Why Testers and QA Engineers Need to Learn Continuously

[article]
Summary:
Information technology changes fast, and none of us knows what our future holds. It’s hard to keep up with new programming languages, patterns, tools, frameworks, design techniques, and practices. If you’re a programmer who doesn’t keep her skills up to date, you won’t get the best job opportunities—in fact, you might not get any. Yet, we observe many people who call themselves testers or quality assurance professionals but don’t make much effort to learn new things.

Expanding on the ideas introduced in their March/April 2011 Better Software magazine article “Learning for Agile Testers” Lisa and Janet encourage continual learning. The software industry changes quickly; be sure you have the skills needed to stay relevant and valuable.

Information technology changes fast, and none of us knows what our future holds. It’s hard to keep up with new programming languages, patterns, tools, frameworks, design techniques, and practices. If you’re a programmer who doesn’t keep her skills up to date, you won’t get the best job opportunities—in fact, you might not get any. Yet, we observe many people who call themselves testers or quality assurance professionals but don’t make much effort to learn new things. They execute manual test scripts on the software that is given to them. Their managers don’t care enough to learn what testers ought to know, so they assume this is the extent of value that testers provide.

As development practices quickly evolve and the economy becomes more volatile, testers who don’t continuously improve their skills risk getting left behind.  The only constant in our lives is change. Let’s assume you are not one of the people who is satisfied with the status quo.  You are a tester who chooses to learn, stretch your mind, and try new things.  There are many reasons to pursue that path, the first being to advance your career.  While you might not be climbing up the traditional corporate ladder, you are choosing where you want your career to go. Expanding your skill set will expand your opportunities, even within your organization. 

Another reason for testers to keep learning is to increase their value to the team. The most successful teams enjoy a culture of learning where everyone on the team is free to raise issues and experiment. Good testers understand both the business and technical sides of their product. They come up with unique questions that may not occur to other roles on the team.

At a recent agile testing meet-up at Agilistry Studios in Pleasanton, CA, participants noted that learning reduces stress. Knowing that you will learn new skills keeps you from worrying that you won’t know how to do your job. Also, when you frequently devote time to learning, you keep those learning neurons in your brain open, and you’re confident that you can quickly pick up anything you need to know.

Continually learning enables you to foster innovation and be a catalyst for team growth. When you bring new ideas to your team, you challenge team members to think of new and better ways to do things. Stagnation is the downfall of many teams. Team members get complacent or feel pressed for time and can develop poor habits or revert to old ones. For example, they may comment out failing tests instead of fixing them or skip some necessary testing to save time, trusting in luck. This produces a serious risk that the team will deliver mediocre software or spend all its time fixing regression defects. When you don’t continually look for ways to improve, it’s easy to miss out on some new technology or technique that could make a big difference for your team. For example, you might get too focused on functional testing and ignore other types, such as security or performance testing, leaving the product at risk.

Learning doesn’t slow down, even when you’ve worked as a tester for many years. We believe that the wisdom of long experience, combined with learning new skills and keeping current on new ideas in the industry, make us not only more marketable but also more valuable to any team we work with.

Continuous learning gives you the opportunity to become part of a community of thinkers.  In 2009, Jean Tabaka, Liz Keogh, and Eric Willeke [1] challenged agile software practitioners to be leaders in the communities in which we learn, teach and reflect on our work. You can challenge your own ideas with other professionals who also like to learn. You can share your ideas with your peers and have authentic dialogues with innovative thinkers. The cycle of learning continues when one person contributes an idea and someone else takes it to a new level or place. Share your ideas and experiences with your local and global testing communities by presenting, facilitating workshops, or dojos, or even writing and blogging.

Collaborating with our fellow development team members as well as with business stakeholders is a cornerstone of agile testing success. We face new communication and collaboration challenges as more teams are distributed around the globe. We must be prepared not only for the technological aspects of collaboration, but the cultural differences. Gaining expertise in the business domain of the company where you work, enables you to do a better job of testing, as well as help business experts solve their problems.

We believe the most important reason to challenge yourself, is the sheer joy of learning. Daniel Pink points to numerous scientific studies that show that the strongest motivators are intrinsic ones, like autonomy and professional growth [2]. Everyone wants to be fairly compensated for her work, but these intrinsic motivators produce the best software development teams.

Read part one of Lisa and Janet’s article “Learning for Agile Testers” in the March/April issue of Better Software magazine.

References

[1] “A Community of Thinkers” by Jean Tabaka, Liz Keogh and Eric Willeke, 2009
[2] http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

Resources

About the author

Lisa Crispin's picture Lisa Crispin

Lisa Crispin is the co-author, with Janet Gregory, of Agile Testing: A Practical Guide for Testers and Agile Teams (Addison-Wesley, 2009), co-author with Tip House of Extreme Testing (Addison-Wesley, 2002) and a contributor to Beautiful Testing (O’Reilly, 2009) and Experiences of Test Automation by Dorothy Graham and Mark Fewster (Addison-Wesley, 2011). She has worked as a tester on agile teamssince 2000, and enjoys sharing her experiences via writing, presenting, teaching and participating in agile testing communities around the world. Lisa was named one of the 13 Women of Influence in testing by Software Test & Performance magazine in 2009. For more about Lisa’s work, visit www.lisacrispin.com.

About the author

Janet Gregory's picture Janet Gregory

An agile testing coach and practitioner, Janet Gregory is the co-author of Agile Testing: A Practical Guide for Agile Testers and Teams and a contributor to 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know.  Janet specializes in showing agile teams how testers can add value in areas beyond critiquing the product; for example, by guiding development with business-facing tests. For the past ten years, She has been working with teams to transition to agile development, and teaches agile testing courses and tutorials worldwide. Janet enjoys sharing her experiences at conferences and user group meetings around the world. Janet was named one of the 13 Women of Influence in testing by Software Test & Performance magazine.

For more about Janet's work, visit www.janetgregory.ca/

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