Quality and I — An Essay

Originally published at grounded-on-air.blogspot.in on February 9, 2006 from an essay written offline on 25th January 2002.

How this came to be written initially

In my first job, fresh out of college, about fifteen or so years ago, all twenty or so of us that made it past the selection process were sent to a software training boot camp for two months at Mysore. Here, they tried to bring us up to speed and at par with what was happening in the real world (as opposed to college labs) so we would be productive from day one.

In this training, a course on testing and validation was also included. Our final assignment for this course was to present our thoughts on testing and validation in front of the class (doubling as an assignment in communication and public speaking skills).

It is from quite some time ago and I can’t really remember what I was thinking. When it was my turn to get up and speak, I started speaking on how I really cared about quality and how testing should be eliminated as a separate discipline if we really cared about quality.

I still remember the look of horror on the faces of many of my batch mates/friends in the audience. Some later confessed that they thought I’d flunk this course. (I wasn’t being brave or rebellious by the way — I’ll confess that I can be a little stupid like that (even now at times).)Luckily for me, the instructor understood what I was trying to say and was comfortable with divergent views and gave me an excellent score.

The idea I presented then was not so much about eliminating testing as it was about integrating it much more tightly into the development cycle — quite similar to what is known as TDD or Test Driven Development now.

A couple of years later, over tea with friends at work, somehow this presentation/speech came up. My good friend — Guruprasad — suggested that if I felt so strongly about quality, I should probably write about it.

That is how this essay came to be written.

I should warn in advance that the essay below has nothing to do with software development or quality in that specific context.

Why it is being re-published here

Initially, I imported this post to test the “import” feature on medium but left it languishing in the drafts.

Recently I wanted to write on “Perfection” and realized that it would have to link back to this essay for additional context.I therefore decided to use this opportunity to import the sketch into the essay and re-publish it here. I’ll write on “Perfection” soon.

Please note that the text below is unedited though I realize that it has some errors. Perhaps I will add a section for the errata later. In the meanwhile, I hope you will bear with these inconsistencies and read anyway.

Quality and I

The dictionary on my computer defines an essay to be — “An analytic or interpretive literary composition”. When writing or typing an essay on a topic that is so close to your heart (meaning something that you feel rather than think about) it is hard to be analytical. This attempt will therefore probably be interpretive rather than analytical — an honest attempt at interpreting the way I feel about quality and perhaps, more than that, try to describe the environment that gave rise to the thought structure which in turn gave rise to the feelings.

Well, now that I have defined what I wish to do, I guess I can continue and see how many contradictions rear their beautiful heads before we reach the end.

We should not digress from the topic. However, I am trying to make a point by saying that contradictions have beautiful and not ugly heads. I believe that contradictions are the signposts that help a traveler when he is exploring things that are vaguely defined. To come up with a theory that is acceptable to yourself, you should pay careful attention to each contradiction. Brushing small contradictions under the carpet gives rise to a stench much later that leaves just the foul smell as a reminder of the theory.

I didn’t have much to do with quality for a long time. When I look back, I realize that I was aware of it and believed in it. However, it was not a part of my thought structure. It did not exist because I had never defined it. If you do not have a word to describe something, you will not think about it.

Stephan Covey, in his book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” explains what he calls the “Aha! Moments” in many peoples lives. He demonstrates this with the sketch of an old woman that just happens to be the sketch of a very pretty young woman as well. Whether you see a young woman or an old hag in the sketch depends on your frame of mind. The moment you see the other image, you have an “Aha” experience. Discovering “quality” was one such experience in my life.

It is difficult to track my thought patterns over the years on a daily basis. One significant moment came while I was studying for my engineering degree.

Our class was on its way to Goa or Tarkali — I can’t quite remember. We had started late in the night, and as morning dawned, we were close to the coast. I was watching the sunrise from the bus window as we traveled. At one moment, we passed a stunted and deformed tree. It leaned horizontally to one side after rising a couple of feet from the ground, had hardly any leaves the main trunk had been amputated at some time leaving a gross scar.

“Perfection” — I drew this sketch some time after the trip. It is not included in the original essay or blog post. (New additional, original content from the author :))

As the sun rose, it seemed to hang suspended below that tree — like a large fruit. Almost as though the tree was bent by the weight of it fruit… laden, rich and giving. It looked so beautiful that I regretted not having a camera.

Perhaps that was a good thing. I am sure, the picture I have in my mind has a lot more magic in it than anything that I’d have captured on film.

