5 Years in Testing

My life changed 5 years ago today when I started as team lead for the testing and documentation team.

I knew nothing about testing. I had a vague idea about it at best.

I knew nothing about team leading or building a team.

I knew very little about software development in general except for what I observed while working as a technical writer.

My background in the humanities didn’t make it look like I would last for long.

Fast forward 5 years and I’m still here. Who knew? And, more importantly, why am I still here?

***

Well, I guess my to-be boss knew something about me that I didn’t when he asked me if I’d like to take the chance. It seems to be a recurring theme in the past 5 years: people around me point (or push) me to try and do things I didn’t know I could do. Sometimes I kick and scream but when I go for trying something (a peer conference, a test challenge) it usually ends up being rewarding. So I don’t know what’s the real lesson here: should I just think I have a lot of blindspots about myself (in which case it’s great to have smarter people around me)?

I know that the people in the testing community have made a great difference for me by talking to me (even when I was scared to say something for the fear of saying something stupid – I probably have said stupid things along the way), sharing, helping, mentoring in one way or another… I never knew how powerful the connection between like-minded people could be and how it can propel me forward. Now I believe in and advocate for simply bringing people together and supporting their interactions as a way to make things happen. Sometimes you may not know what’s really going to happen but that’s OK. I want surprises.

I’ve learned many things about myself. The environments I’ve been in have brought out the good and the bad in me. I’ve discovered integrity and grit in me that make me push myself to find yet another solution after having tried and failed several times. It has helped me through situations where it would be easier to just do what you’re told but which would make me feel like I would break and be lost forever if I did that. I’ve learned that I’m not good at just following orders: I prefer to think for myself and understand the situation fully, and make my own decisions because I can understand them and can be responsible for my work.

I’ve also discovered that I have a long way to go when handling manipulative people or dealing with certain conflicts in a productive way. I’m very grateful to my manager that was patient when I was sarcastic and ironic, and whom I could observe and learn from as he dealt with similar situations. I’ve learned from other managers who’ve shared their approach and who inspire me with how cool they are with conflict. It’s not about the fight. It’s an opportunity to get somewhere.

I’ve learned to think critically in a different way as compared to what I was taught at the university. It was almost uncanny when I realized how much learning to think like a tester intervened with my “academic” mode of thinking. I somewhat got into trouble with that over my MA thesis… On the other hand, I’ve found useful takeaways from my education to use in the testing field related to doing research and analyzing problems. What I’ve added now is systems thinking and wow, does world make more sense or what… Learning to think like a tester has taught me to think. Period.

I’ve learned that testing is wonderful because of the endless brain-tickling opportunities. I remember that even when I was younger I loved the feeling in my head when the pieces of information clicked together and the world transformed – I’d brought an unknown unknown into my world which made it a known thing for me. And it made the world more exciting. Testing provides such moments all the time for me. There is always something to figure out. There is always the chance you’re wrong, so uncertainty and doubt will be your trusty companions. Since I question myself quite a lot, it kind of fits me… This will keep me thinking, learning, re-evaluating, and searching.

There are many wonderful things humans can do using their skills and tools. Maybe I’m not so good at using a plethora of testing tools but I’ve discovered I’m somewhat good “at people”. I tend to care about them… And I like the feeling of having made a difference. Therefore, human-centric testing gives me plenty of space for helping to solve problems, change something, and learn in the process. It’s a space where the excitement of discovery and learning will be serving a great purpose. Had anyone told me this 10 years ago when I finished high school… It wouldn’t have made sense to me. I mean what can one possibly know about what they could do or are capable of or should do with their life when they finish high school?

I’ve learned that (self-)reflection is a really powerful tool. If you want to double, triple, or quadruple this power, you should reflect with someone together. I’ve always been a person to do this (as long as I can remember myself) but it’s only during the past five years when I’ve seen the benefits of reflecting regulary and with purpose. I won’t be able to discover all my blind spots in the process but I’m getting better and better at it.

