Values Spotlight: A Labor of Enthusiasm

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” — Marcus Aurelius

“Every morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy —the joy of being Salvador Dalí— and I ask myself in rapture: What wonderful things is this Salvador Dalí going to accomplish today?” — Salvador Dalí

I want to paint my best understanding of enthusiasm by example.

Imagine breaking rocks all day and then throwing them in a hole. This would be a drudging task, because it is not interesting, and it serves no purpose. Imagine instead breaking rocks to something beautiful or useful: a sculpture, a deep well, a home, a place of worship. It is mentally stimulating, it is rewarding, it is engaging, and it delights both because others enjoy it and because it is utilitarian or beautiful for its own sake. When you are done, you can look upon your work with great satisfaction: your work was interesting and engaging, and it served a purpose. Both tasks may use the same hammer and chisel, and both may leave you sweaty and covered in dust. One is done begrudgingly and the other can be done with enthusiasm. The difference is not the form of the labor, but the engagement of the mind and the heart.

When you are breaking rocks, time moves slowly. You are counting the minutes until it is over. When you are sculpting, you forget the world. You forget to eat. You look up to find that the sun is rising, you’ve worked through the night, and your heart breaks because you must move on and do something else. 

Enthusiasm happens at a very precise point in space and time: here and now. When you are doing work for its sake, when you are interested in the work and challenged by it, your mind focuses on where you are, what you are doing. Your purpose is to correctly land each strike of the chisel. When it is done, the next strike is your next purpose. Something beautiful awaits, but you do not pursue it with grim determination or anxiety. You enjoy the work. And from doing this work enthusiastically, you imbue the work and the result with a greater quality than if you did it begrudgingly. 

The greatest misperception, stated explicitly or believed implicity, about work which I have heard is that to bring quality into your work requires you to give up something to your task or to the organization. People believe it costs you something to do quality work that it does not cost you to do mediocre work. But the wonderful secret is that the opposite of this is true: when you find enthusiasm in your work, you produce greater quality in whatever time you put into the task, and also extract greater joy and satisfaction. There is no trade-off involved in doing your work with enthusiasm. Indeed, the privilege of having that enthusiasm is part of what can make life wonderful. 

Finding Enthusiasm Within

Many people believe that they are either lucky enough to have a job which gives them enthusiasm, or they aren’t. They believe that whether they are enthusiastic or miserable at work is outside of their control, and so often they feel resentment, and they come to work begrudgingly in order to pay rent. But as our rock-breaking example illustrates, enthusiasm comes from the mind. Specifically, it comes from being able to tie the work you do to something meaningful: that is, if you know why what you do matters, you are much more able to be enthusiastic and enjoy your work. And you do not need to be a doctor or CEO to make your work meaningful. 

I used to work in milk bottling factories. They were loud and a bit smelly, and almost always were pretty far out in the middle of nowhere. As you might imagine, many of the people who worked in these facilities had worked there for a very long time. What they did was very repetitive: every day, they needed to fill hundreds of thousands of bottles of milk by operating and maintaining filling machines, casers, stackers, palletizers, forklifts, trucks. I had imagined that they were very unlucky to be working there, and that I was very lucky to instead be a consultant jetting about to help them. 

On one project, I met the operator of the bottle-making machine, called a blow-molder. He had been the senior blow-molder operator for 18 years. This guy was a wizard with a machine that was otherwise very finicky and difficult: typically, any time precision heat is involved in a process, you need skill to make it work. But the blow-molder mostly tended to itself, taking in plastic and cranking out bottles. To me, it looked boring. But we were working together because the plant wanted to reduce some of the downtime on the line, and I had gotten to know him over a few weeks.

One day I saw him standing at the blow-molder, arms crossed, smiling. He had just brought it back online after some of the bottles had come out malformed. I said to him: “You look like you’re looking at a painting you just made.”

He put his arms down and looked me in the eye. I could tell his own eyes were getting a bit moist as he told me this story: “Ten years ago, when I was in the grocery store with my wife and my granddaughter, my wife pointed at all the milk on the shelves. And she said to our granddaughter: ‘Honey, did you know your grandpa makes all of this milk that thousands of people drink every day?’ And I’ll never forget the amazement in my granddaughter’s eyes when she said: ‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ And hugged me. And ever since then, I’ve been very proud of what I do.”

