Wednesday, December 23, 2020

2020 - Gratitude After All

Beginning of the year I joined in on a series of fun tweets trying to predict your year. Obviously based on scientific evidence, of course. Well, based on the forecast, I'd say I had been at a good place around that time.

Then the real 2020 came and hit us all in very unexpected fashions. I am sure the year had a toll on all of us, and I'm also sure it impacted us very inequitably. If you made it through this year, then congrats to you! It's more than many can say, it's way more than enough, it's what counts in the end.

Writing this, I'm being aware that for many people this year was hell and full of suffering, the one way or the other. I'm being aware that for the ones that are closest to me the year was a really rough one. I'm being aware of my own privilege and sheer luck when it comes to my situation in all of this and I am very grateful for how things went this year overall in the end. Yes, I had to navigate several ups and downs, and I had to create new automation pathways in everyday life that took a lot more energy than ever expected to build up. Yet overall, things are as good as they can be. So just like every year, I wanted to look back and acknowledge the good things that happened, the things I learned, and anything else I find noteworthy to document here for my future self.

  • My personal challenge this year focused on security and I started learning a lot more about it. I decided to stop the challenge when other things mattered more, yet I dared starting it. Also, what I learned so far, like threat modeling, was very valuable for work already.
  • I learned a lot about systems of oppression, especially racism and sexism. There are so many wonderful people sharing their lived experiences and expertise whom I am ever grateful for. There are so many more stories to hear and learn from. So much more to do, taking action on the growing awareness and doing better. After sharing my first steps on this lifelong journey, I continued learning. I actively looked for more, read more, shared more resources, joined more workshops, and especially spoke up more. I'm only starting to see the patterns and see clearer what's happening, but it's a start.
  • At work, I learned a lot more about various software development topics: observability, performance, GraphQL, user research and usability testing, using mocks for exploratory testing, contract testing, infrastructure topics, and more.
  • I ran several experiments on all kinds of topics, on different levels, with various groups of people. Most failed, some succeeded, and I learned from all of them.
  • Reserving daily thinking time and writing my thoughts down in a journal at work helped me a lot with reflecting, focusing and deciding on my next steps.
  • Longer-term mentoring continued. Inside the company, one mentorship ended, another one started. Outside the company, I agreed to a mentoring relationship despite feeling and sharing I'm over my head - for our mutual learning.
  • I sponsored people for opportunities like public speaking or getting internal training. There's a lot more room for improvement here for the years to come.
  • I found an accountability partner at work to help each other grow better at saying no and make more conscious decisions what to commit to and what to delegate.
  • This December, I had my five-year anniversary at my current company; the longest time I've ever been at the same company. It's been a real ride full of opportunities, challenges, support - never boring.
  • I attended a really insightful leadership workshop series given by my amazing colleague Shiva Krishnan. It helped me reflect and get to know myself a lot better as well as provided me with lots of tools to become a better leader. My workshop group was amazing and made it a safe place for learning, so we decided to continue learning together as a learning group.
  • Speaking of learning groups, my lovely power learning group had further amazing calls supporting each other in these pandemic times. Also, I helped kick-start a new local cross-company learning group and we already enjoyed insightful conversations.
  • I didn't have as many pairing sessions in the community as the last years, I simply didn't have the energy for them. Still, the ones I had were great. In addition, Peter Kofler and I still pair on security testing each month.
  • I spoke at two conferences, two corporate events, three meetups, a webinar, and four podcasts. More things and events were planned, yet everything else was either postponed or I declined due to lack of energy.
  • I was part of a conference program team for the first time. In the end, instead of the planned on-site event, we hosted two online events. Still, a new experience for me.
  • Another first timer: I reviewed paper proposals for a conference. Based on my learnings and what helps me in my context, I created a conference speaking guide.
  • Thanks to Viv Richards, I contributed to a book for the very first time: "Around the World with 80 Software Testers". Loved reading all the wisdom from so many people all over the world.
  • This year I wrote eleven blog posts including the present one; honestly, more than I would have expected given my energy levels and priorities.
  • I joined a remote ensemble initiative, learning a lot about how to work well with new people, learning more about TDD, Python, software architecture and machine learning, and working on a practice project together. Not to forget the fun and energy this gave us all during pandemic times!
  • I was a lot more mindful about my own level of energy this year, realizing my bar was a lot lower than what I perceived the previous years. I made it a lot more explicit where to involved myself and how much time to spend, trying not to overspend my energy anymore.
  • I made self care a priority by keeping it as part of my personal challenge and continuing it even after marking the challenge as done. Each week I did things just for myself, for fun and relaxation - before other tasks at hand. I failed at it during three calendar weeks only and I know the reasons why. To add to that, intentionally granting myself more sleep during the week helped a lot as well.
  • I de-cluttered my life to quite some extent. Reducing the number of work initiatives (and hence my parallel load) which provided me a lot more focus and flexibility. Not committing myself to every opportunity that comes my way, remembering to say no and rather sponsor others wherever possible. Finally completing long postponed things on my personal to do list (like replacing way too old furniture that fell apart for years already), or acknowledging they are simply not important enough to be on that list of maximum twenty items, and if they became important, they would surface anyway again. Freeing myself of the constant pressure of the learning resources I haven't checked out yet. On the one hand, I created habits like "whenever I drive my car I listen to the next podcast episode on my list" that automatically has me chip away on my lists so I could stop worrying about them. On the other hand, renaming my lists from "to hear" to "might hear", granting myself the freedom to discard them at any time. I simply don't have to consume everything.
  • I finally overcame the denial phase and took the time to set up a proper home office. I even enjoy working from remote nowadays and definitely see the benefits, helping manage work with my new private life.
  • I created a personal vision and mission for me as a guiding light, especially for decision making. It does guide me well so far, and I'm curious what I'm going to say in half a year from now.
  • I'm ever grateful for the communities I'm part of. The power of community really cannot be overrated, in good times and especially in bad times. I had countless calls and messages to stay socially connected with each other, remotely, during a pandemic. To be human with each other. To give each other space and be heard. Inside and outside the company. You know who you are, and I'm grateful you are there.
  • What makes me really happy is that I could help some people this year. So many helped me, and I'm trying to pay it forward. Every time someone shares with me that I made a difference for them, no matter how small, it makes my day.
  • The most important thing I learned this year? Thoughts and words without actions hurt; and silence supports the status quo. Both of these apply to the context of a team just as much as to the world.
That list grew longer than expected for 2020. Here's a side note on all this: I intentionally set myself up to remember the good stuff. I jot down my upcoming plans and keep track, yet that's just a small part of it. I have moments on Twitter with all achievements shared and appreciations received. I keep positive feedback that I get. I take a lot of notes, like that journal at work. All this helps me think in the moment, and also helps my future self to acknowledge what happened in the past. It's giving myself the comfort and confidence I need to look into the future.

