A couple thoughts on homeschool, learning, education, and COVID-19

Just wanted to share a couple tips about kids and education in this day and age. We have been homeschooling our kids exclusively for 4 or 5 years now, and these are the things I would share from our experience. Some of these come from what I have overheard my wife telling her friends repeatedly, some of these are my own observations. Hopefully some of this advice is useful.

1 – What most people are doing these days is not homeschool. That is meant to be freeing, not an insult. Lifelong learning is a great goal for everyone, and is definitely important to keep flexing the learning muscles through this time, but most people aren’t pursuing this as a new normal, they are just trying to keep their kids engaged and learning.

2 – All homeschoolers go through an adjustment period. It took our family 2-3 years of doing this full time to really figure out which curriculums, schedules, and processes worked for our kids. Additionally, each kid has different things that work for them, so once we think we have it figured out, we have to go back to the drawing board for the next kid. That is ok and normal. The fact that you don’t have a solid schedule figured out by week 3 is just fine. Give yourself some time.

3 – Don’t think you have to do 7 hours a day of school! The logistics of educating 25-30 kids in a school are so much different than a couple kids at home. Think about how much time it takes to explain the current task to a room full of 2nd graders, keep them all on task, clean up, stand in line, walk between rooms, explain the same project again, line up, walk back to the room, etc. I conservatively estimate that 50% of time spent in elementary school is in logistics of having a bunch of little kids running around. THat’s not even accounting for things like recess, lunch time, and independent work time. 30 minutes to an hour of structured learning time with a parent is nearly equivalent to a full day of instruction in school for small children. And older kids should be able to self-direct a bit more with reading and other assignments, but the same idea still applies. Don’t spend all day doing ‘school’.

4 – In the context of point 2 and 3, my wife suggests for most people to pick 1 subject that is the compulsory ‘school’ subject. Whether that is math, science, language arts, or something else, picking one topic (instead of all of them) gives you something to focus on, and keeps the learning muscles engaged. After the ‘school’ subject, let the kids pick another topic that is a little more fun, but still structured. Maybe science experiments are fun. Maybe Lego building is a good STEM class. Find some good books to read. Something that isn’t Netflix or video games, but isn’t memorizing facts either. Learning is fun, let your kids have fun with a topic.

Not Born to be Average

This week in conversation someone made the comment “no one wants to wake up in the morning to be average”.

This was reminiscent of a conversation I had just a couple of months ago with a different person, whom I greatly admire. He said ‘No one wants to be 2nd best’.

Both of these people echo a sentiment that I generally agree with, not only is competition fun, winning is fun. In yet another recent conversation, a colleague stated that his joy in life comes from tackling the impossible tasks, and knocking them out of the park.

Whether we are competing with other people, or with impossible tasks, it feels good to win.

As I contemplate on that topic a bit further, I wonder about the concept of win-win scenarios. For us to win, does someone else have to lose? I believe the answer to that question is ‘np’.

I’ve told this story before, but I go back to my grandfather giving me a paycheck as a young teenager for helping in his business. He taught me that any employment relationship should be a win-win. The employee is grateful for a fair wage, and the employer is grateful for a job well done. I believe these win-win scenarios are abundant in our life, if we only look for them.

It feels good to win, why not share the feeling?

Begin With the End in Mind.

I just finished reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. While it was a lot of insights to digest, it was a good read.

One of the topics that hit home particularly today was step 2, begin with the end in mind. I was having a conversation with a colleague this morning, and he told me that his favorite part of his job was doing things others believe can’t be done. That feeling of accomplishment is huge for him.

Literally 2 hours later, sitting in a meeting present some of his work, a stakeholder made the comment, “I can’t believe you did this. I assumed you would have gotten half-way in and given up, saying it couldn’t be done!” Unprompted. Unscripted. She said exactly the things he loves to hear.

Whether you prefer to believe in the law of attraction, mental creation, prayer circles, or just good planning, the concept of creating your wants and desires in your mind first, then watching them unfold in real life is incredibly powerful. I have seen this countless times in my career, today just happened to be a fresh example.

There is power in understanding your future state. Our thoughts have this pesky habit of impacting our actions, which have the ability to create exactly the life we want to have.

