Growing into Leadership: An Interview with Peter Walen


In this TechWell interview, senior software tester Peter Walen discusses what it takes to be a leader in the workplace. He digs into what it means to lead a team, the positive experiences that led to him becoming a better leader, and the mistakes that changed his perspective. 

Josiah Renaudin: I’m joined by Peter Walen, senior software tester at Gordon Food Service. Pete, thank you very much for joining us today.

Peter Walen: Thank you. I’m very happy to be here.

Josiah Renaudin: Great. Could you tell us a bit about your experience in the industry and maybe a bit about your new job?

Peter Walen: Sure. I’ve been doing some form of software for quite some time. I think my official bio says, “over twenty-five years.” I got into software development doing large scale mainframe stuff in insurance and finance and moved through a bunch of roles, which I guess was common at that time in the early ‘80s. A mainframe developer, software analyst, project management for a while, business analysis for a while, dabbled enough to be dangerous with database stuff and eventually moved into small systems and then back to mainframes.

Pretty soon I found myself dealing with Unix, and SCO UnixWare and a bunch of other things and eventually moved into software testing following a re-org at the company that I was working for at the time. That was 1997, and I’ve been doing software testing one way or another pretty much since then.

Josiah Renaudin: Like you said, you have a lot of experience and that’s one of the main reasons why you’re going to be giving a talk during the upcoming STARWEST event. Right off the bat, for your Growing into Leadership discussion, you mention that you’re not trying to teach someone to be a good test manager.

Do you think it’s more valuable to learn basic widely applicable leadership skills than just those belonging to a specific area of expertise?

Peter Walen: Well, that’s really a good question. I want to say that when it comes to management, there’s an awful lot of people who can tell you how to be a good manager and who can go through how to grow your career and say, “to grow your career, you need to be a good manager, and here’s how you be a good manager.”

Well, I’m one of the people who says it’s awesome if you want to move into management but if you like keeping your hands dirty, here’s how you can contribute and be a leader in other ways. I think it’s important for managers to be leaders as well. It’s really important for line people, rank and file software people, to be leaders, and that’s what I’m trying to approach this as, as not using “leader” when people mean “manager,” but seeing “leader” as in actually setting an example and leading.

Josiah Renaudin: That plays well into my next question actually. Do you think it’s more difficult to learn to be a leader when you’re considered a lower-tier or inexperienced employee compared to a test manager?

Peter Walen: That really depends on the nature of the organization. I found some are very hierarchical, where they’re looking at people being over, this is your position, you do this and only this. I kind of look at them and laugh when they tell me that. I’ve actually had people say, nope, nope, nope, you’re doing too much. You’re not supposed to do that. Really? How can you do too much? I’m giving you too much stuff? What’s the issue?

I think that the question around that is, “where you in your organization” is important, but this is more instead of being, gee, people should do everything what I do, but how do you influence the people around you? How do you influence your peers? How do you help people do a better job without, maybe without them even realizing that’s what you’re doing? That’s kind of what I’m looking at with this.

Josiah Renaudin: Speaking of your peers, speaking of those who are around you, who do you think holds us back from being a leader more, ourselves or our peers?

Peter Walen: That’s the $64,000 question. For a lot of people, they feel very uncomfortable being the nail that sticks up from the floor because they’re going to expect something bad to happen, that they get pounded back down. For me, the way that I look at leadership and the way that I approach leadership is to say rather than going and doing all the leadership stuff that a lot of programs will emphasize, and if you want to…

For example, you went to a college business program. They had all these courses in leadership or management theory or whatever. I’m going, that’s all fine, but what it boils down to is if you’re going to lead people sometimes you have to lead yourself first. If you’re going to help people get better, take a good, hard look at yourself and how you act and behave and how you do things to make yourself better before you try and what I think of as impose leadership or impose ideas on people.

If you can go out and do stuff on your own, if you can go out and learn things that are new to you and reach out and develop yourself, develop your own skills beyond whatever the organization that you work for, the company that you work for, beyond whatever they’re offering, you’re going to do a couple of things. You’re going to first improve what it is that you can do and how you do it by opening up your mind and opening up new venues, new ideas and introducing new ideas into you. That’s going to influence the work that you’re doing directly.

