Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Farming Experience

Yesterday I talked a little bit about pure obstinacy, how we have to do our own thing in the wake of a lot of good advice.  It's a natural phenomenon of the world.  It's also a huge part of the difficulty of life.

These two blog posts were inspired from Twitter, where I get a huge source of inspiration from,

Ah yes, that feeling when you don't feel listened to as part of a team.  Especially where you've been brought in for your expertise, but sub-sequentially sidelined.  Been there, and look ...

I'm going to put this unpleasant experience under the microscope, and I did a bit of the ground work yesterday.

Let's revisit the "alcohol abuse" scenario again.  Sorry, but we have to!

My parents gave me advice, and it's good advice.  And it's based on their experience.  But I ignore it because I want to get drunk.  The fundamental problem here is their experience is their experience ... it's not mine (until the morning after).  Until that experience is my experience, I'll only pay lip service to it.  It's human nature.

I find the older I get, the more I empathise with my parents.  It's a very weird experience, but probably an important part of growing up (yeah, I'm in my 40s and talking about growing up).

I'm often brought into projects to "bring in your extensive experience" in IT.  I'll roll up my sleeves and ... no, you're not going to do THAT are you?

Often as the subject matter expert you have an uphill battle.  People can want you there, but not really do what you advise, if it's contrary to what they'd like to do.  Like a lot of people, I can sometimes get very annoyed and frustrated about this.

Here are some steps I take to try and turn things around

Look first to yourself

I noticed something I do from looking at my post from yesterday.  I'll get annoyed about something, some way that people have behaved.  I might be ready to pull out my soap box ... but wait.

Something I try and do first when I find fault in others is to first find fault in myself.  I'm annoyed at people who voted for leave in Brexit, I'm annoyed for people who voted for Trump.  I'm angry that people can be so self-focused, lack empathy and just roll their eyes when any kind of "expert" gives evidence against the politician who is offering them free lollies, so they just yawn and go ...

Many bloggers would just launch into an attack, it's easy to do.

Though as I covered yesterday, although my parents weren't the most supportive people when I had a hangover (my mum would sing opera very loud if I had a bad head), they brought me up that before I find fault in others, I should try and find fault in myself first.

The older I've got, the more important this is.  So at the beginning of my talk yesterday before I talked about people who ignored all the evidence and voted Trump, I talked about the times I just plain refused to listen to my parents because "I have to do my own thing".

If I have an experience where I've been a jerk in a similar way to the way to somebody who's currently infuriating me, it raises a very important point.  Maybe their behaviour isn't so much spiteful as some kind of human behaviour.

At this point, I have to take a quite critical look at myself, and it's really an uncomfortable thing to do.  The question is, "do I still behave like this, and it not, what changed me?".  I really hope the answer to that question is always a "no, you grew up".  But not always.

If the answer is a "no", it gives a very important starting point.  Something changed me, what was it?  That experience is my ally, because what worked for me might be an inroads for working for change with a group or other person.

Exposing to experience

Let's look to how my parents looked after me.  They would leave me to feel dreadful for having a hangover, and would gloat over how bad I felt.  But there was an incident where I had a combination of alcohol and cold remedy which was nearly fatal, and they got medical help for me.  So you let people feel rough, but you avoid them getting into danger.

As said above, you want to expose someone to some of your experience, for things to get a bit rough so they feel the heat a little.  That is how your experience becomes their experience, but it's your role to save them from the worst (but note, not from everything).

What you need is the equivalent of what you get in sitcomland where the father of the house catches their 10 year old trying smoking, so they get them to try some cigars with whiskey, to create an inevitable vomiting episode which will "teach them a lesson".  Of course this can sometimes go horribly wrong ...

One thing I'm a huge fan of is workshops and activities.  Within such activities things can go wrong, but it's a safe environment.  That's why I use activity for my introduction to testing workshop at Summer Of Tech, and why I'm working more on workshops over presentations this year, especially at TestBash Brighton (come see my strategy workshop).

It's also why I feel the Software Testing World Cup is a must for people to have a go at, we really enjoyed competing, and why I'm trying to get some of my company at Richard Bradshaw's LEGO Automation Workshop.

It's also why I try and work so hard at the water cooler.  I try and use people's experience to give me an inroad, to socialise my message, put it into terms they understand.  You can tell I went to one of those Churches which encouraged us to evangelise about Christianity whenever we could ... well I do that now about testing.

Someone excited about a space probe?  Let's talk about how NASA tests (not so much ESA right now).  Actually, I lie, something like how the ESA Mars Schiaparelli lander is great to talk testing.

But currently in agile, my job couldn't be simpler.  As I talked about previously, it's not my job to make every sprint a success, it's my job to do my best.  If the rest of the team want to do something that I think is risky, but won't listen to me, then sometimes the way to find this out is to go down this road, and revisit at the retrospective.  With luck there'll be something, and so they'll get to feel the heat just a little, but enough to go "hey, let's not do that again".  Now they should have a bit more experience, they played with matches, burnt their fingers but you're on hand to make sure the whole house doesn't come down.  Also, "hey Mike, why were you standing next to the fire extinguisher?"

What I've found to work is when it does happen, just give them a gentle nudge.  Don't do the whole "oh I told you, and you didn't listen".  I wasn't too keen to hear that from my parents when I had a hangover, although it did reinforce things.

Say "this is why we need to X", and leave it at that.  This is how you build your reputation in a group, and as people come to trust you more, they'll listen to you more.  I work with two amazing testers in my company whose behaviour seems impossible.  They are the opposite of me, being quite quiet and reserved - but by simply making their case, nudging in retrospectives, and not making a big deal of lessons learned, they've built up a great reputation and a lot of trust, to the point where they've quietly pushed a mandate for testing, but using a great deal of patience.

