How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Life Lessons – Interview with Karl Wiegers

Karl Wiegers is Principal Consultant with Process Impact in Portland, OR, and has provided training and consulting services worldwide on many aspects of software development, project management and process improvement. He is the author of several technical books and most recently, a memoir of life lessons called Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons. I had the opportunity to meet Karl personally in Cincinnati this Spring and he was gracious enough to agree to an interview here about his career and his forthcoming book.

Karl’s Career Within Business Analysis

Laura: How did you get interested in business analysis?

Karl: It started when I was writing programs for myself. Sometimes I would start writing code with just a fuzzy idea of what I was trying to accomplish. Before long, I would start to get flustered as I was unable to get the computer to do what I thought I wanted. Then I developed the discipline to sit down and think about what I was trying to accomplish (requirements) and what approach I wanted to take (design) before I actually tried to code it. After that, I never panicked when writing a program because I always knew where I was headed.

When I began writing software for other people in the Kodak research labs around 1985, I realized that my group needed to get closer to our customers to better understand their needs. That’s when we developed the idea of the product champion that I write about, identifying a small number of key individuals to serve as the literal voice of the customer to represent certain user classes. This worked extremely well for us, to the point where we would no longer work on a project unless someone from the customer community was willing to serve as a product champion. We also began trying a variety of other requirements engineering techniques, such as prototyping, and incorporated those into our standard development practices. These experiences made it clear that every minute we spent working with customers to better understand their needs and validate our proposed solutions was time well spent toward a successful project outcome. My interest in finding better ways to address requirements issues grew from there.

Laura: How did you learn about practices that work well for requirements development and management?

Karl: At one point I realized that a simple numbered list of functional requirements did not provide sufficient information to make sure we could build the right software. That’s when I looked into the IEEE software engineering standards and adopted their software requirements specification template. After some experience with it, I realized that this template had some shortcomings, so I adapted it into the version that you can now download from the Goodies page at www.processimpact.com. Incidentally, that one template is downloaded more than 250,000 times per year! Unfortunately, only a tiny, tiny fraction of the people who download my shareware templates make any kind of payment, which is too bad because all of the shareware payments I receive are donated to help Norm Kerth, a consultant who has been disabled for 12 years with a brain injury he received in a car accident.

Through reading numerous software journals and books, taking classes, and attending conferences, I learned about various techniques that could help with requirements development. My group at Kodak tried a lot of these methods and found that they really worked. For example, in 1986 I took a course called “Structured Analysis and Design”, which showed me the power of analysis modeling. I’ve been drawing models ever since to supplement textual requirements specifications. We learned about use cases and began applying them successfully to our projects. I tried several requirements management tools, although we didn’t routinely use them on our projects.

As a consultant, I have sometimes developed techniques or work aids to meet the specific needs of a particular client. That’s where my change impact analysis checklists came from, for example. I also try to synthesize ideas from other disciplines to apply to business analysis. For instance, one of my requirements prioritization approaches was inspired by one of the habits in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and my requirements prioritization spreadsheet grew out of something I read about the technique of quality function deployment. I like to adapt existing knowledge to solve new problems, inventing something brand new only when you really can’t find any existing solution that can help.

It’s important to note that all of these new techniques came with learning curves. They didn’t work very well the first time we tried them, and we struggled a bit to figure out how to incorporate new ways of working into our project practices. The technical learning curves are one thing, but it also takes time to change the culture of an organization so that it is receptive to better ways of working and adopts them as routine practice.

Karl’s Career Transitions and Key Decisions

Laura: Looking back over your professional career, what would you consider some of your best decisions from a career perspective? How did these help you become who you are today?

Karl: There were several major transition points for me. I started out life as a research scientist (actually, I started out as a small child but then quickly became a research scientist), getting a PhD in organic chemistry, which I loved. So the first excellent decision was choosing my thesis advisor, the late Dr. Stanley Smith, who was also the world’s leading expert on computer-based education in chemistry and very smart about computers. I did a lot of programming in graduate school; one-third of my PhD thesis in 1977 was code.

The next major decision came when I moved from chemistry into software development at Kodak around 1983. I did application development for several years, and then made another major decision when I became the manager of our small software group in early 1990. I did not like being a manager, although I tried very hard to do a good job. Even though I hated it, it was a valuable learning experience, and I developed a skill set I would not have acquired had I stayed purely technical.

