Writing About Testing? Think Motivation, Not Discipline

Ok, I’ve already lost some of you by using the word “writing” in the title. I understand. It’s not a sexy sport. Sit in front of a keyboard and type stuff. Woo hoo.

For testers, however, it’s a necessary evil. We have to be able to describe what we see in our work. There are bug reports, notes during testing, and reports to write. I’ve long thought that there could even be a new role on projects titled “Project Journalist” to keep track of important decisions, meeting notes, risks, and information that always emerges during projects.

But forget that for now.

I’m writing this hoping that you may consider another important kind of writing about testing — blogging and articles about our craft.

For two days this past weekend, Chris McMahon thought it would be a good idea to convene a small group of testing professionals to talk about just that. Sixteen or so of us agreed and showed up to join him in the middle of nowhere (Durango, CO).

For two days at 6500 feet above sea level, we met in Durango’s public library to see what the fuss was all about. We were all writers, bloggers, article authors, and a few us were book authors. There was even one rep from the media (Joey McAllister from SQE).

There was the usual peer conference stuff — presentations, exercises, break-out sessions for conferring and trading ideas. But for me, I found a possible solution to a problem I had been having for years: I have the time and the passion to write, but I lack the discipline. So, how do I get it?

Elisabeth Hendrickson, Marlena Compton and Marisa Seal helped me smash a solution together in a few minutes. What emerged from that discussion was that it’s not about discipline, but motivation. After a few minutes of talking with them, I was suddenly aware of the factors over the years that have helped me to get writing done. Maybe I just forgot them because they weren’t all in one easy list, so let me fix that here:

1) Passion — When I’m Provoked, Pissed Off, or Pumped, that’s passion — energy like a raging river that carries the writing. It’s an elixir, a form of inebriation I find myself in that results in an excitement to communicate something. Other writers at the conference agreed that when you’re bored when writing, someone will be bored reading. If the opposite is true, then Passion may be your #1 motivating factor. The beauty is you can’t force it. You can’t sit down and try to get passionate about something — at least, it doesn’t work for me. But I can sit down and ask “what am I passionate about?” and learn what I think I already know because of being fueled in some way. (E.g. The first draft of this article was 1700 words written in 2 hours.)

2) Pressure (or Promises) — some people love deadlines. I do, too, and time boundaries work for me. But that’s not the only form of pressure. Another form is a promise you make to someone. It’s peer pressure in a good way. My brother calls it the “Bold Boast” (formerly known as the “Rash Promise”) heuristic — publicly agree to do a talk on something you want to know more about. Tell someone you’re doing a blog by X date and to kick your butt if they don’t see it.

3) Peers: Similar to Pressure above, but it’s a subtle difference. The kind of pressure above works for me because I like to think I have a service mindset. That is, I like coming through for people, even if I’m the one who sets the expectation. What motivates me is if I can help them when they ask. It also motivates to see their feedback, even if it’s critical, because I trust them enough to know it will be worth my time to consider what they say. I’m eager to put in print the things that impress my friends or will win me new ones — not that it’s THE reason, but there’s something about putting yourself out there, to say “This is Who I Am.” When you do that, you invite others to agree with you. If they disagree, it’s a test for you. All it takes for me to get good writing done is to get an email from a colleague who needs help and has asked me specifically for my take. Not hard to write a 2000-word email in 30 minutes if the topic is right and if the need is greatest. In fact, what I plan to do is look through my old emails to colleagues and see if I have several blogs already written in that Sent Items folder and just don’t realize it!

