Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Power of "Social Fabric"

Nine years ago, in April of 2003, I found myself at a formidable crossroads. The economy was sour (in many ways, even more sour than right now). This was the crater of the dot-com bubble burst, a time where I had gone from being highly sought after to practically unemployable. I tried all of the job sites, went through a number of interviews, tried all of the tricks that the headhunters presented, only to come up empty handed each time.

Fortunately, I had something that many of my peers at the time didn't have, a large cache of stock equity that I could call on to help through this period. Though it was only about 30% of its peak value, it was still enough that I and my family could go several years if necessary without my having to work. I figured that the time would be well spent to finish my university education, since one of the biggest hurdles was the lack of a university degree.

Two years later, I came out the other side of that experience (along with doing contract work for a game company to help slow down the burn rate of my life savings). I started working again, and for six years plowed along as I always had. I plugged along with the idea that what I know was the most important aspect, and that having that "shiny sheepskin" would solve all of my problems. I also decided that I would position myself in a different way. Instead of being another easy to replace cog, I would focus my attention and energies to being a standalone cog, one that had a broad range of experiences and could "do anything"... for some definition of "anything".

What was missing from all of this endeavor and effort was something fundamental. I was doing most of this in a vacuum. Maybe I read something someplace occasionally, or I searched online for some ideas, but in most cases, I just plugged along. Just me, myself and I. Isolated. Alone. For someone who had spent much of his career in technologies like inter-networking, virtualization, video games and distributed data systems, as well as having a lot of interaction with newsgroups, message boards and social sites (Friendster, Myspace, Facebook, Diaspora, Quora, etc.), I seemed to be enjoying the medium but missing the salient point. You're being superficially social... why aren't you doing it for your work?

That all changed in March of 2010, when I started TESTHEAD. It was my goal and my wish to be a part of the conversation, not just listen from afar and not contribute anything. Stepping into that role necessitated a change. It meant I had to come face to face with some things I didn't like.

I had to admit I might be wrong.
I had to admit I might be ignorant.
I had to admit I might not be as good as I always led myself to believe I was.

For many, that's a scary proposition. For ME, it was terrifying. It was also liberating, because I could now admit to my failings and weaknesses, and I could also identify my strengths. Opening myself up to this conversation let me meet people, experiment with opportunities, and dive into a broad range of endeavors. Some of them worked the first time out. Some I had to work aggressively at. Some opportunities dried up on the vine before we could make any real headway, but all of them put me in touch with amazing people, people who recognized what I wanted to do and often could help me do it.

At the end of October 2010, I was contacted by a friend that I used to work with who had seen all of my talk and evangelism about testing, and through subsequent conversations, I moved over to Sidereel and started a grand adventure. I enjoyed the product. I enjoyed the people. I enjoyed the culture of the team... mostly. There were some areas I started to realize that I was not being as effective as I had envisioned. Part of this has to do with the large number of moving parts I had to be aware of and come up to speed on. Part of this was the fact that a lot of automation needed to be done and I'd be expected to come up to speed on that, too. Part of this was a large site with four million unique users and anywhere from one million to two million unique views per day, not to mentions tens of thousands of shows, hundred of thousands of episodes (if not millions) and definitely millions of links. With one tester to test them all (well, as I said yesterday, one primary, dedicated tester).

Through several months, I worked hard at learning, getting opportunities to speak, write papers, make guest blog posts, present at conferences, teach classes, develop curriculum for the SummerQAmp initiative, and conduct and facilitate Weekend Testing events. I found myself thinking a great deal about the time I was spending on all of these initiatives. Why was I doing this? Why was I so animated about them? I realized that there was a common thread... it was my way of reaching out and having real, legitimate conversations about testing. More to the point, it was giving me an outlet to interact with other testers in a meaningful way, because in my everyday work world, I was not getting that interaction.

Because of this, I decided to reach out to a handful of people, mostly in the Bay Area, and ask a simple question; was there anyone who knew of a software testing team looking for a veteran tester? I was inquiring simply because, if I was going to make a move, part of it would be with the understanding that I was hanging up my "Lone Tester" status, and actively looking for a team. That team could be two people, including me, but hey, even one more tester makes for a better team than always going it alone. I expected to hear nothing more than "hey, we'll let you know if anything comes up".

