From One Expert to Another: Dawn and Shannon Code


Did you know that former Dawn Cannan, lover of all things testing, and her husband legally changed their names to Dawn Test Code and Shannon Null Code? In this interview, they discuss the reason for their name changes and what it means to have and show enthusiasm for what is important to you.

Joey McAllister: Let’s just get it out of the way. You two changed your names to reflect your occupational interests. Why?

Dawn Test Code: Ha! I love this story, partly because it evolved and wasn't originally about choosing names that are part of our occupations. We had a tough time finding a last name that we felt would really be appropriate. Of course, we wanted to have a little fun with it, but we didn't want to go overboard.

I have to say, I was particularly inspired by others who have chosen their own last names, especially James Shore. You may not know that James and his wife chose “Shore” as their last name when they got married. They chose it because it was related to something they were both passionate about when they met: kayaking. I loved that story and began searching for something similar, related to something that was a big part of both of our lives or related to how we met.

I was also looking for some other qualities. I wanted something short, simple, and easy to remember. I spent my entire life spelling my last name for everyone I ever had to say it to. “Code” also has a meaning outside of the software development world, so I could use that as an excuse for why it wasn't totally nerdy.

Since we had to go through the court process to change our legal last names, we then decided to have a little fun with our middle names. That was much more of a "Why not?"

Shannon Null Code: I have wanted to change my name for a long time, which I think stems from my love for spy thrillers. The occupational interests part of our name change evolved. Neither Dawn nor I felt tied to our current last names and thought it would be both fun and fitting of our personalities to pick a name together that we would like as our family name. We started with a few names that either tended to be geeky or related to subjects centering around how we met. “Hadron” was in the running (due to one of our first conversations being about the super collider). We settled on “Code” after trying it on for a while and decided it fit our criteria perfectly. Dawn was a tester and I was a developer when we met, and many of our early discussions with each other centered on these topics.

Joey McAllister: What was the moment like when that idea officially went from, “Wouldn’t it be funny …” to “Let’s do this!”? What sorts of reactions did you get?

Dawn Test Code: We put a bunch of possible last names on a whiteboard, and then we would just kind of let them hang there. Once in a while, we would say to each other, “I’m really liking this name.” I think at some point, we both just settled on the fact that we like “Code.”

The reactions vary. In the tech world, most of them are some variation of “That’s awesome!” I remember one person at the Better Software conference who said, "Why would you want a name that's tied to your job right now? What if you change jobs?" (Honestly, I have considered myself a “tester” (of life) for my entire life! I can’t see a time when I won’t associate that with myself, regardless of my job.)

Our families were a bit incredulous. I remember a lot of "Are you serious?" My brother claimed not to know me by my new name. I think Shannon's family was a little more offended that he changed away from names associated with his family. I guess it's because men changing their names is less traditional.Shannon Null Code: I kept expecting to be denied the name change due to some technicality. It became most real to me when I received my new driver’s license. I have actually been surprised by the lack of reactions—apparently “Null Code” is not as shocking as I thought it would be.

Joey McAllister: Now, some readers may be saying to themselves, “Yep. That’s just past where I draw the line.” But, it isn’t like you changed your name to a URL to promote a website for a quick buck (which people have done). This is your way of showing that you love what you do. What are some other ways—perhaps some that don’t involve filing legal paperwork—that you are able to show your devotion to the craft?

Dawn Test Code: The timing of this question could not be more perfect. Shannon and I have been talking a lot this week about craft, after having terrible experiences with subcontractors doing some remodeling in our house and cleaning crews who followed them. It seems the first step is considering what you do as a craft. If you don't take pride in your work, well, then what is the point?

One of my favorite quotes came from a keynote that James Bach gave at STAREAST a few years back. He said that if your job is to do the same thing every single day, all day, then your goal should be to do it samer than anybody else! I love that humorous spin on it.

I think that if people focus on pride in their work, then there devotion to craft shines naturally. I am in this profession because I love it and because it never leaves me bored. I learn as much as I can, and then I use the things I learn (sometimes outside the scope of my day job). Between this deeper, practical knowledge and my enthusiasm, my devotion to my craft becomes obvious not only in my work, but when I talk to others about it.

Being involved in communities—both in person and online—also indicates that your craft is important to you. When you talk to others, you learn new points of view, learn about problems that others encounter that you have not seen, and learn about different ways of solving problems. Given that I am one person and can only experience so much, discussing issues with other people allows me to expand my own understanding with other people’s experiences.

Shannon Null Code: I can always tell when someone loves what they do or, often times, what they want to do. Passion is easy to detect. My first bit of advice is to be passionate about what you love. Treat your craft as a craft, practice it, grow it, and by all means share it. Teaching others what you know is rewarding to everyone involved.

Joey McAllister: This interview is in a software publication, so there’s a pretty good chance that the readers already have a certain degree of enthusiasm for software development. But, what next steps do you suggest to people you meet who are brimming over with excitement for their work and want to take it to the next level? What resources can they use to help them grow?

Shannon Null Code: I have found that being humble and opening up to the fact that I have much to learn was a huge stepping stone for me. I found a mentor that helped me understand my current value and how to fuel further growth. I happened to marry my mentor, which might not be an option for everyone out there.

Joey McAllister: What about those who really love what they do (or what they could be doing) but feel stuck because of a particular project, team, or organization?Dawn Test Code: I remember being there. Repeatedly. All is not lost, though it may not be easy.

For most of my early career, I was Dawn, single mom of Steven, a precocious and high-functioning autistic little man who kept me on my toes. I was stuck in a geographical location that limited my ability to get a job that I could juggle with daycare. I'm pretty sure my employers knew this and stretched their treatment of me as a result.

I began working on things at night, after my son had gone to bed. I looked through testing literature, learned about tools and techniques that others were using, and occasionally tried them out at work. I found a treasure trove of resources in YouTube videos and other online videos. I would download them to my iPod touch and watch them any chance I got.

I had a hard time getting employers to pay for training for me, but I got lucky and finally convinced one to send me to a conference, STAREAST. There, I met a bunch of people who were also passionate about the craft of software testing. I connected to them through Twitter and several online communities, such as the Agile-Testing Yahoo Group. Through these connections, I learned not only new techniques and tools, but also techniques for approaching the problems I was facing in my day job. I learned new ways to approach those I was working with who blocked me or who made me unhappy at work. I learned that working on a team was much more about people skills and interpersonal communication than it was about agile techniques or engineering practices.

In more than one instance, the community I had become a part of helped me in two very important ways: They helped me to see that the environment I was working in was toxic for me and was not going to change before I broke, and they helped me to find more healthy employment.

Given all of that, I can suggest the following for people who feel stuck:

  • Learn everything you can on your own, even if it means doing some of it on personal time. Even a few hours a week can really broaden your knowledge base.
  • Get involved in communities. As you join some communities, you will hear about others. Join them, too. See which groups of people talk about relevant topics to you and begin talking with others in those communities.
  • If you can, go to conferences. The big national ones are obvious options, because they bring together large numbers of people. However, there are also small conferences that are free or occur on weekends. Simple Design and Testing and CITCON are examples.

Shannon Null Code: It's easy to feel frustrated or stuck in situations that seem out of our control, I think we have all experienced times where we felt that what we loved doing was being constrained or held back by some outside force in a group, project, or process. Lately I have found reward in changing the things that are in my control, such as how I react, or how I introduce change. You might be surprised how a little change in how you operate can have a large effect in an organization.

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