Wednesday, October 26, 2016

My November Goal: "And Now For The Rest Of The Story"

My personal goal for November is to answer a question first and then ask if the person wants more of a story or explanation of why I gave the answer I did. This is my personal goal based on feedback. I was made aware of the round about way I approach my answers, thinking I have to give an explanation up front for everything I'm going to say when a person doesn't have context.

So for you reader, you have a choice. You could leave with my stated goal, and maybe point out to me when I ramble on too much or don't get to the point. Or you can read...

"The Rest of the Story"

If you grew up in a rural area, you probably know about Paul Harvey and the "Rest of the Story." They were usually fifteen minute segments which were often played mornings and weekends on many a rural radio station. Harvey would speak to his audiences with a lilting voice and an emotional tone that came through the radio.  Sometimes the stories were funny, sad, or taught a lesson, but they always had the same format: the hook, the commercial break, and then the rest of the story.

I was first introduced to Paul Harvey working as dish washer every morning from 6 AM to 8 AM before my morning freshman Biology class. Harvey would come on about 7 AM, and then the station would go back to the upbeat rock it played that kept me slogging through all the dirty dishes tossed into the service window.

That fifteen minutes annoyed the crap out of me. It stopped my mindless drone like work and interrupted my steady beats which would keep me going in the morning. After a few months of this, I learned to keep time by the interruption. I started looking forward to the segments. I would actually stop the dishwasher or time the dishwasher noise to make sure it didn't drown out the radio.

I eventually realized what Harvey was doing with his voice and descriptions. It was a style of storytelling that drew people in, whether they wanted to be or not. You couldn't help yourself after a while. It just happened.

In college you learn the art of using the right amount of BS and actual fact to get through any number of projects. Some of them, you become completely immersed in, others you could care less about, but the story or project needed to be done to get the grade. Sometimes I would pick topics I knew well and could expand upon, others I would research late into the night and then wonder how I would make a coherent, thoughtful, organized paper of the mess of journals, books and quotes I had amassed.

Somewhere between Paul Harvey, writing college papers and eventually working in mass media, everything became a story to me. I had to be able to tell a story in 30 second bites. I had to speak witty things over the intro of songs. I had to write a compelling story about a business and how they resurfaced bathtubs. I had to create headlines that would draw the reader into the story.

Through all of that, I think my answers to questions became longer and longer and I felt compelled to tell a story, on queue if need be, to any question asked. I've even had friends remark on the fact that I would tell these long winded stories that seemed to not have a point, or would get to the point finally and it would be anti-climatic - the story was better than the point I was trying to get to. Or they were so bored with me talking, they wanted to murder me with sarcasm if it only created a point out of the words I spoke.

I didn't realize, in certain circumstances, it's very annoying. Much like I was annoyed with Paul Harvey breaking in on my musical morning, I had become the very thing that annoyed me. I had become the storyteller and mostly, I had a witty, funny things to say. Other times, I just annoyed the hell out of people.

In mass media, it's a very useful skill to be able to create something out of practically nothing. To wax poetic on lawn care and make it interesting. To find the story in the most mundane things like carpet cleaners and shoe repair.

Jump forward to my current career working in the software industry, and no one wants a story, unless they ask for it. And sometimes they do ask. They do like to hear the history behind the process or discovery because it's interesting to see where things came from.

My problem is that I assume they always want "The Rest of the Story." without the commercial break, or the hook. And maybe it's my own desire to have all of the history or all of the story that I offer that has my narrative first.

Like as an example: "Here is this workflow, which goes like this and then I decided to do this and on a whim I added this. OH and this is where I found the defect!"

OK - so it's not that bad, most of the time. Often, I've filed the defect and then everybody wants the explanation they are too busy to read, which I wrote in great detail in the defect card. So one by one, I demo the defect over and over until it's so smooth I could practically do it with my eyes closed. To the product manager, to my manager, to my developer, to my DevOps guy, to the senior architect, to other testers on the team, to content design, to whoever else gets involved with the defect. They usually don't read the defect, they run to my desk and ask for "The Rest of the Story."

I've never pushed back on this behavior because it fed into my need to tell the story, and to extrapolate and expand and explain why the defect could have gotten in there, why it might have happened, why people are interested in it, how critical it is to the product to be resolved, what I can do to help resolve it and on and on.

I realize now, it's a built in behavior I've been cultivating for a long, long time. I'm a born storyteller. When you come to me and ask a question, or tell me to show you something, I'm going to do it because I LOVE, (seriously, in all caps, to the max) LOVE, telling the story. It demonstrates value at that very moment. It lets people see what I'm seeing.