As you might guess, that was not at all what happened.

Within 20 minutes of sending that BCC'd message, I received half a dozen replies, each of them effectively saying "You're available?! Call me!!!" Each had a line on an opportunity for a team that was looking, often their own teams. I was floored! I could have never imagined so many would be willing to go to bat for me. What was different this time?

The difference, one hundred percent, was the social fabric, and not just a superficial social fabric, but one I weaved and worked on every single day for close to three years. While I was terrified about putting my ideas out there and sharing my ignorance, I also realized that I was showing people a number of additional and valuable things:

It was OK to be human.
It was OK not to be a machine with 100% recall and perfect execution in all things.
I was OK with being shown I was wrong and learning from it, and improving on what I learned.
I was OK with giving talks where I shared both my fortunate successes and spectacular disasters.

People heard them, they critiqued them, they gave me new avenues to explore, and I wrote about them. I presented them as weekend testing sessions. I wrote articles talking about successes, failures and frustrations. I blogged... oh, how I blogged! Each of these things alone may not seem like very much, but when taken together, over three years, they tell a story of a tester who sought ways to engage the community and to be a part of it. Because of that, when it came time for me to consider another direction, there were many people willing and focused on helping me make that next step.

We talk a lot about social connections and having that "professional network", but if the professional network is just a list of names that you don't interact with or actually do something with, then that's all it will be when you have need to contact them. These were not just random names. They were people I had interacted with directly, done community work with, shared a stage or a classroom, collaborated on articles with, developed course materials with, or had seen me give talks or presentations in various places. In short, the people who answered my call didn't just know me, they knew my work, they knew my commitment, and they knew what I'd be willing to do with all my mind, might and passion (and much of the time, for zero payment).

Ultimately, I chose to go to work with SocialText in Palo Alto for a number of reasons. First, it's a testing team, where I can leverage off of the strengths of a number of testers, not just rely on my own. I'm also greatly looking forward to working with their Quality Director, as he's someone I've come to know and respect over the past two years. Most important, he understand the weird and wild world of software testers, especially hyper engaged software testers. My predecessors at SocialText are Chris McMahon and Matt Heusser... yes, that  Chris McMahon and that Matt Heusser :)! To say I have immense shoes to fill is an understatement. That prospect somewhat terrifies me, but it's also really exciting!

To those who wonder if the power of social ties is the real determining factor as to where you work and who helps get you there, the answer is an unequivocal yes! The old phrase of "it's not what you know, it's who you know" is partially true, but it should really be phrased "it's what you know, and if you can get people you know to enthusiastically back the fact that you know it", well, that can make a world of difference. Would all of these people have reached out to me had I not done all of these endeavors over the past three years? It's doubtful, but then, I'll never know... because had I not been hyper engaged in all of these endeavors, I would have never met any of them. That's the power of the social fabric. It's not in having a name, or in having a resume. It's in pushing your limits so that others can see you doing it, and persevering and learning, and sharing opportunities with others. The added dividend was the fact that people saw what I do, and what motivates me, and they decided "You know what? This could be interesting!" To which I say "you are right, and thank you for giving me a shot at another most excellent adventure."


Pete Walen said...

Congrats on the gig, man!

Anonymous said...

Ok, that works great for extroverts. What about us introverts who have no desire to spend 3 years weaving a social fabric around us?

Michael Larsen said...

@Pete, thanks very much :).

@Anonymous, I'm not saying that my approach is the only one, just that it's a very powerful way of helping make sure that you stand out more so than you would if you had not participated in a broader community. Introverts have other ways they participate, and they need not necessarily be "social" in origin. I still think that having a way and a focus that people cane look at and can say "hey, this person can demonstrate competence" is vital. How we do it is up to us (perhaps having a blog, or contributing to a code repository, or proof reading other people's stuff and demonstrating knowledge and skill might be better uses of your time.