Monday, November 22, 2021

Agile Testing Days 2021 - My Heart Is Full

The last week I've been to Agile Testing Days 2021, my very first on-site, in person event since twenty months. Here's my attempt of writing down my perception and hence enabling my future self to take a trip down memory lane.


Why It's So Special

How to even start describing what this conference meant to me. In our daring times, it most probably wasn't the smartest idea to take on the accompanying risk when Covid-19 figures are climbing through the roof, and still I recognized it was my only valid emotional decision. What contradiction, after so many months of being extra cautious, especially coming from my tester heart. I am ever thankful for the organizers and other participants to do their best to reduce this risk as much as we can and uphold any possible safety measure, while I'm aware there are factors we just cannot mitigate. The next days are going to be exciting still, and I hope for the best for all of us.

Here I am, fully rested after this amazing and emotional week of Agile Testing Days 2021. Probably one of the most special ones ever for me, given the situation. As I've been one of the few lucky ones that weren't hit as hard by the ongoing pandemic including lockdowns and more, I didn't realize just how much I missed and needed this reunion. It filled my heart up to the rim and I know it'll be what my soul will be feeding from for months. Keeping those memories dear to heart.

The very best part of this special conference-festival are the people. I'd usually point this out for most conferences, and for this one it's especially true. I'm totally biased here as this was my first conference ever in 2015 and lots of good things happened there for me over the years. And still, for me it stands: it's the people. And as the conference is indeed focusing on the people and their needs, it's becoming a whole magical atmosphere that's continuously improving each year (huge kudos this time for introducing pronouns on badges as well as all gender toilets!). The people alone make me return each and every year.

It was extremely special to see people again I haven't seen in person for at least two years. It was very special to get to know new people. I was very surprised that I didn't run out of energy - even though I'm very introverted and in previous months any bigger groups than four or maximum ten persons, as well as being out in public really drained me. So yes, this event was magical for me.

Another part I've learned about myself once more this year, is that I've grown personally over the years. This year especially I felt I can just fully be myself among all these people, if we knew each other before or not - I am welcomed. In previous years, I've realized a part of this when I wasn't judged for not wearing a costume to the party and still just being welcomed. This year, I've realized I wasn't anxious in workshops anymore, not even when asked to take over an important part of a role play - something I would have either chickened out of or be totally scared about in earlier years. I personally thrive in safe environments, the safer they are the better. All that being said: I am well aware of the privilege I have and a lot of it enables me to feel safe here. Hence this is what I am working on myself over the years: contributing to the space being safe, for everyone. It really pays off.

I loved the fun time together and I am really grateful for all the deep conversations we had on difficult topics. On what underrepresented and marginalized people have to go through, on how we can use privilege to make it better, on how not to support the status quo but take action to change this to a better place. To all those people: you know who you are and I deeply appreciate you.


What I've Experienced

Saturday

This year I arrived already on Saturday in order to meet a dear friend and colleague before the conference. Fun fact: my train to Berlin stopped in the middle of nowhere. When we heard about the reason why, I had to laugh even though it meant a huge delay and inconvenience. The train itself was perfectly fine, yet due to a software problem (who would have thought), we were not allowed to continue on the current track. They had to signal that the train was about to go on this fast-track part of the route, and just couldn't get the software to work with them. Rebooting the respective computer and so on, all troubleshooting did not help - we were not allowed to continue and had to go back to the previous station, get off the train and board a new one. Well - it didn't stop me from meeting said friend in the evening, even though we had less time than expected together. It was amazing seeing them again in person after two years!


Sunday

I decided to sleep in and gather as much energy as I could before seeing people. A great idea in hindsight! In the afternoon, I was finally ready to meet people and spent some amazing time together with Simon Berner. We've been in the same learning group for years, paired a lot together, facilitated workshops together - and never saw each other in person. Finally, this was our chance! Loved it.

In the evening, more and more people arrived and we could celebrate a few happy reunions. For example with Alex Schladebeck, Dragan SpiridonovElizabeth Zagroba and Joep Schuurkes. Sunday evening also meant going for dinner! This year I had a lovely group of five, just small enough to get used to the upcoming bigger numbers of people. Many thanks to Thomas Rinke, Mario Specht, Gerald Mücke and Simon Berner!

Usually, evenings end up in the hotel bar or lobby, having a few more drinks. Non-alcoholic ones for me; I chose not to drink any alcohol from here on during the whole week as it both makes me really tired and it weakens my immune system. I rather wanted to have more energy to just be with people. More and more joined in the bar, more reunions! And finally meeting Samuel Nitsche as well whom I've only seen online so far! And also meeting some new people already, being at this conference for the first time. For example, Thomas Spengler - it was great experiencing this conference together with you!


Monday

Originally, I was meant to give a tutorial on this day together with Toyer Mamoojee. Unfortunately, we had to cancel it due to the given Covid-19 situation and related official regulations, which also meant that Toyer could not join us despite being vaccinated. I dearly missed him not being there and heard a lot of people feel the same. Next year, Toyer! Let's hope for the best.

For this day as well, I had decided to opt for the "be kind to yourself"-option and not join one of the other tutorials. It was hard to let go, and still a good decision. This way I could once more sleep in, fill up my energy reserves, practice for my workshop taking place the next day, and then start the day in the afternoon just being with people in the hotel lobby. More reunions! For example with Lena Wiberg, Kris Corbus, Gem Hill, João Proença and Michael Kutz. Also, the first time meeting Bruce Hughes in person! And Sophie Küster, and Veerle Verhagen, and so many more. Well, just loved being there and taking this all in.

I had planned to go to the first keynote of the event by Huib Schoots and Paul Holland. In the end, I didn't and instead opted for supporting my friends João Proença and Michael Kutz, sitting in the dry run of their paired talk. Loved it and was already looking forward to hearing the actual version the next day.

Then it was time for speakers dinner. Each and every year the conference organizers have planned a nice get-together for all speakers with a tasty meal and great atmosphere. This year once more, I thoroughly enjoyed it and had even further great talks.