What it doesn't do is put or push the quality back into the hands of people that need to understand why something I've reported is a defect. My personal feeling on this kind of occurrence, now that I understand more about myself and this habit, is that it's removing the responsibility for understanding the problem. It enables the assumed idea that quality is always with the testing group, but it's also keeps responsibility for a defect with testing, regardless of who the defect is actually attributed to.

My Plan of Action

A) Questions in Conversations.
  • Try to answer the question first without elaboration.
  • If elaboration is requested, try to make it meaningful and succinct. 
B) Direct Questions.
  • Listen to the question.
  • Ask for clarifications.
  • Answer the question.
C) Long stories or explanations.
  • Warn people before launching into a story or explanation which might take more than 30 seconds to explain.
  • Offer the explanation but be OK with having the person turn it down or defer to later.
D) Dealing with quality issues.
  • Don't demo the bug unless absolutely necessary. Pair with person asking for the demo.
  • Expand on the explanation where necessary. Don't explain when not requested. 
  • Be mindful of long winded explanations.

E) I will try to not apologize when I do speak too long or wander down the storyteller path.

Fear not reader. I don't plan on trying to snuff out this storytelling skill. I want to shape it into something more useful, more thought provoking and more engaging when it is used. I want to get away from "Here she goes again" and move to "OH, this is interesting." I might not get there in one month. I may never hone my storyteller skill the way I want to, but knowing about a habit, good or bad, is half way to the goal already.

And That's The Rest of The Story

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Geek Mental Health: Therapy & the Art of Learning No

“You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.”

 - Robin Williams

Where to begin a story with such a heavy title is always a little daunting. I thought for a long time about publishing this in a more private space, but I feel it's necessary to do it here, where people can read and identify with my struggle and their struggles as well.

I can't say that I've been successful over the years dealing with emotional issues and relationships with coworkers. They have been some of the hardest relationships to deal with all throughout my professional career. A lot of this has to do with upbringing, schooling, and my own personal baggage about what I perceived about myself and what I perceived the other person thought about me.

Life has not been easy. I don't say that to garner sympathy. I say it simply to set my perspective. I know, rationally, others have suffered much more than I have. I know rationally that I can acknowledge that suffering, and my own and find that really, it was not the most tragic or horrific of what the world has available for experiences. But, this experience is my own, I finally understand more about how I got to this point than I ever did at any other age of my life.


There are at least two types of codependent people. The first in the constant victim state. It's the state someone lives in where everything happens to them whether it actually happened to them or not. It's a state of need that never gets filled, always feels empty and can't seem garner enough love and attention to feel valued. 

The second type is the fixer, the white knight, the people pleaser, or simply the "yes" person. I am the second type, the more passive, the less willing to say no, the gal that does it all, the one that will volunteer first no matter what is going on in my personal life. I have to fix things, rescue the fallen, swoop in and save the day. It is what I've always done best.

It's built up from a lifetime of learning a reward/response system, where in my head, cutting off my own arm is rewarding and I shouldn't complain about it, I should just do it, regardless of the damage to myself. My brain literally gets off on this kind of reward, a kind of self-harm, where my own physical and mental needs are second to someone, or to anyone else and what they need.

This can be reinforced in so many different ways, from the jobs you take, to the friendships which are formed, and even the intimate relationships you involve yourself in. These all feed into the reinforced notion that to give everything is what makes us the best, most perfect self we have. In giving we prove to everyone that we are worthy of that relationship, or job, or paycheck. Our worth is not focused on ourselves but only how much of ourselves we sacrifice for the cause, whatever that cause may be.

Mental Health & The Tech Industry

There are a lot of jobs were your mental health comes second to the job on a daily basis. Doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers all have to deal with this in several ways. I'd like to add a large number of tech workers to this as well. The IT industry used to allow for a set pace and measured out progress. Once the computer game industry sped delivery up to a breaking point, the industry started to look for ways to develop at a much faster pace. 

This now leaves us with terms like Continuous Development and Continuous Delivery.  It's promising to a hungry tech world that there will be a constant 24/7 stream of new, shiny code just waiting for us to use, misuse, hack and then drop for the next release of bigger and better things. 

While many companies are taking a decent amount of time to get their products to market, they still release  with a lot of patches, a lot of updates which usually happen immediately after the initial download of the product. The market is flooded with mobile games which can be downloaded, played and uninstalled in a matter of minutes. 