I know for a fact that he is happier at work than many people making ten times as much, with much easier and more conventionally “successful” careers. He goes to work every day with enthusiasm for bringing milk to the kitchens of Indiana. 

In these same travels I also got to know some of the people who performed housekeeping at the hotels I would stay at. She was always so chipper and we would chat briefly when we would see each other. She had a similar story: whenever she cleaned a bathroom or made a bed, she knew that every day, dozens of people like me would drag themselves into the hotel after a long flight and a long day at work, exhausted. It was in her hotel rooms that they could let their shoulders relax, and they could leave the day behind them, comfortable and without worry in a soft bed and a warm shower. She knew she was bringing comfort and joy to weary travelers, and that she got a lot more exercise than most desk-jockeys. She loved her job. 

For my part, I loved working in milk plants, too, even though the hours and the travel were pretty exhausting. I was keeping factories afloat, I was fixing problems that got in peoples’ way. I found enthusiasm in being a teenage line cook because I was learning a lifelong skill to make delicious food. I found enthusiasm as a landscaper because I could listen to audiobooks all day and get exercise. When I worked in customer service, I found enthusiasm in brightening people’s days: and I was subsequently far better at accomplishing just that brightening than colleagues who focused on feeling put-upon by customers who complained at them. 

In this way, enthusiasm becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you can articulate why what you are doing is meaningful–for you, for others, for the world–the increased quality you bring to the work improves the result, and yields the meaning you have tied to the work.

So when you show up to work, there’s no reason to not show up. If you’re going to be there, it costs you nothing additional to really be there, and you get so much more out of it.

Enthusiastically Learning and Growing

Enthusiasm, in combination with humility (which we discuss elsewhere), is a key to unlocking learning and growth. Let us consider again a few of the examples above. If you are a line cook, cooking with enthusiasm will provoke you to ask questions of more senior cooks about how to perfect a sandwich. If you are operating a blow-molder, enthusiasm will make you curious about how you can better understand the machine’s current state, and better control it. In an office (as in school), enthusiasm leads to curiosity and hunger to know more about what you are doing. Your mind will be more active and engaged, and you will be more open to seeing lessons that you would otherwise miss if you were shuffling your way through the day. If you work out enthusiastically, that last five minutes of trying to beat your personal record is exciting rather than miserable and tedious, so you will run all the harder with a smile on your face.

The logic of this is straightforward: enthusiasm comes when you see meaning in what you do. If you care about that meaning, whether it is a personal accomplishment, the realization of some external good, or the acquisition of a skill for later use, your mental engagement and thus rate of learning will be much higher. 

Enthusiasm’s Price

At ProdPerfect, enthusiasm is one of our core values, so we ask everyone to find it in themselves and bring it forth into their work and their teams. This request can feel at times a bit trite: who would not want to be enthusiastic about their work? 

While I believe the choice to be enthusiastic is a clear one, it does not mean that enthusiasm does not require giving up something. To be enthusiastic, one needs to give up emotional distance. There are people who are quite happy who see work as a means to an end: their enthusiasm is poured primarily into their families, volunteer work, and/or hobbies. These people have some emotional distance at work: because they are less attached to the meaning which we discussed above, they can more easily muster equanimity when things are not going well. 

If one is very enthusiastic about the outcome of one’s work, it can be devastating when one encounters a major setback. If you are enthusiastically training for a marathon and then shatter your foot, or if you enthusiastically build a tech company and then see a multibillion-dollar juggernaut release a new product line that matches your own, it can feel like your world is falling apart. Imagine the feeling of the sculptor who tips over a statue just a few buffs away from being completed. 

Even in less dramatic circumstances, is it hard to be enthusiastic without becoming attached to the subject of your enthusiasm, and thus to be emotionally ruffled when your work is not going well. Buddhist monks train for years to strike just this balance: if you are familiar with some monks’ intricate sand art, you see this in action. They spend days carefully creating something beautiful–practicing enthusiasm–and then upon completion immediately shake the table of sand, returning the art to the state of chaos from which it came–practicing acceptance and equanimity. For us laypeople, simultaneous enthusiasm and equanimity is difficult to reach. 