I was too busy to think at that moment. It was much later that I realized that the entire experience was a contradiction in itself. If I were to describe the tree in terms of adjectives, it was stunted, grotesque and everything bad. Yet, the tree was beautiful in its own right. No. That narrows it down. The tree was indeed beautiful. There is no way in which I will ever think of the tree as ugly and yet, there is no other apparent way to describe the tree.

The conclusion I drew after a while did not have anything to do with the term “quality” as I understand it now. At that time, I redefined “perfection”. The problem was not in the tree I said. The problem was in the manner in which we described a tree. The contradiction lay in what I thought a perfect tree should be like. The human concept of a perfect tree became a very painful binding all of a sudden.

All the people who told me how to draw a tree when I was a kid flashed before my eyes. All the Es that I ever got in my art class came back to me in a rush too. Here was a major conspiracy. Right from when I was born I had been taught that perfection lay in a limited set of properties. Nature itself has no such limitations. Nature does not specify a range and call it perfection. As far as nature is concerned, there is no such thing as a perfect tree or an imperfect tree. If you ask whether a tree is perfect, you are simply asking the wrong question. Another way of putting it would be that you are barking up the wrong tree.

The root of the problem is that the experiences in the real world are infinite. We can never describe the reality in words (a finite language) without agreeing on some generalizations. The moment you wish to generalize, you need to categorize. Hence, using pure statistics, we arrive at three sets. The first is one in which the greatest majority fall — we could call this the average or normal. There is one category that falls below this and another that falls above this average category.

What started, as an attempt to classify experience, in order to help us describe it in a finite language, has now become the experience in itself. Thus, though my experience tells me that the tree is beautiful, everything I have ever been taught tells me it isn’t. So, the first concept that I began to question is that of “perfection”.

Since, the concept of perfection was based on our tendency to classify things, I now started looking at all classifications with a great deal of suspicion. I always had a problem with one major classification — that between the sciences and the arts.

While in school, I always did equally well in all my subjects. This was to be flaunted as a great achievement — a guy who understands his literature as well as his math. This concept never really sank in with me. Geography is a science and so is literature. One studies the same forces as we would in physics and chemistry while the other is really an obtuse way of studying the human psyche. On the other hand, any science is an art. The accuracy that I associate with a physics experiment is nothing short of artistic; and, isn’t a neurosurgeon an artist as well?

What was a vague feeling of unease at not understand something changed to resentment while in technical college. Just because I was in an engineering college, there was no scope of studying literature or drawing or music. I was in a rut.

I became convinced that we had carried the division between the arts and the sciences too far. What had begun, as a system of classification had become a physical barrier. I again managed to arrive at a conclusion. You’ll eventually be surprised by the number of “conclusions” that I reach. I’d like to quote myself here… (Sounds pompous as hell but it is quotable). Well, here goes:

“If work is what unites the spiritual with the real, how you work is what unites the art and the sciences.”

The other thing that became very clear is the limitation of language. There is a Zen saying that goes: “A finger is needed to point at the moon. However, once the moon is recognized, the finger is forgotten.”
One of the problems with our thinking is that we have forgotten to some extent that words are only meant to describe the reality. They are not the reality. When we come across contradictions, we find that many of them arise because of the limitations of language rather than a contradiction in reality itself.

Having reached this point, I was more or less satisfied with my pet theories and reached a sort of status quo. I knew there was a system in place that I did not fully agree with or agree to but I did not resent it and did not have any sleepless nights. The limitation of language was now very apparent and, now that I was aware that all classifications were only in the human mind, I had reached a unification of sorts and sank into the humdrum everyday existence.

Khalil Gibran (after suitable translation by Edward Fritzgerald) says — “pain is the breaking of a shell that contains your understanding”.

It definitely takes a change of some kind to come out of the intellectual stupors that we occasionally drift into. Nothing works as good as a heartbreak (I have found out over the years) to come out of these. What I got at this point was second best way of waking up. I fell ill and was confined to bed rest for a couple of months. God works in mysterious ways.

So, now the scene of action shifts to the lush green hills of Arunachal Pradesh.

Arunachal is unlike any other place that I have seen. What nature shows you here is the beauty of raw power. You don’t get passive scenery here. The hills are not pleasant lumps of earth heaped up just to provide you with the joy of watching the sunrise from behind them. Nothing is static.

The mountains look savage. They do not rise up to the horizon — they tear through it. The slopes are too steep, the peaks jagged and the overhanging ledges out of proportion. They seem to be in defiance of all laws including gravity. As if the solid earth were a wave crashing on itself.