Another good decision was to move out of management and into quality and process improvement leadership. At that time I carefully thought about just what kind of work was most satisfying to me. I realized that I got the most fulfillment from helping other people do a better job than they would have done without my assistance. This fed logically into training, writing books and articles, and speaking at conferences to share what I had learned about practices that work well for software development and project management.

Of course, the scariest decision was to leave Kodak, hang out a shingle as an independent consultant, and start Process Impact in 1997. It worked out well for me, though. I’ve worked with more than 100 organizations, so I’ve seen a lot of the different kinds of software work being done and the kinds of problems these organizations struggle with. I’ve been able to collect good practices from many sources, add in my personal experiences and ideas, stir well, and serve up the result to a wide variety of audiences.

Another good decision was to create eLearning versions of all of my training classes. Those have been very well received. And they mean that I don’t have to spend quite so much time in airplanes and hotels presenting live classes.

Karl’s Latest Project – Pearls from Sand

Laura: I think most of us know you as an esteemed technical author. But I understand you’ve written your first non-technical book, Pearls from Sand: How Small Encounters Lead to Powerful Lessons. What is the premise of the book? What inspired you to write it?

Karl: Thank you for your generous use of the word “esteemed”. I just try to share with other practitioners some useful things I’ve learned.

Yes, my newest book is a memoir of life lessons called Pearls from Sand, published by Morgan James Publishing. If you think back over your life, you can probably remember conversations in which someone spoke perhaps just a single sentence to you that resonated so strongly that you still remember it years later. Every once in a while you think about that sentence because it affects how you view yourself, how you interact with others, or your values. Or perhaps during the course of an ordinary day you have some experience and you realize — if you’re paying attention — that there’s a message in there. So the first premise of this book is that from these small encounters, these little grains of sand, you can grow pearls of wisdom that can enhance your happiness and fulfillment throughout your life. (By the way, oysters don’t grow real pearls around a grain of sand; my book title is just a metaphor.) The second premise of the book is that, even though we all accumulate our own life lessons through our individual experiences, many of these are globally applicable to other people and to a wide variety of situations.

I was inspired to write this book because I reflected on some of my own life lessons, the pearls of wisdom I have learned. I remember some of the conversations in which a friend, relative, or teacher spoke one of those powerful sentences as though they happened yesterday, even if it was really 30 or 40 years ago. Pearls from Sand describes 37 of my own life lessons, grouped into six categories: interpersonal, personal, practical, motivational, cautionary, and professional pearls. For each life lesson I describe the experiences or conversations that led to that insight, how I have applied it in my life, and how the reader can apply the lesson in his or her own life. I’m hoping to build a kind of community around this idea. I have an active blog at pearlsfromsand.blogspot.com where I am posting additional life lessons, and at the website for the book, www.PearlsFromSand.com, visitors may submit their own pearls of wisdom for potential inclusion on the blog.

Laura: That’s a really amazing premise. Another part of the metaphor that stands out to me is that sand so quickly can slip through our fingers. It seems like through your project you’re helping us all hold onto the pearls.

Our mission here at Bridging the Gap is to help business analysts advance their careers. Can you give us one pearl that might help us along that path?

Karl: One of the best things a BA can do is to build a rich toolkit of techniques — I call them “good practices” — so the BA is prepared to deal with a wide variety of situations he or she might encounter. I’m not a big fan of canned methodologies that purport to solve all of your problems. Nor do I like to jump from one bandwagon to the next, abandoning everything I’ve learned and done before and moving on to the next allegedly magic solution. Instead, I’d like to have many different kinds of hammers in my toolkit so I can approach the many types of nails that show up.

There are times when a highly incremental, agile approach is appropriate, and there are times when that’s just not going to work. There’s a time to create comprehensive analysis models for your project, and there are times to just scribble on the whiteboard and then move on. There are times in which a comprehensive written requirements specification based on a rich template is the most effective approach (outsourcing comes to mind), and there are times when you can get away with much skimpier requirements documentation (such as a two-person website project where one of the two is the customer). There are requirements for which written natural language statements are most effective, whereas other requirements are best represented using a decision table or some other visual technique. Unless BAs have the knowledge, experience, and judgment to pull out the right tool for a given situation, they’re going to have problems.

Laura: I’m a big fan of the toolkit or the tool belt concept too. Great pearl, Karl! Thanks so much for your generosity in sharing your thoughts here. I’m sure our readers will appreciate the opportunity to learn from your career and about what’s been happening recently.