I've learned a lot from these two.  But speaking up, giving space, reinforcing points without using blame can change things.  Often frustratingly slowly, but it's real change.

Now Playing: "The Others", TV Rock vs Dukes of Windsor

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Post-Election Hangovers

Let me start with a tale which will probably be uncomfortably familiar.  Occasionally at home, I'd be up in the morning feeling dreadful and the following interaction would happen with my parents,

ME:  I feel so ill, my head.  I think I'm going to be sick!!! 
MOTHER:  You drank too much again didn't you?  Haven't I told not to have so much, you'll get a hangover, but you didn't listen did you?
DAD [Getting in on the act]: No, he didn't 

Never-the-less, they'd still give me a glass of water and paracetamol if I needed it.

This was in those awkward early twenties.  I loved alcohol.  I was such an introvert who struggled with social situations, like many of my peers.  I'd go out together, we'd start drinking, and we'd feel more liberated.  Surely the more we'd drink, the happier we'd feel right?

Morning the next day brought that delusion crashing down.

And she was right, she did warn me.  In fact I was often reminded of the scene from The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy,

“You know," said Arthur, "it's at times like this, when I'm trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was young."
"Why, what did she tell you?" 
"I don't know, I didn't listen.”

It's true though, and it sparked a conversation with my friend Violet back in 2007.  My parents tried to bring me up well, and they gave me a lot of advice.  And it was really good advice, and well meant advice.  Advice that was there to stop be hurting myself.  I just didn't listen.  Why oh why didn't I listen?

And I dare to find any child who hasn't done this to some degree.  Part of growing up is initially accepting the framework your parents give you, and then at some point when you're adolescent, you feel the need to challenge that framework to work out things for yourself.

So no amount of advice about hangovers was going to equal the actual dreadful, messy experience of actually having too much to drink one night and experiencing it for myself.  With your head stuck down the toilet if I'd really overdone it.

And even then, you'd think a lightbulb would go off, and I'd realise my parents are right, and that I would rationalise my behaviour over drink.  But still it doesn't work like that - some of us are thick headed and stubborn!  You still want to drink, and to drink a lot, but you remember how bad the hangover was so maybe,

  • I won't drink quite as much
  • Gav told me that having a kebab at the end of the night soaks up all the alcohol and makes you better
  • Wayne told me you need to have a bit of hair of the dog in the morning

All of these are half-hearted measures which cling to a desire of "I really want to get blotto".  None of these really work, and it was only when I was in my late 20s after many, many hangovers that I accepted the truth of my parents advice, and enjoyed my alcohol, just made sure I didn't drink as much.

Indeed, if you meet me at conference, you'll see I count my drinks, something Lisa Crispin's husband Bob observed at Agile Testing Days at Potsdam.

[By the way if "drinking too much" doesn't trigger for you - maybe it was "don't eat so many sweets you'll be sick", "don't go out without a coat you'll catch a cold", "don't eat that it's a week out of date", "I know that car looks like a bargain, but it's a brand renown for maintenance problems".

If this still doesn't feel like something familiar to you, let me remind you adolescents "test boundaries", so do testers.  I'd never hire someone I'd not felt had committed mischief at some point of their life!]

Now you might be laughing at my young adult stubbornness and plain stupidity in action there.  Then I remind you where we're heading thanks to 2016.

Politically, 2016 had a lot of disturbing trends.  Most of all was the way in elections like Brexit and the American election of Trump, we had a lot of experts warning us of what would happen if we voted for either Britain to exit the EU, or for Trump to become the next President.

There was a lot of logic and advice laid out.  These things had historical parallels, "look and see where similar actions led us to in the past.  Look, look at the evidence!"

The problem is much like with my parents sound advice on alcohol we don't listen.  We dismiss this advice with a "bah - experts".  The logic usually goes "aren't these so called experts disagreeing all the time, yesterday they told me sugar was bad for me, today they tell me artificial sweetener is bad for me".  And that's a bit true, we sometimes have scientific studies jumping the gun, and we're overloaded with changing facts as science learns more, and we change our position.

So there's been an increasing tendency to not listen to experts, to dismiss their advice, and make a purely emotional decision.  We really like emotionally what either the people behind Brexit or Trump are offering.

They promised that if you vote for them, you will see the following happen,

  • There'll be more money for the NHS (so much so you put this as a promise on the tour bus)
  • No more immigrants - will mean more money for you!  You'll be able to afford your own house and not have to wait for hospital appointments because we're overloaded!
  • We'll make America great again
  • More jobs for all
  • Less tax
  • The status quo is corrupt, you can trust me

You can't help but see the appeal of such statements to ordinary people.  The problem is the people who doing all the promising don't have a very good track record.  I'd say they have a habit of lying, to which they might retort "but what is truth anyway".  So let's not get tangled up in that!

But much easier to prove, they're constantly contrary.  They say one thing, then soon afterwards will claim "I said no such thing".  Which makes it very hard to make them accountable.

But as you know from previous postings on denial ...  we start from what we want, what we desire.  If someone keeps saying that they'll lower tax, and lower taxes is what you really want, you'll be attracted to them.  If that desire is strong enough, you'll ignore any evidence to the contrary with a "yes but...".

As you know, both these received enough votes in 2016 where it counted to become reality.  All the advice, facts, logic, warnings couldn't sway the voting public.

Pretty much as warned, once Brexit voted for leave, the UK economy has taken a battering, with at least another 2 years ahead and an uncertain future.  Many voters have expressed regret in voting for leave from this realisation (but it's all rather too late now).