The rivers have a life of their own. A few rivers slither through the dank forests silently like giant serpents. Most of the rivers choose to roar through the jungle mud brown; swirling eddies and foam and tree trunks crashing against each other, all together in a chaotic dance, cutting through the landscape … literally.

No words can describe what I feel when I am here. When you are at peace here, it is a very dynamic kind of peace. The calm here is like the lull before a storm, capable of breaking into infinite violence at any moment without any prior warning. Like a Sunday afternoon in the Wild West.

It is in this place of dynamic equilibrium that I had the next major “Aha” experience.

I have always loved reading books and the two months of prescribed rest gave me adequate time to indulge myself. One of my seniors had gifted me with a torn and tattered version of Ayan Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”.

Most of the people I know dislike anything and everything that Ayan Rand has ever had to say. I had tried reading “The Fountainhead” on four previous occasions and left off in the middle for no apparent reason. The fact that so many people hated her was very interesting and I started “Atlas Shrugged” with a mixture of expectation and apprehension. I really wanted to know why people hated her. How can you possibly write something that makes people hate you or worship you? I couldn’t help wondering whether I’d end up hating or worshiping her in my turn or, whether it would turn out to be just another book.

The book turned my world upside down. Every word in it was true — at least every word in the three quarters of the book that I read. I never completed the book. The monologues towards the end were too boring. However, I agreed with her with all my heart.

She is a little extreme and doesn’t mince words. She does not try to soften the blows. However, all that she says is true. I felt it more acutely perhaps because of the environment that I had been exposed to while studying for my degree.

I later read Fountainhead as well. It is good enough. I like Atlas shrugged a lot more though. It makes more sense to me. I still do not understand why people hate Ayan Rand.

About the time when I was getting bored with the last parts of Atlas Shrugged and desperately in need of a new book, my brother came visiting. He hates reading books. To my surprise, this time he had a small book with him — Illusions by Richard Bach.

I hadn’t heard of Illusions till then. Richard Bach I knew from my high school days though. I had started with his Jonathan Livingston Seagull and read quite a few of his books. I feel a certain kinship with Richard. When I read his books, I always feel that if I had the capacity to write a book, this is how I’d write it, and perhaps, this is what I’d write about. So, it was with gusto that I devoured Illusions.

Illusions again took my life by storm. It became a bible for me for many years. Even these days, I read the book when I feel upset. This book put everything in perspective. It painted a much more beautiful world as compared to Ayan Rand and well, I just loved it.

It was a few days after I had completed reading Illusions that a problem arose. I remembered having read “The Prophet” by Khalil Gibran some years ago. I had loved the book so much that I’d requested the librarian to get me a copy. (I was in the hostel those days and our outings were severely restricted).

The problem before me was this: whenever I read a new book, I appear to get absolutely carried away by it. I love Ayan Rand, Richard Bach is great, Khalil Gibran makes more sense than anyone else Don Castenada opened my eyes….

How could I possibly like everything that anyone had ever written and agree with everyone? I didn’t know anyone who loved Richard Bach as well as Ayan Rand.

My initial conclusion was that I have a flaw in my character. The flaw, I felt was that I had no character at all. I’ll follow anyone who has something good to say. It was a horrible feeling. It is ok if someone says that you lack character. You live with that. You say the other person is a creep who doesn’t understand your values and you are doing just great. It is much worse when you yourself reach the conclusion after a detailed analysis that you lack character.

On further reasoning, (if I remember correctly, it took about a week of confusion and self pity) I realized that there were actually two solutions to the problem. The first and the most obvious one was that I lacked character. The other less obvious solution was that I had hit on the stunted tree problem yet again.

Just because the whole world said that these authors were miles apart and if you agree with one of them you couldn’t possibly agree with the other, it didn’t mean that the world was right. Maybe, I sensed some unity that the others were missing, since deep down I never believed in the artificial fragmentations that we encounter everyday. Perhaps there was something that I could sense … and yet, I wouldn’t be able to see it because I had been taught that the fragmentation is the only reality. It is very difficult to rise above the fragmentations even when you understand them for what they are.

If I could show that there was something that unified the theories of these various authors, then I had sensed something that the others hadn’t. If I could not find an underlying thread, it meant that the first premise must be correct. Hence, the very existence of my character rested upon finding this “underlying thread” that I reasoned, must be so obvious, that it is invisible.

