Welcome to my website. I’m Karen Nicole Johnson.
I have extensive experience consulting and working in the software industry.
In January 2020, I bid my farewell to my career in software testing sharing the following letter~
This is a letter of farewell and thanks to you, my Career. Yes, that’s right – my 33-year career in computer software testing is coming to a close. I am making this choice after heavy thinking throughout a sabbatical that has spanned many months and capped a change that had been simmering for the past five years.
Writing this farewell to my Career has become important to me. Important to publicly announce and acknowledge this change as opposed to withering away or disappearing. Important to me as a reflective activity that is helping me prepare for my next career. And, in tech (and perhaps as most industries these days), no one will be giving me a gold watch to say thanks and to send me on my way, so I am doing this for myself. I hope my letter offers a model of how to exit for other people as well. And frankly, I need the closure.
This isn’t easy. You, Career, have been by my side my whole adult life and have served as a large part of my identity – although you, Career have never defined all of me. While we were together, we had good times. I thank you for all of it. Let’s look back and enjoy some moments before moving forward.
What I loved
Learning. I love to learn. No one is ever done learning in technology. To be good in the field, you have to love to learn and keep learning. In a field that was so new when I joined in the mid-1980s that there were few books, and in a niche career path such as software testing that didn’t even have newsletters, how do you learn? The internet didn’t even exist in common practice. I had to find information in many ways and often on my own. I would have read the online help file, but when I entered the field in 1985 I was the person writing the online help or product documentation! Back then it was called the “product manual.” Yeah, I wrote the manuals, and I wrote the online help for several software products.
Intellectual inspiration. I was in love with technology. If you know me, can’t you see that gleam in my eye—the thrill of the software bug pursuit? It’s quite addictive. My bedside nightstand was covered with tech books and magazines, and my podcast catalog reflected the same. The technology field was and remains a delightful, relentless beast of an engine that never stops, never quits, churns every day to find the new. The thrill of being part of the field was intoxicating.
Emotional satisfaction. Learning fed my brain. I had a deep gratitude that my brain was being fed. It mattered to me that I could apply my smarts to my work and that my knowledge made a difference both in the outcome and how I felt about my work. I was so damn happy to have a thinking job.
Variety. I worked on software for different industries, from banking and manufacturing to medical, and more. I worked on ecommerce when it was hot and new, and then I worked on mobile when that was hot and new. I’ve seen a lot of hot and new grow old, and then I chased whatever was next. I made my peace with this many years ago when I traded stability for variety.
Travel. Software testing gave me the opportunity to work across state lines and to speak at conferences internationally, providing opportunities to get to know people all over the country and the globe. I’ve had years when the number of currencies I was paid in made my taxes complicated but my life and work fascinating.
Flexibility. Whether in a corporate setting or, later, through having my own consulting business, you often provided the opportunity to work remotely, Career. This flexibility eased commuting and enabled me to be around while I raised my daughter post-divorce and also later when my parents were aging and ill. When I traveled to speak at a conference, remote work arrangements meant that I was still able to earn my project income by working in hotel rooms and on airplanes. Yes, it was a lot of juggling, but the flexibility made my whole life, not just my work life, function well.
I have many people to thank for their support and, with their help, I’ve built an impressive set of professional skills. It’s funny how one acquired skill leads to the next in a virtuous cycle of what feels like good fortune but what, as a good friend always reminded me, is luck fueled by plenty of long hours and hard work. Career and colleagues, you sharpened my abilities in:
Asking questions. My degree is in Journalism, and people often ask how that background helped me with computer software. I think, “You’re kidding, right?” Journalists learn to research, ask questions and do enough legwork to completely wrap their head around a topic. I took only one computer class in school, so clearly research and learning skills were key. But it was you, Career, who taught the master class. Through you, I learned how to ask multiple people the same questions to compare and contrast the responses, looking for discrepancies and gaps in information. I knew that where information would break down was where I would likely find breaks in software, too. I learned to interview people in full Q&A sessions as well as on the fly when I could squeeze in one or two questions at a time. I became adept at asking hard questions in soft ways—to jingle information out of people without making them feel interrogated or think, “There’s that kid again, bothering me for more information.” I liked asking questions so damn much that I recorded a webinar called The Art of Asking Questions and, honestly, it was one of my best bits of work. Yep, I’m proud of that one. I was a perennial student.