Likewise, President Trump's tenure begins this week.  Under the claim that "America has suffered enough" over the Affordable Care Act, the first measure will be to scrap the scheme.  As a reminder, this is the scheme which provides treatment to people who'd otherwise be told "you have a life threatening condition which is completely treatable ... you just don't have cover".  If you're doing that saying you're going to "relieve suffering", you have a fucked up sense of what suffering is (and yes, that's the first time I've used that swear word on this blog, and I stand by it's appropriateness ... my parents read this blog and will be in contact about my language).

Like the post Brexit "I voted leave, but now..." regret, there has been a little bit of that from Trump voters already.  You'll no doubt have come across several stories such as this of someone who is absolutely pleased that "Obamacare" is being repealed, then horrified to learn that "Obamacare" is a term Republicans have used to describe the Affordable Care Act, which this particular voter depends on.  I'll admit it's hard to know for sure how wide-spread such thinking really is, but it seems to be there floating about on social media and the news.

There's suspicion that anything that replaces it will look a little bit like this,

Ever understanding of the common man, Trump has even stated an idea where people pay for healthcare from savings.  Only a billionaire could come up with that one.

In the end that's a flaw of democracy, sometimes we'll make crazy decisions as a group, but we have to ride through them as best we can.  Sometimes we have to fight them all the way, hoping somewhere along the way people will wake up and have their hangover realisation that maybe that advice they were given was really good, and they need to not follow the same course of action in another 4 years.

I hope that's possible, that people won't just stick with Trump for the full 8 years because they'll have buyers regret, and be sure everything has to get better soon.  I hope people wake up and realise all the change they were promising hasn't come - but it involves being able to challenge a President that if told "why has unemployment risen by 2% in the last two months" feels he can shrug it off with "that's a lie, why there's plenty of jobs out there, just today I heard we created another 100, next question, you with the white hood!".

As a reporter from Russia explained about Trump's role model Putin, holding the leader to account might be harder than expected.

But I hope it's possible.  I'm hope people will wake up and realise how the politics of the far right only services the greed of a small few, and they're not on the invite list.  That people will yearn for real change, which to my mind only more liberal politics can deliver.

But in the next four years it will take a lot to wake people up to the point where they can change anything.  That means a lot of people who are going to die of treatable illness to be told "now had you been diagnosed when we still had ACA".  It means four years of damage to the planet's ecology as people embrace "global warming's just a myth ... but isn't it odd how smog's returned?" (which will also look to include a ban on any research).  It means four years where you're afraid for your safety if you're not white, if you're not male, if you don't identify as straight CIS.  It means potentially four years of superpowers Russian and America working like a vice to squeeze, terrify and bully any country that's between them (and you wonder why Trump doesn't like the European Union).

It's a terrifying four years ahead.  But like the far right who have been campaigning and undermining Obama since he took office, if this is important to you, you need to make a stand lest the whole world follows this path of crazy.  Already around Europe there's been an increase in support for "alt right" groups.  It very much reeks of the rise of Fascism in the 30s, extremist groups looked to Mussolini's Italy, and attempted to mimic it.  We even had a Brexit Leave supporter gunning down a campaigner for Remain, this is how extreme the politics involved are on the alt right side, where the rhetoric of hate inevitably ends.

If the way the world is going bothers you, be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations about politics with your friends.  If you don't, someone else will.  Also, give serious thought to joining a political party, even in a small way.  At the start of the year, I joined one in New Zealand that although I don't agree with everything, I agree with most.  Find that party, and make a change!

Also check out this great article on fake news by the BBC.  I know, it's up to you whether you believe it or not.

Now Playing - "Killing In The Name Of", Rage Against The Machine

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mental Health 110 - Taking care of yourself

Way back in 2013 I ran a whole series on mental health which included the tale of a guy named Richard whose depression kept him off work on two consecutive years for over 6 months.

Today I want to expand on that story with some cautionary tales within IT, including some of my own experiences, and some hopes of where we might be able to go from here - not only as an industry but also in making conferences more open, supportive places for those suffering from mental health issues.

This blog post will talk about some of my own experiences preventing burnout, and will touch upon people I've had contact with.  I've spoken to a lot of people within IT about this issue over the years.  In this post I'm going to talk a little of stories I've encountered, but aim to protect everyone's anonymity.  Any names I'm using here are not real names.

A few years ago I had a problem.  I was on a project, that was having difficulties.  In truth they needed double the number of BAs and testers to get the project 'over the line'.  We didn't get paid overtime, but we were so passionate about where we worked we were putting in the a lot of extra hours to try and keep up, and not be 'that person who says we can't do it'.

We kept forcing ourselves to work these hours because others were doing them, and we daren't be the weak link that let everything down.  Besides, this wasn't going to be forever.  So we'd sometimes leave at 11pm, or even midnight, knowing our manager had booked a 9am progress meeting with us.

I know I started to get tunnel vision, my testing became weaker.  I was lucky, I got really irritable, and both my wife and a friend at work challenged me on this, and I realised I had a problem.  Oh I didn't at first, and got really angry they were picking on me.  Which kind of helped their case - I was glad they challenged me.  These things aren't easy things to recognise or deal with.

I took it very seriously, I was feeling tired all the time, my head couldn't focus like I'd like, and being snappy didn't help.  So I went to see a counsellor, which helped (first line of mental health defence).  I'd not reached breaking point ... yet. I could ease up a bit and the sessions helped, but I couldn't go on like this forever.  But it was only for a couple of months right?

