Can Practitioners write Academic Quality papers?

I've thought about the idea of the AST Journal for some time now. In principle, I really like the idea. One thing that I've worried/wondered about though is the idea of writing a paper that stands up to academic scrutiny (or pretty close to it anyway).

Today, I happened to notice the following Quote Of The Day in the weekly StickyLetter (from
"Science is supposedly the method by which we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. In computer science, we all are standing on each other's feet."
~ Dr. Gerald J. Popek

At first it made me laugh, then it made me wonder about what it would take to write a good paper. I've been reading some good articles and papers on Software Testing lately and if there's one thing I know it's that I don't have the time to do all the required research to produce a really good paper.

I, like perhaps many experienced testers, learned my craft by doing. I picked up ideas here and there over the last 15 years (a conference presentation here, an email thread there, a passing conversation with a colleague or manager, and so on), that when applied I started to notice the patterns of what works and what doesn't. I then began to build up some notion of the importance of contextualisation in my successes and failures.

I've written small snippets of perhaps good ideas and thoughts in the past, and I've communicated some other good ideas during workshops and presentations, and I like the idea of sharing knowledge. One thing I don't think I have the time to do, though, is go through all the previously published material to see who thought of what first. It may be important for research historians, but I don't really believe that I have the time or resources available to me to really do a proper job of it. It almost seems weird or absurd to me from one perspective too.. who thought of it first? "Well, I thought of idea 'foo' all on my own. I can list you all of the experiences, conditions and factors that led to these inferences and the outcomes of the applications of these thoughts. I didn't read the idea anywhere, so how can I attribute the idea to someone else?"

So where would I begin to look in the published literature to reference who actually came up with the same idea or portions of it before me? Or worse. What if to do a really good job of it, you need to reference articles and papers from across various disciplines ( i.e. computer science, psychology, education, engineering, philosophy, sociology, etc.)? That is, what if the profession of Software Testing is really just the centre of a whirlwind of various professions and disciplines all combining into patterns that we each interpret in different ways to successfully complete the tasks before us? How would you know that you've referenced enough people or ideas to do a proper job in your paper?

I just feel so overwhelmed at the prospect sometimes. It's not writer's block.. it's the thought that spending a day or two articulating a few good ideas and the contexts in which they seemed to be successful for me might require weeks of research to support in good academic fashion. And even then, I know I would likely miss some other good referenceable point or idea or person.

Is it possible to do a good job writing a good paper and still have a day job? Perhaps. Is it possible to do a good job writing a good paper and still have a life? I don't think I could. Maybe we all are standing around on each others feet sometimes. So how do we get past this? How do we turn all this information into knowledge so that we can have some progress? How do we help the next generation so that they don't have to reinvent all of the same ideas that we've had to discover on our own over the last three decades?

Learning not to be the best to win friends

When I was young, I developed a habit that I don't really know how I got started on. I'm sure some Shrink could probably extract it from my memories through some quality sofa time, but I'm not really interested in that. The problem is that the habit stuck and it seriously affected how I interacted with others.. but I didn't notice right away. I would have had to have been paying attention to notice. Unfortunately, I only developed that observation skill much later in life.

So here's the thing: I was a perfectionist. I know what you're thinking - every tester says that. Well, I was pretty methodical in my approach and fairly obsessive about it too, right from an early age. If I didn't get perfect on a Math test, I practiced the questions I got wrong until I always got them correct. If there was skill that I didn't excel at, I practiced until I got them down - from video games to languages, from sports to mechanics, from music to cooking ... and so on and on. I was only limited by the resources available to me and as a result I became quite good at a lot of things and a real Information Investigator too. By the time I was twelve I could navigate any and all of the libraries in the city of Toronto (it's a big city). By the time I was in my teens (in the mid-1980's), I learned to navigate the newly developing electronic information systems using a modem hooked up to my Atari 8-bit computer. The advent of the Internet in the 90's was an absolute dream for me! I was an information junkie and I loved to learn. It became a habit: learn something, learn as much about it as possible, get really good at it.

One day I discovered that there's a more efficient way of describing such a person: a know-it-all. Ouch. Kind of harsh. What was worse was discovering that my girlfriends were intimidated by how much I knew and how well I did at school. That was stupid, right? I mean learning was like a video game for me. I did it to see how much I could cram into my brain before I got a brain cramp or ran out of information sources. I didn't do it to feel superior or make anyone else feel inferior. It was just who I was and what I did.

