Like a lot of independent consultants, I feel a bit icky about doing direct sales and marketing. I prefer the indirect approach– to speak and write and just wait until people email me with offers of work. But today I had an idea for a different kind of marketing message that I believe would appeal to exactly the sort of people who should be hiring me: a warning message.
Let me begin with a simple positive statement, and then I’ll show you what I mean.
Why You Might Want to Hire Me and For What Purposes
The main thing I do for money is to teach and coach software testers. By testers, I mean anyone whose responsibilities include software testing, during the moments when they are engaged in that task. I generally teach my three-day Rapid Software Testing class, which focuses on test design and analysis and has a number of short hands-on exercises. I also have Rapid Software Testing Applied, which has less material but much longer practical exercises, and Rapid Software Testing for Managers, which is oriented to leadership.
What I sometimes do for money is high impact test strategy consulting, which sometimes involves actual testing. I’ve consulted on testing financial systems and medical devices, for instance, in projects that lasted months. Usually I come in and help for a week or two, then leave and come back again later, providing ongoing support for full-time staff.
My favorite work– when I can get it– is high stress, high stakes, expert witness gigs. That means consulting and testifying on court cases. These projects may involve testing, but mostly a ton of reading (>50,000 pages of tech manuals on one project), analysis, synthesizing narratives, visualizing data, and persuasively writing. They are rare and wonderful projects. I’m suited for them because I have a passion for complexity, argument and evidence, and I love the feeling I get from defending truth.
Why you might want to hire me is that you are worried that you are wasting time and effort in testing, that your testers are bored or shallow in their work, or that too many important bugs are escaping into the field and causing you and your customers distress. I approach testing analytically, socially, and technologically. Or maybe you are in a law suit involving testing, quality, or patent infringement (which often requires testing to determine if a product infringes) and you don’t want to lose the case.
That’s the positive statement. Now for the warning.
Beware of Hiring Me: Tigers Make Difficult Pets
In a big consulting company, management wants workers to be versatile, docile, and inexpensive. A worker like that can be plugged into any situation. In a group of versatile workers, anyone is pretty easily replaced, a fact which serves to encourage everyone to continue to be docile and inexpensive (“you need us more than we need you”). Versatility comes at the cost of depth of skill and experience, however. With increasing expertise, you increase problem-solving power while reducing versatility.
(What I mean by “reducing versatility” is that I, for instance, can do a zillion things. I can organize coffee for you. I can plan parties. I can clean your kitchens. I can be a project manager. I can design your website. I have many skills. But practically speaking, my special expertise in testing and teaching means that my clients will not pay me to do anything other than my specialty, because I need to work for the highest reasonable pay that I can get, and I don’t get that sort of pay when I’m doing a zillion things that anyone else could do just as easily as me. So, I’m not dissing versatility. I’m just speaking of cold economic reality.)
Expertise sounds like a really good thing. But the problem is tigers.
The “tiger cub” problem is that when tigers are cute and small, they might seem to be an appealing choice as a pet– but young tigers don’t stay small forever. They grow up and become powerful, inconvenient, dangerous creatures. The same is true of experts. This is why big consulting companies generally don’t hire experts and try not to encourage experts to grow as such. The last thing a company like Mindtree, or Cognizant, or Infosys wants is employees who might refuse to work on a project because the project is demanding that they do bad work.
I wrote about this struggle in my own career, here. And here is an article about Infosys experimenting with experts. I don’t know what the outcome was for that experiment. Maybe Infosys still has this team, but if they do, they must maintain an expensive habitat for those tigers. And the tigers may be thinking “why don’t we go independent and keep all the profits? The company needs us more than we need them!”
I am a difficult pet. I want to please my clients, of course. But I have a reputation to maintain. Ask around. As far as I know there is no one who claims to have seen me do work that I knew at the time was bad work. I don’t believe there is anyone who can point to any bad work that I have done. (Except possibly the revised IEEE 829 test documentation standard, which has my name on it but which I protested and repudiate.) In any case, I go to pains to get it right, but my concern goes way beyond customer satisfaction.
Remember the difference between a drug dealer and a doctor. Customer satisfaction is of paramount importance to a drug dealer. A doctor has other priorities.