You can then turn around and begin sharing some of those ideas gently so that you’re not imposing help but sharing some of those ideas so that people can see what you’re doing as an example and begin asking you questions and say, hey, can you explain how you did this? That’s the kind of leadership that I think is really, really important.

If you don’t worry so much about the people around you, because if you focus on what the people around you are going to think, most people are going to just crawl back under their shell and hide because they don’t want to upset the cart, they don’t want to upset their peers. The whole high school thing, I don’t want to be different. Well, actually, kind of encouraging people to be different.

Josiah Renaudin: We’re kind of in a new age of social media where everyone, most people are on Twitter, they’re on Facebook, they’re on LinkedIn. How big of an impact can networking have on your path and becoming a leader? We have more access to people than ever before. What can this really do to make you a better leader?

Peter Walen: That’s really at the heart of it. How do you reach out so you get noticed without jumping up and down in your cubicle yelling, “Look at me.” Twitter is an amazing thing. LinkedIn can help. Websites, web forums, StickyMinds can help. That sort of thing where you can go out and share ideas and put ideas out there.

Find people to follow on Twitter even if you disagree with them. Listen to what they have to say. Read their blog posts and take a look and weigh that. As you’re weighing their ideas, most blogs allow you to comment. Comment on those blogs and tweet about what you believe based on what you’re reading. That’s going to do more to get people’s attention than sitting quietly.

I think the idea of the city on the hill, the beacon on the hill or putting the lamp under a bushel basket, you’re never going to get noticed. If you really want to be a leader one way or another, you need to be noticed.

Now, for me, I’m not advocating that you should go out and do the whole “Look at me” thing and hold yourself up as a bright and shining example of, “This is how cool I am.” What I try and advocate is get yourself noticed so you can have deeper conversations with people. That’s where the real learning begins, I think, is when you can sit down with some of the… I guess some of the luminaries in software testing and engage with them, either on Twitter or Skype or if you build up enough of a reputation, possibly at conferences.

It’s like, gee, this person is speaking at STARWEST. I think I want to go and see if I can spend some time with them. That’s an awesome way to grow and to develop I guess your own brand, which is pretty central to developing any form of leadership.

Josiah Renaudin: I like what you said about building your own brand. I think that’s important. That’s something that social media does really well, where you’re creating an image. You’re creating who you are through your online presence. Everyone has their own unique path to leadership.

If you could, could you recount one of your most personal influential experiences that led to you becoming a better leader?

Peter Walen: Sure. I was actually working for a small software shop in Holland, Michigan, which is about forty minutes or so from, well, forty miles from where I live in Grand Rapids, and we were … I had originally been brought in as a contractor and then they extended a fulltime position and it’s like, sure, I’ll work here.

In the process of that, one of the things they were looking for was how do you improve testing? How do we make things better? Well, being the very shy and soft-spoken person that I am, I suggested to the director of QA, who was essentially the boss over all of testing functions that there were a bunch of conferences that maybe it would be valuable for them to go to or to send people to.

There were some good magazines to get, some good books to read, essentially, that basic… here are some people who have got some really good ideas that are different from what you’re doing and maybe you can pick things up and make things better.

The result of that was she was going to be going to a conference in Toronto and something came up where she couldn’t go and she ended up sending me in her place.

The first day of the conference, I’m sitting there having breakfast with a bunch of people, and in walks Fiona Charles. Of course, they didn’t realize that’s Fiona Charles. She just sat down with a plate of breakfast at the table with us and was chatting and introduced ourselves. About thirty seconds or so after she said, “I’m Fiona,” it dawned on me this was Fiona Charles, whose articles I’d been reading in StickyMinds and a bunch of them that I’d linked.

I went, “Oh.” We got to talking and pretty soon she was saying, “You’ve got some really good ideas. What’s going on?” One thing led to another and we then literally, within six months of that, I was actively blogging. I actually opened up a Twitter account and I began doing some of the things that I’m now telling people, “You know what? This may not work for you. This is what worked for me.”

This is how I’m approaching things, and I think that recognition that you don’t have to always fit in to be good, that you can have ideas that are of great value even if they’re not applicable right now.

Fiona was very instrumental in nudging me in that… Well, she didn’t really nudge; it was more like a shove in that direction to say, “You’ve got good ideas, you’ve got important things to say. Now go say them.” It’s all well and good to go and build ideas, but if you don’t tell anybody about them, they don’t do anybody any good.