Have you ever seen a surprising event in your life, created by first creating the event in your mind before watching it unfold If you haven’t I suggest trying it.


Know your ‘why’

The year is 2002. I am a sophomore in high school. At the end of another long and boring school day, instead of following the herd of students out to the school bus for the hour ride home, I stay behind at school to keep working for another couple of hours. As the building slowly empties down the stairs and out the back doors of the school, I make my way from the band room on the far west side of the school, across the crowds of students to the far east end of the building to the electronics lab. Zach Threlkeld and I were meeting with Mr. Beaman to plan our school’s first Engineering Day.

Through the process of planning this event, I learned how to do a lot of things. We had to do marketing, logistics, planning, and everything else to organize 15 different events for 150 events to commemorate Engineering Week the next February. One of my responsibilities was all of the fliers for the different events. Mr. Beaman gave me a cd and a license key for Photoshop, and said basically ‘this should help’. It didn’t. Photoshop came with an overwhelming amount of tools that didn’t seem to help me make a flier at all.

While I eventually figured out how to do the things we needed to organize the day, Photoshop is far from the most valuable lesson I learned in that process. Mr. Beaman liked to share little nuggets of wisdom as we worked through the planning process, and a couple of those has stuck with me ever since.

The first was true to his self-deprecating humor, ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” (He was a teacher after all). As I look back, I wonder if that statement set much of my attitudes towards education for the next 10 years, and not for the better.

However, he normally followed that couplet with another that has had a much more positive impact on my life. “Those who know how will always have jobs. They will always work for those who know why.”

I find that these words still bounce around my mind on at least a weekly basis, now 17 years later. I have built a career in a very how-based field. While I always figured out enough of the ‘how’ to be competent, much of my growth has come from understanding the ‘why’.

I have had several people ask me over the last few months if I would suggest to a new young person entering the workforce to follow a similar career path that I have taken. I would, but I always say that they need to focus on the reasons their work matters, and the people it affects far more than the technology or tools that help deliver that value. Being the best technician n a field is not nearly as rewarding as pointing that technician in the right direction and delivering value.

Do you now why the work you did this week matters? Can you articulate how that work supports to overarching strategy or values of your situation? If not, I highly suggest you go figure it out.

My Thoughts on Work / Life Balance

I have always hated the phrase ‘work/life balance’.

Good post, see you next week.

Seriously though, this phrase has always bugged me. At best, it creates a false dichotomy through lazy language. At worst, it causes us to buy into this false dichotomy and pushes people to believe that their work is somehow separated from actual life. I have seen this create internal strife as people try to keep in balance two competing forces in their world.

I believe that work and life are both part of the same thing, our life. Work is an important aspect in all areas of our life. The ways we chose to allocate our time and efforts are a part of our life. To separate work from, or even the time we spend with an employer from the sum total of our full life is folly. A much better phrase would be a ‘balanced life’, as this recognizes that all aspects of life are part of the whole.

One of the biggest problems I have with ‘work/life balance’ as a phrase is that it often comes from an employer touting work/life balance as a benefit fo working for them. This phrase seems to take the responsibility for building a balanced life off of the individual to whom the life belongs, and tries to put it in the hands of the employer. Not only does this fail to account for differences between individuals and what their balanced life may look like, it shifts the responsibility of boundaries away from the employee to the employer.

Individuals are just that, individual. Every person has different needs, wants, and desires that cause their individual situation to be slightly different. For one, spending 60 hours a week at the office engaged in deeply satisfying work may be healthy and appropriate, where that would be soul crushing for another. It is incumbent on each of us to understand what a balanced life looks like for each of us.

Once we understand what a balanced life means, we also need to take responsibility to live out that balance. Allowing an employer to dictate a concept of work/life balance in my opinion puts too much control in their hands, and is therefore out of balance. It is much better (at least in my view of a balanced life) to take ownership of our own decisions and invest our time accordingly at work.

That doesn’t mean we can say that our concept of balance means we only work 12 hours a week if we have committed to a company 40+ hours in a week. If you want to work 12 hours a week, then I suggest you find a job where that fits with the expectations of the role. Just please take ownership of your own actions in realizing that is what a balanced life looks like for you.

