Saturday, September 4, 2010

Key professional lessons from the life and times of James Bach

Continuing steady on my reading expedition, i managed to complete- Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success quite a while back. Infact I had given a stab at reading it when it was launched and accessible free for a week or so. I liked it then but would admit that i did not comprehend the concept of book completely then. In the hindsight, it was may be due to the way i have perceived academic education all though the life is quite different from the book. But I am glad I read it again, most of the things started making much sense.
In some sense, this book presents autobiographical picture of James Bach. In Software Testing circles, the name James Bach needs no introduction. I don’t intend to use this space to try to speak on his achievements but attempt at something more interesting and meaningful to me that is to attempt and draw a picture of his philosophy towards life and work just on the basis on the excerpts in this book. This is something that i enjoy doing whenever i read any autobiographical natured literature.

Here is my yet another humble attempt at that-

Paperless credentials are more valuable than Paper ones:
We live in a world that is full of Four-letter acronyms for certifications that are supposedly meant to be telling an external world that you are "Expert" at something. Most of the people seem to be caught up in the mad race to get certified. I have no problems with that as long as that meets your purpose.
The problem at core seems to be that the definition of the word "Expert" seems to have been limited to achieving a certain certification and i disagree with this notion.
All along James's life he seems to have relied more on his reputation of work rather than something written on the paper giving proof to his credentials. The paperless
credentials comes directly from the extent of work done and meaningful work at that. It is only true that your reputation reaches your prospective employer much before you do.

As Bach himself says-
Buccaneer leaders gained reputation through the tests they faced in their work, and their portfolio of tangible outcomes.
I do the same thing. By writing articles and teaching classes, I'm able to show my work. I also have a website and a blog. I wrote a book. Most of the work i do for paying clients is confidential but sometimes i have more easygoing employers who let me show off specific documents or programs i've written for them. That's my portfolio.
My portfolio and my performance on tests slowly gain a reputation for me. it's my reputation that brings customers from all over the world. I don't directly control my
reputation. By holding string opinions, I have gained both friends and enemies. On Internet, with blogs, forums and social networking websites, a reputation can be made almost instantly.

Being Courageous :
The conventionalist will find it very hard to appreciate this book. The reason as James outlines is in the form of a truth and that truth is- Society mostly rewards someone who achieves something significant while staying in the realms of the conventional thinking, while behaving conventionally. This is quite true and more so in Indian societies where the extent of achievement is considered in direct proportions to heaviness of the title one hold in the organization. And its an ideal recipe for superficial success and good for the acceptance in the so called societal norms.
Going against the tide is hard and it requires a purpose and a lot of self drive. Given the attempt to go against the tide is for a positive cause, sooner or later it does help find one's reason for existence.

Using Ignorance as a Power:
There's an Excerpt from the book-
Once, i was suffering writer’s block on a technical article about measuring the quality of Software, my brother Jon announced he would use his “Power of Ignorance” to help me write it. At the time, he worked as a dishwasher and had no experience in Software Industry. But by just asking me questions about my article, getting me to teach him the material, he helped me find a new way to explain it, and i quickly finished the piece.

As i have experienced, Ignorance can indeed be a power if used wisely. I have been in situations where my wife (not from Software industry) has helped me crack some tough situations just by asking simple questions that elude you if you think of yourself as more knowledgeable. Isn’t the true test for Software usability is giving a Software to a person who is ignorant of its benefits and checking how fast could he get used to the product and understand its functionalities ?
Testers often also face Tester's block i.e. having worked on one module for a long time they do tend to not ask obvious questions which a fresh person ignorant of module may ask. While preparing for a speech, I always tend to imagine delivering it to most ignorant and more knowledgeable person in the audience. That helps strike a rare balance.
As above examples prove, Ignorance can be bliss.

Handling criticism positively:
There's an Excerpt from the book-
Taking criticism well makes me feel tough. If being a buccaneer means anything, it ought to mean that i can look at scary truth in a face and smile. While I’m listening to someone tell me I ‘m not good enough, remind myself that this process is the way i achieve deep self respect. From that point of view, criticism is a gift. There is a childish part of me that feels wounded by any kind of criticism. But I learned a little trick from one of my mentors, Jerry Weinberg, about how to deal with it. I notice the feeling and say to myself, “Oh, that’s the childish part of me, again, doing what it likes to do. Funny little critter. It will settles down again, soon.”

If you are working with humans, be assured that one of the by-products is criticism. There is no escaping criticism for anyone. I used to often feel in my early days as a professional that some people have the habit of getting on your nerves and criticize you. But over a period of time, have realized how valuable the criticism can be, if you learn to handle it such that it works for you. As Robin Sharma says in one of his books- “Love your Irritations” i.e. Get into habit of loving anything or any person that irritates you, He or that situation is certainly your best teacher.
I have tried James’ way of handling criticism and (though he doesn’t need my acceptance to prove it) it certainly works! The earlier one learns to handle criticism, the better it is.

Expect to learn from Unexpected:
One of the things that i liked from the book and could relate to well was the “Principle of Peripheral Wisdom”. It says that- “most of what we learn is a side effect of something else we are trying to do.”
The learnings mentioned in this post are as a result of Peripheral wisdom i picked up after reading his book.

Helping Competitors succeed:
There's an Excerpt from the book-
I understood how to handle people who were smarter than me: respect them for what they are; help them get what they need. By doing that, I become a part of their story.
Instead of competing with them, I could join them, or learn from them. But even if I competed, my competition could have a new purpose: to enrich my opponent, not just myself. I could treat competition as a special kind of collaboration.

To me this is unconventional thinking at its best. To me this kind of thinking serves best if you are working in a team or working to lead a team. Conventional thinking says that being a leader you should be the one having the maximum knowledge on the area of work. But with the kind of era we live in, where once has access to more information than is ever needed, there are very high chances that you are leading someone who is more smart than you. Infact most of the progressive companies encourages Managers to hire someone who is more smarter than themselves. At core, this is something that can help a company leap and grow many-fold. The very fact that one acknowledges that the other person is more smart, knowledgeable that you are makes the work culture egoless and hence more productive.

Wandering of mind is not bad after all:
This is one of the eye-opening lessons for me from this book. I wrote about this in one of my earlier posts . From my earlier conditioning and experiences, i always perceived Procrastination as a negative trait till i read this book. Procrastination as i now appreciate is a natural human trait and something everyone possesses. James talk about the way in which you can turn it to your advantage. Wandering of mind is usually considered bad in study circles where concentration is treated as something great. Allowing your mind to what it naturally wants to do i.e. wander for few minutes and come back to task at hand will only make you feel better. Infact, I have used "The Procrastinate and Push Heuristic" and also "Plunge in and Quit Heuristic" while creating this post.

Of course, there were many more learnings and a whole new way of looking at the Self Education that one could learn by going through the book but to me the above learnings stand-out.

Are you game for trying out something unconventional ?


Vittal said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Anuj.

I am definitely planning to read the full book.

Here is a link about a similar person who was unconventional and logical at the same.

Do read it when free.


Anuj Magazine said...

Thanks for sharing this link, Vittal.
Seems quite interesting.