They suggested I try a monthly mental health group to 'mentally check in' and keep aware if it was becoming too much.  I wasn't really sure about the idea, but thought I'd give it a try.  I turned up quite early and from nerves very nearly bottled out.  I thought of every kind of Hollywood cliche about how this wouldn't be healthy.

But I managed to go in, and what I found was really helpful.  Very much like my experience with Violet, a group or circle are peers with various experiences just trying to support each other.  We'd go around the circle and 'mentally check in'.  We'd talk about how the last month was going, and how we felt.  We could ask questions and give support to the person speaking, and we had a facilitator to try and keep the conversation positive.

Hearing other people's stories really was enlightening, and having a monthly place to check myself was useful when the inevitable happened.  At work, we were trying to maintain ourselves just to get something over the line.  It seemed a relatively near goal, but our deadline was pushed further and further out, but the expectations on us remained.  We were now trying to maintain a sprinting pace over a marathon, and although I was better at setting limits for myself and living with the consequences if someone said I'd disappointed them and let the team down, I was seeing cracks in one of my colleagues, Samantha.  [For the record, I was still working extra hours, just not as many of them as before]

To be clear, Samantha didn't have mental health problems, but she'd a medical issue which had been an issue the year before.  Much like Richard in my previous story, there were a lot of warning signs, but she admitted in hindsight she was ignoring them, hoping to just get the project down, then she'd take care of herself.  One morning she didn't turn up to work - she'd pushed herself until her body couldn't take it any more, and she'd ended up hospitalised for three months.  People didn't commend her valiance at working herself into this state, but were more angry at her for inconveniencing the project than with me for cutting back on excessive overtime.  Although there were some lines of support for her, she was just replaced with someone else.

Back at the support group, we'd have some people come in for several months, some new people drop in.  I noticed we were getting a lot of people from IT into the group, they had different mental health problems, but a similar story to Samantha.  They'd been working in a high stress situation, in hindsight there had been warning signs, but they'd ignored them, then they'd needed to be hospitalised for a while.  A breakdown of one form or another, diagnosis too late of a problem, therapy, medication, trying to put their life together.  Occasionally you'd hear how back at their old company, they'd been replaced and left behind.

It's depressing isn't it?  In talking one-on-one at group, in my workplace and at conferences, I've heard a lot of stories of people struggling with mental health at work.  Not all stories end as dramatically as that, but it's important to remember this is a blight within our workplace.

Many places, including my current workplace, are extremely supportive of people with issues.  But really there is an expectation that if you're having issues, you need to be adult, speak up and seek appropriate help - a doctor or a counsellor is a good start.  Most employers are sympathetic, and have schemes in place to help, from counselling that can be booked without needing to tell management to phone help lines which are all confidential.

During this problem year, I honestly don't know if I had mental health issues per say, as much as I was as stressed as any human being would be.  Our whole team was becoming tetchy and starting to crack, what happened to Samantha was terrifying and sobering.  Because we all were out to impress and break new ground, we didn't say 'no' enough, and we didn't set boundaries.  And because of that we'd feel chastised when we tried to - not healthy.  But to be fair, we put ourselves under more pressure to impress than we were probably put under.

The key lesson of this post is about awareness of not just our mind but our body, and when we're having issues to seek help.  I'd really like to hear less stories like Samantha's in our industry.

During my time in the group I came across the WRAP, that I briefly talked about last time.  It stands for Wellness Recovery Action Plan.  It's a way of recording how we're doing, to look for patterns, and to see (much like with my monthly group visits) if we're getting worse.

As mentioned, I'd love to potentially cover this at workshop with someone at a conference in the future - but you can find a copy here.  You fill it out over time, it's a reminder of how you feel, of things that make you feel better, and things that make you feel vulnerable, and a reminder do more of the former, and less of the later.

You don't have to have depression or a serious physical injury to use a WRAP, you just have to be mindful.  Samantha used something similar to help her recovery after hospitalisation, as has my wife after a severe back injury.

As detailed here, it includes,

  • Daily maintenance plan - reminders of what to do when you feel good.  [For me, it's remembering to get good levels of sleep, for my wife it's starting the day with stretches for her back]
  • Triggers - things that can make you feel worse.  When these happen, you need to look after yourself.  [Using this with a counsellor over my post traumatic stress, I found that violent TV and cinema as a trigger, and one of the reasons I write more and watch less TV at the moment]
  • Warning signs - behaviour which shows you're getting worse somehow.
  • Crisis Plan - when things get really bad, what are you going to do?  [For me, it's slow down, book a counsellor appointment, and talk to my boss - I work for a company which has good support for staff]

The fundamental issue here though is that your wellness matters, and it matters NOW.  You can't keep deferring it, and even if you're an absolutely loyal company worker, the truth is you'll hurt your project more by not taking care of yourself than playing the hero.

I want you to have a positive and well 2017, and I hope I've provided you with food for thought.

Ideas for conferences

I promised my friend Gitte that I'd write this blog post for suggestions on how people with different degrees of mental health can be supported at conferences.

Generally at every conference I've been at there are enough conscientious people to support those having issues, particularly anxiety seems to be the big one.  But it would be great if people felt more supported to sign up to conferences.

Some very elementary suggestions we had brainstorming the idea were,

  • Conference usually have lean coffee in a morning.  We could have a form of support circle for those needing them.
  • Badge emoticons.  Some people with anxiety especially find conference overwhelming, most conferences have quiet spaces which is great.  But having a kind of sticky emoticon that people could wear saying "I'm overwhelmed, don't take it personally", just so people can still attend, have their own space, but not feel they're offending anyone because they don't want to join in a conversation.
  • What seems like an age ago, I used to be a youth counsellor at Christian event Spring Harvest.  Likewise it'd be good to have people with a badge that just says "I'm approachable if you need to talk to me".  A lot of this happens informally anyway, but it's a little more ad hoc.  I tweeted at Let's Test Oz about having an awful nights sleep, and someone talked to me about why.

