A Major Award (first appeared in StickyMinds in February, 2013)
North American readers may be familiar with the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story” (now also a Broadway musical), about a boy growing up in Indiana in the early 1940s, who longs for a BB gun for Christmas, but all the adults warn him, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”. The father in the movie (brilliantly played by Darren McGavin) constantly enters crossword puzzle contests. In one of my favorite scenes, he finally wins a “Major Award”, delivered to their house in a huge packing crate. The award turns out to be an incredibly tacky lamp made in the erotic shape of a woman’s leg, with a fishnet stocking and high heeled shoe. His wife is horrified, but to the dad, this award is the affirmation that he’s a great solver of crossword puzzles and should enter even more contests.
Back in 1998, I had my own Major Award experience. At the height of the Internet boom, in 1998, I took the leap from traditional software development to a startup company producing a web travel site (Trip.com, now CheapTickets.com). I’d never tested web software, and my new team had never done any testing. We found our courage and experimented and, though maybe we didn’t deliver the best software around, we helped our company succeed. After I’d been there a few months, the company founders decided to institute a quarterly award to the “most valuable employee”. I was quite amazed to be the first recipient. The award itself was a wooden base with a small brass plaque, and sitting on it was a rock that our COO had picked up from the side of his driveway that morning. They called it the “Rock Award”, for the employee who “rocked” the most, I guess. It’s not quite as tacky as the leg-shaped lamp, but it’s just about as ugly. But for me, it was affirmation that I could really add value for my team, and that my team appreciated my collaboration.
The Rock Award gave me the confidence to keep taking chances in my professional career, and to share my experiences with a wider community. I wanted to attend testing conferences, so I started submitting papers. With the help of our team’s technical writer, I finally got one accepted, and my conference presenting career was launched. In 2000, several of my teammates joined another startup, and gave me Kent Beck’s _Extreme Programming Explained_ to read. I was so excited about XP’s focus on quality, I begged them to hire me as their tester, and I never looked back. I’ve had a series of mostly wonderful jobs on terrific teams since then.
Today, I’m enjoying a dream job, along with many opportunities to write, participate in conferences, and be part of a wonderful worldwide software community. I credit Trip.com’s co-founders and their initiative to encourage employees with that crazy Rock Award with boosting my confidence, so that I made more efforts to develop my professional abilities.
The start of a new year is always a good time to think about your learning and career goals. I’m not sure we all need to win an award, but think of ways you can encourage your own colleagues to grow professionally. Recognize their contributions to the team’s achievements. You don’t have to be a manager to nurture a learning culture, and help your business stakeholders understand that software teams need time to learn and experiment. Freedom to continually improve not only makes us more productive, it helps each of us enjoy getting up in the morning and going to work. Sharing our experiences in the larger software community helps us all.
What would you and your team like to achieve this year? How can the global community help you? How can you help and encourage others? In “A Christmas Story”, the dad gets the boy his Red Ryder BB gun. It proves to indeed be a bit dangerous, but in the end, the family has a wonderful Christmas and the boy feels more confident and happy. Let’s all take some risks and find more joy in developing software in 2013.