Tuesday

First official conference day! Here are the sessions I've attended.
At the end of the day, the Agile, Testing & Rock'n'Roll MIATPP Award Night took place! This time with an additional new format, the Keynote eXtreme that everyone could volunteer for and get the stage - on an unknown topic. The ceremony for the MIATPP was traditionally included as well, this year the award went to Raj Subrameyer, congrats! Oh, and we had a lovely meal where I especially enjoyed the variety of desserts. Yet the best part, as always: late night conversations on everything with people I am grateful to call my friends.

    Wednesday
      Another conference day, further sessions! Looking back, this was the day with the best sessions for me, with both the most valuable insights and the best delivery.
      • Keynote: Agile Comes with a Responsibility for Sustainability by Jutta Eckstein. Very thought-provoking keynote! Lots of new insights on sustainability and how it's everyone's responsibility to advocate for it in everyday life. And how to do it with very concrete question examples! Awesome that Jutta is leading by example as well! Can't wait to read her upcoming book.
      • Workshop: And now for something completely different! by Huib SchootsBart Knaack and Paul Holland. Absolutely loved it! Didn't regret one bit that I joined this workshop. I expected having to go completely out of my comfort zone and was surprised that it still was within my comfort zone - recognizing my own growth. We had lots of valuable conversations and insights in the various groups. It felt like a structured open space! Great job stepping back as facilitators and creating the safe space for it to happen, thank you! Also, wonderful idea to build on for own workshops.
      • Keynote: Limitless within our boundaries by João Proença. Amazing delivery on a really important and thought-provoking topic! I now keep thinking about options and the paradox of choice that comes along with it, as well as how we can use constraints in a beneficial way. Can't believe it was the first keynote for João, hope it was the start for many more! Wonderful performance, very well deserved. Also: best slides I've seen for a long time!
      • Workshop: Resistance is futile by Anne Colder and Jantien van der Meer. What an amazing workshop! The presented models on the four basic fears and the elephant and the rider are extremely valuable and relevant. They are instantly applicable in any context where we want to overcome resistance and initiate change and provide us with the language and structure needed. Loved the pace and hands-on exercises, and felt very safe doing them, even during role play - this safety allowed vulnerable conversations. Also: so much appreciated the Star Trek theme!
      • Keynote: How to be an Ally to Non-binary Folk in Tech by Bruce Hughes. Legendary. Just legendary! The extremely important messages stuck and triggered lots of valuable follow-up conversations on these important topics with people. We really needed this, especially as not too many people were aware of how we contribute to a bad status quo and what we can do to actively work against the current system, for change. And all this, while it being the first conference talk ever for Bruce, and a keynote on a big stage right away. My mind is blown. What stage presence and storytelling! What amazing usage of entertainment to deliver a such important serious message and make it stick. A real stage talent and I bet there's lots of effort in there as well. Kudos!
      • The Friends & Allies - Human Space by Gitte Klitgaard. Thank you so much for creating and holding this space and making it safe for vulnerable conversations to happen. It's not taken for granted and very much appreciated. I'm learning a lot about myself each year joining these sessions, just as this time as well. The exchange with others on these topics really make me think and provide inspiration on how I can do better. In any case it helps to know that I'm not alone and we can make this better together.
      One more thing that totally made this day for me: the pact that resulted from the learning partnership between Mor Korem and Thomas Rinke created in Toyer's and my workshop from 2018, got fulfilled with Mor's talk this year! Congrats to both of you!


      Thursday

      The last conference day! Here's what I experienced.
      And then... it was over. Well, not quite yet! Still so many great conversations took place this evening. It even took time just to get out of the conference room! I've decided to take a break and have dinner with my friends Michael Kutz and João Proença, digest things in a smaller setting. Just what I needed after everything. Then returning to the hotel, where again we found lots of people still enjoying the Agile Games Night or just being together in the hotel lobby and bar. Lots of great conversations again, with a special thanks to Anne ColderVincent Wijnen, Emna Ayadi, Markus Müller and Christian Baumann.


      Friday

      Well... not exactly a conference day anymore. Rather the time to say final goodbyes and travel home. The day that the post-conference blues starts to kick in and I could start digest what I've experienced. To feel that this last week actually happened. It's still incredible in hindsight and I'm ever so grateful.

      What Comes Next

      After Agile Testing Days, I usually take at least a week of free days to rest and relax. It's usually closing the conference year for me and I still don't regret I've kept it this way also this year, despite having further opportunities. I'll keep the memories from this one close to my heart, try to do nothing much the next week, and then gather energy for my new challenge, joining a new company. This also means I will focus fully on this opportunity during the next months, before speaking at the next events again. Some things are already in the making, though! I've already arranged a few new and old sessions, pairing with others - well, more to share when the time is ripe. And who knows what else I'm going to learn on my further journey and what inspiration I can take from that.

      For now, I've done all the things I've wanted to do to follow-up on this conference. Providing session ratings, feedback for the conference, consolidating my notes and more - including this post. So now it's properly Agile Resting Days as Vernon indicated. Until next year!

      Tuesday, November 9, 2021

      Six Years of Learning and Contributing

      Today was my last day at the company that I've spent half of my career on. Time to reminisce and reflect! As I won't be able to put down everything that happened in the last six years, I'll focus on the kind of impact this time and place had on me. Well, or at least take note of the things that were prominent in my mind these days.


      Where It Started

      In my last job before joining Flix, I've learned a bunch of things, yet had less and less opportunities to test and grow my career. As a previous colleague reached out to me about this new opening, I was uncertain if they were really looking for someone like me, but eager to listen. The more I heard about it, the more I wanted to join. So I applied and got in, thanks to my colleague's referral. That was six years ago and in hindsight it was one of the best decisions I've made so far.

      I entered the company as the second tester overall. Most people had never worked with a tester or other quality professional before. Thanks to the sponsorship of my previous colleague, my new team was ready to give it a try and figure out what that means on the way.


      What I Have Achieved

      After having practiced seeing my achievements for what they are over many years, there's probably a lot of things I could acknowledge as achievements, small and big. The following things, however, do stick out in my point of view.