Have any other ideas, or your own story to tell?  Please feel free to contribute via the comments, and don't be afraid to do so as Anon if you need!

Now Playing - "Rock'n'Roll Suicide", David Bowie
Might sound inappropriate, but I love the line, 'give me your hand, cos you're wonderful'.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Reflecting back on 2016...

There has been a lot of talk about 2016 having been a particularly cursed year.  There were a lot of alarming and sad elements to it for sure.  A lot of celebrities who seemed to embody my childhood died, and we had a very disturbing year as alarmism managed to fuel shock election results of Britain's "Brexit" vote to leave the EU, and Trumps win of the 2017 presidency.

However for me personally, it's hard to imagine a year which led to so much change, and I want to spend some time on a personal retrospective on some of those elements.

Looking after my mental health

I've talked before about a past event - witnessing someone being killed - and dealing with the impact of that memory.

The start of 2016 saw me working on a challenging project, like the rest of my team, pulling in hours where we can to get it over the line.  One day on the way to work I had quite an alarming realisation ... the memory of that event forms a form of flashback.  It's like a looped tape in my brain, which plays at least once a day, and typically when I feel stressed or dis-empowered it plays almost on repeat.

But I realised that I'd not had a flashback in weeks.  Indeed, if I tried to access the memory, rather than it being like watching video footage, it was more like I was reading an account.  It was all hazed, like viewing through a fog.  [I'm not sure if my writing about memory has caused me to haze and distrust my own memories]

Now as odd as that sounds, it really worried me.  Worried because as terrible as they were, I'd gotten used to them and dealing with them.  Any change scared me that it could be part of something bigger - worse still I was worried that when the project ended it would cause the floodgates to open, and I'd be overwhelmed by it all.

When I've talked about mental health before, I know a key part of it is knowing something is up and taking action.  I didn't just notice something was amiss, but also formed a plan,

  • First - and it's very basic - I told people.  Not everyone, because not everyone 'get it'.  [I realise I'm being open here and telling all after the event, but I think it's important especially after the fact, to be open about these struggles]  But my wife, and a few close friends who get mental health.  Importantly it meant I didn't just stew on this wondering if I was going mad.
  • Secondly - I planned.  Importantly because of my worry about 'when the project was over', I booked some leave and down time when this occurred to let whatever was going to unravel do so.  I also recorded when I was being particularly worried about this and why.
  • Third - I checked in with a professional.  This was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before, not a "Mike's feeling a bit down, give yourself a day, take it easy and see how you go" I self-prescribe when I'm feeling low/rundown.  I was tempted to self-diagnose with Dr Google.  But instead I booked myself in with a counsellor who I've used before and trust, and laid out everything I was going through.

Everything went well, I went on a retreat to a monastery which was really helpful to just disconnect for a few days.  Regarding counselling - in actual fact it seems that losing the constant playback for me was a positive sign of letting go (more on that later).

I was actually quite worried - the memory is a big once for my identity.  I try to be a positive person who encourages people to talk out issues, because I've seen the worst that can happen.  If I stopped forgetting what happened I internally reasoned, maybe I'd change, maybe it'd make me a little nastier without having that constant memory to keep me in check.

My counsellor helped me realise I don't need to use something like that as my moral compass, and I can let go of having something so negative defining me, now it's up to me to choose new memories to define me.  It's done it's job, it's 25 years on, don't let something from when you're 21 define your whole life.

BTW - I'm hoping to propose/take part in a workshop on 'looking after yourself' for a future conference based on the "wellness recovery action plan".  I've been talking to Gitte Klitgaard about this - if it interests you, do let us know more.

On retreat

As that 21 year old, I'd made plans with a friend named Krishna to do a retreat at the year's end to a monastery.  Stuff happened and distracted me, and I never quite did it.  I found out about a local Buddhist monastery and arranged a retreat of a few days there, away from everything but my head and hard work (no phones allowed).

I have an absolutely great wife, because she understands I need to do things like this, and she gives me room to do so.  She was a little apprehensive with "you're not planning to run away and become a monk are you?".

I'm actually Pagan, and as such we're encouraged to be eclectic, to learn a little about everyone's faith as well as much psychology as we can handle.  It's all so we understand common elements, human needs to what makes us who we are, how we yearn for a place in something bigger than just us (in part as a way to tap into something immortal).

The monastery was an incredible experience, though not quite for the reasons I'd expected.  There are a lot of rules, and a lot of routine.  I got so much wrong to start with, but there was understanding of that, and I'd have a lot of little rules explained to me, so I'd get better at it - things like how to sit in a room with a Buddha (never point your feet in it's direction) and that you need to bow three times on entering and exiting a room.

When I was 21, the rules and the routine would have been really tempting.  The world is unpredictable and at times brutal, but we try as human beings to impose some level or order on it with rules and routine.

What I realised is as a human being I tend to embrace a level of chaos more than I'd think, and especially as a tester, my life is closer to some kind of trickster god (for example Loki or Coyote) than I'd think.  It was an interesting observation which I'm still reflecting on.

But also it made me appreciate choice.  I wake when I want, I have breakfast and lunch when I want, and I can choose what they are.  I have made a choice to be with my wife and my son.  I choose to go to work each day.

Life in a monastery is structure, rules and routine.  But there is little choice.  And choice is a freedom and a blessing, but used badly a curse.  But I like being able to choose.

