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?

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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!

Transpection Tuesdays Still Going Strong

Since September 2013 Erik Brickarp and me have spent a few hours on (most) Tuesdays to discuss testing or our lives and careers in relation to testing. What started as a spontaneous experiment has turned into a routine, a staple in our lives, a commitment. Erik spoke about Transpection Tuesday at #SWET peer conference (Swedish Workshop on Exploratory Testing), I gave a 99 second talk about it at TestBash last year and a lightning talk at work. We’ve both spoken about it to several people over time. We have tried to demystify Transpection Tuesday as well as we can because we do get questions about how it works and what we talk about, and, probably most of all, why we keep going.

So we ended up doing a kind of retrospective on Transpection Tuesdays a while ago. We attempted to answer questions such as “What kind of specific questions have we tried to answer?”, “Why has it been a good idea to keep going?”, “What formats have we used and how have the formats evolved?”. We also used some elements from the PROOF debriefing mnemonic.

At least one blog post has come out of this retrospection… Maybe there will be more. This one will offer answers for the question:

What are some good reason to keep Transpection Tuesdays going?

A Never-Ending Conference

We met in person  at Let’s Test 2013 and Transpection Tuesday has been a way to keep the conference going. It’s as if it never ended. Conferences provide social learning experiences that can be empowering, energizing and motivating. Discussing and exchanging experiences, letting down your guard and freely exploring ideas (or rather, conferring about ideas) help make sense of your own experience and thoughts, and help look at them from new and undiscovered perspectives. New ideas are necessary for solving problems you haven’t solved yet. The positive “slap on the back” you get after a good and open discussion is just what you may need to turn a new idea into action.

This is very much what Transpection Tuesday is about. Talking face-to-face over Skype is a personal and engaging way of socializing that doesn’t compare to Twitter chatter or emails. It’s a no pressure, no risk, relaxed environment that makes a great weekly conferring session.

A Supporting Structure

We are both driven to become better at testing. We’re passionate about testing. We both see many ways in which we could grow as testers. Having a fellow tester along on the journey has made us braver and more confident to face and take up challenges, and make changes in our professional lives. A lot of the time Transpection Tuesday is about giving and getting support in our ventures.

I feel that the sense of unconditional support that is readily available helps to overcome obstacles faster. There is hardly any need to keep circling a problem alone for a long time or think long and hard about who to talk to or ask advice from. I just have to wait until next Tuesday (or drop an emergency email) to get a problem thoroughly dissected, analyzed and discussed.

There is so much to learn about testing and sometimes it can feel a little intimidating to try to handle it all. Transpection Tuesdays sometimes are about overcoming the fear of complexity and failure in a low-pressure and safe environment. Having experienced dismantling some testing problems together has helped us realize that sometimes we know more than we first thought… or less, in which case we can consciously fix this problem.

A Habit of Keeping an Eye on The Ball

Transpection Tuesday is a way to keep ourselves focused on learning and development by discussing relevant topics regularly. Thinking about and discussing new concepts, revisiting known ideas to explore them further, or reflecting on and making sense of our daily happenings related to testing is a routine for us. It’s like our special tester’s mental floss. We want to floss regularly, don’t we?

We pick topics based on what interests us or what problems we need to solve at work. So one way of looking at it is that we sharpen our focus at work and think whether an idea or a problem would make a useful discussion and learning material. Chances are that we haven’t covered this particular topic or we think it’s worth revisiting to see if and how we’ve changed our thinking about it. This way we scout for interesting things we want to know more about (which keeps us looking) to take to Transpection Tuesdays (which makes us focused).

A Return on the Investment

It’s fair to ask whether one couldn’t just develop their skills and understanding about testing on their own. Why bother with such commitments to someone else but yourself? We find that the time we spend on Tuesdays is a return on our investment. We feel that we’d spend so much longer on our own getting to where we are now. A heuristic I use is that I’ve become more confident in my knowledge and skills thanks to Transpection Tuesdays. This is a major return on the investment for me.

Mentoring Is (Low-)key

We have different experiences, backgrounds (an electronics engineer meets an English major) and careers (a tester turned into a teacher of testing meets technical writer turned into a tester/test lead) which makes it all the more interesting. Mentoring each other isn’t something we try to do on purpose. We’ve just found that it’s something that happens when we discuss topics that one or the other has more experience with. So it’s low-key mentoring.

We nudge each other, give feedback and sometimes say “wow, that was brilliant because…” or “ok, this was a little bit stupid but let me help you…”. We know each other well enough to know when to keep pushing and asking questions and when to pull back or give time to breathe. This is one of the benefits of keeping at it for a year and a half: you know the other person well enough that even if you accidentally push too much they will forgive you.

We Don’t Know Why But We Just Do It

Eventually, when all of the above fails to explain why we keep doing Transpection Tuesday, it may well be because we haven’t fully understood it ourselves or aren’t yet able to express it eloquently enough. We feel like we’re just scraping the surface and that there is some underlying fundamental reason it works so well. Sorry, we’ll try again sometime.