      Living a whole team approach to testing and quality. Let's start with my team. I've stayed on the same product team for six years. It never got boring and I really enjoy evolving a product also on longer term. In addition, there was lots of opportunity to grow in the team as well as on organizational level. My product team was my home base to operate from. The team constellation changed a lot over the six years and we continuously evolved our testing and quality culture. It might have taken me six years and a lot of experiments, yet this year I've finally seen the team actually living the whole team approach to testing and quality. They understand the value, they are enabled, they really feel responsible. I thought I've achieved this a few times before (especially with the team where we ensembled a lot), yet only now I realize the difference. Also, it is surely not the end and I really hope they continue this way on their further journey. (Have I mentioned I was fortunate to work with amazing humans here? Not my achievement, yet still a fact; and definitely helping me achieve this.)

      Creating and running a testing community of interest. Now let's look beyond team boundaries. I was hired not only to test hands-on in the product team but also to evolve the company's quality culture. Me and the only other tester started a monthly sync, brainstorming what we can do, like educating people and hiring more testers. The other one soon left the company, yet over time, we created a testing community as an internal expert network, fostering knowledge exchange, inspiration, and collaboration across teams. I'm very curious what will become of it now that I made space for people and for new things to happen.

      Bringing the first company tech conference to live. This was the company-wide initiative that was instrumental for my promotion to principal: I've made the first company tech conference happen, from concept to post-production, to nurture knowledge sharing across teams and companies. Unfortunately, it stayed with one FlixTechSummit only so far. I had to move on to my next initiative and handed things over, yet the next installment did not take place anymore as planned.

      Enabling teams to experiment to grow a quality culture. I've designed and ran a series of experiments with multiple teams that improved their continuous learning, testing, and quality practices. This was a huge endeavor that also resulted in a whole conference talk on growing an experiment-driven quality culture. Our initiative group had a lot of impact with this experiment, and yet there was also impact we hoped for but didn't have. What we learned went into further experimentation.

      Building the foundation for quality through leadership workshops. I've co-created and co-facilitated a series of six leadership workshops together with our amazing coach Shiva Krishnan. Shiva had initiated the series before, I've been on the previous cohort myself which had a huge impact on me, and I'm ever grateful he agreed to pair with me on the next one. We both learned so much from this experience! As part of leadership, our workshops raised people's awareness on identity and impact, and contributed to growing the company culture. The next cohort is currently running. Sadly without me this time, yet Shiva found another wonderful co-conspirator for the season afterwards.

      Receiving feedback close to my values. Finally, a personal achievement I need to remind my future self about when I'm reading this again. In my last weeks, I've asked my current team for personal feedback, especially regarding the impact I had on them and what I could do differently next time. Admittedly, I really had a wonderful team with awesome humans for the last ten months. The feedback they shared with me (which I'm absolutely grateful for) validated what I've worked on a lot over the last years. I've always wanted to be considerate of other people and include them from the start, value their perspectives; and still my actions and the actual perception told a different story. It seems indeed that I managed to turn the points I've received as pointers to change over the years into appreciations now. And they are really aligned with my personal values. My heart was so full when receiving such feedback! I can only hope to continue living up to it and learn some more.


      What I Would Do Differently

      I've achieved a lot, and at the same time I also see things that I've done and that I would do differently nowadays. Or at least try to.

      Focus on enabling. In most of the six years I've focused on doing things myself. Yes, I wanted to focus on sharing knowledge and enabling everyone, yet to be honest with myself, I still fell back into the habit of taking over, volunteering, driving things, advocating, catching balls, and preventing fires again and again. Only this year, I've indeed spent the majority of my time - okay, not the majority either - yet way more of my time on actually enabling others. I definitely want to do this more. I learned it still doesn't stop me from contributing hands-on myself in various ways. This applies to my work in the team just as much as to my work in the community or on other initiatives. The goal should be that they run just as well without me. This applies to specific activities related to core expertise just as much as to glue work. Everyone should be enabled to see, appreciate, and take over glue work as it needs. With my last team I've seen proof that this is indeed feasible.

      Give feedback as soon as you have it and address conflicts as they arise. I am so much a people pleaser that I'm often seeking harmony over addressing a conflict. I'd rather avoid conflict if I could. In the last years I had a challenging team situation that originated (and got worse) from not putting things on the table early on, not speaking up and not raising concerns. It came from trying to be gentle and it ended up in avoiding difficult conversations. I did learn that being nice is not helping at all, and the kind thing to do would be to speak up instead. This is again something I think I've done a lot better this year. Giving constructive feedback as soon as I have it, no matter how difficult it might be, and managing a conflict instead of avoiding it. Interestingly, this also led me to give way more positive feedback as soon as I had it - and people appreciated this a lot. This is a huge topic where Shiva and our leadership workshops series had a lot of impact on me personally.

      Be clear and transparent on what you work on and why. As I've not only been working embedded in a product team yet also had to split my capacity and energy with organizational topics, and I was also speaking at conferences hence spent time away from the team, it was always a challenge what of my work to share with the team and what not to. Sometimes people struggled with the level of detail I shared, sometimes with me not sharing enough, and mostly I realized they needed to be able to understand why I set my priorities as I do. I often felt the need to justify myself and apologize - even though this was actually part of my job. People came to me suggesting I drop this or focus on that, yet they contradicted each other and also what I wanted to work and have impact on. Now I learned it's all about me having a strategy plus being clear and transparent on the why and what people can expect so we can find a solution that works for everyone.

      Make initiatives and communities visible and well known. I've started the testing community and ran a lot of different cross-team initiatives, and yet most of them were not seen in the tech department. When people wanted to know or learn something, they still asked their network instead of our experts or making use of our offers. I thought I've been very vocal on these things, yet now I've learned I wasn't enough and the word did not spread. Next time I need to come up with a better strategy, probably more advertisement, and having people experience the benefits so much they talk themselves about it.

      Sponsor more people. I've received a lot of sponsorship myself which really helped me succeed; see also the next section on what I'm grateful for. Only the last years, I've started to sponsor other people myself more intentionally, making them visible, granting access to knowledge, referring them for opportunities, and so on. This is definitely something I want to do more from the start.

