Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Being A "Late Bloomer"

I had a chance to have a really awesome experience this past week. A lot of cool things happened to me when I was in Seattle (OK, Lynwood :) ) when I went up to the CAST conference. I met and interacted with colleagues from all over the world. I signed autographs for people (seriously!) and laughed as people referred to me on Twitter as "the Rock Star Tester" (alluding to my past life as a musician, not that I'm a "rock star" at testing. Ajay Balamurugadas, Markus Gaertner, Matt Heusser... now there's your real rock star testers :) ). No, my epiphany came in a tutorial being done by Anne Marie Charrett called "Career Management for Software Testers". I was in a group with a bunch of other testers and we were sharing career high and low points as well as analyzing characteristics of our focus and responsibility... and it came clear as day. I'm a late bloomer.

We sometimes make jokes about late bloomers. They are those people that are quiet and unassuming in certain ways, and then all of a sudden, BAM! they are off like a whirlwind, they seem to gather momentum, and opportunities open up where before there seemed to never be any. For years, I though there was a disconnect between what I was doing for a living and what my potential could be. Looking through my notes from the seminar, though, I realized something different. It's not that I didn't have opportunity, it's that I didn't actively pursue it. Note: this is not a pity party, it's an observation, and I finally put it into words in this tutorial. I'm going to share it here.

Two times in my life, I made some very specific decisions. They were hinge-pin moments in my life, and they shaped my reality and my destiny radically. The first happened shortly after my 18th birthday. I decided I wanted to be a musician. More than that, I wanted to be a "rock star". But I did more than just want... I actively and doggedly pursued it, for the better part of a decade. I learned every aspect of it, and I threw myself headlong into that world. Because of that, I had a level of success. Luck and timing weren't on my side to completely grab the brass ring, but I went farther than about 95% of aspiring musicians did, and for that, I have very few regrets (a lot of mistakes, some of them painful and costly ones, but few regrets :) ). The second one happened when my son showed an interest in wanting to be a Scout. This was when he was about to finish Kindergarten, and it happened during the tech downturn after 2001-2002. I made a decision again, that I wanted to be his Scout Leader, and so I voluntarily downshifted my life to allow me the flexibility to do exactly that. I really wanted to share those years with him, and as such I also wanted to have that scouting experience for myself, too.  I'd been involved in Scouting as an adult leader since I was 25, but this time I really dove into it, and because of that, I think I held just about every scouting leadership position possible.

This whole time, though, I puttered along as a lone tester or a contributor to small teams. I was just this guy doing my job, so I could do those other things that really mattered. Well, as is often the case, life changes, and different phases make their marks. My "rock star" life is long behind me, and though I had a chance to revel in it for a night back in 2009 to celebrate the 20th reunion of my most successful band forming (and the release of our CD around the same time), I have no illusions I'm putting the band together again. Likewise, my son is now an Eagle Scout, a few days shy of 15 years old, and looking forward to having other people be his leaders now, or him being the leader to others, as is his right. It's no surprise that my love affair with music and Scouting happened when they did. But software testing was always there in the background. It's what I did, it was my competency, even if at times I could only barely say that. Testing is a somewhat forgiving friend, though, in that, when you are ready to put your all into it, it's there to give you it's all back. It's been almost two years since my son earned his Eagle Scout award. Not coincidentally, it's also been almost two years since I started my journey into diving headlong into testing, with every fiber of my being.

Amazingly enough, as I've poured more of my heart into it, more interesting and unique opportunities have come my way. Most of the things that I do have been for free; that's how you know you really dig something, when you're willing to do it endlessly for no compensation at all, and stil do it with a smile, you know you've got something important.

I tell my kids about the apple tree we have in the back yard. It's an odd gnarled thing. It didn't produce any meaningful fruit for well over 10 years, and then we noticed something. As the weather seemed to get a bit colder and wetter (which it has the past few years in San Bruno) the tree started producing fruit. It wouldn't bloom at the time other apple trees did, though, it would bloom in late August (like it is now) and it would produce its apples ready to be eaten in late December or early January. Seemed an odd time, but when you cut those apples open and tasted them, man they were fantastic. A little research, and I discovered what I had. I had a Honeycrisp apple tree, and yes, they are "late bloomers".  They grow and form their apples as tiny things for years, and then start giving their full yields well after the other trees have long since been harvested. Yet they are without a doubt my favorite apples. My career, I've realized, has followed a similar pattern. Why I waited until I was 41 to go headlong into testing, I do not know, other than to say that I had other goals that needed to be met first. I needed to get those out of my system first, but now, I have the energy and the desire to give it my all... and it seems that opportunities tend to embrace those who are already willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

So here's a shout to my fellow testers out there who may be a little gray at the temples, who may wonder if they've been passed by as others have forged ahead... ask yourself, what are your goals, really? What have you really spent your time doing?  I know my answer. First, it was rock & roll, then it was snowboarding, and then it was my growing family and being a dad and leader to my son and daughters. Interestingly, all of the opportunities that came my way came because I was willing to give my all to them, when I'd not only do it for free but pay for the privilege to do it. Thomas Edison is credited with saying something to the effect of "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work". I believe that. When we area ready and willing to embrace the work, then we are ready to also embrace the opportunities that come with it. It took me 19 years in the tech industry, but I think I finally got there. I'm passionate about testing because I was ready to be passionate about it, and testing was there for me to be passionate about :). It may not always be this way, but I've decided to ride this wave for all its worth for as long as I can. Let's see where this old dog will roam!


Anonymous said...

Really nice post, Michael. As another "late bloomer," it appealed to me. And it was nice meeting you face to face at CAST.

-Ron Pihlgren

anne-marie said...

Hi Michael,

I'm glad you enjoyed the tutorial.

For me that conversation about your career challenges was one of the highlights of the class.

Many thanks for being so open and sharing.


Phil said...

Awesome inspirational post - as a late bloomer myself ( and one who has just started a great new opportunity ) I can identify with a lot of this, thanks for writing

Michael Larsen said...

Thanks everyone :). I like to believe that there's still some fight and fire in me yet, and that my best days are ahead of me and not necessarily behind me. Glad you all feel the same way, too!