What I Learned: Coaching Testers with James Bach and Ann-Marie Charrett

Thanks to the ever charitable Rosie Sherry, I was able to attend the course “Coaching Testers” in Brighton earlier this March. I was expecting to learn about the mechanics of coaching and to reframe and reevaluate my previous (practical but mostly intuition-based) experience. In this post I’m going to give an overview of what I learned from the first half of the training (for the sake of my readers and for the sake of me writing shorter blog posts :)).

What I liked about the course was that after a fairly brief introduction about the coach-tester relationship and the coaching space, we got to work and conducted a brief testing session as a student, then reversed the roles. Just 15+15 minutes later I had learned a couple of lessons.

Firstly, even if the coaching session has a relatively “loose goal” at the beginning, it is important for the coach to pick a trail quickly enough to avoid a situation where there are two lambs (not just one) wandering on the meadow. Of course, it is challenging to pick a suitable topic when you hardly know the person and their skills. I’m thinking that even a preliminary coaching session for mapping the student’s skills and building the relationship is a good start.

Secondly, beware of the magic and mechanics of hearing, listening and processing student’s responses. For example, I picked up on a vague explanation my student gave and I wanted him to be more specific. He explained again. I wasn’t satisfied and applied some more pressure. He explained again. Since I had a fairly specific answer in mind and I didn’t hear it, then… well. Luckily, James was observing this exchange and said “oh, but he IS more specific now!”.

I suddenly realized that while trying to process the student’s answer, I was comparing it to my preconceived answer I would have given. This made me deaf to what he was saying. I felt like I had slapped myself. At least I am now a wiser slapped version of myself.

Discussing it later, I was relieved to hear from James and Ann-Marie what I already suspected: improving the process of  listening, processing, and giving feedback is a matter of mechanics and practice.

Thirdly, focus on what and how the student is doing not on how you could do it better. It doesn’t matter. This is the conclusion Anis drew from coaching me (and I share his sentiment). Demonstration and concrete examples are in order if the student is in the state of “spinning wheels” and it seems to be very difficult for him/her to get back on track; or it may be part of establishing your credibility as a coach. But don’t rush it. It’s about the student’s skills.

These lessons I learned nicely fit into the model of the coaching space that James and Ann-Marie introduced. In this model, the coach and the tester bring similar elements to the coaching arena: both have their context, expectations, abilities, etc, yet these may not be shared through joint experiences (though I think that long-term coaching sessions would increase the overlap to some extent). Both share some of each other’s roles: the coach learns from the student, the student can facilitate coach’s learning. On that arena, there is energy (and trust) between the tester and the coach that needs to be managed. If I remember correctly, the managing of energy was initially attributed to the coach. But I think through the discussions we came to an agreement that energy and trust are to be read and managed by both (if we didn’t agree, then I guess this is how I interpreted it). Yet the portion of managing the pressure belongs mostly to the coach. And then there is direction given by the coach which provides the method for the session.

Using this model, I could describe my lessons as follows:

lack of direction on the coach’s part can make the energy wither so that the coach and the tester wander apart and maybe even leave the arena;

abilities and expectations can be different between the coach and the tester but one can find the other as a source for improvement (I can practice and improve a certain aspect of my listening skills);

giving direction should be administered with care and attention so that the coaching session wouldn’t turn into a training session without planning to do so.

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These are some initial thoughts in context… I’m still processing the experience, so more to come.

How to write an email when you’re frustrated

People working in companies where teams are geographically distributed across time zones are familiar with the problems that the lack of  “face time” causes. Yes, there are phone calls, there is the IM chat, there are emails. However, more often that not these are inadequate means for conveying criticism or even frustration in my experience.

Being an honest yet sarcastic Estonian doesn’t help either. Being an English major who has the sufficient vocabulary for saying a lot of interesting things…. can sometimes be a disadvantage as well.

What do I do and how if I feel like I need communicate that I think something needs to be done differently, that I’m not happy with how things have ended up?

  1. Write the email.
  2. Rewrite it to delete all potentially ironic, sarcastic and stingy comments.
  3. Save the draft.
  4. Go home.
  5. Come back the next day and read it.
  6. Delete it. Usually, I have come up with a better solution and I can positively say I have avoided causing more damage by not sending the email.

This doesn’t mean I am avoiding being honest or communicating my thoughts. It means I need to choose my words carefully to make sure it’s not me just trying to vent myself instead of actually communicating. There may be a totally legitimate reason for me to feel very strongly about an issue. But even if I tone down my communication, I may still end up stinging people in a way I don’t mean to. I try to remember that it is just not worth it to put all further communication at risk and try to find more constructive solutions for driving the point home. Me being “right” sure feels nice but is it the most important thing in the world (and is it always important to let everyone know about it)?

I’ve learned that some of the best emails are those that are never sent.