We each of us have only so much energy. While enthusiasm in work does not require extra time, and it likely gives us more total mental and emotional energy than we would have if we were simply dragging ourselves through the day, it also costs energy, and some days can cost quite a bit. 

Preventing QA Burnout Means Choosing the Right Values

“Transparency, Humility, Enthusiasm, Impact-Orientation, and Ownership. These are very admirable values, but they seem much more about how to live than how to run an organization. And they seem to have very little to do with your product. Why did you pick them?”

An investor recently asked me this question.

At ProdPerfect, we’ve chosen these company values because they fight burnout within our organization, within the QA teams we serve, and in the world around us.

Our Company Mission: Fighting Burnout

We designed our company values explicitly around our core mission of fighting burnout. We want to fight burnout for both our customers and our own team. When organizations neglect these values, eventual burnout becomes inevitable:

  • Without organizational transparency, teams lack understanding of the facts and reasoning behind big decisions, and may not fully trust leadership, creating an atmosphere that breeds anxiety and resentment, contributing to employee burnout.
  • Without humility, employees are likely to spend emotional energy bickering, fighting, and playing politics, leading also to burnout.
  • Without enthusiasm, work becomes a grind or drudgery, and employees spend time at work preferring to be elsewhere, contributing to burnout.
  • Without connecting the impact of their work to the mission of the organization or the welfare of others, individuals default to believing that their role does not have intrinsic value, contributing to burnout.
  • Without clear ownership of KPIs or problems, people easily become confused, problems persist, and frustration arises. When employees don’t feel that their area of ownership is respected, they feel helpless, and they may develop resentment. Each of these experiences contribute to burnout.

We continually strive internally to fight burnout by individually cultivating, and collectively teaching, reinforcing, and celebrating transparency, humility, enthusiasm, impact-orientation, and ownership. Holding to these values makes for a much more delightful, fulfilling, and productive workplace.

But, beyond our internal organization, how does ProdPerfect’s QA automation service fight burnout? How does it help other businesses adopt and reap the benefits of our values?

ProdPerfect QA Automation as Organizational Transformer

When ambitious, forward-thinking organizations partner with us, they are able to break through barriers to excellence that are a direct result of the core dysfunctions of legacy software quality assurance. ProdPerfect helps our clients reach further towards each of these values, decreasing burnout common to the conventional state of a software organization.

Transparency: In conventional QA testing, there is little clarity to the software organization as to which tests have been developed or why. Teams of similar sizes can have a few dozen end-to-end tests or thousands of them. What ultimately drives this? It’s unclear. This creates frustration for the developers whose code is being tested, and a lack of alignment between developers and QA engineers. Cross-silo fighting often results.

With ProdPerfect, data exclusively drives what the machine identifies as important to test. It’s clear that each test case reflects a pattern that users perform frequently, and teams can see exactly how frequently users interact with patterns that do and don’t have test cases in the ProdPerfect suite. Testing decisions become extremely transparent and there is less room for argument.

Humility: In conventional testing, intuition drives the decisions around what to test. The industry has for decades asked QA automation engineers to get in a room with some excel sheets and come up with what’s important to test. Sometimes the product team helps, sometimes developers help, and sometimes product analytics helps. But ultimately these decisions are made by people’s intuitions and they become attached to them. When bugs are missed, egos come out to play. “Why wasn’t this covered?” is the conversation every QA lead dreads, but must frequently face. When this question is asked, people get defensive, justifying their decisions. By its design, this system fails the people involved.

Because ProdPerfect’s test suite is objectively built off of data, there are no egos involved. The tests exist because users told us that these workflows are important to them. If a bug is caught, great. If a bug makes it into production, we can know that the facts told us it wasn’t worth the maintenance resources or test runtime (see: testing pyramid) to build a test for it. No room for ego.

Enthusiasm: Who loves maintaining end-to-end test suites? Who loves chasing down and diagnosing a flaky or unstable test? That’s right, nobody. ProdPerfect means machines take that burden away from humans, and so they can move on to work that deserves more enthusiastic attention.

Impact: Because of the intuitive nature of conventional test case development, it’s impossible to know if the test you’re writing has a large impact, a small impact, or zero impact. You might be writing tests that cover a pattern of behavior that nobody will ever use on your application, and you know that.

