Friday, April 02, 2010
Book Review - Linchpin by Seth Godin
For a long time I have been telling software testers there is someone out there, either in their city or halfway around the world, that can test faster and cheaper than they can. Like it or not, software testing has become a commodity for many organizations. It doesn’t matter who is doing the testing, how they are doing it, only that testing is being done at a cost they are willing to pay.
These are the same companies who call me up to get “two days of training on testing” then have no idea what their needs are, what will happened after the class, or even who will be the instructor. They just want “a pound of training” as I call it. This type of attitude means you need a point of distinction. That’s what this book is all about – how to become indispensable by letting the artist in you emerge.
Think of the companies that lay off hundreds or thousands of people all at once. How were those people chosen? They didn’t lay off everyone, so who got to stay and why? It wasn’t the people who obediently played by the rules and didn’t make waves. The ones who stayed were difference makers – linchpins.
This book takes you on a journey. It starts with some background of how we got here. After all, for all of human history except the last 60 years or so, people lived without the idea of being taken care of by a company. Now, we find ourselves in a different ballgame with a whole new set of rules. Having a good job is no longer the definition of success. Lots of “good jobs” have gone away, never to return.
The journey continues to discuss how to become that person that the company values so highly, they will do anything to keep you – the linchpin upon which there success depends.
Of course, becoming and staying a linchpin isn’t easy. There is a lot of resistance to stay in your comfort zone. Godin goes into detail about the choice required to become a linchpin and why it’s the choice between being remarkable and being a cheap drone.
The brilliant thing about this book is that Seth goes into depth about “the resistance”, the thing that keeps us from being unique and taking the risk to let our special gifts shine. It is so easy to want to blend in and go with the flow, but Seth makes a compelling case that this is the path toward extinction.
After reading the book and thinking of my experiences in consulting in many companies, I realize that the only difference between many companies and a chicken slaughterhouse is the lack of chickens. Every day people dutifully report for duty, keep their heads down, do what they are told to do (or not to do), then go home and do it all again the next day. The work is mindless, requires no creativity and at the end of the day, people leave unfulfilled and unappreciated – and a bit bloody.
At times I felt conflicted as I read Linchpin. I identify with being the artist. I tend to procrastinate, so the idea of setting a ship date for something and then shipping no matter what has actually helped to get some things done. On the other hand, I have seen so many companies suffer from the deadline mentality I can’t totally embrace that idea.
I think there is balance in the decision to ship or not to ship. In some cases, shipping bad stuff on the deadline can be very bad. In other cases, it can be the first faltering steps toward a great eventual product. I think it all depends on how understanding people are. For things like cars, airplanes and pacemakers, it’s a bad idea to ship just based on the deadline being reached.
The other point I have difficulty with is the idea of not being attached to your worldview. I agree that we need to be able to see and understand other people’s worldviews. My point of departure comes in being so unattached that you have no stable set of beliefs. I think it’s important to know why you hold your worldview and even be willing to question it. I also think it’s fine to be passionate about your beliefs. The key is whether or not your beliefs are based in truth. I know, I know, this opens up a great philosophical discussion about “what is truth?” I just think you can be a linchpin and still be true to your beliefs.
Finally, perhaps the most troubling realization of all is the contradiction of on my closely held beliefs in the idea of systematizing of processes. I really think Dr. Deming had it right about defining a process so that anyone could perform it without error. This is a good thing for factories, hospitals and fast food places that rely on consistency of results. However, when it comes to intellectual work, we need the creativity of the artist.
This leads me to the application of this idea to software testing. On one hand, we need high levels of accuracy and repeatability for some types of testing. On the other hand, we need the creativity of the artist for discovering new defects and ways of performing testing.
This is a great book, an essential book, for anyone in today’s marketplace. Both young and not-so-young will be better prepared to deal with the world by reading Linchpin. This is an easy read and I especially like the way Seth fleshes out his ideas in a stream of coherent small sections of writing. This alone has changed how I plan to write my future books - many of which now have publication dates! Thanks, Seth, for another insightful and timely book.
I will be continuing these thoughts here on my blog in the coming days, so come on and join the discussion!