Jerry Weinberg has died. Jerry was my teacher more than any other single person. As I have told my students and clients for years: my work is an elaboration and improvisation on his work.
In November of 1999, I was a newly independent consultant, having rage-quit my previous job. I had already made a name for myself as a trouble-maker in software testing– and a few colleagues and I had only that month declared the Context-Driven school of software testing– but I had not yet crystallized the Rapid Software Testing methodology which would become the focus of my business. I was working on a book that had become a quagmire. My life was very stressful right at that moment.
In the midst of that, Jerry invited me to hang out with him in Albuquerque for a week to talk about life the universe and everything. I don’t know why he did that. I don’t remember him giving a plausible explanation. But the result was that I spent dozens of hours talking to Jerry, just me and him. We spoke about writing, testing, industry activism, collegiality, general systems thinking. We gave each other homework. He told me about the “fieldstone” approach to writing, which he later turned into a book.
At the time it was great fun. But now I know: that was the week I became who I am, professionally.
Who I am is in no sense a copy of Jerry. I vehemently disagree with him on certain issues of style and substance. I don’t seem to get along with most of his followers.
But none of that matters. What I took from Jerry was not his specific solutions or political preferences, for the most part. What Jerry showed me is how to be authentic without being cruel; how to have integrity in a world of mendacity; how to live confidently with uncertainty; how to debate your teacher while learning from him; how to transition from student to colleague; how to achieve your own agency without seeking anyone’s consent to do so.
None of those things are specific judgments or techniques. They are ways of being. Jerry taught partly by example, partly by story, partly by argument, but mostly through the little experiences and challenges he took his students through. “Authentic teaching” he called it.
Before I knew Jerry I suffered from periodic physical breakdowns related to work stress. Jerry taught me to arrange my professional life to minimize stress. The key is to discover what you are happy doing and what you don’t want to do, then systematically stop doing all those things that weigh you down and stress you out. Learn to listen to that inner voice that is telling you “enough!” Learn to say no without rancor. Let go of other people’s reactions.
While lecturing me on this he challenged me to write down my three biggest professional worries on a napkin. He did the same. On my napkin I wrote about two client reports that were past due, and the need to market my new business.
On his napkin he wrote only this: “I must get my hair cut once in a while.”
I laminated that napkin. It’s in a box somewhere or I would show it to you now.
I have many worries today, but I have a new and easier relationship to them. After that week in ’99, I gave over all control of my finances to my wife, who has managed them ever since. My only job, now, is daydreaming and talking to clients. I did go on to finish my Buccaneer book, with a much relaxed attitude, as well as writing another very fieldstone-ish book called Lessons Learned in Software Testing.
Knowing Jerry helped me come into my own as a thinker. I am determined to pass that gift on.
(Consider reading A Gift of Time, to see how Jerry influenced other people.)
Matt Middleton says
Thank you for sharing some of your experiences with Jerry. I never made the opportunity to meet him in person, and that is something I regret. His book Fieldstones has helped me organize not only my writing, but my learning as well. The world is a little poorer for his departure from it.
Danny R. Faught says
Thanks for sharing. When I visited Jerry, he told me how you had sat in the same chair I was sitting in when he helped you with your writing. It was an honor for me to sit in that chair.
I would love to see a picture of that napkin!
Michael Bolton says
“I must get my hair cut once in a while.” A Zen Master’s answer, that.
[James’ Reply: A couple years later he updated that. He decided to keep his head shaved all the time.]
Ravi Gangadat says
Thank you for sharing! You said ‘Learn to listen to that inner voice that is telling you “enough!”’ – wise words and great advice!
Aleksis Tulonen says
Thanks for sharing this story. Made me smile.
Jin Seokjun says
Thanks for sharing. I’d like to remember Jerry through your article. If you don’t mind, I’d like to translate this article and post on my own blog. With no commercial, only purpose of this publishing might be “Remember and thank you Jerry”.
[James’ Reply: Go ahead.]
Jin Seokjun says
Thanks, here is the translated article.
Parimala Hariprasad says
Thank You very much, James for sharing your experience with the rest of us. Jerry was, is and will always be a wonderful gift to this world.
Andrea Hüttner says
What wonderful words, it made me go all teary, but in a good way. Thanks for writing this up!
“I am determined to pass that gift on….” – I think you have achieved this already.
Rey Carr says
If it’s ok with you, I’d like to add your relationship with Jerry to our Mentor Hall of Fame. http://www.mentors.ca/mentorpairs.html
[James’ Reply: Sure.]
Matt De Young says
That was a fantastic story thank you for sharing it. The funny thing is I have a copy of your lessons learned book sitting on my desk, and I let my fellow testers read it as a way to build an understanding of testing. Because of that book there are several testers working across the state who are implementing lessons from that book and other lessons found in your youtube video resources. You may not remember a conversation you and I had a couple years ago at a conference where we talked about how being dyslexic has helped out my testing, much like your napkin I hold that conversation as a source of motivation.
[James’ Reply: I’m very glad to hear that.]
Gil Levy says
With the little encounters I had with you, James, it had the same impact on my career as Jerry had on you.
Leon Khaimovich says
Just’ve learned about Jerry passing away from this nice obituary by Sue Gee: https://www.i-programmer.info/news/82-heritage/12048-gerald-weinberg-a-seminal-influence-on-programming.html. More than 3 months after it happened… My first thought was not a thought: just a feeling of sharp pain. My second thought was: James should have something written on this occasion. And here I am reading about passing on a gift of becoming and remaining a thinker. Thank you once again. We need a couple of them around. Especially after we’ve lost one of the great ones.
Gaurav Khurana says
Many lessons to learned in this conversation. Thanks for sharing and making it simple