      Take better care of myself. I nearly missed this one, and only now added this looking at my recent feedback and my previous blog post. I've been doing a lot better over the years when it comes to listening to my needs and communicating them, managing expectations and setting boundaries, saying "no" more often and also giving myself more time. That's still something to continue doing better. If I can take better care of myself, then I can also take better care of others. Only if.


      What I Am Grateful For

      Not everything was shiny over the last six years and some challenges could not be overcome. There are, however, so many things I'm grateful for. Like the following on the top of my mind.

      The people and long lasting relationships we've built. I'm extremely grateful for all the wonderful people I've worked with. That was one of the biggest reasons to stay for six years - the amazing people. People who helped each other grow, people who got inspired and inspired others, people who paved the way, people who really cared for what we did and how we did it together.

      My managers having my back, always. I am super fortunate to have had the two best managers I've ever had - and I did have great ones before. Both these two were exactly the right ones for me and for where I was on my journey. The first one, John Webber, confirmed my belonging within the first two weeks on the job and gave me the safety to fly. He actively supported my journey giving back to the outside community by blogging and speaking at conferences. He even helped me improve my posts and also sat front row in one of my first conference talks, holding up his mobile phone the whole time so he could get a recording for me. I've met him a few days ago and thanked him again for letting me fly. The second manager, Chris Vestrini, took over from John and instantly cheered me on on my speaking journey as well. How many times we've laughed when I asked yet again if I could take up yet another speaking opportunity I've received! Chris was always having a kind and open ear, nudged me with his questions in tricky situations and provided gentle advice. I'm ever so grateful for these two having my back inside and outside the company that allowed me to grow so much over the years.

      Sponsorship gave me the chance to fly. Now I've said before, I've received lots of sponsorship in this company. I wouldn't even be there if not my previous colleague had vouched for me. I received two promotions, one to senior right after starting out, and one to principal three years later - despite other people trying to actively hinder it. I very well know I've only received this opportunity to prove myself because of these two amazing managers and them actively and loudly advocating for me. This is how I ended up as the only principal who differed heavily from everyone else, despite all my privilege: the only woman, the only tester, the only one not having a STEM background. I know we have lots of other great people who are not yet made seen and supported as much as I was, and I can only hope for more people in powerful positions sponsoring them. Thanks to me being made visible from the start, I've also received lots of other opportunities. Just some examples: I was referred to a talent program I've joined and could build a network from. I was asked to be a mentor. I received personal coaching that really helped me further. I could continue, yet I guess you get the point.

      Being safe to dare and taking courage. When I recently thanked John for the safety and sponsorship he provided, he shared with me that he was impressed with me daring, having the courage to take responsibility and follow through. For example, my pact with Toyer Mamoojee to take up conference speaking really impressed him. The last six years, I've indeed used a lot of courage to move things within the company and also outside in our global community. That reminded me of the agile testing principles I've learned through Lisa Crispin and Janet Gregory already a decade ago, that explicitly include courage and influenced me from the start. I'm very grateful to have learned that courage can be worth it, that at times it's about rather asking forgiveness than permission. And it also reminded me of the "dare to lead" approach of Brené Brown (I just love the related podcast series) as well as of my own privilege that added to the safety I've received. What made me fly was safety plus privilege plus sponsorship plus courage. Then I could put in the effort, and it paid off. And I'm grateful for it.


      What I Have Learned As a Tester

      Phew, so many things. My mindset and approach continuously changed and evolved over the years. Also here, a few things stand out for me.

      It's all about the people, interactions and systems. In the end, it's boiling down to foundations like communication and collaboration. That's usually where quality can emerge or is hindered by. A lot of my work was focused on finding better ways working together. Another major aspect is the system we're operating in - actively shaping it can make a huge difference. For example, think about which behavior gets rewarded in which ways?

      Enabling others for resilience and the freedom to grow your expertise. I've already mentioned above, this time I've managed to have the whole team feel both enabled and also responsible for testing and quality. When I'm off, the whole team knows what to do and how to learn themselves. When I'm there, we can learn together and also I have more capacity and energy to bring in new topics and expertise, hence growing the whole team again. I really had to learn how to step back and let others do the job, though.

      Experimenting for the win! It's all about the context and we have to figure out what practice works and what not. Again and again, it became clear that the contexts of our manifold product teams clearly differ. Not only slightly, yet heavily. In a larger sense some good practices might work well in a lot of them, like unit testing or pairing, yet there was also a lot of different settings and needs. Having the teams experiment for their specific context is key. This environment provided me and the teams the freedom to experiment with a lot of different approaches and we learned so much from it.

      Testing and quality are holistic in nature. Personally, I identify as a specialized generalist. Over the years, I've realized just how much I thrive on learning more about all kinds of aspects of software development and how all these bits and pieces help me do a better job with testing and quality. This also means I can free up others from time to time, jumping in on tasks that are not my core expertise - and also add to the team's resilience this way.

      Growing competencies through first time experiences. There were so many of them in the last six years! There was the first time I finally tested continuously, from idea to production. My first time testing all kinds of things, like ideas, mockups, requirements, infrastructure, data, and more. The first time I was set up and enabled to run the application locally myself, seeing the code changes, joining reviews, writing automated tests, and more. My first time giving talks and workshops internally. My first time trying out ensemble programming and moving to pairing heavily as ways to reduce feedback loops, waiting time, cycle time and increase the quality of the outcome. My first time exploring APIs without a frontend. My first time fixing issues myself and contributing to our infrastructure. My first time trying out different ways of reporting my findings. My first time testing for quality aspects like security and accessibility - and also advocating for building them in. My first time joining architecture discussions and doing domain modeling. My first time being active part of refactoring conversations. Already a long list and I could go on.

      The more tools in my toolbox, the more options at hand. I've got in touch with so many technologies that I haven't had the opportunity to work with before. Just to name a few: Groovy, Typescript, Angular, Stencil, Jest, Serenity BDD, Cypress, REST APIs, Websockets, GraphQL, Kafka, MongoDB, Docker, Kubernetes, Bamboo, Jenkins, Gitlab. So many more tools and tips and tricks allowing me to do my work smarter and more effective, and also share that knowledge with other people.


