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Interview with Peter Leeson

CMMI Specialist | Q:PIT LTD

Tell us a few things about yourself. Where did you study, where do you work?

I was born to British expatriates in Belgium, raised in three languages (English, French, Dutch). I married a German, moved to France, then to the US before finally ending up in England.

I did my studies in Belgium, specializing in mathematics and science, then I went to college to study commercial art. After working at that for a few years, I needed a “real” job (one that paid money), and got into IT because that was the business line in which they were looking for most people. That is what led me to move to other countries as I got the opportunity.

While living in the US, I was head-hunted by some of the researchers at the Carnegie-Mellon University, who were looking for someone to start up the business of process and quality improvement in Europe. I moved back to Europe, worked for a few consultancy companies, then realized that my customers were following me every time I changed employers and decided I could start my own business. That has now led me to work on every continent, except South America and Antarctica. I am still hoping to get to South America…

What is your typical day at work?

That is a trick question: there is no typical day at work. I may be working from home or I may be at a customer site. If I am not at home, I usually get up between 5:00 and 5:30 and spend time sitting in bed, reading and having my first cup of tea. At 6:00, I will start working, checking e-mails, preparing the day – particularly if I have to present a report or give a talk. I will go over what I need to say a few times, making last minute changes.

When the working day starts, I may be interviewing people, reviewing documents, giving a training session, workshop or talk… I usually finish the day around 10:00 or 10:30 with writing up reports, catching up on emails, reviewing what I have to do tomorrow. When working from home, I have accounting and marketing jobs to do, which I do not enjoy, but needs to be done as well. My days are usually shorter and get interrupted frequently as I try to find excuses not to work – unless I have found something that has got me interested and I am writing or creating something new.

What inspired you to be active in the community?

I am a strong believer that a high-tide rises all ships and would like to see the IT community evolve towards a level of quality in engineering which I still believe is largely missing. Currently, we are in the teenage years of the industry, in which wonderful things are being built, extraordinary complexity is being achieved, but it is still being done in an artisan way.

A colleague compared the IT industry today to the manner in which gothic cathedrals were built in the medieval ages: intrinsic know-how, a lot of trial and error, reliance on the knowledge of a few highly skilled people. They could build cathedrals, but did not have the science we have to allow us to build large bridges, tall buildings and tunnels under the sea. Today, engineering in other domains is based on recognized best practices, and intelligent use of measurement and science and a lot of research; we are not yet there.

At the same time, I believe that quality in our industry can only be achieved through an understanding of the needs and expectations of the people doing the work and focus most of my attention on trying to promote well-being at work so that job-satisfaction in the industry can help us develop high-quality products rather than products which require high levels of maintenance or corrective actions before they can be deployed.

A colleague compared the IT industry today to the manner in which gothic cathedrals were built in the medieval ages: intrinsic know-how, a lot of trial and error, reliance on the knowledge of a few highly skilled people.

Are there any things you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?

I wish I knew what a bad programmer I was and that was not my objective.

Could you recommend some books, resources that young IT professionals might find useful?

There are a million books out there which deserve to be read. I would recommend that young professionals read the technical books they need to read, then read as much as possible on every topic that interests them. Creativity comes from the clash of unexpected ideas. You may be technically very good at your job, but if you want to move things forward, you need something more. Read about management techniques, philosophy, history, art – read things that make you think. Then, read comic books or play a mindless game to let your mind process what you have read and turn it into something you can use.

What you do to “recharge your batteries”? What are your hobbies? Do you have time for them?

First, I sleep a lot. I enjoy sleeping. More seriously, I have recently picked up drawing again, I am enjoying doing portraits in charcoal, when I can find someone who is willing to sit for me. Other hobbies include reading random subjects, mostly science things.

If you could go back in time and choose a different profession (outside of IT), what would it be?

I started off a long time ago being a cartoonist. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had continued. Other options include jobs that allow me to show off on stage, I would also have liked to work with young people, whatever the profession.

You may be technically very good at your job, but if you want to move things forward, you need something more.

What do you think about ITCamp, and what brings you here again?

I discovered the North-Romanian (Transylvanian) IT community a few years ago and was impressed at what a dynamic and eager community this was. Local people appear to be hard-working and wanting to progress, there is a sincere desire to learn, grow and improve, continuously. I believe that this is at least partially due to the awareness that the people with whom I am dealing are one generation removed from true poverty and dictatorship, they understand what it really means and do not want to be found back in the same situation. Combined with the intellectual hub of the Cluj Napoca universities, there are opportunities here which are found in few places.

I believe that this region has incredible potential to develop and deliver the future and I want to be part of that. At the IT Camp, I have found the best people, both locally and internationally, come together in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere to exchange, learn and teach. I attend a few conferences internationally, this is probably the most enthusiastic one I know.

I believe that this region has incredible potential to develop and deliver the future and I want to be part of that.

Last year you did something no speaker at ITCamp did – you decided to hold a session without a pre-established subject. The world of quality management was open all to the “{ Talk with no title }.” It was an amazingly bold thing to do. How did you come up with this idea of the session and how did you prepare for it?

I have been giving talks for many years on many subjects and sometimes wonder how much I am repeating myself. As a consequence, I try to challenge myself into doing something new. This has given rise to a number of challenges, including my talk on sociology and anthropology in 2015. A number of people have asked me to give them pointers on how to build and deliver a talk, and I thought maybe I could give a talk on how to give presentations, but that is not really in the scope of the conference. I also considered having an open discussion, Q&A session… the two led to the idea of a talk with no subject, meaning taking on the challenge to talk about anything. Preparation took a lot of time because I decide to revise and consolidate all the presentations and topics that I have covered in different contexts and situations in the past, trying to get ready for any topic. At the same time, I knew that I could not prepare for this as I did not know the subject – it was a bit like revising for a quiz on general knowledge… I hoped that enough people would know me and avoid asking me questions about technical topics, I know nothing about hacking, compilers or Azure, but I felt I needed to be ready to have a plan in case the question was asked. If not being able to answer the question, I needed to be ready to treat the topic in a way that did not appear to stupid.

You had tremendous success with it. So once the session was delivered, what did you think of it? Would you do this again?

The success of the talk was extraordinary and I would like to apologize to any of the speakers who had sessions at the same time. I had a lot of fun, the same kind of fun you have on a roller-coaster or in a fast car: this was a terrifying adrenaline rush. I have not been this scared before a talk for many years. I don’t think I will ever get the opportunity to do it again, but wish I did. It demands an organizer who will trust me, a group of people who are large enough, but know enough about me to take on the challenge. There are only two conferences at which the necessary parameters are present, and the other one (which I will not name) is too concerned about my not giving the right commercial message to allow this level of freedom.

How would you encourage someone to break out of their coding comfort zone?

You cannot move forward if you stay in your comfort zone. The rest of the world is moving on, if you don’t keep up, you will fall behind. If we all stayed in our comfort zones, we would never have moved out of caves. I believe that your comfort zone is also your death bed. This is not just with coding, this is in every area. I am angry at the number of company managers who seem to believe that everything will continue and that all they need to do in the coming years is continue what they are already doing. Taking risks is scary, it is what makes life worth living.

I believe that your comfort zone is also your death bed. This is not just with coding, this is in every area.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2016 and has been updated with new questions in May 2017.

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