Speaking of next year? Well, I regained enough energy to make plans again. I already have committed to a few of them for 2021. I'm aware they might not become reality, and that's fine. I also granted myself a lot more leeway to reduce pressure and give myself flexibility to decide in the moment, following my energies. We never know what comes, besides that things always change. I try to keep seeing opportunities for growth.

To set the tune for next year, I'm currently listening to The Happiness Lab. Really recommended science podcast series! Let's take on shaping 2021 together.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

My Personal Vision and Mission

This year, I set out to craft a personal vision and mission for myself. I'm sharing it now for multiple reasons. On the one hand, for my own learning and growth, as writing about it forces me to summarize my thoughts and preserve my reasoning for my future self as a reference. On the other hand, for your inspiration, in case you want to create a personal vision yourself to see if it helps tackling your challenges, or in case the content of my vision speaks to you in some way.

Balancing Opportunities and Impact

Since last year I became very deliberate with what I spend my time and energy on at work. Where can I provide the most value? Where do I want to have impact? How? Given the privilege and freedom I have at work, there are many opportunities at hand. The last years, especially coming with my promotion to principal level, I took the bait of saying yes to way too many topics. All the things sounded great and worthy after all! However, it's a trap. Juggling with contributing to too many initiatives at the same time can hurt a lot. It hurt the quality of the outcome achieved as I was spreading myself too thin to have as deep an impact as I wanted to have. It hurt due to opportunity cost, as quickly agreeing to all opportunities that came my way didn't leave the option to contribute to others that might have been more valuable to pursue. It hurt me personally as my stress levels increased with each topic exponentially, especially when tasks and deadlines collided. And it also hurt the interactions I had with other people as I was constantly in a rush, causing me to miss a lot of nuances in collaboration, often not having energy left to show my best behavior. I had to learn that the hard way last year.