Learning to let go

I talked a lot about this previously here.  I learned about defining what I'm responsible for, and if something falls outside of this sphere, I will escalate it in the first part, but be wary of letting it distract me.

Understanding what motivates me

This is a weird one.  I'm a passionate and creative person - I've made this blog a reasonable success, but a lot about it worries me, and always has.  Behind the blog is a whole series of trackers which tell me what's popular, which articles people like most etc.

What's always bugged me is the most popular onces aren't always those I feel most emotionally invested in, and it makes me feel upset at times.  My posts typically get hundreds to thousands of reads, which should make me do a fist pump.

On the other side of the coin, I run a wargaming YouTube channel called The War Bunker with my son, and we put a huge amount of energy into this - we've painted a room downstairs for this.  But many of our videos only get 20-50 views.

So why do we love working on content for The War Bunker?  We spend a lot of time trying things out, and maybe that's half the thrill.  We've both become better at talking to camera, video editing, and putting more effort into our model work.

So why can you not be "successful" i.e. get lots of views in a project, and still find it rewarding?

It's made me question in myself what motivates me.  Trying things, wanting to push the limits of what I do (something I do a lot on this blog).  Back at work, it's made me think more how Richard Feynman's "the thrill of finding things out" motivates me.  I've managed to work in the last year with a lot of different arms of testing - things like performance, availability, accessibility, mobile, reliability - and it's been a thrill finding my feet.

So it seems I like a challenge, and I love doing a bit of research and development in testing approaches!  Especially in strategy.  I'm going to be sharing some of my "secret sauce" this year at TestBash Brighton.

Pushing my writing

To me, 2016 was very much about pushing what I could achieve in writing, picking up from my motivation talk.

I managed to pull off a huge series of articles in Java and automation.  Automation isn't finished yet, because I've had distractions, but it will be.

The work on those two threads inspired me to try bigger.  I've talked here about my plan for 2017 to launch an astronomy blog, which is currently planned out, with about the first third written up ...

On top of my 100+ blog posts for 2016, not a bad achievement.  Then I read a post from Dr Black, which inspired me.

I dusted off a novel I'd written 20 pages for and had started work on in 2003.  I'd attempted to work in earnest on it in 2008, but lost a lot of material to a laptop crash.  It's so old that Violet had helped me on the first part and it's initial concepts.

The problem was my novel called Melody Harper's Moon was a neat idea, but it lacked a defined story arc.  Dr Black's tweet gave me an idea, I'd already had a theme in there she'd tweeted about, but I decided to bring it more to the fore, and make it a central theme of the book.  I posted an extract here which seemed to fit the mood of the day.

Writing a novel was hard work - almost three months of coming home and trying to lay down an hour's writing a night.  I filled out my key pivotal scenes, then filled it all in, changing scenes as I went.  I would even write sections on the train and email them to myself to add later.

I got the first draft together, and I've sent a copy to a limited pool of alpha readers to get opinion on how the story itself holds together (I'm not worrying about grammar at this point).

If you're interested in being involved as a beta reader, do get in touch, I'd love to get your input!


A team of us from Datacom entered the Software Testing World Cup, and won our heat - you can see our winning exit report here.  This meant we got to go to Germany for the finals, as well as to Agile Testing Days.

Both were an amazing experience - we ended up coming third, which we're really pleased about.  It was also a great way to travel and bond with people within my organisation.  It was really nice to not be travelling alone.

I was blown away though to finally meet in person Lisa Crispin, someone who has been so supportive of my work, a great person to sound out ideas when I was a sole tester at Kiwibank, and who encouraged me to participate in her book with Janet.  What amazed me is seeing the number of people at conference for whom her voice and her encouragement were important.  It was also an absolute blast to meet her husband Bob, who I absolutely clicked with.

For me the amazing thing about the conference was the many private conversations and sharing of ideas which happened during the week we were there.  I met people like Gitte Klitgaard, Janet & Jack Gregory, Ash Coleman, an old work colleague Kevin, Matt Heusser, Lalit Bhamore, Sam & Concetta & Karen from S Africa, George Dinwiddie, multiple amazing Dragans (you could call it a Dragan's den), Meike & Hagrid, Keith Klain, Huib Schoots, Rob van Steenbergen (who was in the winning world cup team), Pete Walen and too many more (this is fast becoming an attendee list).

Something I was glad I did, I took a logbook, but knew I'd never fill it up, so went around people and just asked them to write in.  It was a nice thing, it made me remember to get around everyone on the last day (I can get a little shy when I'm tired), and also is a neat souvenir of everyone.

What was really lovely was a few people didn't know who I was (I was there to compete really over present), but when they worked out I blog as TestSheepNZ, they each had something I'd written which they'd found particularly important and inspiring.

I told Janet Gregory how important that feedback was.  As I'd said under motivation, I'm not really motivated by numbers.  If I wanted large readers, I could post, "oh my God, you'll never believe what happened to Justin Beiber".  Being reminded my writing can make a difference.  I'm hoping whatever I do with Melody Harper's Moon, it's something you'll get to experience.

Looking forward - politics

A lot of personal growth, but there is that specter about how politics is going, and that's unnerving.  Some of that fueled my writing within Melody Harper's Moon as a reaction.

Whilst on the retreat, there was a morning meditation which talked about "don't hang onto today, nothing is permanent, and things can change because that's the way of things".  Something that helped me.  The lesson though is as someone who is liberal, I expect people to "come to their senses" - didn't we all?