Karl: Thank you very much, Laura, for the chance to share some of my experiences and thoughts with you. I’ve been passionate about the business analysis discipline for many years, and I’m happy to see how it has matured with time.

Free Training - Quick Start to Success

(Stop the frustration and earn the respect
you deserve as a business analyst.)

Click here to learn more

By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Comments

  1. Matt Budde says

    Laura,
    Thanks for hosting another great forum with Karl, great job as always.

    Karl,
    I just want to say that your books are my go to resources for inspiring developers to a Business Analysts way of thinking; on several occasions I have lent your book (I did buy a copy 🙂 ) to fellow employees and for some reason, it just clicks. I am sure your background in development and the logical approach you take is why. Good luck in the future and I will check out your new book.

    Thanks,
    Matt

    • Karl Wiegers says

      Thanks much for the kind words, Matt. It’s always great to hear that people find my books useful and pass them along to others. I’ve always tried to take a practical approach to things — busy people aren’t too interested in wacky new software theories that “ought” to work.

  2. Karl,

    I’m one of those who has downloaded from your goodies site. However, I had not been one of the 0.01% that had contributed, until today.

    More power to you, and all you do!

    • Karl Wiegers says

      Thank you very much, Duane. These shareware donations mean a lot to Norm Kerth.

      • Discouraging statistics from Karl…

        Since May 26, just the five most popular items on my Goodies page have been downloaded a total of 7396 times, the SRS template (by far the top item) 4329 times with no donations during that time period. During the entire month of May, my goodies were downloaded more than 38,000 times: I received 11 shareware payments, totaling $150.

  3. Karl Wiegers says

    Thanks so much for the kind words, Adriana. I’ve enjoyed our exchanges through LinkedIn. Thanks also for passing along the information about the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to others. Norm is my closest friend and, literally, the nicest person I’ve ever known. It’s such a tragedy that a driver believed his cell phone call was more important than Norm’s brain. Every donation makes a difference, because Norm hasn’t worked for 12 years and will never work again.

  4. Karl, Laura used the right word when she called you an esteemed author! In addition to reading and recommending your books to BAs I mentor, I’ve seen your work mentioned in training material of several Fortune 100 companies. Your contributions to the BA body of knowledge are many, and the community certainly recognizes their value.

    I’ve added the link to your “Goodies” page to the online course I’m teaching at Laura’s mybusinessanalysiscareer.com platform (Crafting Better Requirements), and will make sure I donate and remind participants to contribute to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund. Hopefully after this interview more people who already downloaded your templates will be motivated to offer their contribution as well.

    Oh, and congratulations on Pearls from Sand — sounds like a great premise for a book!

  5. Anup Mahansaria says

    Thanks Laura, for conducting this interview! Karl, loved your answers and also read few of your posts. I am sure everyone will identify with your story and experiences in some way.
    It is amazing that while whatever we do and achieve makes us feel great but what we cherish the most are the basic life lessons.

    Thanks once again, Laura and Karl!

    • Karl Wiegers says

      Anup, one of my objectives in writing “Pearls from Sand” was to encourage readers to remember their own life lessons and how they learned them, and to pass those along to other people. That’s why I’m hoping that visitors will submit their own pearls of wisdom at http://www.PearlsFromSand.com/submit.html so I can post them on the blog. Everyone has stories worth sharing.

  6. Thanks for the great interview, Laura!

    Karl’s “Software Requirements” book was the first one I purchased when I decided I wanted to get serious about this business analysis stuff, and I still reference it often and recommend it to my new analysts.

    Love the interview and the perspectives. Again, thanks!

    • Karl Wiegers says

      Thanks, Jonathan. I’m glad you found my requirements book useful. My more recent “More About Software Requirements” book addresses some of the thorny issues that business analysts confront every day.

  7. Doug Goldberg says

    Laura
    Thanks for conducing this special interview with Karl, someone who many of us have grown to admire along the path of our own journey.

    Karl:
    I really enjoyed your answers here, as I have enjoyed your writings in the past. I look forward to getting a copy of your new book and taking it all in. I have a distinct appreciation for listening to life lessons that we all have experienced, and I’m sure those you share will hold great value.

    • Karl Wiegers says

      Thanks for the kind comments, Doug. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my writings. It was a lot of fun to write a completely non-technical book, although I picked up many of the life lessons I describe in “Pearls from Sand” through my professional activities.

Comment

*

Before you go, would you like to receive our absolutely FREE workshop?

(No formal experience required.)

21689
21690

Quick Start to Success
as a Business Analyst

By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Policy.