Reflecting on this, I tried to increase focus for my commitments and see where I could provide most value every day, every week. Using a simple notebook page per work week (yes, an analog one), I started planning ahead for the upcoming week. I jotted down the most important points to work on, on which day, so I could provide the most value overall for all of us. Making things visual and having them lying next to me at any time indeed helped me focus. I could tick items off as I went, highlight them if I didn't come to them, or strike them out in case they didn't apply anymore. I also tracked my mood at the end of the work day to indicate whether the day worked out well or not so I could adapt what I had in my hands. While this was (and still is) helping already, I still was spread across too many things. I felt I needed even more focus and not fill my time up fully to keep a certain amount of flexibility. Yet what to focus on? Where to best spend my capacity?

Beginning of this year, I started reflecting on who I wanted to be and how I wanted to lead by example. I came up with five characteristics I'd like to see for myself, calling it my vision for my future self. That helped with grounding myself a lot. Also, I thought about the productive and generative work I wanted to do, both short term and long term - kudos to Maaret Pyhรคjรคrvi for the approach and inspiration! This helped me come up with concrete strategies and balanced focus.

I viewed things from a "range of impact" perspective. If I do this, who would be impacted? Me, my product team, our cross-team testing community, the tech department, the whole company? I started limiting my initiatives to one per category, which already helped. Work in progress limits for the win. Over time, I condensed these even further to three groups only. Only three topics in progress at the same time, next to my everyday hands-on work in my product team. That worked well for quite some time.

This year, however, with limited energy at hand, I made the choice to reduce my topic limit yet again. Now I'm counting the every day hands-on work as one of three buckets I can fill. I could still approach this in new ways of course, yet now I'm explicit about combining these initiatives. Why? Last year I had created an explicit agreement with my team that on average I will work for two thirds on team topics and one third on topics beyond the team, impacting maybe another product team, or our domain, or any kind of grouping with people from various teams. So now I'm thinking of this roughly as follows: one third of my time for hands-on everyday topics with my product team (e.g. pair testing with my teammates), one third to drive initiatives within my team (e.g. increasing testability for our interfaces with services from other teams), and one third for topics beyond the team (e.g. supporting our domain technical offer experimenting to evolve a quality culture in the domain). So now I had roughly three buckets overall, so I'd rather only have only one focus topic for each of them.

All this worked quite well for the time being, and throughout this year I got better and better in not taking on new commitments. I even found an accountability partner when it came to saying no, my dear colleague Paulo Azevedo. I rather streamlined the attention and energy I had, driving less things at the same time - and I was feeling better.

With 2020 being a special year in itself, having a toll on everybody, I felt not guilty about not taking on formal cross-team topics and initiatives and instead chose to experiment more informally on my own. There was a lot of value in having this free time and new flexibility to involve myself and drive small things forward. Still, now that I went through the first waves and turbulences after my promotion and managed to calm down and regain energy, now that I'm in a good position where I can really trigger change, it was time to take up something bigger again. Take the next step in my personal growth as well. So once again, during the last months I've thought a lot about what I wanted to achieve, which impact to have.

Around the same time, I've completed a series of leadership workshops given by my amazing colleague Shiva Krishnan that provided a wealth of food for thought. It allowed me to understand myself as well as past interactions a lot better, and inspired me heavily to try out lots of different things. Along with the workshops, Shiva offered personal coaching sessions. I was eager to take him up on his offer as I had already learned how valuable personal coaching can be. In our first session I told Shiva I wanted to define my next step on my journey. So I shared the vision I had for my future self at that point in time - and his questions made me realize that my points rather described the how, not the what. What was it that really inspired me, that I wanted to achieve, my dream vision? I didn't have an answer. I could tell who inspired me; I tried to follow their lead by example. Yet what is it that inspired me personally, what did I want to reach or work towards as an individual? Thinking freely without barriers, leaving out all the things I might think I "ought to do"? What makes me happy, what do I enjoy, what do I want to continue? Shiva said to me that I don't always need to know everything, only where I want to go. So my actual next step became clear to me. I wanted to create a personal vision for myself to serve as guiding light when it comes to deciding which impact I want to have, where and how to provide most value, and which opportunities to decline, accept, or even create myself.

