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!


Michael Larsen said...

Randy, you're killing me here. I was all set to review this book... and your review just rendered mine redundant (LOL!). But seriously, great takeaway and very much what I found the key messages of the book.

I've read a few comments from other reviewers that they were disappointed that Godin wasn't specific enough with his recommendations, but wouldn't that then just feed into the idea that, if artistry could be rendered down into a process, we'd be right back at the factory line, and the artistry that was systematized is thus no longer artistry?

I found his section about applying for your next job without a resume to be brilliant advice... and somewhat terrifying :). He's right, in the sense that a resume does tend to lump you into a category that can be easily YES/NO decided. Without a resume, a conversation has to ensue, or a reputation has to be explored. It was his comments in this particular section that really hit home with me. Do you have three or four letters of recommendation from people the company admires? Do you have a sample product people can easily view and review? Do you have a blog that is so compelling, people have to stand and take notice? But I don't have those things... yeah, that's my point! IF you don't have those, what makes you think you are special, unique and worth noticing?

I'm looking forward to seeing where the comments and your thoughts about this book lead, as I enjoyed it immensely and am trying to apply the lessons to my own approach to testing and growth in my industry. I'll likely never be the Don Bradman of Testing, but I'll be happy to make my own mark where I can :).

Randy Rice said...

Hi Michael,

Oops! There I go again.

I agree that is someone has to have the dots connected for them, that's not artistry. This attitude really drives me crazy sometimes. I once had an evaluation from one of my classes that said "This is all just common sense." So, I guess I should be trying to teach things that don't make sense? To be charitable, I think the person meant they already knew the concepts, which makes me wonder why they were there. Oh well...

The "no resume" concept is indeed a big leap. I have also known consultants that refuse to send a proposal. These things do set you apart. I think you hit it. The big question to ask is are we building a body of work that speaks for itself. It's harder to do that than get certified, have a spiffy resume, etc.

Thanks for helping me in the discussion. Keep the comments coming!


Michael Larsen said...

OK, here's some additional thoughts, from one tester to another :)...

The linchpins are those who are passionate about what they do. I've commented that guys like Larry Ellison, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would probably still do what they do even if their potential for income were greatly curtailed. They thrive because they have a passion for what they do. You have to be passionate to put in the level of work that would be required to be truly indispensible (note, I don't mean volume of work, I mean intensity of work, which Godin describes vividly as "emotional labor").

The "Lizard Brain" and "The Resistance" are two great concepts. This explains so much, and how great it is to finally have a name for something I've felt more times than I can count.
I also like the fact that, when you can finally put a name to something, that can actually help you overcome it (I especially liked his thoughts regarding the fact that, if the Lizard Brain is telling you not to do something, and the net result of doing it does not spell your death or dismemberment, it's a good bet that *that* is what you need to be doing.

I especially liked his idea of "giving gifts" as a way to differentiate yourself from others. I will admit, it was this concept that started me writing my testing blog. When I thought about a testing blog as a way to make money, I couldn't get the enthusiasm up to do it. When I thought about it as a way to give back to a community that has helped me tremendously over the past twenty years (consider yourself in that list you, Randy ;) ), I found I had plenty to talk about and an enthusiasm to start saying it.

OK, I'll stop monopolizing the conversation and give someone else a chance.

Randy Rice said...

Hi Michael,

Your comments are always welcomed here!

I agree that emotional labor is something deep inside we would do regardless of pay. One of my favorite new TV shows is "Undercover Boss" Sundays on CBS. Sunday night they followed the COO of Roto-Rooter as he went undercover in his own operation. The part I found especially interesting was when he sat next to one of the call center employees to learn how to handle a call. This young lady was incredibly caring to the callers she called "my customers." I commented to my wife, "Man, that's rare." How many times have you called a service line for anything and got a person who was there to complete their shift?

I can understand that low-wage jobs are not thrilling, but when you see someone being brilliant in that situation, you know who the real linchpins are.

I also liked the identification of the "lizard brain." It sure explains a lot, doesn't it? Pardon my candor here, but guys are known to say to other guys, "You're thinking with your *****."

I wanted to get into the gifts in my review, but it was getting too long, so we'll explore that more on the blog. Gifts have great power. In fact, my copy of Linchpin was a gift from Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing. (I'll write more about that soon.) I'll be giving copies away as gifts.

This is a hugely powerful thing that we need to recapture. Some people are givers and some are takers. A big part of my faith is to be a giver and let the takers be takers.

Thanks much for your comment about my contributions. When I first got into QA and testing back in 1988, I was on a steep learning curve. I feel like I took much in those days from people like Bill Perry who freely shared his knowledge. I purposed then to share freely myself as a repayment. It has been very rewarding to see people spread these ideas.

Now...if you are reading these comments and feel lost, go get the book Linchpin and follow the discussion in the coming days.

And, Michael, thanks for your comments. Feel free to keep chiming in, my friend. I would especially like to know your thoughts about "ship it, regardless."


Michael Larsen said...

Hi Randy.

Hmmm, this could be taken two ways, so I want to present it from the perspective of “ship it, regardless” as a function of a product, and “ship it, regardless” as a function of a tester.

There’s no question that, when you have a product, you can fret and fuss over it because it is not “perfect”. If this is the reason you are being delayed, take a long hard look at what it is you are doing, and determine if there are details that are serious, minor, trivial, or just would be nice. If you have serious problems, don’t ship until they are resolved (credibility is on the line). If there are minor issues, make a risk assessment and decide if they would be serious enough to jeopardize the product if released vs. addressing them in a later update. If they are nice to have, think long and hard about whether or not that nice to have is a significant differentiator or just adding fluff (as you have pointed out in one of your calls a couple years back, how many features of a given product really get used by a majority of users?). So on a product end, I think it’s critical to ship, but do so knowing you have done due diligence with what is going out there (or at least as much due diligence as is possible to do).

Now from the perspective of a tester, I think “ship it, regardless” is important, because we have to really understand what it is that we ship. We do not ship a product. We ship a story. We ship a report and an understanding that says what we have done, what our observations are, and what our analysis is of that story. If we hold back because we may ruffle feathers, or we may antagonize someone, we run the risk of not telling the full story. As you and William Perry point out in “Surviving the Top Ten Challenges”, this is the classic lose-lose of testers, the “find our problems, but don’t delay us”. In this situation, we have to make sure we tell the full story, and that means we have to ship our full story, regardless. How we ship it is important as well. If we are clear that we have defined what we can do, and that we have shown our method and assumptions, executed that method, and reported the true story of what we have seen, we are “practicing our art” in the spirit that I believe Godin is suggesting.

Randy Rice said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your perspective. I agree it is very important for testers to understand what our product is - accurate and timely test reporting that brings value to our stakeholders. In that context, we can "ship it" anytime. The news may not be good, but we are information providers.

As I wrote in my review, in some ways, the idea of setting a firm ship date adds motivation to make it happen - whatever "it" is. Let's say my goal is to write a book and have it published by December 31 of this year. My grand idea might be a book of many chapters, but my available time and the progress I make may cause me to scale it down, but still get it out. With the nature of today's self-publishing, I can expand it next year in the 2nd edition. (By the way, after my recent experiences in trying to get the changes for the 2nd edition of Surviving the Top Ten Challenges published, I have decided to self-publish the rest of my books!)

Thanks for your comments,