Listening. Even when I wasn’t asking, I was listening. I got good at listening at lunches, in hallway conversations and during those moments before meetings begin when team members whisper questions to each other. And I especially perked up when software developers asked questions, because it didn’t take long for me to learn that when developers are confused, their code is going to be confused, and I’m going to catch my best bugs in those spots.
Playing to learn. As you know, Career, questions will get you only so far in the testing game. I also “played” with software—not in a silly, goofy way, but playing to learn, to experiment. I tried this or that and watched what happened. Research with no charted path was great fun.
Detective skills. Wandering and playing to learn left me feeling like “Nancy Drew, ace detective,” a point I tried to make in Ohio when I gave a keynote on the topic. Nancy would learn a fact, deduce another fact and gather all the information to devise a cohesive solution to the mystery at hand. I did the same thing with software; I just didn’t need a flashlight to do so. This all had practical application. Years into you, Career, when my daughter had an illness or my parents had health issues, those same investigation skills came into use. Essential skills of observation and pattern recognition are mighty helpful in figuring out illness. And asking questions in a soft way is a perfect approach to use for quizzing doctors. It was great to see what I learned through you, Career, help me in a practical way in my personal life.
Speaking. I could never say farewell to you, Career, without extending my appreciation for my time as a speaker in the field. Holy cow, I didn’t see that one coming! That I could become a geek sitting and learning and being shy—that wasn’t so surprising. But that I would grow and evolve to be able to stand in front of 1,000 people and comfortably give a decent keynote—that has been a huge surprise. Speaking gave me confidence. Speaking grew me professionally. Presentations made me think my thoughts long and hard enough to get to the clarity needed to then share my thoughts with unknown people in large settings. Being able to speak to many people also helped me to handle the smaller, more typical settings of, say, a meeting of 20 people.
Writing. Through you, Career, I had or created opportunities to write and blog. I had the good fortune to be published throughout my career—about a dozen articles in several magazines or newsletters and, once, a chapter in a book. It’s called Beautiful Testing and is sold on Amazon. Given that I went to school for journalism and English, these opportunities nourished my soul and gave me enough satisfaction with writing that I felt it was okay that I gave up a writing career for a computer career.
Running a business. When I became a solo consultant, I claimed the rights to mastering my future in choosing which contracts, clients and a whole array of other variables I would permit into my professional life. I was so busy doing the work and learning at the same time how to incorporate, purchase corporate insurance, invoice and handle billing that I didn’t even notice the business skills I was acquiring.
Standing my ground. Over the years as my shyness wore off, I learned to argue. To defend myself and my point of view. To engage in debate. To enjoy layers of discussion not just to win or show off. When I pivoted into solo consulting, that personal sturdiness helped with contract negotiations and the occasional challenging client. (Most of my clients were great.)
Reasons to Go
So why am I leaving?
Long hours. I would barely lift my head from the computer screen and place my dinner order night after night as I burned to keep going, keep running—well, mentally running, as I would physically stay seated for long spells of time. I spent much of my time so deeply absorbed mentally with you I didn’t even know I wasn’t moving physically at all—just hunched in a chair, staring into a screen. I can’t sit like that for you anymore, Career; I see now that those long days, day after day of sitting, were not so healthy. In my younger years, my body would quickly recover from our long-seated sessions, but that is not the case anymore. It hurts to sit for hours and, after 30+ years in computer software, my eyes now almost always squint. I need glasses for just about everything, even to read my damn phone—I particularly hate that. I’m much better now about periodically looking away from a laptop or mobile screen as my eyes just about demand that I do so. I obey my body’s needs now over what my hyper-focusing mind sometimes still craves.