My Personal Vision and Mission

So far I had helped creating a vision and mission for groups and initiatives, yet never one for myself. I searched the internet for tips. I brainstormed and reflected on the past and present. Lots and lots of questions asked. What would I observe when the dream became reality? How to notice that what I did got us closer to my vision? How to know the vision is good enough at all for my purpose? Well, for the latter I found my answer. Given a vision, I wanted to be able to ask myself for any kind of opportunity: Does it support my vision? If yes, go for it. If not, it's either not the right thing to do or not for me to do it.

A vision is the dream goal, the ideal state. A mission leads to a vision, it's how to reach the higher goal. A vision and mission is never carved in stone, they evolve over time or might even change completely. Given all this, I created a first draft of my vision and continued iterating on it. Shiva was instrumental here in guiding my thinking with invaluable questions which triggered lots of thoughts, helping me uncover and shape what I see as mine. In the end, I had crafted my personal vision and mission as of now.

Vision: Systemic inclusion and growth for a better world 

Mission: By fostering a culture of DICE
                    Diversity, equity & inclusion 
=> Simple words: Foster a culture where everyone is sharing and learning with each other 
=> Shortest version: Everyone learning together 

My vision, the ideal world I'd like to live in, is to have systemic inclusion and growth for a better world. Because I strongly believe if we really include all perspectives and all the people with different lived experiences and we all get better together and grow and learn more, it will automatically result in a better world in the sense of better policies for our planet,  for our other fellow humans, for everything. Better products, more innovation, better ideas, better solutions. That's the base that I would love to have, the ideal, the dream.

It's about having a system where this is just natural, where people just do this naturally, where this is the easiest way to go. It's just the way it is, not something out of the norm, it's the default. There's no effort for people they have to put in as it's the usual way to go, you don't have to be a super human to do that. All good will come out of it, we can move forward together from a safe space. This vision needs me to think of systems more. How to set up policies, how to create the space, shape the environment - so that good things happen. That's my dream for the world overall, but also in a smaller part for tech which is my bubble. It's the higher thing that I'd like to contribute to and work on. I strongly believe if we have that we have a better world.

My mission to reach this vision is to foster a culture of "DICE". I use this as an acronym to make it more snappy and memorable. The D stands for diversity, equity and inclusion which is often abbreviated as DEI. The I is for inspiration, C for collaboration, and E for experimentation. I felt if I put this mission in very simple words, it would be to foster a culture where everyone is sharing with each other and learning with each other. So everyone learning together would be the shortest version, sort of the elevator pitch. I still kept the more verbose original one as default because I felt it's more explicit and expressive for me, but if I would need to explain it for someone else, probably the simple words and short version will help.

I am aware that some people might wonder where the testing and quality part is in here. I did not want to bind my vision to a specific aspect, activity or role. That does not stop me, however, from being able to see this vision and mission from different perspectives and takes. I can focus on testing and quality but don't have to. I wanted to have it explicitly overarching and including not only all those things that I do, not even only all those things we do in product development, yet be applicable to a lot of contexts. Shiva asked me whether I feel bad that quality is not explicitly mentioned in there. The answer is no. Based on my own experience, I believe that quality will emerge out of such a system, be the natural outcome so I don't need to focus on it.

I am also aware that my personal vision and mission can be perceived as quite open, high level and generic; so how could it be useful for decision making? Well, I see this as a benefit. I can do a lot of different activities to get closer to this, to help this vision. So many experiments I can think of that can contribute! Also, I wanted a vision I could live every day. Keep in mind that this is not tied to work only. I wanted to have a real personal vision and mission that's guiding me in life, which means in work life plus my personal development and private life as well. I hoped it would be a tool, a guiding light for prioritization and decision making, using which I could always ask myself: does this pay into what I actually want to achieve, the higher goal?

In the end, my vision and mission really feels good to me. I can remember it even when not reading it every day, can just tell anyone that's what I want to work towards. Also, it inspires me. On the one hand I'm already working on some of these things. I'm working on the growth part for several years now with all my personal challenges, learning together in groups, help others grow, sharing what I learned. I invested there a lot already. The inclusion part I always wanted to work on yet haven't done much yet, there's a lot of potential in this part and I'm just at the beginning. I could also say that this will lead to personal growth again; I feel I first need to learn what I can do to create such systems where others can do it, too. The key change in thinking now is the systemic part. I always thought of cultures yet never made it that explicit, never really considered deliberately shaping the space during my experiments to drive change. People have reasons for when they do something or not do something; I need to take care of the environment to be able to trigger change.