4) Publicity / Portfolio — As Manager for Corporate Intellect for Quardev, part of my job is writing in a business context. Offshore effort tends to be cheaper than us, so I have to find ways to make us more valued and credible. But I also have to be authentic, because people (like me) see right through marketing BS. You might have the same problem. In this economy, there is no job security. You are expendable, replaceable, even after years of service. But perhaps if your persona was online and available, if you had a PR guy or a portfolio you could point to — articles that showed your work — you might be much less difficult to part with and much more attractive for those in need of people who stand out. Imagine a conference with the top names in software. Imagine that they offshore all of those keynotes and presentations to people who just came in and read the person’s slides. It would be a far different conference. Keynotes are chosen because of marketing, name, and reputation. You don’t have to strive for that level of recognition, but the more Public your Portfolio is, the more likely you will stand out. It might motivate you to contribute more writing about testing.

5) Pairing — writing is a lonely sport, which is why I tend to hate it. I’m an extrovert. People fuel me, they don’t often drain me. This past weekend at the Writing About Testing conference, I had a chance to pair with Lanette Creamer (also from Seattle) on an assignment to write a haiku about testing (and writing) in 5 minutes. Our values must have been in line because we wrote two and talked about the mechanics of what we were doing (with time to spare). I confess I didn’t trust the exercise (c/o Elisabeth Hendrickson) because it felt too easy! Later, Lanette and I decided to pair on a larger topic — an article about certification. It started out as a point/counterpoint, with me being against certification, but it came out as I typed the words she narrated that she felt there were bigger fish to fry. That intrigued me. I typed in transcript mode, as fast as I could to capture my thoughts and her reaction, and as I did, our conversation turned to a subject we felt could really use more words — the chilling effect of hiring managers all seeming to want only programmers as testers. It’s known that paired programming is a crucial component of Extreme Programming and Agile Development. I’ve long believed (and experienced) that paired testing works well to expose more risks and ideas than one person tends to do alone. And here comes Paired Writing. Not just co-authorship do I mean, but real-time pairing on an article or a blog or something where there will likely be one voice. Pairing helps carry the load, the deadline pressure, and the feelings of being inadequate in one area — because you have another to help.

6) Pooling — maybe it will help to see all of your ideas in one place like on a kanban-style board or scrum backlog. One idea per index card or sticky note and look at the pool of them. Does something stand out? It usually does for me. When you see things in context, in aggregate, “in toto” as they say in legal circles, one idea may emerge as stronger or more resonant. That’s motivating to me. You don’t have to write all of them at once, just one. Which is best might be an easier decision if you could see your choices.

7) Process — Sometimes knowing I have peers and passion and pairing and pooling and publicity and pressure helps me undertake a new piece of writing. Just like software, there are different stages in to bringing an idea to term. You don’t often have to sit down and get the thing done in one hour and have it be perfect. You can rely on these other factors (comprised in a process you create) as “helpers” to make the task not seem so daunting. It may be motivating to see your idea as being so valuable that it will take more than one P to get it sorted out. I’m not a big process guy, but in writing this article, I know I will lean on several other P’s. It doesn’t have to be perfect right now and that takes some of the bad pressure off (the good pressure being peers and deadlines, both of which I have for this piece). The bad pressure I refer to is: “Is this good enough”? “Is this trite?” “Is this too contrived?” “Is this too long?” These questions may just as well stop me from writing this whole l blasted piece, but I sense there is something valuable in the Process that will help me sort out those issues. That is motivating, and here it is, with that, I am declaring this piece done enough for now.

8) Pay — Ok, this one is the least motivating to me, but I need to mention it because there are magazines out there that will pay you, even in this economy. An editor has told me more than once “The Content Monster must be fed.” That is, every month, they need to have a backlog of articles to choose from and those don’t often come easy. Editors (like Joey McAllister @ SQE) will love to hear from you. They’ll help you midwife those ideas, and there may be a little something in it for you besides all of the things I’ve listed above.

So there it is, my 8 contrived, true-for-me ways that you might find resonate with you too, in order to get your blog or article about testing on record. I suppose I could make a 9th consisting of “Produce” — and that is, Produce your own peer conference and let that be its own motivation for you. McMahon’s “Writing About Testing” conference spoke for itself, but it doesn’t have to be the only place to get together to talk about how we’re all trying to improve both crafts — testing *and* writing.

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