In the past 5 years I’ve found that I like to and can be good at training and coaching people. I’d been in testing for a bit less than a year when I had to hire and then train 2 new testers. Whatever I had learned in that year I had to pass on… quickly and effectively. This made me sharpen the focus on how to build the team, how to build skills in the team in a way that would have decisive impact (because ain’t nobody got time to wait until I take my time with it). Building a team for me is about creating the right conditions for people to do their best work. I can be quite protective if someone wants to stop them from doing that (because they have to go over my dead body but I refuse to die or get out of the way).

I also discovered that good leadership and people management is what I’m passionate about. Having reflected on my previous experience and having seen some dire “examples” of mismanagement, I get really fired up when I happen to see one again. I want to help people understand how much impact they actually have as managers and how much awesome it will be if they don’t try to just get by but commit to their team and serve them. I didn’t know I could lead or I would care about this topic so much but I’m glad I know it now. Because now I’m aware and can think of ways how to help. And I believe, maybe naively, that other people can cultivate their leaderhsip skills if they decide they really care.

I used to think volunteers were weird. Why do anything for free and out of your free time? Now I’m a big time weirdo myself thinking, reading, writing, sharing, talking about testing, helping to edit articles, helping to arrange testing events… What I didn’t know before is that if you find something you really like, you want more of it. And you especially want more of it in your free time because… well, it makes you feel awesome.

I guess there are many more lessons (and they would make this post awful long). I’m inredibly grateful for having been given the chance to learn about testing and thankful to myself for having the wits to have taken it. Somehow I’ve made it from a clueless test lead to Head of Testing. I don’t even dare to think of what lies ahead… No, wait! I DO dare to think about it and I will. It would be really weird to find myself in the same place as I am now in the next 5 years… I don’t know where I will end up because I sure as hell didn’t know I would end up where I am.

I want to thank everyone who has helped me in any way, who has taken the time to talk to me, who has had to exercise their patience to talk me into things (or out of things), who has taught me even if they don’t know they have. Thank you.

Here’s to many more!

Have you done your integrity check?

I did my integrity checks over the past couple of weeks and I feel much better now.

Integrity is very important to me as a tester and as a team lead. Integrity means to me that I am in contact with myself and can acknowledge my failures and successes honestly and openly. It means that I act consistently according to my values and principles when things are going well and also when they aren’t or when I’m being criticized. I also compare my view and perspective to how others around me see things because it helps me recognize when I may be blind to my fallacies.

Retaining integrity helps me go through difficult times. Even under pressure where I feel I could break down and give in and do something that I think is wrong, integrity helps me resist. It doesn’t mean I want to be stupidly stubborn. But in my experience, whatever it is I’m made of is worth keeping together, it is worth the effort and persistence.

Why am I talking about it? As a team lead, I am aware that whatever I do and say is being monitored, evaluated and potentially emulated by my team members. Therefore, I want to always follow my principles consistently and do my best job. However, it’s equally important to be human: humans fail, so do I but I need to be open about it.

Over the last 6 months, I started feeling I haven’t done my best and that there is a discrepancy between what I set out to do and what I’m actually delivering to my team. Starting from the beginning of the year, there was a lot of pressure to deal with things that I don’t really consider my job. I’m someone who wants to help, so… I did some of it. It’s the curse of people who like to get things done and do it well: someone pragmatic just gives you more stuff to be done because hey… you can do it, right?

One may ask “don’t you know how to say “no”?”. Yes, I can say no and I did say it. It’s just I couldn’t say “no” to everything. I couldn’t fight off the constraints entirely then.

So I grew more and more irritable with myself, I felt I didn’t have as much time as I would like to work with my team. I felt trapped behind my desk. This got worse in April (see section IV in this post) and while there were other things going on, I felt like I’m not doing a great job at all. Indeed, I came to feel that I can’t do my job.

The last 1.5 months have been much better though. I’ve felt so inspired and energized after attending Let’s Test and after giving my first conference talk. I got back my self-confidence and self-belief.