      Where Things Are Now

      I am ever so happy that my mentee joined my last team as a dedicated tester who can drive things further and bring in the quality expertise. At the same time the people are fully enabled to own testing and quality as part of product development. I know they got this, and this is a great feeling. It's both sad to leave now and exactly the best moment to leave. Things are in good hands.

      People shared with me that I've changed their way of thinking about testing and testers, which makes me really happy. More teams got inspired to improve their practices and make their first steps in integrating new approaches and figuring out what works for them, even if they don't have dedicated testers in their team. More teams understood how holistic testing and quality are in nature and that it's  encompassing way more than automation. More teams even decided to hire experts for their teams to learn from. I'm curious to see where their future leads them.


      What I'm Looking Forward To

      Very soon I'm visiting Agile Testing Days again. This event is meaningful to me, as exactly six years ago, just before starting at Flix, this was my first conference ever. From this community I've received a lot of sponsorship and support - hence I'm doing what I can to give back and pay forward.

      Soon afterwards, my next opportunity at Ada Health is waiting for me. It's a chance to start fresh, continue building on the impact I've achieved, and do some things differently that I wished I would have done earlier. I'm very much looking forward to first observing, focusing on understanding the new context, making things transparent - and then experimenting to see what works in this context.

      Most of all, I'm looking forward to getting to know great new people and to work together with them on a very purposeful product. Over and over, I've seen that I can learn so much from each and every one. I'm eager to see what I can learn from all these new people, and what I can contribute for them so we all help each other forward.

      To the past six years, to now, and to the future!

      Tuesday, June 8, 2021

      Dear Future Me: I Am Not Alone

      Dear future me. I'm writing this while being very tired. I am still spending my time and energy on this deliberately, hoping to remind you of a very stressful time I'm still recovering from: the last six months.

      Over the past couple of years, I've started to think a lot more about my energy levels and capacity. Especially when the pandemic became obvious beginning of 2020 and life changed, I felt I needed to cut down on what I do and focus on a few things at a time, working at a sustainable pace. Thinking I had achieved that, I promised myself never to get back into a situation with high stress levels over a long period of time, feeling completely overwhelmed. Little did I know, I did not have everything in hand to prevent what happened since beginning of the year. So here's a reminder to myself and anyone who relates to this situation: if you encounter circumstances again where everything ends up on your desk, be reminded of what happened this time, what consequences it had and which strategies helped to get through it.

      So what happened? In short, my work load exploded, I went with it and the energy spent left me depleted.