Getting older. Career, you are not forgiving as the years mount. Software is a high-energy field that demands the vigor and creativity of young professionals, who want to be surrounded with people who are like them in thought, experience—and age. They don’t want to hang out with a parent figures. I have no interest in being bitter or getting angry at younger people entering the field as I leave. Staying in tech is like aging in general—it’s more graceful and tasteful to let yourself evolve than to fight it and to try to keep being someone you once were but no longer are. I used to be one of the young ones, and I was young for a long time and then I wasn’t.
Getting laid off. Sticking with you, Career, means that I’ve been laid off more than once for different reasons that could also leave me bitter, but that isn’t how I feel in part because I took a sabbatical and have had think time not just reaction time. Instead, I’ve taken apart those experiences to see the message inside of those hard stops that says: it’s time to go.
Change of identity. I don’t see myself as a techie anymore. After these few years of soul searching, I am finally at peace with not identifying as a geek or a software person. That doesn’t mean my time was wasted; it just means it’s time for something else. Tech was a large part of me but not the whole of me, and now my tech interest has nearly entirely vaporized. I find that realization shocking. But I’m being honest here, Career. Gradually, dear friend, my interests shifted. Now my nightstand is covered in novels, memoirs and books on writing! My iPad is reserved for movies, and I haven’t listened to a podcast on any tech topic in a long while.
So now what?
’Bye, Career in computer software, and hello, writing, my dear other friend! Now it is time for us to spend solid hours together. See, it all comes back; it all goes around. Months of sabbatical, fretful sleep and no paychecks, and I think I’ve got it now—with many thanks to my kind, patient and supportive husband while I’ve taken the time to sort through all this. Now I see that I need to write. And, I am not leaving writing again, not for anything. Not even if I don’t get paid a dime and have to get a day job for the paycheck while the nights and weekends give me writing time.
As a child of 10 or 12, I wrote. It was not journaling; it was real writing. I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t have the courage to write for a living in my 20s, 30s or even 40s, as I figured writers surely starve. And besides, I’d found software. And although I did want to write the Great American Novel, after years of living I now have plenty of stories without making up fiction—stories from what I’ve seen, what I’ve lived. I can write real-life stories that make people laugh or cry or laugh and cry at the same time. I’m writing a memoir and committed to completing it.
See, Career, I guess I do have a place to put my feet after all. You know what? It’s going to be ok. Part of the challenge in ending my career in software has been feeling displaced at where to go, what to do next. I am too young and too filled with ideas to be idle. But now after a rest, I’m leaving sturdy enough to even go build another business, and that’s what I’m going to do. I already know how to incorporate and how to handle a business—so much so that it almost won’t matter what the business is. And that’s pretty damn empowering, I’d say.
But you can feel sure, Career, that writing will be part of any business I run. And, although I remain an introvert, it seems unlikely that I won’t present again—probably not at another software testing conference but in front of new clients, different organizations and various vendors or partners. As it turns out, you may leave a field, but you don’t leave what you’ve become. And you don’t become anything without opportunities and people. So, thank you, Career and colleagues, again.
I have an idea and a business partner. We’ve started but we are not ready to talk about it quite yet. This farewell to you, Career, must come before launching anything new. The separation is important. It is not always where you are going but where you have been; both parts are important. So, let’s get this goodbye wrapped up.
I was part of and believed in sustaining a solid professional community. And if, during nearly every conference talk I gave in the testing community, I seemed like Sandra Bullock from “Miss Congeniality,” raging on and on about world peace, professional community and its importance let me highlight my gratitude for colleagues around the globe who felt the same and have been welcoming around even that part of me. Career, our field (well, my former field) is filled with lots of very good people who ran the race of technology with me for a long time. Thank you, dear friends. I’ll still be over here in Chicago wishing you the best.
What about my own peace? Achieving personal peace has taken me on a long journey, but now I am at peace and ready to go. I am also ready for new challenges. Writing a memoir. Building a business. And to spend more time and commitment to personal health and exercise.
Many thanks. Good to go.