Advancing the Craft of Testing: What Have YOU Done Lately?

Lisa Crispin explains that the cloud, social media, and other products of modern technology have exponentially expanded our outlets for honing our craft. In light of this advancement, Lisa looks at some avenues of self-improvement that you can use to better your career.

As testers (or QA engineers, or quality champions, or whatever you prefer to be called), we want others to respect our specialized skills and recognize our contributions. In the past year, I’ve facilitated several Testing Lean Coffees , where people interested in testing meet to discuss whatever burning topics fascinate them that day. A common theme among topics has been testing craftsmanship.

The best discussion on the topic I’ve seen lately at a Lean Coffee was “What are the last three things YOU did to improve?” What an excellent question! It’s easy to talk about the craft of testing, but it’s more important to ask what you have done personally to advance it.

The cloud, social media, and other products of modern technology have exponentially expanded our outlets for honing our craft. Let’s take a look at some avenues of self-improvement.

Reading books is a time-honored way to learn new skills and concepts. We’re lucky to have so many good books on testing available. And books don’t have to come from a traditional publisher to be valuable. Outlets such as LeanPub have some excellent low-cost books from established authors, as well as fresh, new voices. And some writers simply make their ebooks freely available in PDF format. It’s the content that counts, so find time for your reading list.

And don’t limit yourself to testing books. I don’t necessarily think testers need programming skills, but it can’t hurt to learn a scripting language or to be more familiar with design patterns. General books on thinking skills and ways to listen and converse better also help us improve the way we work.

Print and online magazines and blogs on all these topics abound. If you don’t have time for a book, scan an article or blog every day. Personally, I find Twitter a great source of reading material. I follow interesting people who post links to articles I wouldn’t have found on my own.

Meet and Greet
Conferences are a traditional forum of learning, and we all know that the best ideas come out of hallway discussions during the breaks. If you’re lucky enough to attend a conference, don’t just sit and listen, be ready to share your own experiences. After each session, write down at least one small experiment you can try when you get back to work.

Can’t afford that conference registration fee? Look for smaller, local, one-day conferences. They might be even more valuable, as you’ll build your network with local people with whom you can meet regularly to report on how you applied what you learned or encourage each other to try experiments. Whenever I have a sticky problem, I start picking the brains of the smart folks I’ve met at conferences.

Local user groups and meetups are generally plentiful and a great way to get to know people who can help you. If there aren’t any in your area, get one started. Building a community is hard, but it’s great to meet local people with similar goals to share experiences. And let’s be honest, it’s particularly useful when you’re interested in a career change.

Give a Presentation
I’ve found that the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. We’ve all had experiences that will benefit others. Volunteer to give an experience report to your local user group. Yes, it’s scary and a lot of work, but it will give you a new perspective on your own learning journey. Plus, it builds your character!

For most of my career, I worked for small companies that couldn’t afford to send me to conferences, and I really wanted to get to some. So, I started submitting proposals. They were rejected. I asked my company’s technical writer to help me on one, and, surprise, it was accepted. I worked hard on my presentation skills and my session wasn’t too bad. The door was open and I never looked back. I would not be where I am today without everything I learned and all the people I’ve met at conferences.

If a conference or user group seems too daunting, offer a lunchtime brown-bag talk to your team. Or facilitate a Lean Coffee and let everyone else do the work.

Attend Webinars and Virtual Conferences
Watching a presentation can be inspiring. We’re fortunate today that so many conferences video their sessions and make them freely available online. Take advantage! Often, you can even live stream conferences and participate in online chats as they’re underway, enhancing your learning experience.

Webinars, video courses, and screencasts are another terrific way to learn, and many are free of charge. Yes, it takes time to watch them, but if you take away one idea that helps your team, it’s worth the trouble.

Pair Up
Yes, pairing can be scary. The idea of pairing with a programmer may be daunting. You may be eager to pair with a fellow tester, but feel you don’t have time—it seems faster if the two of you each tackle different tasks.

In my experience, pairing is always more rewarding than working on your own. It’s actually more productive than two people working separately, because the quality of the work is so much better and less time will be spent on do-overs. And, I think we all learn more when outside of our comfort zones.

When you pair for testing, especially if you take advantage of tools that encourage collaboration, such as mind mapping, you’ll think of more test cases, more scenarios, and more personas. You won’t ignore that strange thing that flicked by on the screen, because two of you saw it. You won’t spend too much time distracted on a side trip, because your pair will help you maintain discipline. Whether you’re the more experienced of the pair, explaining things to your colleague, or the situation is reversed, you’ll be amazed at how much you learn from the experience.

Take a Training Class
In-person and online courses taught by an experienced practitioner can give you a leg up on new concepts, practices, and technology. In my experience, the best approach to a training class is to bring in a coach who’s already an expert in what you want to learn. Have that person customize a hands-on training course in which you learn by doing on your own system under test. My team did this last year to get a solid foundation on a new test automation framework. The cost was trivial compared to the return on investment we reaped from well-designed, maintainable automated tests.

Be diligent in choosing a training course. Ask around on mailing lists and in user groups. Get recommendations. If you’re bringing in a coach, meet with her by teleconference beforehand to make sure it’s the right fit. If you’re signing up for an online course or signing up for a public course, find people who have taken it before to see how they applied what they learned. Your time is valuable; don’t waste it on a class that isn’t appropriate.

Join Online Communities
Whether or not you have local communities to join, you can benefit from the diversity of backgrounds and ideas that an online testing community provides. Here are a couple of examples.

Weekend Testing lets you practice your exploratory testing skills with a truly global community of testers. There’s likely to be a session coming up that will fit your schedule. Another global group is Software Testing Club. It provides a variety of forums for asking questions and sharing experiences, plus links to local testing communities. There are also many mailing lists, such as the Agile Testing Yahoo group.

As long as you live in some part of the world that has Internet access, there is a community you can join where you can learn and pay that learning forward to others.

Reflect and Grow
So, what have you done for your career lately? In my experience, testers with the right mindset and attitude write their own ticket for the best jobs. Demonstrate that great attitude with a diverse mix of professional growth activities. If you can’t easily point to three ways you’ve pushed yourself to learn in the past couple months, start experimenting. Pair up with a buddy and encourage each other.

Participating in user groups, online communities, and conferences lets you pay forward the help you receive. You can help advance the craft of testing while improving your own skills. As testers add more value, and our profession gains respect, we all benefit. Most importantly, you’ll have fun as you connect with other testing professionals and improve your own abilities!

Selected Resources
Lean Coffee
Weekend Testing
Software Testing Club
Agile Testing Yahoo Group

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