      • Team size exploded. End of last year, my product team consisted of six full-time employees and a working student. With only three full-time developers we were looking for more people to join. Then one of the three decided to leave and the situation became more urgent to solve. As a blessing in disguise, four developers moved internally and one developer came from outside the company to join our team - all within one month. Yay, problem solved, right? Well, this meant we suddenly were eleven full-time employees plus one working student. I guess most people who have worked in cross-functional product teams can understand what that meant. Our communication pathways multiplied with every new person on the team. With me as the dedicated tester on the team still being involved in all stories, the team mostly working in solo mode at that time, and people starting new stories when waiting for feedback, meant that I had at least twelve stories at the same time on my desk. Imagine the context switching effort and waste coming along with that alone. Feedback loops slowed down immensely and our cycle time increased. Everything took long. Working modes that were okay-ish before did not work at all anymore.
      • Onboarding effort multiplied. So overall, in January and February five new developers joined nearly at the same time. With me being one of two persons having been the longest in the company, in the team and on the product, plus having a unique holistic view on everything that's involved with developing it, this meant a lot of the onboarding and knowledge sharing effort ended up on my desk. While I really enjoy onboarding new people - and these five were lovely people to join our team - this really took a toll on me. Yet still, we need to set people up for success and give them the knowledge they need to have impact themselves. I simply can't leave my teammates hanging.
      • Old conflicts reached the melting point. My team from last year was together for quite a long time and it started to dissolve more and more. We had wonderful times together, and also times we did not manage well. There's a lot to learn from that alone, yet the sad fact is that a long and slowly growing conflict took a toll on each and every one who had been part of that old team constellation. In the end, the two other former developers decided to leave the company for new opportunities as well. All these ups and downs took a lot of emotional energy from everyone of us. It took up a lot of cognitive capacity as well and made any interaction way harder than it had to be.
      • Building a new team, remotely. Since beginning of May, we're now finally our new team constellation and starting to shape this team to the one we want to be on, where everyone is welcome, included, safe to speak their mind, encouraged to experiment and collaborate and learn together and everything. Exciting times, yet we need to put in lots of effort. Also, this is the first team for all of us, where nearly everyone on the team only met each other remotely. We need to learn how to grant ourselves social time, get to know each other, evolve our culture, and more - all virtually. We are distributed across four locations, so the remote setup is amazing in leveling the playing field and providing the same access for everyone. I'm curious where this journey leads us, and already very happy to be part of this new team.
      • Upskilling people to enable them to take over activities that usually ended up with me. No matter how often I reached a point where testing was indeed a whole team activity, with the former team constellation it ended up again mostly with me. Especially exploratory testing or testing for any kind of other quality aspect than the core functionality. The same with operations and infrastructure tasks, responding to alerts, user support, writing release news, and so on. Scheduling and facilitating meetings. Cross-team communication. All kinds of glue work to keep the balls from falling to the ground. I strongly believe in the whole team approach and creating a base of knowledge for everyone. No need to become the expert in one area, yet we should be able to help each other out, reduce bottlenecks and waiting time, unblock each other, being able to go on sick leave and also vacation without things piling up for us in the meantime or worrying they won't get done. So with new people on board, this task could only be done by me, naturally. Super thankful that my new teammates are very open and supportive and not hesitating to see beyond their own nose. They stepped up and took over responsibility even if things were outside their usual comfort zone.
      • Taking up product work and sharing its responsibility in the team. Our product owner had great news: his family got a new member! I really appreciate him going on a long parental leave and also preparing the team for it. He is still working one day per week, yet we all agreed to spread the product responsibility across the team and see that we all carry a bit of the load so it's not too much for anyone. Still, with me being the one longest on the team and product, I ended up as natural contact person for most people outside the team, even though it was communicated differently. So many requests coming in! While I am only seeing a fraction of it, I'm in awe of product owner work. Also, we all in the team are now learning how to tackle user experience in a better fashion, how to spread UX knowledge in the team and how to support our researcher better with his work, and how to fill the gap of other UX roles like design or writing. A lot more to learn on this path!
      • Our team's domain got lots of fresh people. Since beginning of the year, a lot more new people joined our domain, including two new persons on the domain leadership level. New people bringing new energy and lots of ideas! Naturally, onboarding needed to be done on domain level as well. Again, as being one of the persons longest in the domain and also having the "Principal" seniority level, sharing a lot of knowledge and experience ended up on my desk without the possibility of delegating this work. Giving feedback to new initiatives, doing my share helping to drive them forward, new sync meetings, participating in domain workshops, and more.
      • Seeds planted over the last years in my colleagues' minds finally began to sprout. I really don't know what exactly happened, yet since beginning of the year a lot of people reached out to me. Suddenly they were taking me up on my continuous offers to give workshops or talks, to listen and give advice where wanted, to support their own experiments and initiatives, and more. I love seeing people this energized and acting on their ideas and I'm happy to support. "People first" as a principle does not only apply to my own team, so I didn't turn them down. Yet all these requests added up for me.
      • Mentoring, coaching and an accountability partnership. Over the last years, I had about one mentee at a time, sometimes one or two more without the formal relationship. This year I got a new mentee to nudge further on her journey - which is great! Also, this part of the job comes with the seniority as well: growing more senior people. With my mentee from last year we had agreed to continue the relationship as accountability partners - on the topic of saying "no" (imagine). In addition, I took on my very first coachee as an experiment for both our growth as well. Each and every of these relationships have clear boundaries and don't take up much time - yet overall they do add quite a bit. Yet again: people first.
      • Co-creating and running a series of six leadership workshops. I'm in a hybrid role as a principal engineer who's embedded on a cross-functional team. This means that I spend part of my capacity on cross-team initiatives to drive change on a different impact level. Over the last years I've found a rough rule that worked nicely for me: one third of my time I spend on everyday work on my team to evolve our product, one third for thinking ahead and driving innovation within said team and product, one third for initiatives outside my team, usually on a global scale. Worked pretty well last year, helping me to focus on less work in progress and also keep a sustainable pace. For this year, the main initiative I chose to do outside my team was to pair facilitate a series of six leadership workshops together with our coach Shiva Krishnan. I had participated in these workshops in the previous year and found their content to be very relevant and valuable to spread further. My experiment was to build quality on yet another level here, setting the base line and culture for good things to emerge. According to my experience, driving specific testing and quality initiatives mostly failed when they clashed with the existing culture. This year, I wanted to work on the mindset part from yet another angle and also build awareness on diversity, equity and inclusion topics as part of these leadership workshops. Well - long story short, Shiva and I ended up reworking each and every one of the six workshops, pulling them to a higher level and building yet a better framework by doing so. The magic of pairing! Any one of us alone would not even have imagined the end result. Together we put in a lot of effort yet also had a way better outcome in the end. I don't regret any moment working on these workshops - even though it was way more work than anticipated, and we had put ourselves up to keep hard absolute dates with each workshop.
      There might have been more things that I've forgotten to list here. Yet you can already see that there's no way that all of this would ever fit into a 40 hours work week when everything needs to take place at the same time and the goal is to achieve all that in five to six months. Some colleagues reached out with lots of requests, and when I explained my situation they shared they can really relate and things can wait; while giving me yet three more tasks. Sigh. My task list of additional "small things" to work on grew to 40 tasks that all would take at least 15 minutes to 1 hour and I just didn't know when to ever do them, while me being the only person who could work at them. I felt I was set up for failure and adding to that myself. Believe me, on each thing landing on my desk I pushed back way harder than at any time in my career before, challenging every bit of work if it really needed to be done, be done this way, be done by me, be done by me alone, be done by time x, be needing my attendance - and yet way too many things ended up with me anyway. Way too often I was in back to back calls the whole day (with follow-up tasks coming from them of course), while in the meantime I received so many chat messages with way more tasks waiting for me. Yes I can pull through this, and yet it will drain my energy levels completely. Way too often I felt I'm playing a game of "Whac-A-Mole" without being ever able to win - at least not on my own.

