerry also offers advice for the consultant - and as testers we are quality consultants for our projects and companies - on this. He states that he got a yes/no medallion from Virginia Satir. It reminds him on saying "yes" when he means it, and saying "no" when he means it, and stick to that decision. Often we get problems when we mean to say "no, unfortunately my time is already booked right now, but we may renegotiate that." but instead say, "ok, I'll get you a time slot." It's the part on not saying "no" in first place, that makes us overcommited. So, I recommend both Secrets of Consulting books from Weinberg on the topic.