ProdPerfect’s data focus means every test is impactful. No longer are engineers spending time writing tests that have little or no value to the software organization. That waste has been removed.

Ownership: Who owns quality? Is it QA, or developers? Is it both? How often do these two departments fight back and forth over who is responsible for which area of quality, and how often do they fight over who has the power to make decisions about quality? When a bug is found in an end-of-sprint regression cycle, who is responsible for hunting it and fixing it? In many organizations, the relationship between software developers and QA engineers is quite toxic, and it’s because their ownership seems to overlap, with neither being clear what they have full ownership of and control over.

With ProdPerfect deployed, we can get part of the way towards clarifying that question. Developers should own their own unit and integration tests over the parts of the application they write. ProdPerfect will own testing the application as a whole: with each build, developers will get objective feedback about whether they broke the application. If they did, they own fixing their code, and have the power, tools, and context to do so. QA can continue supporting in many other realms: from other forms of testing to serving as analysts and advisers to developers to help them write quality code from square one.

Ultimately, software development and QA testers or engineers are set up for a frustrating relationship in the old model. Most experienced engineering leaders reading this will recognize elements of the above from their past, and most are likely familiar with toxic or dysfunctional developer/QA relations. By breaking that wheel of ineffective, unclear, intuition-based testing and mutual antipathy between these two groups, we enable a transformation towards a much healthier, more productive, and less burnt-out organization.

We exist as an organization because we wanted to bring something into the world that would help us and others further what we find most important. With our team, our investors, and our partners, we will strive to help all of us to avoid burnout, and thereby to thrive.

ProdProfile: Josh Pevner

 

1. What’s your background that’s led you to your current position at ProdPerfect?

I came from a completely weird gig doing natural language processing, machine learning, and healthcare-related work. And then Co-founders Erik and Dan told me: “Hey, we’re working on this project, it’s really interesting.”  And then they pitched it to me. And I was like: “Oh, that’s absolutely boring. That’s a brilliant business.” A lot of people go after these hyper-local, social, global kind of businesses. This is the exact opposite of that. It’s not particularly interesting, which is exactly why we want to automate it. I’ve built some of these regression tests before. It’s not a fun gig. It’s tedious, painstaking work, and that’s why we are making it go away.  

 

2. Can you paint for me a picture of what life is like in your role?

My day-to-day is an adventure. My role straddles a lot of lines between doing the grunt work of coding and the people management side of making sure my team is happy and knows what they’re doing. In QA, so much of your job is being this relaxing force for the customer that you in turn want to make yourself a source of calm. But the company is changing so fast that the delivery team is constantly on fire. That’s the heart of opportunity right now: making it so that we live by our philosophy of avoiding burnout and automating menial labor. So what we’re working on is building up internal tools to make it easier for the delivery team to address what happens when a client’s test fails. Getting as much as we can into a process that’s at least scalable, if not truly automated.

3. What are some elements of a “typical” interaction with customers and/or product?

Our team tends not to have direct interactions with customers.  As far as product: we’re the “secret sauce” of the company. We have this thing called the analysis engine.  It’s where all the automation happens. The analysis engine takes in all the client’s data, slurps it all up, and says: “Okay, here are all the tests you actually want to run.” And it does this by performing this analysis saying: “Let me map out your website, and then look at the most popular flows through it.” It’s like looking at where the most congestion is on a roadmap. And saying: “This is what we need to be watching.” That’s what gives us our coverage. Currently, we generate what’s called test cases that get turned into tests. The goal over the next couple quarters is to move directly to generating. Generation and automation is a big part of what we’re working on. Also, improving the quality of the results: making them robust and scalable and all those magical things.

That’s the heart of opportunity right now: making it so that we live by our philosophy of avoiding burnout…”

4. What intrigues you about engineering at ProdPerfect?

My role is very multi-faceted. The job has two different sorts of challenges. The technical challenges are pretty straightforward. The human relationships and management side is more butt-kicking—making sure everyone feels like the company is following its values, knows where they’re supposed to be, and turns into this harmonious hive. Whereas everything is already built out in a bigger company, here we’re growing together as a family. We’re learning that what you focus on is everything. This is definitely a values-first company. So making sure what we focus on aligns with our values. From building culture to building internal processes. And making sure our product reflects those values. 