      The consequences of all this?
      • Being the bottleneck. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed being the bottleneck. A long time since I said goodbye to that mindset and never wanted to look back. From time to time I still ended up being the bottleneck (e.g. being the only one knowing how to do a certain thing), yet I usually took this as an indicator to change the situation. Having bottlenecks and knowledge silos is neither resilient for the system nor fun for the individuals. It just increases waiting times, triggers unhelpful behavior (like taking on a new task while waiting) and more. Believe me, I'm totally happy with not being the bottleneck and I'm way better able to contribute then.
      • My cognitive load exploded. With all the points above I had to keep way too many things in mind. Way too many context switches. Way too much balancing and juggling. If one thing dropped, way too often it cascaded into other things. Once more I realized what 100% (or more) utilization really means: a catastrophe. So many times I simply could not think anymore; you know, deeply think, really think something through. Staying too superficial just to cope with the situation led me to make less fortunate decisions. I lost focus on what's actually important and what can wait. Trying to make all these switches slowed my thinking to a halt. And yet I tried to pull through instead of taking breaks.
      • The more stressed I got, the more I fell back to bad habits. Like solo work, trying to solve everything myself (so it's "faster" and just "done") without pulling others in (so more people could help out in the future). Especially in the first months this was a missed chance. Another bad habit: being unable to say no. I know I'm a people pleaser, a learned behavior from childhood years, so I'm aware I need to work on this. I do have an accountability partnership specifically for that reason, so we can keep each other accountable on keeping an eye on our load. Practicing saying "no" to opportunities, or "not yet". Trying to delegate things, sponsor other people instead of taking on more things that are not in our focus, outside the area where we want to make the biggest impact. End of last year this worked well, yet this year I learned that the higher my stress levels, the lower my boundaries to accept new work load. This is something to keep in close check.
      • Getting angry with myself and the example I set. Angry with myself that I let this happen to me (which was not helpful at all but just added another layer of energy spent and capacity used up). Angry with myself that I felt the need to pull through all this and cope with the situation - despite me never wanting to take on as much anymore. The contradiction alone. Also, I was well aware being in a position of leadership, and leading by example taking on that much and not being able to delegate or take breaks, this is setting a really bad example I did not want for our culture. Working late or on weekends? I was always the first one telling my teammates that this is not the way to go (unless where really needed to balance with life), and that it's not good to set this bar for the rest of the team who might start thinking it's expected from them. All this while I was doing exactly that, just trying to hide this from my team. While I am also the one who advocates for transparency! Oh my.
      • My body alerted me of the elevated stress levels. I mean, more than usual. I started developing new physical responses to stress to a level that my body actually made me notice - a first timer for me. This was something I could not push away yet really got me thinking. It made me realize I really need to stop this. Get out of this situation as soon as possible.
      • Feeling overwhelmed, helpless, anxious. Way too many times I broke into tears or screamed in frustration or wanted to throw something. Anything. All this took up again time and energy that I felt I needed to spend to resolve this work situation and get out of it as soon as I can - while still being aware that this would mean months. Several colleagues and friends repeatedly reached out to me sharing their concerns that I'm stretched too thin and that I really need to get things off my table. Yes, I know. I don't know how though, and I'm sad it shows. I really appreciate you all for reaching out - I still couldn't see any other way out than pulling through.
      Of course that's not everything. There's more to life than work.
      • We're still living in a pandemic. I learned that I am totally happy with continuous change at work and drive improvements actively, yet especially in private settings I need a constant to hold on to and give structure, like my schedule. Any change in my daily routine takes a long time to establish new automatisms around it - costing lots of energy. The constant change of rules what's allowed and what not in the pandemic really drained me. Rather give me a more restricted set of rules and keep it for longer, I can live with that way better than having it change every few days or weeks.
      • Family and friends having a hard time. People were needing me in many different ways. We went through lots of ups and downs. Having to solve a lot of things remotely with people who are not used to work that way is a challenge in itself. Solving problems I never had to solve before while conveying that knowledge at the same time took a lot of energy from my side.
      • My personal projects and endeavors came to a full stop. At first I tried to make time for them nonetheless, then I realized I had to stop whatever I could. The last years I took on a lot and I'm aware of that. At the same time, my personal projects served as a sort of boundary for work, any hours outside working hours were simply reserved for other things already which helped me to keep these boundaries. They also gave me a lot of energy and allowed me to learn a lot of different things. Yet they had to go - during the past months I simply didn't know anymore how to ever manage that load otherwise. Slowly, I am now taking up a bit of public speaking again, yet mostly around existing sessions with the least effort possible.
      • Crossing my own boundaries for self-care way too many times. I failed to keep up my personal goals to do things only for myself (like games, sports or reading). Feeling guilty here as well and trying not to.
      • Way too many private messages and communication. While I heard many people struggling with the reduced connections during the pandemic, I so often wished for a lot less. I am usually receiving around 40 to 50 private emails every day, with around 10 I really need to respond to. Usually I'd be fine with that, I learned to get them out of the way quickly whenever I can. Also I'm happy when people are reaching out! Yet in above situation over the last half year these messages were way too many! Hence, seeing any kind of new email or social media notification immediately made me cringe and increased my stress levels.
      If I've ever felt burned out or getting real close to it, it was over the last months. A really scary place to be that I wanted to get out of as soon as possible. So I did work on finding my own way out. Oh yeah, this came on top - yet I felt this would be my saver. I tried a lot of things, yet here are strategies that indeed helped me on the long run in my specific context and situation. They mostly resolve around setting boundaries and spreading the load by enabling people to help out.

