Greater Saint Louis Area, Missouri, USA

The Hermit of the Spring

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The Hermit of the Spring

There once was a secluded town, nestled in a valley. The town was fed by a freshwater spring, up in the mountains.

There were times when the water would become contaminated, and the townspeople would get sick. When they realized it was the water causing the problem, the people decided on a way to make sure the town’s only water source was kept safe to drink.

The council decided to pay the hermit, who lived in the mountains, to make sure the water at the spring stayed drinkable. He was able to live right next to the spring, and was able to have everything he needed right there, so he’d never have to leave the spring.

People weren’t sure how he did it, but the water was always clean, and people never had to worry that their water was bad.

Many years passed, older council members passed away, and younger ones took their place. None of these had known a time when the spring had bad water. A few of them even wondered… is the hermit actually doing anything?

And so, one fateful day, a vote was taken among the council members. By this time, the grumblings of a few had become the strong opinion of all. They decided unanimously to stop paying the hermit for a service they no longer needed. The hermit understandably left for another town many miles away, never to be heard from again.

The town enjoyed the newly freed money, using it on projects that had been wanting for many years.

Things were going fine for awhile. And then one day, the first of the townspeople came down with a mysterious illness. And then another. And another.

The townspeople realized the sickness was more widespread than they thought, and it was rapidly getting worse. Whole families were out of commission, commerce stopped and streets were barren.

The council members scoured their history books to see if this had ever happened before. They finally did find something, in one of the older, dustier books, mentioning the same sickness that plagued the town now. And then directly below that, they saw that the council had voted to hire the hermit to ensure the town’s spring was kept clean for the townspeople.

As quickly as was reasonably possible, the most able bodied of the council members (of those who weren’t sick) traveled to the hermit’s shack in the mountains, in search of something–anything–that could help heal the town of this sickness. Three of them made the hard day-long journey and arrived at the hermit’s old shack at sundown.

But when they opened the door they found nothing.

The hermit had lived a quite spartan lifestyle, and it wasn’t difficult for him to take everything with him, whatever it had been. How did he do it? Was it tools? Herbs? Witchcraft? Nobody knew what the hermit used to keep the spring clean.

The townspeople continued to suffer for a time, and it took months for everybody to completely recover.

Nobody died, just, it was… well, the people would just be pooping. Like, all the time, constantly. It was very inconvenient.

But the council did decide to have people work to keep the spring clean again, but without the expertise of the hermit, it took a long time of hard-earned lessons to get the spring into decent shape, and even so, the spring was never as clean as it was when the hermit had charge over it.

And they lived nervously ever after.

I remembered reading a story like this years ago, and this was my best attempt at reproducing it. Couldn’t find the original.

But I realized today: this has some strong resemblance to how some companies handle their QA department.

When things are going great and you’re shipping good product regularly, it can be tempting to think, “What is our QA department even doing?” They can cost a lot of money to operate, and it can be difficult to see value added when things are Going Awesome All The Time.

If a QA department is considered a cost center rather than a service center, it’s possible that the department could be disbanded in favor of recovering that revenue.

But sometimes, the decision makers aren’t the ones that were there when everybody was pooping their brains out trying to fix bugs and furiously working to get even rickety product out the door in time.

The problem is: there’s a lot going on that management may not be aware of if things are going great. Excellent QA departments are the ones that not only test, but help everybody else–devs/BAs/PMs/etc.–be aware of what kinds of bugs could crop up, so that they can be caught extremely early. The result is that things will go so well that it could look like we ain’t doin’ nothin’.

But as QA experts, the onus is really on us to make sure we’re seen, and that management knows what we’re doing. That’s the area we have control of, and that’s how we can exercise it.

If you’re feeling like this on your team, here are some tips to help get some visibility:

  • Put stuff up on a big TV–seriously, the last 3 clients I’ve been at made a point to have big TVs sitting around on stands or on the wall. These are cheap for a company. Put some stuff up there like build monitors, graphs showing bug rates (hopefully going down), or maybe show an actual run of some automation.
  • Stroll into “town” once in awhile–start asking to be invited (or invite yourself) to meetings where QA knowledge may be needed. Sharing info in those to the right people will gain you tremendous visibility
  • Host a Lunch ‘n’ Learn–managers like to eat food, I’ve seen them do it. Lunch ‘n’ Learns are great places to not only share ideas across brains or across teams, but also to have management be knowledgeable about what our strange craft is all about.
  • Track metrics–management loves numbers and loves measuring stuff. Find some data that demonstrates that the code was really crappy before, and it’s a ton less crappy now, and put it in a line graph or something. And then throw it up on a big TV during a Lunch ‘n’ Learn meeting with management.

When it’s done right, QA is a very social activity. It’s not limited to just your team. It’s not even limited to just your company. If you’re having trouble breaking down some of these fake walls we put up around ourselves, and need to get the right people aware of what you’re doing, that’s something this extroverted consultant can help you with.