Friday, April 30, 2010

Does Being Part of a Community Make You a Better Tester?

“You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” – Charles “Tremendous” Jones

For most of the time I have been involved in testing, I have basically just done what I needed to do. It’s not that I don’t enjoy testing, I do, but often, it seems like I have just gotten into a mode of firefighting and doing everything I can to cover my bases and fight the fires. It’s only been in the last year that I finally sat down, took a look at what I was doing and said to myself “am I going where I really want to go? Do I even really know where I want to go?”
To borrow a little bit of Steven Covey, this state is what he refers to as being in “the thick of thin things”. My director and I discussed this challenge, and he put it in a great perspective. When we create or test code, it’s way too easy to get caught up in the tasks of “getting it done” and “getting it out the door”; people tend to lose track of where they ultimately want to go.

When I was taking stock of what I wanted to do and how to determine where I wanted to go next, I couldn’t help but compare my paths through Scouting and Snowboarding (to anyone who reads these posts in the future, you will just have to get used to the fact that Scouting and Snowboarding analogies will appear very often in the things that I write. Outside of my family and my church, Scouting, Snowboarding, and Software Testing are the things that most occupy my time, attention and passions).

When I first started as a Scouting leader, back in 1993, I did it because it was something I was asked to do by my church. I was willing to do it, but I did it because I was asked to. At the time, I didn’t have kids, and while I enjoyed working with the program, I didn’t really go out of my way to do all that I could do. I felt I did a pretty good job, enough to keep me active for 6 years, but I was just one of many scout leaders, and I didn’t really stick out. This changed when my son was old enough to become a Tiger Cub himself, back in 2002. Once my son became a scout, my entire approach to how I approached scouting changed. Now, I wanted to make sure that I did all of the essential trainings, I wanted to attend roundtable so I would know what was happening in the council. Through this, I met other adult leaders, developed friendships with them, learned from them, and ultimately started teaching and interacting with others. Through this, my game as a scout leader got better and better, to the point where I now participate as a staffer for various scouting activities throughout the council as well as staffing the top level training we offer to Scout leaders, a program called Wood Badge.

Back when I first started snowboarding, in 1994, I had fun going up with friends, just tooling around and riding wherever I wanted to, hanging out with some friends here and there. It was fun, and I got to be a pretty good level rider, but it wasn’t until 1998, when my company decided to field a competitive snowboard team, that I felt something come alive in me. It was that series of races, with a broader community of snowboarders, many of them lots better than me, that I developed a drive to improve. Through that, I was introduced to the USASA, and to the South Lake Tahoe Snowboard Series, which frankly produces some of the greatest snowboarders in the world. I competed for a number of years in the Master’s division, and made some of the greatest connections with some of the greatest people I’ve ever known. My ability as a snowboarder honestly tripled over the course of seven years. While I would never consider myself an Olympic caliber competitor (hah, not even close!), I did have some success with racing and freestyle events, and I won a fair share of medals competing against a great group of peers over many years.

What was the driver in these cases? Was I a different person? Nope, same guy, but something fundamental had changed. The people I was interacting with were the ones that were encouraging me to up my game. Their enthusiasm helped me develop enthusiasm. Their ability helped me develop my ability, and their passion helped develop my passion. So what does this have to do with testing? A lot, actually! Many of us working in an organization may find that we are just going through the motions, were just “doing stuff” because it’s what we need to do. We get in, we find out the most pressing thing that day, we take care of it, and we move on. What happens when we work with other people who are in the same mind set? Where does one go to get inspired? One goes to the community and finds inspiration. When you are hard pressed to find a mentor in your current situation, you need to look elsewhere for that mentor. Sometimes it will be a co-worker, sometimes a manager or senior staffer at your current company. Other times it may well be to reach out to people you worked with previously. Many times, I have found mentors just by looking on the web and trying to find information. I was introduced to Randy Rice because I was curious to see if there was a software testing podcast or two out there. Turns out Randy had made 20 of them, and I’ve listened to each and every one of them, some of them several times. Through these podcasts, I’ve also learned about and found writings and podcasts from many other contributors. Through looking at Software Test and Performance magazine, I discovered a lot of other testers that write, speak, and present on testing topics. Getting familiar with these people and their writing and teaching, I myself became inspired to look at my own testing and my approach to it.

In short, the testing community, just like the scouting community and the snowboarding community, has encouraged me to up my game more than any other incentive. Knowing that people I admire and respect in my industry have actually taken the time to look at what I’m doing and offer encouragement, that’s huge to me! It’s given me the drive and the desire to learn more, do more, and go farther with testing than I have to date. To reference the quote at the top of this article, I firmly believe that the people that you interact with will determine how far you will go and what will inspire you. If your current team isn’t inspiring you to up your game, seek those who will encourage you to do so. Note, I am not saying that you need to leave your company or get a different job to up your game, but you may need to reach out to others to find those will inspire you. The cool thing is, you may find that your enthusiasm will carry over to others, too, and with time, you may well be the one that inspires. I’ve had people in the Scouting world tell me that. I’ve had snowboarders tell me that. Frankly, nothing would be cooler to someday get a letter or a comment from a tester somewhere that says “thank you for your example, insights, encouragement and enthusiasm… you changed my game!” It truly is my hope to get to the point where I can do exactly that.

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