How Did I Get So Jaded?


Churning out medium-grade software to meet deadlines, and experiencing critically defective projects over the years, can easily wear down optimism till it gives way to cynicism in the software testing and quality professions. In this column, Eileen Strider empathizes with that tendency and offers ideas that may improve the quality of your experience.

I was talking to an IT consultant the other day and she said, "I'm almost fifty; I've been in IT since I was sixteen and I'm pretty jaded." Like me, that's more than thirty years of IT experience. For some of us, we feel jaded after only three or four years.

How does this happen? We begin each new job and project with excitement and high hopes. We anxiously apply our technology to deliver significant value. Yet somewhere along the line, we start noticing recurring language and patterns. We listen, bored, to "Our project is different." We are fed up with ineffective management techniques such as understaffing, over committing, overly ambitious schedules, and blindness to risks. We are worn down by our inability to deliver enough software, fast enough with high enough quality.

After experiencing these patterns, it's easy to become jaded, disillusioned, cynical, hopeless, and even seriously depressed. I've found myself in these states time and again during my thirty-one IT years. Is this our reward for trying to deliver quality software on time and within budget?

The Chinese symbol for the gemstone jade, "yu," contains within it the symbols for the heavens, the earth, and humankind. This seems appropriate because I think we begin our projects with our sights set on the heavens and are quickly brought down to the earthly reality that we are dealing with mere humans and manmade technologies.

However, this symbol "yu" is also the same one the Chinese use to describe something precious—as in, "precious as gold". So the question becomes "How do you turn your jaded perspective into precious experiences?"

Turning a jaded view into valuable experience is your choice. This is a simple concept, but it is not easy to actually practice. It takes hard work to develop this ability. And more important, it takes a willingness to reshape your views.

Each time we experience something, we make a meaning out of it—in other words, we "frame" the experience. Each of us frames a current experience based on personal expectations and past experience as well as individual values and beliefs. If the current experience meets your expectations and matches positive past experience, values, and beliefs, you will frame it in a good light. If the current experience fails to meet your expectations or match your values and beliefs, and it recalls a bad past experience, you are likely to frame it negatively. After some number of negatively framed experiences, your feelings accumulate into a jaded view. As you collect a repertoire of these negative experiences, you are more likely to go into the next project with a cynical view before you even start work.

Just as we have the ability to frame an experience as "bad," we also have the ability to re-frame the same experience as "good"—or at least as "an experience from which we can learn." Have you ever noticed that an experience you framed as "bad," someone else framed as "good"? How can that be? It's because the "frame" is something you assign. It's not inherent in the experience itself. The meaning is in your interpretation.Now, I'm not suggesting you change your values and beliefs or reframe an experience just to feel better. Rather, I'm suggesting that you choose how you frame your experience by setting expectations realistically. For instance, if you start with an expectation that "this project must produce a perfect product," then you will be disappointed if it doesn't. If you frame your expectation as "I want to produce the best product I can within the project constraints," then your expectation may be met. Many IT professionals have extremely high expectations of themselves, coworkers, their companies, and clients. This isn't bad, but it may be impossible to meet them consistently, which can set us up for repeated disappointment. In effect, we create our own self-fulfilling jaded view.

And how about a project that fails or involves a critical mistake? Did you take from that experience something to avoid or correct in the future? Did you derive information from the mistake that you could not have discovered otherwise? There might be aspects of even "bad" experiences that can help you at least frame them as "constructive."

To conclude, if we are willing to set more reasonable expectations, we increase our chances of meeting them, thus increasing our repertoire of positive experiences. We can also learn to seek the value of mistakes. Over time, this can turn our jade into a precious experience, gradually raising our expectations and increasing our ability to meet them more consistently. So I challenge you to choose to frame your experiences as learning rather than as bitter disappointment.

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