I still remember the next few weeks quite vividly. After lunch, I’d laze on the lawn under a pale winter sun and practice cloud vaporizing. I was thankful for the respite from the rat race. These days, taking out time for your self is such a difficult thing, and here I was, with absolutely nothing to do and the entire day to do it in. I realized with surprise that the doctor’s prescription for rest was one of the most valuable gifts that I’d ever received.

I spent most of the time sleeping. Whenever awake, I’d try to figure out the unifying element in their writings. I thought a lot. Every day, I’d think along some new line. Try to pick on something that looked promising. This continued for some time — I am not really sure how long — it must have been a couple of weeks.

The thread was there all right. I came across it not in my thoughts but in my sleep. It came to me well past midnight and it woke me up. The common thread that tied all these authors was “work”. It was pretty easy really. It was a major relief as well, now that the character problem was finally resolved.

If you read Ayan Rand’s books, her main characters love their work. They are all strong, rigid characters that only live for their work. Very few people work simply for the sake of working. Most people choose a profession that gives them the most money. The satisfaction comes from the money, social status and other factors that are incidental to the work they do — not the work itself.

A lot of people read a lot of things into her books. The part that I liked about her books was this — the fact that she placed work before all else really appealed to me. It slotted in very well with my beliefs and that is why I liked what she wrote.

Next we had Richard Bach. Why do I love what he has to say? Well, while Ayan Rand’s characters are always struggling against society and fighting for their right to do their work, Richard is a guy who has stepped out of society to fulfill his dreams. The path Richard has taken is very different from Ayan Rand’s characters. However, whenever you read his books, you get the feeling that this man has found his freedom. Flying is the only thing that he loves and he never lets anything get in the way of that.

He is different from Ayan Rand in the sense that he is not trying to bring about social reform. He isn’t telling you anything. While Ayan Rand’s characters tell you about the struggle that a man must face to do exactly what he likes, Richard shows you a glimpse of the paradise on earth that you finally step into when you simply follow your heart. You needn’t be a pilot to be like Richard. Just be what you want to be and do what you want to do. Just don’t try to make a religion or a reform movement out of your life style.

In a funny way, the manner in which Richard writes is exactly the manner in which one of Ayan Rand’s characters would write. He or she would not write about all the troubles and treachery that Ayan Rand herself writes about. They are too possessed by what they wish to do and what they are doing each day of their lives. They will not pay attention to petty politics and people — not because they are stupid but simply because they are not the important thing in their lives.

In Richard’s books you read about times when he was bankrupt because his lawyer or somebody goofed up and about times when his only worry was whether he’d have enough to get his next meal. You fail to notice the problems, though he mentions them, because he doesn’t attach any importance to them. As long as he is flying his Casena or Piper or whatever it is he wants to fly at that time, nothing else matters. He is a man who loves what he is doing.

If Ayan Rand were to write Richard Bach’s autobiography, you’d probably find a detailed description of how the lawyer actually took advantage of Richard. Her point of view would have been that of an observer who really feels for Richard. Definitely that would be very different from Illusions or Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

So, no contradictions there… at least none that I am worried about from my perspective.

Now in comes Khalil Gibran — what does he have to say?
In “The Prophet”, when asked about work Gibran says — “Work is love made visible.”

There may be many ways of interpreting that statement. When I initially read that statement, it didn’t make any broad sense. Ok, if I am doing something for someone I really care about, I’ll do it well. However, if you see that statement in the context of the common thread between Ayan Rand and Richard, you’ll see that this single sentence says about as much if not more.

To generalize that statement, what we need to understand is that the object of ones affections need not be limited to a person. When you love work itself, which is what matters. Now, how you decide to love your work depends on you.

At this point, I’d like to stress that the whole point in the paragraphs above is not to comment on the writing style of these authors or what they had in mind when they wrote their books. I am trying to stress on the common thread that I saw as a result of my own conditioning that caused me to like all these authors who appear to be so different otherwise. I am sure that the authors were not thinking along my lines when they wrote their books.

Ayan Rand was too busy trying to change the system while Bach was equally busy enjoying the world he had created for himself. As for Gibran, I have never been able to trust the English translations completely as I find it difficult to understand a man without any reference to his social context. However, I see that though they might never have looked at it the way I do, these three authors loved work and believed in doing it with care and attention.

So, this was my next mantra. Work. A concept wherein you love your work. To love your work, the easiest way is to work on what you love — the concept of following your heart. My earlier concept of “perfection” also fitted into this without any contradictions. When you work with love and are following your heart, whatever you create will be something that is perfect.

That reminds me that I didn’t re-define perfection after saying that our current understanding of the word is wrong. It is because I believe that perfection cannot be defined as a static concept. There is no such thing as a moment of perfection and nothing can be considered to be perfect in isolation of its context.