{ If you doubt the affects the gaming industry had, watch the documentary called Atari: Game Over. The developer of the E.T. game, Howard Scott Warshaw wrote the game code in less that six weeks. The game was blamed for Atari's eventual demise. Not long after, the industry blamed Atari's downfall on E.T. and Warshaw. Warshaw later became a licensed therapist and now councils many who work in the tech industry.}

It's awesome in a lot of ways, but the downside is the cost to some of the people involved who are brilliant but become burnt out way too quickly and leave IT for other industries less demanding of their time and allow for a more creative pace. If you don't leave, there are other harbingers waiting for you, especially in the mental health department

The industry has made strides in trying to balance the work load and life, but in some corners, there is still a lot further to go. Depression and substance abuse are not the only mental health animals we should be worried about in the IT industry. The industry should also be worried about the more subtle problems, sometimes easier to hide problems many of us have like anxiety, OCD, autism, ADHD, ADD, social awkwardness, social dysfunction, eating disorders and even codependency. Many of us with these traits have figured out coping mechanisms do deal with the worse episodes. Sometimes they involve owning too many pets, other times they can involve more self destructive habits.

For me, learning skills of how to say no and protecting myself from pushing past a breaking point were not easy things. I still don't like saying no to people. I don't often think of myself first. What has been a good crutch for me are my dogs. I find it easier to tell people I can't do something because I have another responsibility. They keep the "yes" me in check at times. I can also compromise better because of them. I can say things like "I can do that, but I will need time to make sure my dogs are OK, is that OK?" Often, that small amount of time to check on them gives me the space I need to recharge, keep worries at away and do an effective job.

What my dogs can't help with is the "yes" part that pops out during meetings and in conversations where I constantly have to try to solve the problem at hand, even if I'm not the best person to do that. I blurt out the first thing in my mouth or my head. I have an extremely hard time stepping back from that instinct. I have to constantly monitor myself to make sure I'm not stepping on someone else's voice, or that I'm not just talking to talk. I empathize too much. I listen too well. I hear the pain in someone's voice and my first instinct is to offer help instead of helping them help themselves.

 It's the constant need to want to please and help people which made me a great customer service person and makes me really good tester, but sometimes it's annoying to teammates and other folks in meetings. I've learned to wait, repeat what I'm going to say in my head and if it doesn't make sense or the moment's past, then I let it go. Or I can ask for a redirect in the conversation to get back to that point if what I think is really important and I want to talk about it.

The other side of that "yes" trait is the ability to speak up and speak out. I don't stay quiet, I call out issues when I see them. I make it known when I'm not happy and when others aren't happy. I track down problems. I try to track down others who can help with those problems and work with people to get to the root and figure it out. It lets me be a very effective problem solver and someone that likes to get things done. Those are all very positive traits from codependency. I try very hard to keep those while mitigating others that are more troublesome.

The Challenge Is Ongoing

When you live with any issue, whether it's physical or mental, and you finally get fed up with what it does to you on a daily basis, you seek out help. For me, it was somatic therapy which helped to put me in a better mental balance. It helped me understand why I say "yes" to so many things and how my "no" was broken by circumstances mostly out of my control.

It taught me to recognize my emotions instead of bottling them up in a dark, safe place until the space was too full to manage and something broke. The emotion didn't matter. It could have been anything. 

It has taken several years and a lot of work to figure out what exactly I needed to understand about myself and what I need to work on which would allow me a better balance in my relationships with myself, with my work, coworkers, friends, and family.

There are moments of excitement I still blurt out things without organizing my thoughts, where I say "yes" in the moment rather than thinking my answer through. I've  gotten a lot better at catching myself when I do this. It all takes practice to re-frame your wants and needs to be center and in focus rather than keeping them barely in the picture. I still struggle with feeling selfish for the smallest things which most people don't have qualms over in the least. Hopefully I will get to the point that it doesn't seem weird to me to say "no". With any challenge, as most people know with mental health issues of any kind, you take them one day at a time.

The Tech Industry Takes Notice

If you weren't aware of it, starting on October 3rd, there was a whole week for mental health in the IT industry called Geek Mental Health Week. There are a bunch of great articles, hashtags, and events during the week to highlight mental health in the tech industry. It's the third annual Geek Mental Health Week held for the industry.

I recommend checking out the articles at Geek Mental Health, and even checking out the community and podcasts at Geek Therapy. Also check out Open Source Mental Illness online or on twitter @OSMIhelp. These are great organizations that work in the tech community to bring awareness to the struggles the industry has with mental health issues.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide please contact your national hotline:

                                       International List of Suicide Hotlines

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The NeverEnding Story & Why I Don't Always Do What I'm Told

I'm not typical rebel. I don't purposefully set out to piss people off. However, I've lived most of my life with people telling me or commenting to me in one form or another that I can't do this, or I'm not capable of doing that because of something they see, or perceive, that I refuse to acknowledge as a limitation.

