Name: Joel Helbling
Designation: Agent 0032
Double Agent Role: Staff Consultant and Support Agent
Special Skills: Apparently I have a pretty good sense of taste (when it comes to food, I mean)
Location: Lawrenceville, GA
Favorite Emoji: 🇸🇱
The first thing that comes to mind is just getting through 2020, although it was a good year in a lot of ways, despite the pandemic. I was happy to have a chance to help my current client build a backend API for a mobile social networking app they’re building. The opportunity, in the course of a single project engagement, to go from greenfield to real users using—that doesn’t always happen in our line of work. Sometimes we are called in to just work on a part of it, so it was fun to be there through that whole process.
I’m excited about Test Double developing the way that we support our people into the next year. In addition to doing client work, I also work as a Support Agent. Our ability and capacity as a company to do that kind of support for our people is sort of bursting at the seams right now. So it’s clear that we will be welcoming some more people into that role. At the same time we’re improving and evolving the role, and coming to understand better what effective support means for our Double Agents. So that’s very exciting to me over the next year.
I love coding, I find it rewarding. But coding with teams, writing code as a team sport, and solving technical problems as a team is even more exciting to me. In general, whether I’m working with a client team on a project or working with our own people as a Support Agent, I just love interacting with people.
This is such a great and crunchy question to me. First off, I don’t know whether Test Double actually is unique in any particular aspect. Of course, my data set is anecdotal, as far as that goes. But in my experience it has been very rare to find a company that is so intentionally and boldly committed to its people, its clients, and its mission. In the last couple of years, seeing the company transition to being an ESOP was really a significant change. We’re not the only company that has done that, of course, but for us it’s significant in terms of following through on a stated intention to start some form of employee ownership. To see our company and our leaders follow through on that, and actually execute as an ESOP has been a remarkable thing.
We’re certainly also not the only company to express a priority, and an intention to improve in the area of equity and diversity, but I am really encouraged by our appetite for improvement and our humility in that pursuit as well. I look forward to seeing more progress in that regard, and I’m so excited about the way that our composition, in terms of the people in the company, is changing. The advantages and benefits and just the joy of getting to work with a more diverse group of people is really wonderful.
We’re also not the only company to pursue excellence in delivering software. At Test Double I’ve had the privilege to work with and get to know people who are pursuing excellence, not only in software delivery, but beyond that to consulting excellence. We may not be unique in pursuing those things, but I do believe we are on our way to becoming one of the best consultancies when it comes to improving teams and delivering success in software projects. And I think I could say that this is the best collection of professionals I’ve ever had the privilege of working with anywhere. One way or another, I’ve been working with some really great technical people for almost 30 years now. And I’ve worked with some great companies, but Test Double just has a phenomenal team which I’m very excited about.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about empathy as a core organizing principle in doing software consulting. I find that concept and that value is applicable in such a wide range of activities, whether it’s empathy for the person that you’re programming with, empathy for colleagues on the same team, and sometimes, notably, empathy for people who are on the other team, so to speak. What I mean is that in a lot of organizations there can emerge a sort of adversarial relationship between the people delivering information work and the people who are stakeholders and subscribers to that work—the folks who pay for the work. So I think in particular for us—in the work that we do—we want to get beyond that kind of adversarial relationship.
And doing so requires genuine empathy. Not just the sympathy of, “I’ve also done software development, and so I know what you, fellow software developer, are going through.” Empathy for someone who is facing a different set of pressures and constraints, trying to understand what their needs are, and how we can best serve them in a way that helps everybody. So, it’s kind of been an interesting exploration to look at empathy as something that, in some way or the other, is applicable to almost everything that we do. There almost always seems to be some dimension in which empathy is applicable. And I think that’s essentially just because almost all the interesting things we do involve interaction with other people. So empathy is always going to be relevant.
Okay, I’m laughing because this last year was a pandemic, and in a way it felt like nothing happened. We stayed home. Nevertheless, last year we made the decision to buy a house and move. We’re coming up on almost a year in the house where we’re living now. At the time, I had questions, like, “Is this the right time to be moving?” and also, “Am I going to pay for a house and then see the value just plummet?” Because at the outset of the pandemic, at least for me, it wasn’t clear what markets were going to do, or what the future held. But we’re very excited to have moved from renting a place to now having settled in. I’ve been doing a lot of the nesting and home owning activities. Incidentally, we have a great Slack channel called #homeowning, full of all kinds of interesting information about stuff that I don’t know how to do. So I love using Slack to find the good housekeeping hacks I need to learn.
Well, now that we’re vaccinated, and hoping to be able to do some travel again this year. There a couple of places in the world that are really significant to my wife and me. My wife is from South Korea, and we’ve been back to visit South Korea and her family twice now. We had planned to go back in 2020—we had bought tickets and everything—but had to cancel those travel plans. So we’re hoping to get back to South Korea sometime soon.
The other place we’d like to visit again is Sierra Leone, in West Africa. Sang Hee used to live and work there, so the big adventure for me in marrying her was getting to visit that country. I’ve had the opportunity to visit Sierra Leone three times now, and we’re hoping to go back again this year if we can. Excited about that. Of course those things are a little bit up in the air still, but we’re hoping that we can return soon.
There was a book I listened to recently that made an impression. It was Chris Voss’ Never Split The Difference. Negotiation had seemed like somewhat toxic territory to me before, which I tended to frame as an adversarial encounter between two or more people with only one winner.
Chris Voss re-framed that, exploring the win-win, and especially the concept that a successful negotiation isn’t mere compromise, with everybody left a bit dissatisfied, but rather it’s a successful exploration of what the other person actually wants and needs (which may not be what they actually say at the beginning). This book helped me to understand that the best path through any negotiation will have empathy as its core driver, which, for me, unlocked the whole idea of negotiating.
Well, on a really simple level, it’s just kind of amazing how a trip to the movie theater sounds about now, you know? I can go back to travel as the main thing that I’m looking forward to, not only overseas, but I also want to do some traveling around the states to visit some friends and family around the country.
I’m actually an African. My parents were foreign exchange students in Tunis, Tunisia, and were there for two years. I was born about two months before they came back to the States, so I’m technically a North African. I have not yet been back to Tunisia, but I’d like to go someday. The closest I’ve gotten, of course, is Sierra Leone. I’ve been on the continent, so that’s a start.
This interview is based on a recorded conversation with Joel Helbling and Cathy Colliver. It may or may not self-destruct.