5. How do you explain to people the value of ProdPerfect?

You don’t need to be technical to appreciate ProdPerfect’s value. The value of ProdPerfect is that it keeps peoples’ websites up. We find bugs. That’s what we do. Our job is to make sure that when people make changes to their websites, they don’t break them. We find problems with peoples’ websites before they do. That’s what our tooling is about: analyzing a website’s traffic, building up a set of test suites so we understand what works and what doesn’t. And then quickly informing the customer when it doesn’t. The fact that it’s such a straightforward value proposition is why I joined ProdPerfect.

6. In your own words, how would you differentiate ProdPerfect from competitors?

A lot of folks who generate tests tend to put a lot of the labor on the customer – they are product companies. Whereas we are a service company. As much as we are converting into a product company over time, because we’ve had a background as a service company, that’s going to shape the DNA of the product to be much friendlier. We will continue to provide support. Because being there for the customer matters. There’s also a difference culturally. We’re in a different phase than our competitors. They’re a little bit more mature, and that’s why they’re going to need to figure out where they’re going next. We’re going to wake up to that same problem one day. But I believe that because we’re self-aware, when we enter that world we’ll be prepared.   

ProdProfile: Kyle McCullough

1. What’s your background that’s led you to your current position at ProdPerfect?

My background is mostly in back-end software engineering, site reliability and operations. I’m familiar with standard QA practices, but it’s never been my job.

I knew ProdPerfect was a good fit because, in my prior job, I built a smaller-scale version of what ProdPerfect does. I built an environment that allowed our internal teams to test any branch of their software in a scalable, dynamic QA environment. That project gave me an idea of what it would look like to do this kind of work at scale, which is one of ProdPerfect’s primary goals—to make testing easy and scalable.

2. Can you paint for me a picture of what life is like in your role?

At this stage, we’re figuring out how to scale, which is one of my favorite problems to solve. I like taking a technical solution and figuring out how to expand it and roll it out.

One project my team is working on now is what we call our remote harness environment. Until recently, customers ran tests in their own Continuous Integration (CI) systems. They would maintain their own servers to do that. The remote harness allows customers to run tests on demand, on infrastructure that ProdPerfect controls. They don’t have to worry about running servers or doing anything that would make integrating with ProdPerfect difficult. My job is building that and then scaling it. I.e.: How do we support 10 times as many customers as we have now?

3. What are some elements of a “typical” interaction with customers considering our product?

The role of my team is to maintain infrastructure, build APIs, and provide a nice, uniform experience for running workloads in our environment. So my interaction with customers is through tooling—publishing and releasing tooling customers can use to run tests. Our goal is to provide consistent, reliable tooling that behaves predictably and is a joy to use.

Internally, it’s a support-based interaction. If customers have questions like “How does this work?” or “Why is this not working?”, we’ll investigate, support, and troubleshoot. We’ll figure out why the environment is failing to behave the way we want it to. For other teams, we develop best practices and make sure that, across the organization, we’re doing things consistently in a way that’s scalable and maintainable.

“I saw how powerful my work was in enabling other teams.”

4. What intrigues you about engineering at ProdPerfect?

The thing that got me hooked was when I saw how powerful my work was in enabling other teams. I realized the work I’d done—even though it was difficult—was worth the investment because it saved so many other teams so many hours. The idea of doing that at scale was really interesting. It’s a really hard and finicky problem to solve even for a single company. So it’s super ambitious to solve that broadly for lots of companies.

I also find it interesting because we’re a start-up. You don’t know how we’ll grow. So it’s the excitement of building something out that doesn’t exist yet and learning how to scale it as the business grows.

5. How do you explain to people the value of ProdPerfect?

The value we provide is in making the process of developing software better and in making better quality software. We cut out friction by making it easier to test, maintain and develop software, and deploy things with confidence. Of course, there’s also value in money saved in not shipping bugs.

Another thing I think about for anyone involved in the development lifecycle is: How frustrating is it for them to test software and get a release out? If we make testing easy and quick, everyone will use it. But if it’s tedious and frustrating, people are going to skip steps. And they’re not going to use systems that are there.