Quality Assurance vs. Software Testing

For a vast majority of my time in the Context-Driven community, I have loosely accepted many “truths” as presented. I have pushed back on some, argued with a few, and flat out rejected some others. The idea that Quality Assurance is an inferior title to something more appropriate such as Software Testing, Light Shiner, Information Gatherer, or Bug Master. Recently I have found that I have a loose agreement with this idea. This post is an attempt to come to a better understanding for myself, and hopefully others in the community.

So not long after my whole team took the RST course with Paul Holland, they decided as a team that the name of our team should be more representative of what we actually do. It was a unanimous decision to change the name from “Quality Assurance” to “R&D Testers”. This was indicative of the fact that we were first and foremost, members of the Research and Development team, and that the role we filled was testing, as opposed to “Assuring Quality”.

Great! I left our meeting that day thinking the team really listened to some of what was taught. I thought the process of changing the name of the team would be rather simple. Change a couple e-mail aliases, a couple quick conversations with the R&D team leadership, and we’d be done.

So I went to start those quick conversations, and it turned out that they weren’t as quick as I thought. Before I go on, I want it to be clear that these individuals I was talking to are engaged development leadership that really care about what we do, engage in community discussions on agile and kanban topics, and actually have my respect in some ways. This isn’t a “bash the ignorant” type of blog post. In that framework, I brought this idea to the R&D team leadership and was met with some resistance. In my side of the conversation, I parroted the arguments I have heard from others in the community, “testers don’t do anything to assure quality, we can’t be certain (or sure) of the quality of a product.”

This was not received as well as I thought it would be. I was under the impression that this was a self-evident truth. That others in the industry were simply too ignorant of what testing actually is to understand this, and all of this “QA” garbage that flies around are relics of manufacturing processes that get applied to software. Here I was talking to people that I share many beliefs about software development, and they disagreed with me. The main thrust of the argument was disagreement with the notion that testers do nothing to assure the quality of a product. In this person’s opinion every project and team they had been on, testers were very influential in increasing product quality and therefore the name QA wasn’t altogether misleading.

“But we don’t ‘ASSURE’ anything, impact perhaps, but not assure,” was my dutiful context-driven retort.

“Assurance doesn’t mean that the product is perfect, but QA people definitely bring a great value in improving quality,” was the response I got.

I was able to walk away from that conversation with a kind of do-whatever-you-want-to agreement from our team leadership, but I wasn’t satisfied. I went back to my desk to look up the definition of the word ‘assurance’ to prove that my point was right, we don’t assure anything as testers. In looking up this definition, this is where my agreement with CDT started to get a little looser.

The definitions of ‘assurance’ all pointed back to the root word ‘assure’. Miriam-Webster offered 4 definitions of ‘assure’. I pulled each one and started detailing why each of those definitions didn’t apply to what testers do (the outcome of that process can be seen here). I eventually came to a definition of assure that stopped me though: “to give confidence to”. For example, “The child was scared to go to the dentist, but her mother’s assuring words gave her the confidence to climb into the chair.”

This reminded me of a conversation I had with James Bach a few years ago. The first conversation that really pulled me into the CDT community was that they were the only people that seemed to agree with me on how testing is valuable. As James and I were talking he made the following comment, “I test because my clients are worried that something they don’t know about the product will hurt them.”

To me, that statement seems to agree that testing is done to build confidence in a product. At the end of testing, all wrapped up in appropriate safety language and carefully crafted words is a report about the level of confidence in a product, or at the very least information that is meant to affect some stake-holder’s confidence in a product.

The rest of the definitions of the word assurance I agree are misleading, even a bit scary. But the idea of Quality Assurance being a process of building confidence in a product, or gathering information for others to build that confidence, is one that I think I could get behind.

This isn’t to say that I dislike the term ‘testing’ or anything else that does a decent job of describing what a team does. What I am trying to do here is gain a better understanding of why the community is so opposed to the term “Quality Assurance”. Please let me know in the comments if you agree with how this is presented, or where I am way off.

My next post will be about the cultural impacts in an organization of changing the name of team from QA to Test. That is what this post was supposed to be, but I thought this was a better point to start the conversation.