Josiah Renaudin: Absolutely. Now, on a similar wavelength, what one mistake do you think you’re learned the most from, and maybe similar to the last question, help you become a better leader by learning from a slip-up or just some mistake that you’ve experienced?

Peter Walen: OK. It’s funny you should ask that after I told that story, because remember the part when I said I was a contractor for, that I’d gone in as a contractor at this company?

Josiah Renaudin: Yes.

Peter Walen: It’s because I’d been fired from the job before.

Josiah Renaudin: Oh, I got you.

Peter Walen: There was a lot going on there, but one of the things that happened was that in attempting to change processes and in attempting to change the way the people approached testing, I completely blew it. Rather than come in and say, this is the way we’re going to do it, bang, which I really don’t care for because most of the time the people who presented that to me, it’s been these really weird, crazy ideas that they read about somewhere and they’d never tried.

Instead I tried to keep it more gentle and in the process of doing that, I made some fairly fundamental mistakes where looking back on that now I go, “yeah, that’s what happened.”

I failed on a couple of things. First, I did not recognize that what motivated me was not what motivated the rest of the testing group, that the things that I wanted to do, the things that I felt were cool and amazing and how to develop were not the kinds of things that they were interested in it at all, whereas they were perfectly content to come in and do their job and plan the software for X number of hours a day and then go home.

I was kind of going, look, you can get better and here’s how you can get better. In some ways I guess I was overzealous and that led to very interesting cultural clashes that I wasn’t anticipating and I probably wasn’t ready for at that point, either. It was probably a combination of those things that led to me just totally, totally doing the wrong thing almost consistently.

Looking back on it, it’s like, yeah, that was a big mistake. Yeah, that was another big mistake. It was not recognizing what their cultural norms within the organization, not recognizing their individual and group motivation or how they liked things organized. They liked information flow that I was giving them because they were going, OK, this is pretty cool because he’s actually telling us what’s going on and he’s sharing ideas with us that make sense.

I think the biggest mistake that I made was failing right out the gate and probably being a little overzealous in what I was trying to say and then not recognizing that I had been overzealous, if that makes any sense.

Josiah Renaudin: It absolutely does.

Peter Walen: It’s like, oh, I screwed up and so I’m going to try and backpedal, and one mistake compounds the next. It’s like, oh, boy, I really didn’t want to do it quite that way. Of course, by then, it’s a week later and you realize why things are so tense. By that time any attempt to fix it is just going to make it worse.

What makes a good leader? In my mind, a good leader is somebody, and this I’m looking pretty much at a peer. If you’re going to be a leadership-by-example kind of person, the kind of person that I try to be is to recognize what people’s motivation is. They may have absolutely no interest in doing anything different than they’re doing now. They may be quite happy in doing that for whatever reason. Trying to get them to change may not work.

You can’t externally motivate people. That was probably one of the big take-aways that I had, that you can inspire them to motivate themselves, but you can’t really externally motivate them. There’s the carrot and stick thing. I don’t really consider that as motivation. I consider that mostly intimidation.

Then organization, looking at how people work, looking at how people interact, looking at how the cultural norms are; that’s something that’s really important that a leader has to be able to recognize.

Then the information flow, how do you get information back and forth? How do you disseminate and how do you receive information? If you can do a good job with those three points, you’re probably going to develop into a pretty good leader.

Josiah Renaudin: I think that’s actually a perfect place to end the interview, because I don’t want to give away everything about your discussion, which is titled, “Growing into Leadership,” but I think you really boiled it down into those three traits that you’re really looking for as a good leader.

I really do appreciate the time, Pete. I’m looking forward to meeting you. I am excited to see more of what you have to say about leadership.

Peter Walen: OK, cool. Great. Thank you. I’ll see you then.

Josiah Renaudin: Thank you very much.

Peter WalenPete Walen has been involved in software development for more than twenty-five years. Today, Pete is a senior software tester at Gordon Food Service. He describes himself as a software anthropologist and tester, examining how software and people relate and react to each other. Pete is a signer of the Agile Manifesto, a member of the American Society for Quality and The Association for Software Testing, and an active blogger on software testing at Follow Pete on Twitter @PeteWalen.


Podcast Music: "Han Solo" (Captain Stu) /CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

About the author

Upcoming Events

Sep 22
Oct 13
Apr 27