One of the other things that got me hooked was our CEO and Cofounder Dan’s vision and enthusiasm. The company has a set of values and everything revolves around that.

6. In your own words, how would you differentiate ProdPerfect from competitors?

We are multiple products in one. There’s the analytics side: capturing analytics from customer sites. Then there’s machine-learning automation: a lot of companies do testing, but our efforts are to remove humans from that process and still make testing useful. Then, there’s what my team does: serve as an infrastructure provider. We’re not just handing off tests and saying: “Here, go run these.” We’ll even run the tests for our customers.

We collect the data, develop the tests in an automated fashion, and we even provide the infrastructure to run those tests. It’s as low-friction as we can make it. The unique combination of how we’re solving this problem is definitely what sets us apart.

ProdProfile: Hao Chen

1. What’s your background that’s led you to your current position at ProdPerfect?

Before ProdPerfect, I was working for one of ProdPerfect’s first customers. At the time, I was doing QA myself. Other engineers were doing QA. Everyone I could tap on the shoulder was doing QA. There was a lot of value in removing the QA burden. So when ProdPerfect CEO and Co-founder Dan was pitching me his idea, I was like: “Wow, this is actually useful.”

Fast-forward a year-and-a half later, I’m here at ProdPerfect.

2. Can you paint for me a picture of what life is like in your role?

I’m one of the engineering team leads. Our team works on both internal tooling and customer-facing User Interfaces (UIs). It’s a mix of making sure everyone on the team understands why we’re working on certain products/features, team members have everything they need and are unblocked, our team has the right resources and full-stack skill set to design, develop, and support new products/features, and others in the organization have good visibility into our product roadmap and current progress. Especially when you’re working on user-focused interfaces, it’s important to be product-minded and have that customer-centric way of thinking.

3. What are some elements of a “typical” interaction with customers considering our product?

Sometimes we’re providing support to the end-user or customer. Other times, it’s doing research asking customers: “What are your needs? Does this product or feature we’re building solve your needs?” Questions from customers come through many channels. In the spirit of transparency, we’ve been collecting questions that come in about the product into an internal quiz and ask team members: Which team is best suited to answer this question?” At this stage, there’s multiple stakeholders that collaborate to answer these questions.

Cross-team collaboration is one of the hardest things at any company. One thing that helps us here is our stated company values, which include transparency, humility, enthusiasm, impact, and ownership. Having open and honest discussions about our successes and failures helps us grow as a team. It’s about figuring it out together.

“It’s about figuring it out together.”

4. What intrigues you about engineering at ProdPerfect?

I like coming to work every day because of the people. Our CEO and Co-founder Dan has done a great job building a team of smart, ego-less people who share a similar mindset of wanting to make an impact and do good, who are kind and fun. I want to keep nurturing that company culture as we grow.

An unwritten value here is learning. A lot of people are just lifelong learners here—whether it’s learning new languages, taking classes, or just expanding their knowledge. There’s lots of people doing book club together—reading books on different topics that interest them and then having discussions on them. Those are all great ways to learn and grow.

5. How do you explain to people the value of ProdPerfect?

ProdPerfect is automating QA as a service. The company’s mission is to prevent burnout. We prevent burnout by helping customers prevent fires by catching significant, actionable bugs before they hit production. We catch bugs by running regression tests for customers, typically against their staging environments.These regression tests are machine-assisted in their creation by analyzing the most heavily-trafficked user flows on the customers’ web applications collected by our JavaScript snippet.  At the end of the day, ProdPerfect reduces the QA burden by automating away the painful parts of software development.

6. In your own words, how would you differentiate ProdPerfect from competitors?

We always have competitors. From companies doing no QA to having their own internal QA team to outsourcing parts of their QA. But no one is doing exactly what we’re doing. We have the data-science portion—analyzing traffic—but we also have that human in the loop. Test suite creation is machine-assisted, and it’ll be moving more toward that direction to help scale the company. But at the same time, context is hard to know without having a human in the loop: someone that’s knowledgeable about the customer’s web application. That’s the value of our delivery team. ProdPerfect perfectly combines extra QA manpower with data-based decision-making to give our customers peace of mind.