Meanwhile a lot of misinformation is being used to fuel votes.  Poltics is going to have to be something we're all going to get used to talking more about - I know it's considered social death in places.  But the risk of not having intelligent discussion is that people will otherwise just squeeze in misinformed opinion as solid fact.

I've been so alarmed by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's election, even though they're going on in another country, that I decided and joined the NZ Green party on the last day of 2016.  I don't 100% agree with them, I don't 100% agree with any party, but I agree with more of what they say than I disagree.

I'm not saying you should join your local Green party, but if either of those votes alarmed you, I'd encourage you to get motivated.  The far right has been obstructive and on their soap box for years hoping to get to this position.  If we want real change, we need to do likewise.

Now Playing: "Changes", David Bowie

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bless You Carrie Fisher

Sometimes it seems that 2016 has been a cursed year for celebrities.  For myself as a child of the 70s/80s, it's felt like watching as a piece at a time, part of my childhood has died from David Bowie, to Prince, to UK radio personality Terry Wogan.

It seems that 2016 had one last nasty left.  Carrie Fisher fell ill on a long haul flight from London to Los Angeles. The whole world held their breath, but this morning I'm waking up to a feed full of "Princess Leia dead".

It's always awkward when an actor dies.  As with Leonard Nimoy, you can't help talking a little about the role that makes them famous, and we will.  But there is an aspect to Carrie which is the reason behind this post.

Let's talk about Leia

Okay - in a nutshell, Star Wars isn't really that original a concept, 'let's rescue the Princess' is a common theme in fantasy, and okay to mix things up it was done in space.  But let's talk about that princess, and how she broke the mould.

You see until that time in the 1970s, 'the princess archetype' would be a helpless woman who the bad guys henchmen would just grab and throw in the dungeon.  In Star Wars, when a stormtrooper said 'grab her', this princess came out fighting, shooting him dead to rights.

Groundbreaking for the time.  But of course she wasn't allowed to be too groundbreaking.  Where a guy would just continue to shoot it out with the villains, Princess Leia then attempts a feeble run away and is shot in the back.  I guess we weren't ready for a female as an equal billing action hero.

Leia turns out to be in charge of a resistance, the Rebel Alliance.  She's tortured, blackmailed with the destruction of her home planet, but doesn't give in.  She refuses to be intimidated or broken.  She never pleads for herself, only when others are threatened.  She's is undeniably feisty and barely recognisable from your typical fairytale princess.

When she is rescued, she picks up a gun, and starts shooting it out with the boys.  She proves her feistiness again by having some of the best lines during their escape from the Death Star, "you came in that? You're braver than I thought".

Some friends at school hated that about her, she's been rescued, and she's just bitchy.  But then again she's breaking 'the princess archetype' by not just throwing herself at the guys who rescued her.  [Notice she kisses Luke once for luck escaping the Death Star, but apart from that any romance is in Luke's head.  At the end she hugs Luke for destroying the Death Star, but it's more that of a friend]

It broke the mould of the time, but like I said, today it seems dated.  Leia is the only one of the band repeatedly shot.  And in Return Of The Jedi, she even turns the table on 'rescue the princess' by being instrumental in 'rescue the smuggler' of Han, although because she's a girl she soon needs rescuing herself.  [Even then, she manages to single handedly take down Jabba The Hutt, without needing a lightsabre]

Princess Leia paved the way for future heroines who have become a staple of subsequent movies.  Heroines like Brave's Merida, Shrek's Princess Fiona, and of course Star Wars Padme Amidala and Rey.

Look at Leia - Padme - Rey, each one is allowed to be more daring than the next, require less rescuing, be more capable of effecting their own escape.  This shows a kind of normalisation.  But it all started with Leia.

Let's talk about Carrie

So Star Wars happened in the 70s and 80s, but after Return Of The Jedi, most of the cast seemed to vanish.  Only Harrison Ford seemed to be keeping busy, although Carrie and Mark Hamill seemed to be taking the Rutger Hauer route into occasional direct-to-video low budget movies.

Carrie Fisher seemed to vanish.  There were a lot of rumours in magazines I read about her 'having problems'.  Drugs and mental problems were loosely talked about, it felt like another Hollywood casualty, someone we'd get over as we all just moved on.

But she never quite vanished, she still persisted in media, talking about her issues - she'd become addicted to cocaine, she was diagnosed as 'manic depressive' or bipolar in today's terms.  In another era, this would have been career suicide, she'd have been shunned.  But she wasn't - although of course she had more than a fair share of 'haters', some of which rose to a head with plenty of unfair criticism aimed at her during Star Wars VII The Force Unleashed.  Using dialogue worthy of her onscreen character, she rose above it, whilst getting in a few well place quips which placed her as a feminist Oscar Wild witicist at times.

Over the last two decades she acted less, and write more - Postcards From The Edge was semi-autobiographical.  She also helped to edit and doctor screenplays.

Carrie Fisher along with British comedian Spike Milligan were the first public celebrities I knew who talked openly about their mental health struggles.  And they did so in an era where mental health was stigmatised.  A common tool they used was their sense of humour to get through the bleak parts, but also to help communicate what they were going through.

Mental health is an issue I've discussed a lot on this blog in the past.  I've been overwhelmed with the reception I've had to some of that writing, it's an issue the IT community is passionate about doing better in.  At the recent Agile Test Days conference I ended up talking a lot with others about the subject, listening to their stories, all of which moved me a lot.  But without a doubt, people want to talk about mental health because it's important to them - they want to be open when they have issues, and it be okay to seek help rather than suffer in silence out of pride, feeling they have a form of mental leprosy which will see them banished.

