Wednesday, November 14, 2012

TESTHEAD REDUX: Testing's "Lone Gunfighters"

Image URL: The Old Gunfighter
As I was first trying to design TESTHEAD and figure out what would be the core point, I played with a lot of different ideas. What could I really offer to the community? What would be my niche? What could I speak to differently than anyone else out there? There were a lot of us talking about changes to how we test, to looking at Agile practices, to integrating development and testing, and touching on testing automation, but I wasn't seeing the way I could add any kind of a fresh voice to those discussions. About a week in, though, I came across what was, really, the one thing that I could speak to very directly, and in a lot of different ways. That topic was what it feels like to be the sole tester in an organization.

Before I standardized on the term "The Lone Tester" (yep, it kinda' sounds like The Lone Ranger, so I ultimately went with that slightly poetic moniker) I played with lots of different terms and names. Regardless of what I called myself, though, the reality was the same. For all practical purposes, I was alone in my testing efforts. How did that shape me then? How does it shape me now?

THEN:

When the situation of the “Lone Gunfighter” happens, testing takes on an interesting hue. Now, it’s all on you, and when you are the last line of defense, you really are all there is between the product getting out into the wild and bad things potentially happening. Sobering is a good word for this situation.

NOW:

I'd say the big difference between then and now is the fact that, for all intents and purposes, I've put down the cudgel of "it's all on me". It may seem that way, but it's really not. In an Agile organization, there are other people testing, not just me. My role is that of the sole person whose primary responsibility is testing. For everyone else, it's a peripheral activity, but I've stopped believing that I'm the only one actively testing in the organization. What's more, I've dropped the conceit that I'm the only one qualified to test. That's an insult to the programmers, who to be honest can do quite solid testing, and think of things I don't.

THEN:

Many times, we can feel like we have no direction, or that we are being barked at to get this or that accomplished, with little to no support from others. By putting yourself into the mode of consultant, you change the relationship. Now you are providing a service to a customer, and in this case, the development team and the ones purchasing or using the product are your customers. When the development team becomes a customer and your goal is to provide top notch service to that costumer, your entire mindset and focus changes.

NOW:

I still see a lot of truth in that mindset, more so than I did when I first wrote about it, because in many ways, in the organizations I've been part of, I've often been held apart from the programming team. I'm not entirely sure if that was by design or by circumstance, but there is a sense that there are a lot of people who believe that testing should not become too "chummy" with the programmers. By being held as separate, like a service provider to the team, that "respectful distance" is maintained. Again, I've heard that many have gone beyond that relationship and have had a more casual connection, but that hasn't quite been my experience. Not yet anyway :).

THEN:

Make sure that you define your role as clearly as possible, and what you feel the expectations for your contribution should be, and let them say what they feel it should be as well. This agreement may be formal and in writing, or it may be something discussed in meetings or between team mates. Either way, get it out there so everyone knows the expectation and can work to meet or exceed it.

NOW:

I agree with this more now than I did then. This can doom you if you get it wrong, or be your biggest ally if you get it right.What's also important is to regularly revisit this topic. Situations change, and different people have different opinions and attitudes. I had a period where I had three directors and all three directors had a different idea what my contribution should be. That's totally OK, but it also reinforces why it's important to consistently get those who you are working with to come to a consensus as to what your role and contribution should be, and what the team actually values. One director thought that my developing technical chops and programming skills would be the best use of my time. Another thought exploratory testing was of much higher priority. Both are valuable, both are important, but different people put different weight on certain things. Knowing that and working with that in mind can be a big help.

THEN:

Get over the us vs. them mentality: If you have no idea what this means, congratulations, you work at a company that “gets it”. If you are all too familiar with this mentality, make the first steps to change that dynamic. Testing and development are allies, they both have the same goal, to ship a product that has high quality and that will meet the needs of its customers. No other attitude is going to help that other than development and testing working together to help solve problems.

NOW:

Nothing to add to it, I believe this 100%, now and then.

THEN:

Accept that you will not be an expert in everything: You will have knowledge gaps, and at times those gaps will be huge, but you have to make a clear assessment of your strengths and weaknesses and put them out there. Yes, make them known, the strengths and the weaknesses. Also, make a game plan to overcome those weaknesses where possible and telegraph the fact that you are working to close those gaps.

NOW:

How ironic that I was talking then about my knowledge gaps, only to step into an environment where there were ten times more moving parts! Again, a Lone Tester will not know everything, they will not be able to be all things to all people on the team, unless they are an especially rare kind of superhero. I'm not that person.  That need not be a barrier to success, but it needs to be addressed seriously and honestly. If you have big goals of making huge strides in a particular domain, know you will have to devote a substantial amount of "private time" to make that happen (meaning off the clock). On the clock, don't be surprised if you find yourself juggling five balls at once, all day, every day.

THEN:

When you are Lone Gunfighter, you may be able to find someone who can help you in the development group, but often they may have limitations as well (especially around testing questions and issues). Reach out to other testers you have worked with and ask questions. I still have mentoring relationships with friends who were instrumental in my development over the past 20 years, and I also occasionally get asked questions as to something I have experience in. I believe it’s important to have a mentor and to be a mentor, so look for opportunities where this can be utilized. 

NOW:

Twitter and the testing blogosphere is the single biggest resource of ideas, inspiration, cheer-leading, coaching and mentoring that a Lone tester could hope for. I follow around 400 people that are involved with testing or are thought leaders in software testing and software development. So many breakthroughs with ideas and approaches have happened through discussions that take place on Twitter (especially those that I just read between other testers) that I feel I can go there and be "spiritually fed" daily. That's not a saccharine sentiment, I actually mean that. I'm amazed at the discussions and insights I have learned from other testers all over the world.


Post Script:

The irony to writing this update is that, as of last Friday, November 9, 2012, I made a decision to, for now, hang up my Lone Tester status. That will deserve a much more detailed blog post, and I will be writing that soon enough. Many of the thrills of that line of testing are also many of its more draining challenges, and for me personally, some of my reflections on these ideas and the way that things have been for the past decade has made me desire the interaction of a testing team, where I can interact with and bounce ideas off of other testers. Not just testers in the Twitter/blogoshere world, but testers I'm sitting with, interacting with, mentoring and being mentored by them. To that end, I'll be starting a new adventure with SocialText on Monday, November 19, 2012.
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