To illustrate, let me give a very everyday example. We all eat many times each day irrespective of where in the world we are situated and what social or religious customs we follow. Even assuming everything else to be the same, what constitutes a perfect meal for a wrestler will definitely not meet the expectations of a ballerina perhaps.

Perfection is different for different situations. Perfection also depends on the perception of the observer. We all must have heard the cliché — “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”. This statement qualifies that each experience of perfection is a unique experience and the observer is an integral part of it. All things remaining the same, we should therefore not be surprised if two people differ in their opinions.

Do I need to “define “ perfection any further?

Well, to come back to wherever I was before it occurred to me that I hadn’t “defined” perfection for the reader …

The right way of living was therefore now defined as doing the work you love and doing it well. A life that is centered on the work you do rather than any social consideration. The concept of spiritualism and realism was merging into a common concept of right living. A right way of living that is unique for each individual and a “right” that is very loosely defined at best.

It was some time later that I came across Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the second time. I’d read it once earlier. However, instead of reading the book as a whole, I’d read it as a string of pearls. They were pearls of wisdom that I admired. Despite the admiration, the necklace that held the pearls in place was all but forgotten.

When I started reading the book this time, I realized that it was asking many of the questions that I had been asking. The first time, I had been thrown off a little by his frequent references to Greek philosophy, rhetoric and dialectic, the Spartans and Freud. This time, I somehow didn’t see the words. It felt as though the first time I’d been stumbling around in a pale light that had only shown the silhouettes of everything and I had been so busy navigating that I hadn’t seen much else. Now, all of a sudden, a light had been switched on. The words melted away to show the concepts. It didn’t matter whether it was Plato or Phaedrus or whoever. This time, I connected.

I didn’t have to search for a “common thread” in his book. What delighted me was that my concepts of perfection and work and their unification into a concept of right living could be much better expressed by his term “Quality”. I was elated to find that everything that I’d ever thought about could be expressed by just one word — Quality.

If you recall my pompous quote, you will notice that “how you work” is pretty well described by the term quality. To change the earlier statement,
“If work is what unites the spiritual with the real, the quality of work is what unites the art and the sciences.”

The conciseness of this new definition — ok borrowed I’ll admit, gave me enormous satisfaction. There are some other things that I have not delved into, such as my love for Zen. I had first discovered Zen a long time before “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle” came along into my life and had wanted to convert to it at one point. The satisfaction came from being able to describe years of painstaking search in just word.

It fitted in with the Zen attitude. All the words I had used over time had only lead to confusion. One word is the next best thing to silence. It is like the Chinese doctrine of Joss — not that I believe in it or anything. Just sounds cool — the childish pleasures are still pleasurable I must admit. Guess I could have called it called it “Hoho” as well. Doesn’t matter. That would have stopped this essay though — cant imagine myself writing an essay on “Hoho and I”

So, this is when I stumbled upon Quality. Like falling flat on your face and discovering Earth I might add.

Since then, a lot of other things have happened. I have read more books including Lila by Pirsig. However, what makes me happy is that in the intervening time I have had time to follow the path that I’d found for myself. The past few years has been the lab experiment for the concepts that I’d evolved, and they have all done well on the ground.

All roads may lead to Rome but that doesn’t change the fact that each of those roads is different. The difference is not an illusion. It is real. The fact that the roads lead to the same place is significant but we should never disregard the significance of the path we take.

The concept of quality that I have arrived at is not at all static. I do not think that it is an end in itself. It changes with every experience. Some experiences are positive and tell me that I am doing the right thing where as, other experiences sometimes make me realize a flaw that I hadn’t noticed before.

Where will quality take me? I wish I could say that and at the same time, I am glad that I can’t. I do hope that I’ll reach a point where I won’t need to write essays to either remind myself, or tell you what quality is, and how I stumbled across it.

There are a lot of things to learn from life. However, the things that are really worth learning, you may eventually find, are not worth learning at all.

No. I don’t intend to explain that.

It all comes down to one thing I suppose. All this talk about quality and perfection and work and the associated thought structures and all the other baggage. At the end of it all, Quality is about giving life your best shot. The corollary is that you and only you decide what this “best shot” is. If you have any doubts, quality is always the best guide.

(edited to remove my name)
25th January 2002

Originally published at grounded-on-air.blogspot.in on February 9, 2006 from an essay written offline on 25th January 2002.

Parijat Bhattacharjee

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Here, a writer and sometimes a reader too.

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