In this interview, TechWell's Mike Sowers goes in depth on the measurements, metrics, and management side of testing. He discusses both the good and the bad on his test automation journey in large and small enterprises and communicates the real challenges.
Jennifer Bonine: All right. We are back with our next virtual interview. Thanks, everyone out there, for tuning in. I'm excited to have Mike with me. Mike, thanks for joining me here in our interviews.
Mike Sowers: It's always a pleasure, Jennifer. It's great to be here. Great to be here with you, lots of excitement.
Jennifer Bonine: It is. We were talking about kind of the energy at this conference. Each conference, I think, is a little unique in the feel because the participants are different, our virtual participants are different, and it gives it its own kind of look and feel. Kind of give me your take on how you're feeling this year, what you're seeing, some of the things that you've experienced in this.
Mike Sowers: Absolutely. I mean, I think one of the great things about the conference, to your point, is a lot of positive energy.
Jennifer Bonine: There is.
Mike Sowers: People just like to come and they like to learn, they like to share with one another. There's so many ways that we can do that together. Obviously the informal times that we have together, maybe drinking adult beverages.
Jennifer Bonine: If you like those.
Mike Sowers: If you like those, those kind of things. But we've got the opportunity to meet the speakers one on one. You see speakers in the hallway. You can meet with speakers after their sessions and talk, and everyone is so giving at the conference.
Jennifer Bonine: They are.
Mike Sowers: Because what we're trying to do is build up the community and make better testers, and therefore share best practices. I just think it's a very giving community, particularly at this conference. The numbers are up. There are more people here, so there's more buzz.
Jennifer Bonine: Which is wonderful. You can feel it. You can feel there's a lot of investment, and companies are investing in sending folks to these types of events, and they get a lot of out of it. I think I hear from a lot of delegates that one of their takeaways is to go back home and present. They have so many things to present on and they have so much to take back that, then, you see the next year even more people attending because it was value add for the individual as well as the company.
Mike Sowers: Exactly.
Jennifer Bonine: To bring those ideas and thoughts back.
Mike Sowers: Exactly. I think, one of the things I did when I was leading test teams was to use that as a little bit of a reward. We could actually rotate people. Maybe the manager comes. Maybe the leader would come, initially. Then maybe bring some of their team members, but then there were times the team members would rotate. They can take that information back in to their teams and continue to build up their core competencies, their methodologies, get those practices embedded in their organizations.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, which is great. What people should understand too, at the conference, there's a lot of practical learning and sessions where they obviously get tips and tricks from experts, people who have done it. There are a lot of people here who've written books on it. But there's also the practical application of it. There's ways to actually use what you're learning. We'll talk about a couple of those but I found something interesting last night here in the hotel was there was a group of people and they said, "Hey, I'll meet you later and we're going to play cards."
I was like, "What is this cards thing we're playing?" It actually was James and John and a bunch of the what I call the mystical creatures of testing out in the lobby with delegates doing a game where you had to try and figure out what the rule was, that they were applying to the cards in the card game. I mean, there is impromptu, what I call meetups of people doing things like that where it's actually applying principles and concepts with some of these folks in real life but also the test lab.
Mike Sowers: Exactly.
Jennifer Bonine: For people out there who haven't joined in on that virtually which you can, why don't you tell us a little bit about that?
Mike Sowers: Yeah, the test lab. Everybody loves the test lab. There are games. Really, it's all about challenging yourselves to improve your problem solving skills, what I call your forensic investigation skills as testers who are always trying to find out what isn't working. We need to keep those skills sharp. At the test lab of course, it's open pretty much all the time while the sessions are going on. If you just need a quick break from all the input that you're getting, you can go to the test lab. It's kind of a lounge setting. We've got several games laid out there that are challenge games. We've got a humanitarian toolbox.
By the way, the virtual audience, you can actually log in to the humanitarian toolbox right from your own desk. You can do some testing there. You can identify defects. You can submit those defects. What we're doing there is to both practice our test skills but also make a societal contribution to ensuring that site is as well run.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, which is awesome. I mean, if you think about that. Taking a site or a nonprofit organization and helping them actually better what they're doing and everyone can get involved in it and you're using your skills at the same time. Even if you're out there, I know, the conference chairs have mentioned that they will be putting this out in the lounge. If you're watching out there and you know how to get to the lounge, they'll have the link out there but you can go out there and participate. Of course, there's prizes for good defects and things like that. Even though you're virtual, you still get to participate in all of that. Definitely go do that.
