Wednesday, October 7, 2009

*be the worst*

Huh? Did I just say "be the worst"? Yep, I sure did. But before you go telling your boss that I told you to be the worst tester you can be, let me finish the phrase!

First and foremost, I have to give credit where credit is due. I saw this phrase first from Chris McMahon -- he says that this meme has been around the music business for a long time. He credits Pat Metheny, who said, "...try to be the worst guy in whatever band you're in. That's the secret."

Given the context, what I am saying is "be the worst of the people you are surrounded by", or "surround yourself with really great people."

At Agile 2009, someone told me that Elisabeth Hendrickson decided to learn by inserting herself into the best teams she could find. Even before I encountered the "be the worst" quote, I had begun bouncing around the idea of how I perceive myself versus those I work with.

I think back to an early job in my career, straight out of college. At this place, I remember thinking to myself with some frequency, "These people are *SO* *SMART*! I feel SO DUMB when I am around them!" I often tried to just keep up with conversation, hoping to fake it long enough to avoid appearing dumb, too! Looking back, how I wish I could have gotten over my own insecurity and taken the opportunity for exactly the opportunity it was! What I should have been thinking was "Wow, these people are *SO* *SMART*! I want to learn everything I *can* from them!"

What can we get out of "being the worst", and why would anyone suggest that?

I think we can get a *lot* out of it: learning, experience, growth ... In working with people who have a set of skills that you wish to expand for yourself, you can see first-hand, on a day-to-day basis, and under a whole slew of circumstances how that quality is manifested. Sometimes it might be a technical skill. Maybe it's a communication skill.

As I have grown in my career, I have begun to feel like the "dumb one" less and less. I think that my passion to get better and better at the things I want to be good at, have made it more and more difficult for me to *be the worst*. What have I done in response?

I've become *way* more active in the agile community. In that way, I can surround myself (though not as frequently as I would like) with those people I see as *way* more skilled than I am in certain things. I found this out with certainty at Agile 2009. I love talking to Elisabeth Hendrickson for her insight into agile testing and human relationships at work. I enjoy Lisa Crispin's company for her amazing ability to be a great agile tester, without falling back on programming the hard things (like I do!). I met Patrick Wilson-Welsh, and admired his passion, sense of humor, and ideas on good, clean TDD. I had conversations with Michael Feathers and Bob Martin to try to gain some insight into my specific legacy code issues. I had great conversations with Antony Marcano and Andy Palmer about testing tools and frameworks. I *pair programmed* with Abby Fichtner to gain from her development experience. Of course, there were many others ....

In this way, I forged relationships and surrounded myself in a way that I could *be the worst*. I'll keep saving my pennies to go to conferences and keep being active in the agile community so that I can keep *being the worst*.

Do others try to put themselves into situations where they can *be the worst*? How do you keep yourself always learning and always surrounded by those you can learn from?


Chris McMahon said...

You might also like Dave Hoover and Ade Oshineye's Software Craftsmanship book (if it ever comes out).

John said...

The Apprenticeship Patterns book is out, Chris - I've got it in ebook form right now, the print copy is due later this month. So far I'm loving it, even if I'm not the target audience. (I'll be giving out copies frequently, that's for sure.)

Be The Worst is one of the patterns included.

abby said...

Oh! You so stole my post *laughs* This is actually a chapter in The Passionate Programmer and I couldn't agree more.

In the Passionate Programmer, Chad Fowler says when we work with people we wind up - almost subconsciously - adopting their ways. And so it actually goes both directions, but if we can regularly work with those that are better than us we will become better.

I love this idea! Thanks for the post :-)

Matthew said...

Great post, Dawn.

Question: Can you name a few situations were it might /not/ be a good idea to be the worst?

anne-marie said...

What a great attitude, I think I might take a leaf out of your book.

I really enjoyed this post, Its the first time I've been to your site. I look forward to learning some more from you.

Maverick Tester

Dawn said...


Did you have any such possibilities in mind?

I started out thinking that the only time I don't want to be the worst is when I don't want to learn, and that, for me, is just about never.

The only direction I can think of that points to situations where I might not want to be the worst are when I am brought onto a team as something like a (temporary) coach, for example.

If, for example, I was brought in as a consultant on a team for a 1-month engagement, to help set up a test infrastructure, I would expect that I would not be the worst there, and if i was, I might be in trouble.

I suppose when I think about it, *be the worst* applies when my goal is to learn skills myself, and not as much when my goal is to be a teacher to others.

This distinction helps me to distinguish between this post and my previous "work for a successful company" one ... the 2 were feeling a bit like they conflicted.

Thank you for the thought-provoking question. Please let me know if you had anything specific in mind :)

patrickwilsonwelsh said...

Awesome post, Dawn. I have modelled this learning technique, which is not for the faint of heart. I have one thing to add (without having read the chapters on the topic in either book yet), and it comes from my introspective practice:

Applaud your own courage for daring to be the worst, especially in the face of the vicious internal voice of comparison and self judgment. Give yourself credit for taking the harder path at the fork in the woods.

Lisa said...

I have tried to do this somewhat unconsciously my whole career. I totally depend on having excellent teammates, people who are really passionate about quality and doing things the best way possible.

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