      • Take breaks. Really, I need to take breaks even if I feel I don't have the time for them. Sometimes just getting away from the table helps, like when making myself a new tea even though I didn't need one yet.
      • Take time to reflect and think. Sit down and reflect on what worked in times that resembled the current one, like back when I was working on big teams. The past months I continued reflecting and taking note of my thoughts in a journal. In hindsight this helped me a lot to unload myself of emotions or thoughts as well as to clear up my thinking. I had discovered over the last years that writing helps my thinking, so journaling is a great way for me to get my thoughts straight. If you wonder, I mostly just take bullet points, as little as needed, and sometimes thoughts are just flowing and filling up the white space.
      • Reduce the load in progress. Making principles like "stop starting, start finishing" very explicit again so people start looking around if they could help out someone else before starting something new, or just not start something new not to increase our work in progress even further. Cut down what you're working on, and then cut down even more.
      • Remember you are not alone. As shared, I'm a people pleaser and this often drives my behavior. I am using an "allower message" as antidote, so whenever I perceive being a failure (meaning I cannot please all people), I remind myself of a specific message to ground myself again. "Please yourself first" worked well for me last year. This year I changed it to "I am not alone". This reframing allowed me to break out of my solo overwork behavior (that helped no one), reach out to others earlier, and accepting their help better.
      • Refrain from solo work. My current team is not yet familiar with ensembling, yet open for pairing. So I paired a LOT. To the point where I committed to testing only together with other people - if we didn't find time together, well this thing did not get done. Giving myself permission to use that time to finish other things instead, and not to use off hours to test something. I deliberately went slow here so we all could go fast in the future, together. When things are valuable to us, we need to own them together. Sharing knowledge is one thing, sharing activities is key.
      • Focus on unblocking people. Teach people how to help themselves and the team and then let them do it. Let them be responsible of follow-up tasks instead of grabbing any little further todo in addition, like setting up meetings or taking notes or checking in with another person.
      • Invest in upskilling people, continuously. Pairing added to that goal just as much as sharing knowledge in a fun and realistic way. For example, I gave two operations and support trainings that put my team in the actual situation of an incoming user request or an alert by our product, while also enabling them to investigate the situation and go through it. This helped a lot with sharing why this work is important, why we need to bring our pieces of knowledge together, and how to do it without making it a tedious burden yet allowing us to learn from it.
      • Explain your situation and manage expectations. Share your context in any interaction. Being open and transparent with people helped a lot with their understanding and us seeing the full picture. It also allowed us to find alternative ways to accomplish things faster or with less effort.
      • Find sympathetic ears. What really helped me was talking with a lot of people - people who listened and I'm ever grateful for that. Sharing your situation and speaking out loud helps reflection and becoming clear that this is not a situation to stay in. It sometimes triggered other ideas what to try, or re-established my confidence in doing my job; yet even if it only helped make the other aware of my situation, talking already helped.
      • Refrain from taking on more on top. Saying "no", "not yet", "not me". A lot. If you can't (as priorities change, right?) communicate what goes instead - you can't do everything at once.
      • Connect people. Instead of taking things on your own desk, empower others to do so. Sometimes all there's needed is to make people visible and connect them.
      • Reduce your cognitive load and singletask. Wherever possible. Do one thing at a time and complete that one thing at a time before tackling the next one. Sometimes more stuff comes in on which you can't decide right away, yet instead of keeping this in the head just park it in a todo list or similar. Anything that freed my thinking capacity to focus on the current task at hand helped. Sometimes it also meant getting rid of a few smaller and less important things just to free my mind again for the big important impactful one. Anything to get calmer or stay calm enough and maintain thinking capacity. If I'm drowning, my biggest value is gone: being there for people, going deep thinking in different perspectives and creating bridges and connecting people, driving experiments and inspiring change. So I'd rather should help 10 people not 100. Spreading myself too thin does not work.
      • Consider unplanned work. No matter what we do, we will discover new things as we go. Whether it's the tooling that suddenly does not want to work with us anymore, or incidents taking over priority, or a personal crisis. Some things will happen and shift previous plans. We need to keep this in mind and enable us to act on new insights quickly.
      • Maintain your own space. I need space to drive testing and quality topics in my team. I need space to contribute pro-actively. I need space to help other teams and people in the company as well. I need space to be helpful. The safer I feel and the more space within constraints I have, the more ideas I get and think positively about my work and the impact we can have together. Sometimes I just needed space to tackle a few things on my todo list - so I'm really thankful for my team giving me this space. Yet remember: filling the day with back to back calls is the opposite of maintaining space.
      • Make space for others to step up. My new team achieved a lot of things I wanted to drive forward just by getting the space to do so. Together, we finally tackled some long waiting improvement points. We introduced integration tests for consuming Kafka messages, added template testing for our frontend, increased the level of observability of our backend, introduced actual feature flags to decouple deploying from releasing, integrated first accessibility testing to tackle this increasingly important quality aspect, and introduced user tracking with Hotjar to get even more data and make more informed product decisions. Yes, I nudged a bit on all these topics, yet most of this was achieved by my teammates with me getting out of the way.
      • Reclaim your calendar. Setting my work and private calendars to tentative helped me a lot. This can serve as a signal to others looking for free slots and having them reach out to me directly, yet it mostly served as a signal to myself when looking at my calendar. Screaming in my face: "no more extra meetings during this time, don't schedule or accept if not absolutely needed".
      • Reclaim your inboxes. Responding to private emails only on weekends; just because this way no further response could come in between and add to my load.
      • Prioritize sleep. This grew very important, especially after my body made clear my stress levels are too high. Cutting on sleeping hours is never the way to go.
      • Make space for "me time", no matter what. Canceling private appointments to get a little me time here and then. Even if I just used it to watch another episode of my current series. Anything to distract my mind from work.
      • Accept what you cannot change. We don't have everything in our hands. Accepting this can be hard, yet many times I can only change how I cope with what comes.
      • Be okay with being not okay and focus on finding a way back to okay. As soon as possible. In the end it boils down to that. I cannot be of any help to others, especially on the long run, if I don't take care of myself. Remember the oxygen mask and why we need to put it on ourselves first.
      • Take time to socialize and have a good time with people. With my new team starting to grow together, I drew a lot of energy from any social moment we had, great conversations as well as having fun playing a game together. I desperately need the bonding and building these relationships on more than just work topics.
      • Celebrate achievements. I sometimes really need to acknowledge what I managed to do and allow myself to feel not only overwhelmed but also take in good energy from these achievements. The trick is: even if I don't feel like it, celebrate nonetheless. With the responses the good feelings come along. Looking back I'm thankful I did and can now feel more proud than at that point in time.
      With all that, after half a year, I finally feel I'm in a better place again. Most of the topics on my desk that had absolute dates attached are done, people around me are finally enabled to help out, and I have capacity again to deal with what's still there while remembering not to take on too many new ones at a time. The rest can wait, there's a time coming for that.

      Huge kudos and gratitude to my new team - I really appreciate you for stepping up big time, feeling responsible for the whole product and team, for more than your own area of expertise. For being ready to take over unfamiliar things outside your comfort zone. For sharing the load and helping each other. For learning every day with each other. For experimenting. For really having my back when I went on vacation or spoke at a conference. For listening. For sending me on vacation early. I know some of you feel you're just doing your work - yet let me make this clear again: yes, you are doing your work, and I appreciate you for doing it well.

      Huge kudos to so many people of our lovely communities - thank you all for listening to me in this time or for bearing with me canceling appointments, not accepting pairing requests anymore, and not being there for a lot of things. I am coming back to all the lovely community stuff, yet I need to remember to use my energies wisely and look for synergies where I can.

      Huge kudos to my friends for reaching out, and especially to my best friend and sister Marlene Guggenberger - thank you for honoring me as first listener of your first novels (which are amazing, so people who understand German should definitely check them out!). I loved the live reading as the story progressed, it was the time off my head that I needed on many of these days and hence a real life saver for me! Not taken for granted.

      The one most helpful thing I've learned to prevent a situation as described above worked also as the way out of it. Dear future me. I am not alone.