Mike Sowers: Back to the participation part. Quite often, you'll have the speakers stop by the test lab as well.
Jennifer Bonine: Yes, they're there.
Mike Sowers: It's just so impromptu.
Jennifer Bonine: You'll see them sitting there.
Mike Sowers: You get like another set of information flowing out of the speakers because they sit down in test lab and say, "Let's try this. Let's try this." You learn something there as you're observing and participating in the test lab.
Jennifer Bonine: I think what's neat about these conferences too is you see that real interaction of various people from different industries, different organizations, different levels of understanding and knowledge. You will see people that are new in testing. I know I saw a lot of comments out there because some of the virtual folks maybe new to this or they haven't done this long. The nice part is there's a lot of access to people who've done it a really long time and then the folks even that have done it a long time love getting access to new testers because we all have different perspectives based on what we've done and where we've come from.
For folks that don't know your background, Mike, I think it's interesting for them to hear. You've kind of come from that leadership standpoint and being an executive in an organization. A lot of folks out there go, "How do I talk to those executives? What do they need to know? What do I need to tell them? What metrics are important to them?" Maybe you could speak a little bit to how do we talk to executives and sell that message of the importance of what we're doing.
Mike Sowers: Sure. I started actually as a tester right out of school. I was like a co-op student. I had the advantage of learning, first of all, hardware testing, and then software testing. Tried my hand at programming. I always tell everybody I wasn't very good at programming. I'm back to testing because I wanted to see the whole picture. But I made a lot of mistakes along the way about really talking more about my practice and the metrics of my practice, like the number of test cases I had, the number of defects that I identify, the number of things that were automated, or the number of test design versus plan versus available versus ... all those things that we think about from a testing community. From that executive's perspective, as you know, Jennifer, just really don't resonate.
Jennifer Bonine: No.
Mike Sowers: When I talk about metrics and we mentor and coach testers from a metrics perspective, I always draw a kind of this V, or inverted triangle. It's me or my organization at the bottom, and then from there, we want to draw the linkage up. Ultimately to the department to maybe the business unit and then to the company or organization itself. If we cannot draw our metrics that we're measuring from a test perspective and directly link that to the business contribution that we're making and then from a language perspective, put that in business terms, usually that's about the risk. How am I helping to drive down the risk?
Jennifer Bonine: What keeps them up at night? Put yourself I think in their shoes too. What are those leaders worrying about? What concerns them? What is going to resonate with them in terms of how are you helping me take care some of that risks that I'm worried about?
Mike Sowers: Exactly.
Jennifer Bonine: How are you measuring that and what level of check are you doing so I feel more comfortable?
Mike Sowers: Executives say things in many different ways and many different companies but to me it sort of rolls up to three things that you and I talked about before. It's faster, better, cheaper. You can put a lot of words around that.
Jennifer Bonine: Right, that's what I like.
Mike Sowers: But they're faster, better, cheaper. That's what executives want. How are you contributing to my business or my organization from a faster, better, cheaper?
Jennifer Bonine: Right. Exactly. I know you did a session here on metrics and talking about those concepts. If people want some more information or more detail about ... I don't think I'm capturing the right things. It's not resonating. People aren't listening. I need to get them new or different information. Are there places you would encourage them to go or resources to tap into for them to be able to get more information on that?
Mike Sowers: Yeah, I think there are a lot of good books there. The one that comes to mind for me, I think it was Steve McConnell actually did a good job in this area of talking about metrics from a software engineering perspective. I hope I've got that right but pretty sure I got that on my notes. Steve McConnell wrote a book on software engineering metrics. That's just one thing that comes to mind. The other is I always encourage people to not do metrics in the backend. You really have to have the conversation with your key stakeholders on what's important to them, how do they want to hear and understand it. Kind of my first go-to resource is what do you weigh from a key stakeholder perspective. All right. Now, once I understand that, now then I can probably set my metrics up to feed into that.
Jennifer Bonine: So getting that collaboration. Just like with agile, opening up the dialog, the discussion, inclusiveness in what we're doing, don't do it by yourself, involve those stakeholders.
Mike Sowers: Collaboration, collaboration.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, collaboration, collaboration. Absolutely, with all of that. Now, what are you seeing in terms of ... your other role, if people don't realize, is a key part of the TechWell organization, which puts on the conferences here. What are you guys seeing as an organization in terms of hot topics or trends that are kind of emerging in our space? Because every year, when you come to these conferences, you kind of get the new things that are bubbling at the top of mind for people in the industry. What are you hearing this year around some of the topics that are kind of coming up as top of mind for folks?
