October 3, 2004

Training Take #1 and Links LS 2000

Back at Access, we learned about the impending purchase by Microsoft in February 1999, just as we were finishing Links Extreme. We had to hurry and make the appropriate changes to Extreme: getting rid of MPlayer support, tighter integration with the MSN Gaming Zone, the Microsoft cloud logo replacing the Access Software intro video, etc. The acquisition was finally announced on April 19, 1999. We were to be one of Microsoft's first remote studios, and as such, we were an experiment.

Now, for this next story to make sense, here is the history behind it. I was hired as a test lead by Bill Biggs. He hired another tester, Michael B., a couple of weeks before me. He was hired as a tester. When the Microsoft announcement was made, Bill Biggs switched to the Art department. Kevin H. was a developer, who switched to being the Test Manager at that time.

Russ J. was the test lead on Links LS 1999, and as such carried over to Links LS 2000 in the same capacity. However, he was having issues with attendance due to a medical problem. Kevin H. recognized that something needed to be done. He was also constantly being nagged by Michael B. about the fact that even though I had been there less time, I was higher up than he was. So, as one of Kevin's first acts as test manager, he promoted Michael B. to test lead, and assigned him to lead on Links LS 2000 while Russ J. dealt with his medical issues.

Now for the story. We needed to learn how to develop and test "The Microsoft Way." We were going to be dealing with our counterparts in Redmond on a regular basis, so having a common frame of reference was crucial.

Our test lead training was handled by a Thomas Z. from Redmond, who at the time was a test lead. He came down and spoke to us like the proverbial "pro from Dover." Unfortunately, 75% of what he taught us was how to kiss ass and get ahead. Most of us who were in the training were able to see past this and realize that for us to succeed, we would have to combine the best of what we were doing with the best of what we were able to glean from him. One piece of information that Thomas kept insisting on was that a test lead's primary purpose was paperwork. While every other test lead disregarded this factoid, Michael B. latched onto it like it was gospel truth. As Kevin H. came from a development background, he had no reason to think that small nugget odd. This was a recipe for disaster.

Once Links Extreme shipped, I was assigned to Links LS 2000. I also helped on occasion with a LithTech-engine adventure game that was in pre-production. (I'll tell that story another time, as it requires several paragraphs to even get started, and it dovetails into another epic story about the studio.)

The average day for the test team: 9am to noon, testing. Noon to 1pm was our sacred communal gaming time. The entire test team would play whatever was in vogue. We started with the original Age of Empires. We moved on to Rainbow Six, then to alphas of Age of Empires II. Then, from 1pm to 5pm or 6pm, we'd test. The test lead's day, however, involved everything but testing. He'd spend a couple of hours working on reports, play the game for a couple of hours, and spend the rest of his time playing lots of different games. In the end, his bugs accounted for less than 1% of the total bugs on the project.

Needless to say, the rest of the test team was getting extremely perturbed by this. As a test department, we were extremely upset at the test lead. We each spoke with him, and when we did, we usually ended up with even more work. Once he started assigning his test lead duties out to give him more time to play other games, we had completely had it.

Test Rule #3: If a test lead needs help, it's OK to ask for it. However, if a test lead is seen testing and there is an obvious effort to help improve the quality of the product from the test lead, testers are more likely to follow the test lead's instruction and give their all...not for the product, but for the test lead. At that point, a test lead will no longer need to ask for help, it will be freely offered.

We were all talking about going and talking to Kevin H. about Michael B., but that's all it was...talk. I finally had it and went to talk to Kevin in mid-summer. However, I made a bit of a mistake. I spoke with Kevin as I would talk to Bill, as an equal. I also came across as extremely cocky. After all, I was hired at a higher level than the normal tester. I had an accelerated probationary period, which was a rarity at Access. I had just shipped a product. So yeah, I guess I was pretty cocky. I wasn't after that meeting. Kevin picked up on my cockiness and used the meeting to knock me back into place. I actually left his office in tears. After that, it was several months before any tester would go to Kevin H. about anything.

Test Rule #4: A tester has the unfortunately job of being the bearer of bad news. If I learned anything from this interaction, it was that how you bring the news up is as important as what you bring up.

We continued to test our asses off because we believed in the product. We picked up the slack left by our test lead because we wanted our first major product to be a success. However, because our motivations were off, the quality of our work was not up to the previous standards we had set on Links LS 1999 Edition. One of the St. Andrew's courses was missing objects on a massive section of the course less than 10 weeks from ship, and we got reamed for it. Bruce Carver actually said that he had "no confidence in the testing done on that course." It doesn't help any that that was a fairly barren course to begin with, but that was a hell of a letdown for the department.

When we finally shipped the product, we were all grateful, but our test department was set up on a very shaky foundation for the next several years.

To be honest with you, I was pretty hesitant to start telling some of these old stories. There are a lot of emotions behind some of these, but I spoke with several of the people involved, and the general impression I got was that I should tell the stories, but I had to tell the good and the bad. As long as I turned the same harsh light on myself, they had no problems. Over the next few stories, I intend to do just that.

There is something cathartic about going over your past, looking at the mistakes you have made, and looking at them in a critical light. I've spent the last six years pounding my head against the wall over some of these. By bringing the past into the light, hopefully the bad feelings can dissipate into the ether, while the lessons learned can help others who may be in the same boat.

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