We all have an inner strength that can propel us forward to do some pretty amazing things if we can wade through an amazing amount of bullshit first.

Swamp of Eternal Sadness
It's the equivalent of trudging through the Swamp of Eternal Sadness. The first 100 or a 1000 steps can be OK, but there is some point that one of those steps breaks you down where you nearly give up until a version of your Luck Dragon saves your ass.

Going to work everyday can turn into your own Swamp of Eternal Sadness, or worse, the Nothing, with the wolf chasing you. I've lived through different managers from different careers telling me I'm too opinionated, too loud, too angry, too something-that-annoys-someone and I immediately try to modify my behavior, only to have things become worse, because I'm not true to myself and people instinctively know that. They don't know what the manager told me, but they know something is up. 'She's acting different', their eyes seem to say. They don't like the difference, and they are not sure what it is. Often, it translates into a lack of confidence and a loss of trust with my coworkers.

Some of my best managers have taken those traits and steered them into more productive endeavors. "What are you upset about, is there a solution we can work on?" "Learn about public speaking!"  "I get that you are angry, how can we work on this to make it better for everyone?" "Keep speaking up, everyone else is too quiet in meetings, maybe they can emulate you." "Have you practiced listening skills lately?" "What could we change going forward that would be a positive impact for everyone?"

I'll be the first to admit that I'm an extremely passionate person about several topics. It's those topics specifically which can result in wonderful discourse and learning or disastrous heated arguments in which neither side feels validated but rather violated. Some people call them triggers, which is true, they can be. I like to call them learning moments. Whether positive or negative, I take something away from that exchange. I learn from it.
The Last Grain of Fantasia

What I try my very hardest to avoid now is muting what I see as a valuable part of myself.

I was given advice recently on how to dress and act during an interview. It was from another professional and friend that meant well, but the more I listened, the more I realized that the advice she was giving me, wasn't me.

I talked to other friends and professionals, and I found, it wasn't just her giving me this advice, it was a large majority of people who were telling me similar things.
  • Don't wear bright colors
  • Don't be emotional 
  • Be pleasant and don't speak first.
  • Don't talk about failures honestly
  • Don't be completely honest
  • Play the power game
  • Make eye contact but not too much
  • Don't be yourself. 
I hadn't asked for advice on interviewing before. I generally do fairly well, but this was an important one, and I was pretty nervous and excited about it. I wanted to put my best self forward. Other advice I received was more positive.
  • Don't lie
  • Be exactly who you are
  • Be comfortable
  • Be engaging
  • Talk about the best and worst things in your career honestly
Fear can be a healthy or unhealthy motivator to do something or to change something. I, thankfully, have developed a better sense of self over the last few years. I perceive I understand what my own personal positive and negatives are. I also think I can use those to my advantage and challenge myself with my own flaws. The first list speaks of fear and not being true to who I am. The second list, the list I followed, spoke to me. It was confidence, experience and trusting the people that were interviewing me. I realized that I couldn't work in a place that would want me to act like that first list in an interview. I don't know that I've ever followed the first list of rules either. It just doesn't put the best version of myself forward, emotions, characteristics, flaws and all.

My mistakes, my personal flaws, my imperfections are exactly what I use to make leaps forward in my life, in my career, in my own personal goals. Lest you think my ego is getting in the way, and I'll admit, it might be, I take these things very seriously. I don't immediately or automatically convert these flaws and mistakes into 'wins'. Over time, I think, and study, and I seek help in some cases. I work through issues using them as challenges to overcome, discover, and reinvent myself. Allowing space for something new. Allowing that, yes, I have some limitations, but what can I do to work past them? Should I work past them? Can I use them as they are? Are they limitations, or what other people have told me are limitations and I've accepted them as such?

In Ken Norton's newsletter, he writes about Jazz musicians and provocative competence. He states over and over that musicians, at the top of their game, were constantly looking for that mistake that wasn't being explored or exploited. They were always pushing themselves to do something new, barely structured and fairly off-script. The biggest motivator I see from these examples is self-reliance and self-confidence. They understand what their own strengths are and use those, and even sometimes they use their weaknesses to bring something new to the table, and to their profession. They also use this to help others around them, allowing others to follow or even lead from that opening they created. It's willingness to throw the routine out the window and become uncomfortable with what might happen next.

To have the willingness to walk into the Swamp of Eternal Sadness with confidence, trusting that somehow, you can make it through to the next challenge. Hell, you might even save the day.