Mike Sowers: I'm sure you've talked about them before but it's kind of interesting as I reflect on this. In the '50s and '60s when we started in software engineering, everybody did everything. We didn't have these separate roles like developer, designer, BA or tester, whatever. I'm probably dating myself. But anyway, I was only four years old in ...
Jennifer Bonine: You were worried about software testing engineering at four.
Mike Sowers: Just so you're clear, that's right. Then somehow, over the decades, I don't know whether that was efficiency or effectiveness or whatever, as organizations grew, we started to separate these roles. Then we had different departments and blah, blah, blah, and as we know, stove pipes grew up.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, got created.
Mike Sowers: Now then we're coming around to agile and agile's about collapsing that, having that collaboration, have this team work together and I think if you look at things from a process perspective from the time the software is thought about or created from the time that it goes into production, we're trying to collapse more and more of that. Agile ate away at a little bit of that. Now, of course the new term is DevOps.
Jennifer Bonine: DevOps.
Mike Sowers: Now, we're trying to bring in DevOps.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, and eat away at that.
Mike Sowers: Eat away at that. We're trying to collapse those stove pipes and those processes and those functions and that type of things and do a lot more in parallel which of course is more challenging. Obviously all the technology things around cloud and mobile and the Internet of Things is ...
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, we're hearing a lot more on that.
Mike Sowers: A lot more about that. Devices being deployed everywhere. Then, I think, agile and DevOps.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, it was interesting. We talked to Jeff yesterday about agile versus DevOps because there's a lot of terms that get thrown around when they're new. People start to get confused and aren't sure what it means. Do you do one or the other? Do they work together? There's a lot of question around that. I think another thing for people to note as a resource to them besides just these conferences, the virtual interviews, the keynotes that they get, TechWell site has a lot of information, articles, things like that to help be a resource to clarify for people some of these things that are bubbling up now.
Mike Sowers: That's right. We got a great community there. I mean, obviously you have resources but our speakers, we got contributors. You in the virtual audience can even contribute. I write an article once a month. Many of the other speakers do that. If you're subscribed to our list, the TechWell site are great, StickyMinds is another great site. The AgileConnection site. CMCrossroads if you're interested in configuration management. The reason we sort of move to the name TechWell, we could think about it as a wealth of information.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, that people connects us.
Mike Sowers: A well of information.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, which is a great place for people to go to. It's hard to believe our time goes so fast. But if people want to contact you, get more information, what's the best way to find you, Mike?
Mike Sowers: Sure. On email, I'm available at [email protected]. I'm also on LinkedIn at Michael Sowers. On Twitter, @MichaelSowers4, I think it is. I didn't know there were other four of me, but anyway.
Jennifer Bonine: Right, but pick number 4.
Mike Sowers: The only other thing I wanted to mention real quick is the advantage of attending the conference and also attending preconference training.
Jennifer Bonine: Yes, so important if people don't know about that.
Mike Sowers: Right. If I spend a minute on that because I think that's really good. A lot of people really like the fact that there are training courses prior to beginning the conference. I think we had something like twenty five different courses that started on Sunday and went through Tuesday, depending on how long they were. But from a travel perspective, from an efficiency perspective.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, you get both.
Mike Sowers: Sort of getting it all done perspective, a time away from your job, that front end preconference training is available. We're seeing the numbers of the preconference training go up.
Jennifer Bonine: Increase.
Mike Sowers: Therefore, that also allows the conference numbers to go up too.
Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, flowing into the conference. Great point. Check that out. You can see some of the preconference trainings. Those will be offered again at Star West coming up in October. Definitely look at that. You can kind of take care of two things at once.
Mike Sowers: Exactly.
Jennifer Bonine: You can get your training plus your conference, get it all done like you said, optimize the travel budget. Think about that. Mike, thanks for joining us. It's been great.
Mike Sowers: Always a pleasure, always a pleasure.
Jennifer Bonine: Thank you. Stay tuned for more interviews.
TechWell’s IT director Mike Sowers has more than twenty-five years of practical experience as a global quality and test leader of internationally distributed test teams across multiple industries. Mike is a senior consultant, skilled in working with both large and small organizations to improve their software development, testing, and delivery approaches. He has worked with companies including Fidelity Investments, PepsiCo, FedEx, Southwest Airlines, Wells Fargo, ADP, and Lockheed to improve software quality, reduce time to market, and decrease costs. With his passion for helping teams deliver software faster, better, and cheaper, Mike has mentored and coached senior software leaders, small teams, and direct contributors worldwide.