Beware of Hiring Me: I Maintain My Own Intellectual Property
I don’t have any trouble signing NDAs. I don’t want or need to share your unreleased product details or schedules with anyone else. The stories I tell that originate with specific clients contain no details that would distinguish them or harm them, unless I am specifically authorized to share such details.
Intellectual property is another matter. There comes a day for many experts when we realize that we are selling our intellectual capital at a huge discount. We are giving our employers innovations that may make them huge profits. Is enough of that profit coming back to us?
As an independent, I maintain my own intellectual property. Therefore, I cannot sign a contract that lets my clients take exclusive ownership of any of my ideas except in rare and special circumstances. I generally offer a non-exclusive license, instead. For this reason alone it may be hard for companies to hire me to do ordinary technical work, as opposed to teaching.
Beware of Hiring Me: My Bias is Toward Deep Quality, Which is Not Always Needed
It is a plain rational truth that many things in life don’t need to be very good in order to be good enough. I agree with that truth, and I even teach it as part of the risk-base testing curriculum that anchors the Rapid Software Testing methodology.
But… I love the processes of testing. I especially love deep testing, by which I mean testing that maximizes the chance of uncovering every important bug. This means that I am at a constant low-grade risk of putting more time and effort into testing something than is justified by the business context. I can get carried away by the pleasures of craftsmanship. This is why, when I’m actually doing testing, I prefer to work with someone like my brother Jon (a virtuoso of technical administration, currently at eBay) who keeps his eye on the big picture so that people like me happily wrangle the details without constantly wondering “is this even worth doing?”
I come to every project thinking “probably there should be better, deeper testing, here.” I think this is a reasonable first position. But I teach my clients to have skepticism to counter-balance this bias. I believe that this creates a nice creative tension, but it must be managed. We need to keep talking about it.
I manage my over-kill tendencies as an independent consultant partly by making a simple declaration to my clients: if I’m working by the hour, and I submit an invoice, and it includes work that I did that you don’t like, then just don’t pay the invoice. This gives me more freedom to work speculatively without forcing my clients to be concerned that I will spend 20 hours gold-plating a two hour task.
Beware of Hiring Me: I Learn By Arguing
My favorite method of learning is testing. And when I’m learning about what’s in your mind, testing takes the form of debate. If you want me to understand and trust you, then I need to argue with you. This is negotiable of course– but that negotiation ALSO takes the form of an argument that we will need to have.
I have a hard time trusting people who seem to trust me, unless I know I have earned their trust. Otherwise, I fear that their pleasant manner is only a temporary illusion, soon to be shattered in some dramatic way. I have a conviction that good working relationships must be earned through shared trials and tribulations, not through passive hope and casual politeness.
When I go through a difficult conversation and come out the other side with a resolution and with the sense that the other people in the debate have gained emotional stability and power (even if we may have temporarily lost it during the messy part of the process) that increases my sense of loyalty to my clients and I can better manage future stresses.
Getting older has changed this, too. I’ve been through so many relationship-building and losing events that the process is not quite as dramatic for me as it used to be, and I more easily move into a mode of protecting and supporting the needs of others. Still, I won’t deceive you, there’s going to be drama. You have to expect that from a tiger.
Darrel Raynor says
GREAT description! Spot on from working with you twice over the years. Also now describes my situation almost exactly… We need people who are ready, willing, and able to change, fast, for big results. Hard to work with the rank and file when everything is fine. Stay Thirsty my friend!
When an HR person asks my greatest weakness, I tell them about my perfectionism and detail-level observation skills. These are all things you want in an employee, so long as those in-charge feel confident that the employee will only direct those traits toward the projects they want them used for, and never directed at them as a leader.
There are a number of tigers bred in captivity, Mr. Bach. Please don’t forget that most “leaders” in this day and age are accustomed to the tamed tiger. They are used to holding the key and watching the tiger through the thick glass walls. “It’s fierce. It’s primal,” and that can only be said with confidence if the unspoken portion of the thought is “…I own it and have it safely caged.”
[James’ Reply: Everyone wants to be safe. I don’t fault people for that. What I mind is when there is a lack of integrity. For instance, there are many organizations who want to get credit for having tried to test, but don’t really want to discover trouble. So they mount a potemkin process; they want testing theater. That’s the sort of thing self-respecting experts have trouble going along with.]
