I’m in the process of migrating a bunch of content from my corporate website over here for reasons which will become apparent when I finally publish the newest version of my corporate website. But that’s a topic for another day.
Migrating all this content has me looking at stuff I haven’t really looked at in a while. And it has me reminiscing. I figure January is as good a time as any to reminisce about presentations and conferences past.
The last file I uploaded were the slides to “Why Are My Pants on Fire?”, a presentation I gave at the SM/ASM 2002 conference.
And that reminded me that I owe Tim Lister a big thank you for the title. And therein lies a story.
Back in 2000, I was working for a company I shall choose not to name. But it wouldn’t matter if I did name it since hardly anyone has heard of it.
While working at this unnamed company, I managed a group whose title was “Quality Engineering” but whose function was much more on the testing side of things.
Like most DotComs at the time, we were under constant pressure to bring the software to market faster.
You’re probably thinking, “Schedule pressure? Right. It’s software. What else is new?” This was different, as I discovered when management made it clear they’d spend just about any amount of money if it meant we could ship a week earlier.
The time pressure meant we took some crazy shortcuts. And that meant I was in crisis mode most of the time. I spent my days chasing down bugs and having nutty debates about whether or not we could ship software that, under certain circumstances we couldn’t quite pin down, would cause a Blue Screen of Death.
A year or so into the job, I took some time out to attend a conference. Talking with others about DotCom insanity gave me a much needed sense of perspective. And it felt rather cathartic.
That’s when I found myself sitting at a table with Tim Lister, Jim Highsmith, and some other luminaries I can’t recall just at this moment. I was, quite frankly, more than a little starstruck. Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister’s book Peopleware changed my life, or at least my career, and this was the first time I met Tim Lister in person.
You’d think being a bit starstruck would keep me quiet. But no. Remember I was feeling cathartic. I talked about my job. A lot. Too much. And much of what I said probably sounded like whining. Let’s be honest. I really was whining. Tim listened for a while, then stopped me.
“Let me get this straight,” he began. “You have a greenfield project with no legacy users to support, right?”
“The code is written in a modern programming language, you still have the original source code, and it’s even kept in version control?”
I nodded again.
“You have no legacy data you’re supposed to import into the system?”
I nodded again.
“SO WHY ARE YOUR PANTS ON FIRE?!?” he demanded.
Why indeed. His question had the desired effect: I stopped whining.
I pondered that question over the next year. I considered Tim’s words each time we had yet another crisis, whenever customers complained about devastating bugs, and every time a DOA build was delivered into test.
Then I left the company. I got tired of the smell of singed pants. I got tired of the crises. And I realized that I couldn’t do anything more to help. I’d done everything I knew how to do, it hadn’t worked, and I was done.
Turns out I had great timing. I didn’t know it at the time, but things were about to go from chaotic to dismal. A couple months after I left they laid off half the staff. A month later, they laid off another big chunk of folks. And a month after that they closed their doors.
That was 2001, the year Silicon Valley turned into a ghost town. You could tell no one in Silicon Valley was working by the shocking lack of traffic on the major freeways: commute times dropped precipitously for the lucky few still employed.
By then, I was back into consulting and training, and my commute involved airports. Lots of airports. And with each new client I visited, I kept pondering Tim’s question.
When you think about a question for that long, eventually answers emerge. About two years after Tim asked me that fateful question, I turned my answers into the “Why Are My Pants on Fire?” presentation. Now it’s one of my most frequently requested talks.
So, that’s the story of how Tim Lister inspired me to transform my miserable whining into useful answers that became a well-received and oft-requested presentation. I’m grateful to Tim for the title and for his wisdom, but most of all, I’m grateful to him for making me see I was at least partly responsible for igniting my own trousers.