Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Army of One: The Danger of Being a Silo

This weekend, some of my Order of the Arrow youth will be going up to an event called Conclave. That’s when the Lodges in our Region (8 total, covering a large portion of the San Francisco Bay Area and on east into the Central valley and down into Fresno) get together to participate in games, learning, food, fun, and service to their communities and to Scouting. It is in the role of Dance Team Advisor that I usually participate, but I will be at Wood badge helping train other adult leaders, as that’s the commitment I made close to a year ago to do.

It’s unfortunate that the events are being held at the same time, but there’s an even more unfortunate aspect… the dance team from Ohlone has elected not to participate without me being there. When I asked the team why they didn’t want to participate, they said it was because I wouldn’t be there. They didn’t feel like they knew the songs, the dance moves, or how to put on or care for the outfits if I was not there. Also, I made a promise to them after their solid performance last year that, if they wanted to do other things than dance this year, then they could, as they always had to give up participating in other events so that they could dance in the Pow Wow.

I realized with this revelation from them that I had failed them. I had assumed that what I was teaching them was being internalized and understood, not just what to do when I was there, but what to do when I was not there. This drove the point home that my knowledge was more of a “Silo” than I ever realized. Those of you not familiar with the term, a silo is a structure for storing materials like grain, coal, sawdust, dry cement, and other items that are needed in bulk. The key is that the items are kept separate from other materials until needed (in the example of a cement silo, the contents are kept away from water until it’s time to mix the cement with water and use it. It’s also possible top make mental silo’s, too. We think that our knowledge is something that we share with others, that we give away freely and think others are internalizing and will know what to do once they have it. This recent exchange taught me otherwise. My Scouts relied on me as a knowledge silo, and I helped them do what they needed to do on many occasions, but when they needed to be ready to go ahead without me, they were not prepared to do so.

In my testing life, I’ve come to realize that I take for granted the information silos that I have, and I lament when they are gone or unavailable. However, I need to realize that I am also an information silo at work, especially since I am an Army of One. Who can I share my knowledge with? Who is there to listen and pass on what I have learned? Would testing stop if I was gone, or would it continue on unhindered by my absence? While I certainly hope I’d be missed if I was gone (I wouldn’t need to be employed if they didn’t miss me when I was gone, right?), but it still means that there is some key information that I need to make sure that my team mates and project members know about. Tools like internal wikis, regular conversations with developers and the customer service team, notes about test tools and tests that have been written and automated need to be shared. Likewise, I share this blog with my team members, and while it doesn’t often share specific details about work, it does share some insight into how I think about these things (or at least I certainly hope it does).

As an Army of One, I’m expected to be self-contained and able to move and be effective whenever and wherever I can. That also means I have to be able to let people know where my arsenal cache is when I must be away. Sharing knowledge will not make us less valuable to our team. In fact it will ultimately make us more valuable because when we share, we solidify what we know for ourselves, and we then enable others to do the same thing. When the knowledge is too locked up inside of us, it’s ability to help others is greatly diminished, possibly to the point of being unusable to others because we haven’t prepared the way for them to use it properly. My Dance Team will get some better instruction from me over the course of this next year so that they can be more independent and not rely on me as directly. It’s my hope also in my role as an Army of One that I can also share my testing knowledge and skills with others so as to open up the possibilities for testing when I am not here.

1 comment:

Mark Waite said...

I love the analogy, and have been wrestling with the topic myself. I am a manager, but I love technical topics. I don't want to abandon technical topics for 100% dedication to management tasks, but sometimes I fear that means I'm acting as an "army of one" because I'm scared of losing my technical skills.

I believe management is also a skills based game, but I don't seem to feel the same intensity for those skills as for the skills involved in program based problem solving, or in exploratory testing to learn more about a product and its problems.

Thanks for an excellent analogy (and thanks for helping youth through Scouting).