And then I realized I should do my integrity check with each of my team members.

In our company, we have quarterly reviews. I guess some take them as formalities that have to be over and done with. I take them as opportunities to have good long conversation about what has been going on, where everyone’s at and what we want to do next. It’s like calibrating. So I had to calibrate myself.

The integrity check for me was fairly simple. I explained my perspective, how the past months looked like to me and how I felt about it. I then asked if they saw the same things as I did and do they agree with my assessment.

It felt so good to get it off my chest. And I felt uplifted by their responses. They said they saw and understood that there was a lot going on. So they adapted and dealt with it – found more ways to solve the problems together as a team to not pull me away with minor things. A few noted that I hadn’t been distributing as much information about the “general stuff that’s going on” and I recognized this as an accurate statement. I had been feeling overwhelmed with the information I had to absorb that I just didn’t think of passing it on as much as I used to. A few pointed out some other things that they thought could be done better and I agreed to these things.

To my surprise, nobody said they felt like I had abandoned them or not talked to them enough. I really was ready for someone saying that “Helena, I can well remember the days we didn’t exchange a word.”

What to make of it?

I – Review Benchmarks

I should revisit my principles and aspirations, and do a reality check. Since I seemed to feel much worse about the whole thing than they did, it’s probably the case that I need to revise my own goals. So I need to apply critical thinking to make sure I’m not driving myself crazy without a good reason. Also, I shouldn’t use my imagination so much… just do a quick check instead of mulling over things too much.

II – Implement one-on-ones

I should probably do more frequent but less time-consuming check-ins with them. The quarterly reviews are one-on-ones too but only every 3 months. Potentially, one-on-ones help me do the integrity checks and calibrating at shorter intervals and I won’t get stuck/lost myself. I haven’t implemented the one-on-ones that Johanna Rothman talked about in her Let’s Test keynote. I’ve been thinking about it but I think now’s the time to implement them.

III – Know the Dynamics

There’s this interesting dynamics: if the leader pulls away (for whatever reason), teams have to handle it in some way. My team handled it by huddling closer together. I’m glad they did. Because I can see that it’s also possible the team will fall apart as people would just try to survive. I don’t want to go into too much detail here but the way they handle things tells me it is driven by values and mentality I have wanted to foster. Team spirit can go along with independence in the team. It means that everyone is capable of independently solving problems but they know when to switch to team approach and ask for help from others (provided that they like to work together).

There’s another factor that I could write another blog post about but I’ll give you a brief summary. My team consists of both testers and technical writers. It used to be that testers tested the new functionality and once they were done, technical writers wrote the end-user documentation for it. But we changed this a few months ago: now testers and tech writers start working on a new assignment together. It means they badger the programmer together, discuss stuff, throw ideas back and forth, and finish almost at the same time (sometimes tech writers finish the task even earlier). In other words, they complement each other. I asked about the change and I got overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Really, I don’t have a detailed overview of HOW they make it work. When we decided to make the change, I said that I won’t be involved at all, they should just make it work. They have and they like it. I’m glad they like it, I’ll just let them work.

So I think this change has had an impact on better collaboration which helps the team to grow and become more self-reliable.

Truly, my goal is that they can work efficiently without me.

IV – It works both ways

As a team lead, I try to find ways how everyone can grow, challenge everyone individually to overcome their fears or push them to do things they don’t think they can do. But it works the other way around, too. They can push me along, pull me out of my swap (without them even knowing it sometimes…) and lift me up, inspire me. But without having open conversations it wouldn’t happen. Without the readiness to have one’s integrity checked, it wouldn’t happen.

I want to have the door open, so they can give feedback and say how things are, no bullshit (one of them said they really appreciate this “out in the open” atmosphere in our team).

 

So, doctor’s orders… I’m going to keep doing my integrity checks because it is so much better to know how things are instead of not knowing. And I’m very thankful to my team for doing what they did.