Joon Jung (JJ) says
QA management that is in place perpetuates this problem. When they are incompetent to lead quality turns bad and becomes the focus of executives. A new QA leader is brought in and if he makes them mature and high performing then quality is not the focus anymore so that leader eventually gets pushed out and this viscous cycle continues. The QA outsourcing vendors bring low cost testing resources and therefore they are never really looked as consultants. Perception of testing is easy and anyone can do it so consultants are brought in on pie in the sky ideas no one understands like DevOps, micro services and the cloud. When I have my own company someday, I plan to bring you in as a consultant to make my QA staff better and teach managers to be quality leaders.
[James’ Reply: Thanks!]
Len Haasbroek says
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I enjoyed reading about your journey finding your own career space and how you manage grounding your principles.
You have allured a bit towards the type of work you like to take on, specifically the legal/court work. It occurred to me that you might classify the types of work you do:
But first, your integrity drives your reputation, equally your professionalism drives your reputation. Integrity and professionalism are intertwined.
And, your marketing drives your label, which in turns drives the fees you can command.
Having said all that, I would venture to think that the work you like to undertake may fall in the following categories:
1) Court/Legal testing and testifying
2) Salvage operations – where the product is already to be known to have serious problems and perhaps there is a chance to salvage it by “testing in quality”.
[James’ Reply: We know we can’t “test in” quality. You can test something that is a bad product, and then you can fix it. But you can also test a good product and fix it. Rather than speak of salvage, a better way to think is depth: I prefer deep testing. Do you suspect that there are subtle or difficult to find problems in your product? Is it important to find them? Then that calls for deep testing.]
3) Building it better together – products where design and testing principles are equally important since it extend the life of the product (maintainability, flexibility, extendibility etc)
I believe one of the challenges for people is to do “well compensated, meaningful work”. Finding and navigating that as “a career” is not always easy.
[James’ Reply: Careers are what happen when you find a way to make a living and stick with it. I’ve been sticking with this since I first officially became a consultant. I tried to change careers twice, and did not find a way to succeed before money ran out.]
Hi James. Although I don’t share your vast experience, I consider myself a kindred spirit. When I read your blog, I find my deepest thoughts about the profession we share brought to light in a way I couldn’t articulate, but I know to be right ) from my own experience).
Thank you for writing this, you make me feel less alone and insecure of my own thoughts and opinions on what’s right.
A question on recent events: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/01/04/intel_amd_arm_cpu_vulnerability/ (and their impending workarounds https://email@example.com). Do you think, as a profession, we dropped the ball on this one, or is the software industry is a whole to blame for this insane situation? Besides corporate greed and incompetence, I think we, as an industry, let our fellow humans down. I also think we only get a few more screwups like this before people start distrusting the entire computer industry.
[James’ Reply: Sure, we did. But the important bit is what the industry does about it. When planes crash, people make better planes.]
Matt De Young says
IM sorry but saying that as an industry we dropped the ball on any particular item is like complaining that during a ball drop some of them hit the ground, totally ignoring the ones that were snagged. the problem is we may never know what issues were actually found and fixed. So to say as an industry we dropped the ball is an example oh hind site being 20/20, however when we only look back we don’t progress.
[James’ Reply: Come on, man. That’s ridiculous. Saying we “dropped the ball” does NOT mean that we are ONLY looking backward. It means we can acknowledge that we made a mistake! Having acknowledged that a mistake– a huge mistake!– was made here does not mean that we can avoid all possible mistakes in the future. But let’s learn from this mistake, okay? The airline industry gets safer because they are not defensive about “hindsight bias.” Instead, planes crash, and the industry goes to work to figure out how balls were dropped and how not to drop those particular balls in the future. This is not anti-progress; it’s just being responsible.]
@Matt and James: sorry guys, but except for a few mavericks, apparently the entire IT industry is just content to stick it’s collective head in the sand and pretend we don’t have a problem.
Oliver V. says
I’ve used similar (tho maybe a touch more diplomatic) wordings during negotiations for my projects. But I don’t have that level of reputation yet neither (which I know is partially my fault).
From my perspective it actually helps to set level of expectation for my own work and lowers the risk for miscommunications/misunderstandings.
So from my perspective – Brilliant!