A Guiding Light

Having my vision and mission at hand and always visible, I wanted to give it a try to see if it really helps my decision making. New options and opportunities showing up? Now I could bounce them off my vision and mission, see if they pay into them or not. Also, I wanted to come up with my next big initiative. During our personal coaching sessions, Shiva mentioned the VMOSA framework that can help break things down further to actionable steps we can take towards our vision. VMOSA stands for:

  • Vision: the dream
  • Mission: what you will actually do to make your vision a reality
  • Objectives: what you're hoping to achieve in a given time frame
  • Strategies: the how
  • Action plans: detailed plan of who, what, by when, to make what change happen

I felt this VMOSA framework might be too blown up for my usual case, yet I wanted to try it out as a thinking tool and see if it would allow me to derive with concrete guidance for the next year 2021. I already had the vision, and the mission. The objectives? Phew, that one felt tough. However, thinking about strategies, Shiva had already made me realize that my original wishes for my future myself had represented strategies rather than a real vision. So I skipped the objectives for now and instead took the strategies I already had, extended them where needed, and mapped them to the points in my mission. Which strategies could I apply to get closer to which parts in my mission?

  • Leading by example 
    • The kind includer: creating space for people and helping them grow by providing crucial feedback, prioritizing the most vulnerable (D, I)
    • The inspirer: sharing my stories and lessons learned for others to discover and explore (I) 
    • The doing leader: demonstrating the whole team approach by getting my hands on wherever I can provide value (I, C) 
    • The collaborator by example: going the way together by pairing and ensembling (C) 
    • The learning advocate: becoming better every day by running small frugal experiments (I, E) 
  • Creating spaces with policies that have consequences 
    • Make inclusion and growth the default (D, I, C, E) 

The concrete action plans were also not hard to come up with. I felt that my actions would be represented by my experiments. Experiments applying strategies to achieve objectives paying into the mission to get closer to the vision and hence having real impact. Well, I have long lists full of ideas for my next experiments. Mapping these ideas to parts of my mission made also visual where they would pay into. Some experiments would pay into several, others only into one of them.

So far so good, yet I had skipped the objectives step. So now I thought about concrete, measurable objectives for 2021. It took me some time until I could formulate my first objectives, and all of a sudden I had nine of them. All quite big. Definitely very ambitious, most probably too many to reach in 2021. Am I spreading myself too thin again? Especially as I wanted more focus and balance? I wonder, what if I would see those rather as objectives and key results (OKRs), where it's recommended to define them in a way that you probably reach 60% of them? I definitely was up for a challenge again. In the end it's about outcome over output. I also mostly chose high numbers for my measures so I have to make it systemic to achieve them. Well, the objectives I have now might not be perfect, yet they are a starting point. And they did what I wanted from them initially, to provide guidance and help me choose my next initiatives to involve myself in. Which experiments to run now, which ones not to run, or not yet.

As a final step in this thinking process, I checked if my vision and mission is in line with our company vision, goals and values as well; especially considering my work objectives for next year. I was happy to see they actually do pay into it as well (or did I just see what I wanted to see?). Well, all that was an exercise to help me think. I cannot tell yet whether the objectives chosen will actually help me decide which experiments to try or not. Maybe they will indeed, yet they definitely won't be the only aspect. Whatever I will learn on my way will inform my next experiments in any case.

For now, I only decided on my very next experiment. This one is a real big one that is scary as well. It will definitely need me to be out of my comfort zone, stretching myself into the learning zone. It's as safe as it can be at the same time, as I'm going to pair with Shiva on this one. We agreed to do the next round of the leadership workshops for my location together. We're going to build upon each other's ideas and make this a new workshop series, an evolved one, our own one. These are going to be the first workshops where I not only talk about learning, collaboration, experimentation - but also about diversity, equity, inclusion, systems of oppression like racism, privilege, cognitive biases, psychological safety, and more. So much looking forward to what we will all learn together.

Building Future Systems

For the time being, I know my dream vision and my mission how I think we can get there. I do not know every exact step on the way there, though. Yet now I can work on this a lot more deliberately, experiment by experiment. I'm curious where it leads me and which ways I find to create systems, shape systems, and help them evolve - and us with it.