Well that sucked. I wanted people to like me. So I did what came naturally - I pretended to be dumb and intentionally did worse in school. That became my new game - to try and intentionally not do my best, not be perfect. The problem was that my habit was still there, so I had to keep finding ways of hiding what I knew. My teachers didn't like this new turn of events, of course, but I had some good friends and good times so I didn't really care what the teachers thought.

That worked okay for a while I guess. I only thought about dumbing down when I cared about making a good impression. When you're a teenager, that's not really all the time. ;-)

Fast-forward a decade. After graduating from University (finally! they had to force me out because I didn't want to leave :-) ), I discovered a similar but more distressing dynamic in people interactions in the workplace. So here's a question - don't you want to work with people who are good at what they do? Don't you want to be the best at what you do? Apparently, I discovered, a lot of people kind of don't really care all that much about work. It's just a day job that pays the bills for them. And that whole perfectionist thing I've got going on not only intimidates some people, but it also (apparently) makes them look and feel bad.

Well that sucks. Again.

Oh ya, and it gets worse. If you don't kiss the butts of the people in upper management, lie to them and praise them and make them look better than you, you're not likely going to advance within your organisation. It was at this point that I discovered another trait that I didn't know I had - integrity. Basically, anyone who wanted me to kiss their butts could just go ahead and kiss mine. :-b

I wasn't about to dumb myself down in the workplace. Certainly not for some management position amongst all the other self-gratifying, ego-centric, self-praising half-wits. No way. Beware the people you surround yourself with indeed!

Of course, a new lesson I learned was how to balance Integrity and Tact (diplomacy) so as to maintain working relationships. After all, I still wanted a paycheck!

Over the course of several years and several companies, I explored and observed the various nuances of interpersonal dynamics in the workplace with regards to the impact of a product and/or technical expert. Basically, I keep getting better at what I do so I've had to learn how to be good at what I do without making anyone else feel bad about themselves and not sacrificing my integrity when dealing with self-absorbed managerial staff. It's not easy, but I love a challenge! =)

So, why do I bring this up now? Today I had a conversation with my boss - just a regular one-on-one chat that we have every other month at work - and he said something that reminded me of that old habit. He said that other people at work have noticed how much more relaxed and approachable I've been lately.

I know that when I first started at this company, I was a little gung-ho on the whole perfectionist thing (again) but I thought I had turned down the volume on that habit. Some of it is left-over from my Software Quality Assurance days as a "Quality Crusader". I try to remain focussed on Software Testing these days, but it's hard to keep my mouth shut sometimes when people are doing blatantly improvable tasks, and since I have a stake in the success of this company I want to see everyone doing a good job - err, well, the best job they can be doing at the time, that is. Alright? =)

I know I had turned down the volume on that aspect of myself, so I had to think for a minute about why my boss was suddenly remarking on the observation that other people had noticed I was more relaxed around the office.

There was something, an event, that happened last October (2006) that has changed my life forever. It's still a bit too personal to mention here right now, but needless to say it got me thinking about where I was spending most of my time. Last summer I had spent too much overtime at work, and perhaps that got me a bit more stressed than usual -- and was likely the comparison benchmark for my boss' observation.

Since November 2006 my attitude towards work (in general) has shifted again. I kind of don't care about it anymore. I think something inside me snapped. Don't get me wrong, I still love Software Testing and still want to keep getting better at it, it's just that now I think I've finally broken free from the expectation of perfection in others. The transference of my own preferences onto others is a dangerous thing in sneaky and subtle ways that you don't usually see coming.

The reality is that I've got more important things to worry about than what other people should care about. If someone cares about what I think, then that's nice, I'll offer my opinion. Otherwise, do whatever the heck you want so long as it doesn't affect my ability to get my job done.

I've read some good stories and articles over the years, and one day I think I would still like to work in an environment where I could have a mentor that I could learn from. Someone that would expect me to be better than who I am and help me to reach my potential. Somewhere where I could demand the best from my team members and actually get that quality because they care too.

Right now I'm content to work with people I like and who like and support me. That means a lot too.