To me, Carrie Fisher was a pioneer talking about her issues in an era when it was taboo, and she risked and experienced heavy stigmatisation.  Her bipolar might have laid her low at times, but she proved to be stronger than that.  She was braver than Princess Leia going up against Darth Vader in this.  She broke the taboos of the time, she showed that 'it's okay to talk about this stuff'.

It's for that reason that in a year when we've lost so many celebrities, her loss has hit hardest.

Farewell Carrie Fisher,

Carrie talked with Stephen Fry about her experiences as part of his program 'The Secret Life Of The Manic Depressive'.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

On the death of Fidel Castro

I have complex thoughts on the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro this weekend. Once upon a time there was a man who was so outraged by the Batista dictatorship that he rallied his people to revolution.

People flocked to him because people in desperation yearn for change, because change brings hope of a better future.

Unfortunately in what's a common pattern, such regimes bring a little change, before becoming stuck.

Suddenly all the talk of power for the people, is seen to really become power for one man and a limited family of cronies.

Karl Marx's writing, the original Communist, are about trying to create a fairer society.  One where there is less of a rift between the rich, and the poor workers who create that wealth.  They're not books written by a power-crazed individual.  He lived in a squalor that was responsible for the premature death of four of his seven children.  Fundamentally his writing yearns to address that terrible injustice.

Unfortunately, his writing is idea fuel for revolution against unjust regimes and those which create real suffering in the general population.  But we've seen such 'Communism' mis-sold throughout the world. No country which has called itself Communist has really addressed injustice or delivered on the ideals of a democratically elected and accountable government.

The litmus tests for such revolutions are if one man or his family stays in power too long, or if one family controls too much. No amount of 'on behalf of the people' can smokescreen this.

If a revolution promises to lift you out of squalor, but you find you still have to queue down the street for bread, something is wrong.

Especially if those in power, talking about 'for the people' live in excessive luxury.

Right now, a revolution of sorts has happened in America with the election of Trump.  A lot of talk from people who voted for him about how he will bring change, from not being part of the status quo.  They've placed a lot of hope in him, hope that he will bring change.

Never stop yearning for a better tomorrow, but be careful who you trust to deliver.

Now Playing: "World leader pretend", REM

Friday, November 11, 2016

Sophie says, "buckle up"

It's been a difficult week for a lot of people, with the news of the victory of Donald Trump as future President of America.

To see someone get elected as the head of the most powerful country on earth, off the back of such a divisive platform is terrifying.  Much like Brexit earlier this year, the victory of a far-right agenda has sent a signal that it's okay to openly practice prejudice.

Many women, Mexicans, blacks, liberals, gays and transgender are terrified.  Trumps platform has sought to control and limit their freedom.  Sadly incidents like the one Angie Jones tweeted below have been common,

One of the reasons that my blog has been quiet of late is that I've been working on a book.  It's about a girl who moves to the Moon, gets bullied, and thinks about moving back to Earth.

Rereading a chapter, I thought it'd be good to share - it works out of context of the story.  Enjoy...

I got up early to write this – been thinking all night.  My CompPad is still not connecting, but last night felt like being reunited with two of my dearest friends.

My grandfather has a love of books – the old kind made of paper – and he has rooms just filled with them, on every kind of bookshelf that will fit.  He's passed on a lot to me, but I could only bring two.  Just two!  Being reunited with my case means they're back in my hands, and I sat up reading parts of them again.

'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings' is a book by Maya Angelou, which is all an autobiography of her as a girl growing up in America during the early 20th Century.  It was a very different America to the one we visited in '81.  Being black was basically to be a second class citizen, little better than a slave.  And yet she and her family refuse to be beaten.

Being part-black, I'm quite glad that experience is so alien to me today.  I don't think our family ever settled in America.  We came from Jamaica – grandad keeps a lot of histories he's been told, and I really wish I'd written down.  He says there are stories of how when our family first moved to Britain in the mid-20th Century, there was a bit of segregation.  It wasn't unusual for there to be signs for 'no coloureds', and people did their best to avoid having a black neighbour.  I've read the famous speech from a British politician talking about 'rivers of blood' over the tension of having black people living with white as equals – it's really an ugly and shameful period.

My other book is about a scarier period, there was a very scary regime called Fascism which involved half the world in a war in the 20th Century.  It was vicious and brutal – it waged war, and systematically exterminated anyone they saw as different to them.

Against all that brutality was a girl, just a girl.  A girl who wanted to stand apart.  If I could have a time machine, and meet just one person, it'd be her, Sophie Scholl.

Whilst the world was locked in one of the largest wars in history, she and her friends believed one of the most brutal and twisted regimes the world had ever seen could be undermined through non-violence and the truth.  Whilst others capitated, she resisted, and paid with her life.

In an era where depravity and genocide could show how low we could sink as a species, she showed the world how brightly we can shine.  She was just a girl.  A girl who wasn't afraid.

And she was right – non-violence was the way.  We saw it with Mahatma Gandhi taking on the British Empire, to secure freedom for India.  We saw it with Martin Luther King taking on the fight for civil rights which would consign Maya Angelou's experiences to the dustbin.  We've seen it in this century with Mesi Mawiyah and Namdak Bhuti.

She showed the way.  And damn it, I feel I know what she'd say to me about my situation – not to run away.  To give it my all, and try my best to settle here.

She'd also not be too impressed about the whole business of me punching one of my classmates.  It's not really very non-violence of me is it?

No – I'm not sure her or Maya would think much of me wanting to run away.  And I know they're right.  Here goes!

Read more about the amazing Sophie Scholl, and other brave members of the White Rose here.

Be inspired by Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.

Now playing - "Don't dream it's over", Crowded House