January 9 2013 Update

So after letting this post simmer for a few months, I have decided that taking up the fight internally to officially change the name of the team wasn’t worth it. We refer to ourselves as testers. The rest of the development team understands that we are testers, but in terms of support, sales, marketing, etc. I didn’t find there to be any payoff to changing the team name. Heck, I don’t even have the energy/time at this point to write another full post about why I feel that way. That is why I am updating this post rather than writing a new one. I wanted to cover another topic in my next post, but didn’t want to leave this topic unsettled.

It’s good to be the tester! (HTC DROID DNA Review)

Sometimes, it can be good to be the tester.  And by good I mean really good.  By virtue of my love for testing, and HTC smartphones, I got the opportunity to get my hands on a pre-release version of the DROID DNA, the new flagship ultra-awesome 5-inch Android smartphone from HTC.  Woo! Continue Reading

The Changing Face of Test Management

Another week, another podcast.  I have been very luck to have the opportunity many times to Join Matt Heusser, Michael Larsen, and others on the weekly This Week in Software Testing podcast sponsored by Software Test Professionals.  This week was a good one.

If you remember back to my post on writing conference reports, in my report from the KWSQA conference I mentioned that as our team made progress towards more agile (small ‘a’) methodologies the testers and developers needed to move closer and closer together.  As the testing and development teams have merged together, we have gone from 2 distinct teams and now have 1 team.  This is great and has had a significant impact on the quality of the software we are producing (as I mentioned in my presentation at CAST 2012 last month), however it produces an interesting position for myself (the QA Manager) and the Dev Manager, as we now have 1 team with 2 managers.

Others in the industry are having similar problems, and this week’s podcast is a bit of our conversation along this topic.  Go ahead, give it a listen.

Part 1 – http://www.softwaretestpro.com/Item/5690/TWiST-117-The-Changing-Face-of-QA-Management-Part-I/podcast

Part 2 – http://www.softwaretestpro.com/Item/5700/TWiST-118-The-Changing-Face-of-QA-Management-Part-II/podcast

I taught myself a new word…I’m an autodidact!

For those of you that missed it, Test Coach Camp was a blast.  2 days of non-stop discussion with the best and brightest minds in the space of test coaching, and I got to go!

There were tons of great discussions, exercises, and lessons learned at TCC, but one of my favorite discussions was one that I was able to facilitate on the topic of autodidacticism.  We approached the topic from the angle that  the best way to teach testing is to empower people to teach themselves about testing, but how do you get people to do that.

Luckily, Michael Larsen pulled out his handy dandy portable recording studio and was able to catch the whole conversation and post it out to the interwebs.  Thanks to Software Test Professionals for hosting the recording.  The link is below:

Part 1 – http://www.softwaretestpro.com/Item/5613/TWiST-107-%E2%80%93-Autodidacts-Unite-Part-I/podcast

Part 2 – http://www.softwaretestpro.com/Item/5618/TWiST-108-Autodidacts-Unite-Part-II/podcast

How I Write a Conference Report

A while ago I was able to attend the KWSQA Targeting Quality conference in Waterloo Ontario.  After a great time learning, connecting with old friends, and meeting new ones, I eventually had to go back to the office.  When I got there I was expected to produce an experience report to justify the trip, as I am sure many of you have had to do in the past.

For the purposes of this post, I would like to share a couple tricks I employed to produce what I would consider a decent experience report.

Focus on Value

In my case, the company covered the bill for the trip and the conference.  though it wasn’t a huge investment for the trip, I wanted to make sure it was a worthy investment.  I learned lots of things at the conference, and it is important to make sure those tidbits of knowledge are included to show what was learned that could be leveraged for the company.

Focus on Solutions

I have seen quite a few reports from others (I have even been guilty of it in the past) that just rewrite the class descriptions in a report form and call it good (i.e. I learned x in class a and y in class b).  This covers my first point a bit, but just listing random facts and topics that you learned about don’t show the application of that knowledge.  Based on all of the knowledge you gain, seek for ways to apply that knowledge to problems currently facing your company.

Implement Solutions/Value

Once you have this knowledge and some way in which to apply it, the next step I would consider in writing a great experience report is to actually implement the ideas in the report.  If the experience report is just some document that gets filed into the nether regions of the company storage banks, where is the value in that?

