I have to give credit to this idea to a number of sources, as they have all come together in the past few days and weeks to stand as a reminder of something that I think we all do, but don’t realize it, and actually utilizing the power of this idea can be profound.

First off, what in the world is “mise en place”? It’s a term that comes rom the culinary world. Mise en place is French for “putting in place”, or to set up for work. Professional chef’s use this approach to organize the ingredients they will use during a regular workday or shift. I have a friend who has trained many years and has turned into an amazing chef, and I’ve witnessed him doing this. He’s a whirlwind of motion, but that motion is very close quartered. You might think that he is chaotic or frantic, but if you really pay attention, his movements are actually quite sparse, and all that he needs is right where he needs them, when he needs them. I asked him if this was something that came naturally to him, and he said “not on your life! It’s taken me years to get this down, but because I do it every day, and because I do my best to stay in it every day, it helps me tremendously.”

The second example of mise en place I witness on a regular basis is with my daughter and her art skills. She has spent the better part of the past four years dedicating several hours each day drawing, often late into the evening. She has a sprawling setup that, again, looks chaotic and messy on the surface. If you were to sit down with her, though, and see what she actually does, she gathers the tools she needs, and from the time she puts herself into “go” mode, up to the point where she either completes her project or chooses to take a break, it seems as though she barely moves. She’s gotten her system down so well that I honestly could not, from her body language, tell you what she is doing. I’ve told her I’d really love to record her at 10x speed just to see if I can comprehend how she puts together her work. For her, it’s automatic, but it’s automatic because she has spent close to half a decade polishing her skills.

Lately, I’ve been practicing the art of Native American beading, specifically items that use gourd stitch (a method of wrapping cylindrical items with beads and a net of thread passing through them). This is one of those processes that, try as hard as I might, I can’t cram or speed up the process. Not without putting in time and practice. Experienced bead workers are much faster than I am, but that’s OK. The process teaches me patience. It’s “medicine” in the Native American tradition, that of a rhythmic task done over and over, in some cases tens of thousands of times for a large enough item. Through this process , I too am discovering how to set up my environment to allow me a minimum of movement, an efficiency of motion, and the option to let my mind wander and think. In the process, I wring out fresh efficiencies, make new discoveries, and get that much better and faster each day I practice.

As a software tester, I know the value of practice, but sometimes I lose sight of the tools that I should have at my beck and call. While testing should be free and unencumbered, there is no question that there are a few tools that can be immensely valuable. As such, I’ve realized that I also have a small collection of mise en place items that I use regularly. What are they?

– My Test Heuristics Cheat Sheet Coffee Cup (just a glance and an idea can be formed)
– A mindmap of James Bach’s Heuristic Test Strategy Model I made a few years ago
– A handful of rapid access browser tools (Firebug, FireEyes, WAVE, Color Contrast Analyzer)
– A nicely appointed command line environment (screen, tmux, vim extensions, etc.)
– The Pomodairo app (used to keep me in the zone for a set period of time, but I can control just how much)
– My graduated notes system (Stickies, Notes, Socialtext, Blog) that allows me to really see what items I learn will really stand the test of time.

I haven’t included coding or testing tools, but if you catch me on a given day, those will include some kind of Selenium environment, either my companies or my own sandboxes to get used to using other bindings), JMeter, Metasploit, Kali Linux, and a few other items I’ll play around with and, as time goes on, aim to add to my full time mise en place.

A suggestion that I’ve found very helpful is attributed to Avdi Grim (who may have borrowed it from someone else, but he’s the one I heard say it). There comes a time when you realize that there is far too much out there to learn proficiently and effectively to be good at everything. By necessity, we have to pick and choose, and our actions set all that in motion. We get good at what we put our time into, and sifting through the goals that are nice, the goals that are important, and the goals that are essential is necessary work. Determining the tools that will help us get there is also necessary. It’s better to be good at a handful of things we use often than to spend large amounts of time learning esoteric things we will use very rarely. Of course, growth comes from stretching into areas we don’t know, but finding the core areas that are essential, and working hard to get good in those areas, whatever they may be, makes the journey much more pleasant, if not truly any easier.