So You Have a New Job Assignment


Every change involves endings, and endings mean loss. Even the best changes mean some things will end; things that are like warm, fuzzy blankets will be taken from us. But as one thing ends, a new one begins. In this week's column, Lee Copeland assures us that new beginnings involve new understandings, new values, new attitudes, and, most importantly, a new identity for you.

I have a new job assignment here at Software Quality Engineering. I'll be devoting more time to leading the Better Software Conference and EXPO, the STAREAST and STARWEST conferences, Better Software magazine, and writing for To make time for that, I'll be teaching and traveling less. (The TSA, which seems to have an inordinate interest in my shoes, won't get to examine them as much.) I'm excited about this new opportunity to contribute both to the development and testing community and to SQE.

As I was reflecting on this job change, I remembered that many years ago when I was a software development manager, I often gave my staff members new assignments. Almost universally they expressed concerns that they wouldn't be able to perform well in their new positions even though they had done well in their previous positions.

I tried to reassure them by noting that many of the skills that had made them successful in their previous jobs were directly transferable to their new ones. When they expressed their concerns, I asked them to list their personal work-related skills and talents. These lists generally include:

  • Organized
  • Thorough
  • Attentive to detail
  • Good analyst
  • Effective communicator
  • Skilled writer, and so on.

Rarely did they list a technical competency such as C++ programming, test automation scripting, or database tuning. And that's just the point--it's your core personal competencies that will make you successful in your new assignment. You can easily learn the technical stuff.

Joel Barker, whose job title is "futurist," wrote, "When the paradigm changes, everyone is reset to zero." So are we all. And, it's OK; it's to be expected. When I began work as a technical editor for the magazine, I knew very little about how Better Software magazine was created. I didn't understand how article topics were selected, how authors were chosen, the flow of articles through the writing process, schedules, templates, my role and responsibilities, and a host of other vital but mysterious things. And that's OK too. There are plenty of people here at SQE who want me to succeed and are glad to help me. I'd guess it's the same in your organization.

Many years ago, I read a book called Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges. Notice the subtitle. It's not "coping with change" or "dealing with change" or "suffering through change." It's "Making the Most of Change." For me, that was the emphasis I needed. Over time, this has become a life-changing book for me.

In the book, Bridges writes about the three phases in every transition--Letting Go, the Neutral Zone, and New Beginnings. Some of his comments regarding these phases are applicable to all of us who have new assignments.

Every change involves endings and endings mean loss. Even the best changes mean some things will end; things that are like warm, fuzzy blankets will be taken from us. (Already I miss the smell of burning jet fuel in the morning.) Don't be surprised if you seem to overreact to the change. You are not reacting to the new assignment; you are reacting to change itself. Perhaps you've been torpedoed by changes in the past and now you're reacting to those events in your life. Bridges suggests that a good strategy is to define what has really changed and what hasn't. The "what hasn't" is probably much greater.

If the new assignment has been forced upon you, you may experience the classic signs of grieving explained by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. (I know--it sounds like a real downer, but it is a fascinating and helpful book.) The signs are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally (hopefully) acceptance. These are natural human reactions to any unwanted, unwelcome change. You can get through it. Remember: You're good enough. You're smart enough. And, doggone it, people like you.

Regarding the Neutral Zone, Marilyn Ferguson (also a futurist--apparently a popular but little-known occupation) wrote, "It's not so much that we're afraid of change, or so in love with the old ways, but it's that place in between that we fear. It's like being between trapezes. There's nothing to hold on to." When changing jobs, we often feel lost and disoriented. We're not doing the old job any more--the one we were good at, the one we got those warm fuzzies for. Now, we're fumbling our way through the new job, doing the best we can, but conscious of our own inadequacies. As a technical editor, my current box score is: six things done right, three things done wrong, three things not done because I didn't know to do them, twelve people pleased, and four people offended. Think of your neutral zone as a time of metamorphosis, reorientation, redefinition, and reconstruction.

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end," wrote the poet Dan Wilson. New Beginnings involve new understandings, new values, new attitudes, and, most importantly, a new identity for you. (You are not just Peter Parker anymore--now you are Spiderman.) New Beginnings represent a gamble, but one that you are competent to take.

No matter how you've come to your new assignment, either by choice or by chance, you now have a wonderful gift, a clean slate on which to write new accomplishments. I've taught this concept to each of my children as they have left home, gone off to school, gotten married, or taken a new job. You have a clean slate with no "black marks" on it. Use it wisely. Alan Kay once remarked, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." Your future in your new job is yours to invent. I'm inventing mine. I invite you to invent yours.

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