Allow the lessons learned to extend out of the conference, and off the page of the experience report and actually work to implement what you learned.  I was able to do so with what I learned at KWSQA and doing so made the experience (and the experience report) much more valuable.

Below is the text of my experience report from KWSQA (sanitized a bit for safety reasons) for an example of these suggestions in practice:

Targeting Quality 2012 Conference Attendance Report

-Wade Wachs-

After spending a couple days at the Targeting Quality 2012 conference sponsored by KWSQA, I came back to the office with a few items that I feel would benefit the culture and outcomes of the development and QA teams in our company.  Those items are listed and explained below.

Reduce/Remove any Us vs. Them culture

This is one of the biggest actionable items I came away with from the conference.  This applies in several dimensions that our company is already taking actions to accomplish.

Dev vs. QA

I think we have managed a pretty decent relationship between the development team and the testers in our company, but we have consistently thought of these as two separate teams.  One of the big things that I heard at the conference was the idea of considering the testers as part of the development team.

Paul Carvalho talked about this in terms of the fact that SCRUM processes only recognize 3 roles of Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Product Developer.  That is not to say that only those who write code count as developers, but that all members of the team that are not managing or defining the requirements should be working to build a quality product.  I had several conversations with Paul and others that suggested a cultural shift to include the testing role in the team of developers could have a significant impact by tightening the feedback loop between code creation and testing.

We have already made significant steps in the last couple weeks to work towards a goal of integrating the code writers and testers better.  Conversations are in the works to continue this integration further.

Office 1 vs. Office 2

Selena Delsie made a comment that I really liked along the idea that having a small team that practices agile in a larger more waterfall organization is typical, but greater benefits can be realized if the whole organization works together in a more agile manner.  This really hit home for me, as I have felt that Office 1 has been going more and more agile while Office 2 is still struggling with understanding how we do things.  I wrote in my notebook in Selena’s session, “The WHOLE company needs to BE agile, not just development DO agile.”

After conversations with an internal employee last week, I think we are taking some good steps in this direction with the inception of monthly blackout dates and taking the time to all meet together as a company and discuss what we are all doing.  I am cautiously optimistic that these meetings could have a significant positive impact on the quality of the software we are producing as we reduce the feedback loops between those of us producing the software and those teaching how to use the software.

The Software Testing Ice Cream Cone

Paul Carvalho in his tutorial about pitfalls in agile organizations talked about the balance of manual testing and automated testing.  Based on some concepts from Brian Marick (one of the Agile Manifesto signers) and a couple others, there needs to be a push to have manual testers doing business facing testing that is critiquing the product, and spend as little time as possible focusing on base functionality and regression checking.  The amount of testing can be drawn in a pyramid with unit tests at the bottom, integration then functional tests on top of that, and manual exploratory testing depicted as a cloud on top of the pyramid that is being supported by the bottom three layers.

However, in many organizations (ours included) the actual testing effort is an inverted pyramid with very little automated unit and integration testing, a little automated functional testing and lots of cloud shaped manual testing, which ends up looking like an ice cream cone.  I have already talked with Steve about turning that ice cream cone around by adding some additional effort in unit testing and better supported automation.  This goal is in the process of being implemented via the talent reviews with QA and developers.

Effective Metrics

There was a great keynote from Paul Holland where he gave a few techniques on how to effectively provide metrics to management while maintaining integrity of the narrative.  The few concepts that I would like to investigate more and implement are:

– Provide metrics along with narrative to provide the full story behind the metrics.  This narrative can contain any of the potential pitfalls or dangerous conclusions from the metrics or other qualitative information not captured in numbers.

– Use a dashboard to provide a better picture of testing activities.

– More effective use of sticky note boards and how to accurately use those for managing testing effort and displaying work that is being done.

I also was party to a couple side discussions along this topic at the conference.  I hope these conversations will be helpful in moving forward in our goal to identify useful performance measures and provide that information up the management chain.

All in all it was a very enjoyable conference.  The intangibles of the conference were many, but include an increased passion in continuing to push forward, a feeling that the company values me as an employee enough to invest the funds to send me to training, and an increased connection to the testing community to further relationships that will be sustaining in the future.  I truly appreciate the investment and would like to attend further conferences in the future as we get a better handle on this current list of improvements.