Thoughts on Professionalism

As a young lad growing up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay I would often spend part of my summer vacation from grade school helping my grandfather work the crab pots on the north shore. Now, don't think "Dangerous Catch," crabbing in the Chesapeake is much different than crabbing in Alaskan waters, although we did have our share of squalls and nor'easters that will humble any man. Crabbing is hard work, especially for a young boy. On one particular day working the pots with my grandfather I recall something he said which has stuck with me my entire life. The water was rough that day and we were being tossed around a bit. It was raining...not like the wimpy Seattle rain, I mean hard East coast rain that comes down in sheets with drops so large they hurt when they hit you. Even in the driving rain the smell of dead fish, rotten chicken pieces and turkey necks that we used for bait permeated everything, the slime of fish guts coated the decks making footing somewhat precarious, and the brine of the Chesapeake seeped into every little cut and nick on my hands. I wasn't having a lot of fun that day, and although my grandfather knew it he didn't say anything to me until I complained aloud. Now my grandfather was a tall, barrel-chested man with a stern face, and he never put up with any senseless, petty whining. But, instead of scolding me he simply said, "Son, we are not rich and there is no inheritance coming your way, so you better find a job you like doing." At first, I was a bit puzzled. What did that have to do with how I was feeling at the moment? But, I soon realized what he meant, and my grandfather's sage advice has stuck with me ever since and guided me in my career pursuits.

My father, who was also every bit as practical and pragmatic as my grandfather taught me the value of working hard, and the virtues of responsibility. He taught me to take pride in the things I did well, and take responsibility for things that didn't work out so well. My father also taught me never to quit, to always look at alternative options, and that the path of least resistance or the easy path through life is not always the best path to take. He also said if something was worth doing, do the very best you can do, and never sit back and rest on my laurels. My father was not the type of man to do something half-way, or 'good-enough.' One summer we built a new barn on our property. This wasn't the typical barn, instead my father got some telephone poles and even got his friend at the telephone company to bring out a truck with an auger to drill the holes 10 feet deep! Next we used oak planks between the stalls. Now hammering nails through oak is not easy business and the entire project took about 2 weeks. But, my father was adamant about not having to rebuild the walls of the stall if a horse tried to kick it down.

Practicality in practice

Now perhaps it was my upbringing, or perhaps it is my Myers-Briggs ISTP personality traits, but it is hard for me to understand how some people embark on a career, or pursue a job opportunity without knowing (or perhaps worse..completely ignoring the fact) that they will be challenged to continually improve their knowledge and skills everyday. This is especially true of many of our chosen profession of software testing. We work in a highly dynamic industry and we must continue to learn and develop new skills to meet the growing diversity and increasingly complex challenges that will potential advance the discipline as well as provide benefit to our employers.

Sure, we can whine and complain about the changes. We can point fingers, and otherwise express negative emotions and utter baseless, counter-productive propaganda slogans such as, "automation can't do such and such," or "I know non-coding testers who find more bugs than (fill in the blank here)" or the virtually inverse argument "tester's  who write code are biased and don't know how to think like an end-user." I learned a long time ago that although misery loves company, it is usually not those who whine the most or put forth pointless and petty gripes, or who only see the world through bi-polar, black and white lenses who drive meaningful change. Sure, it is easy to empathize with some people in some situations; but empathy without practical solutions to resolve the situation effectively is simply a pathetic play of the irresponsible victim card.

For example, we unfortunately often get mired down in a this vs. that, exploratory vs. scripted, or STE vs SDET debate that is generally too myopic (on my project… blah, blah, blah) and often counter-productive (meaningless comparisons, ridiculous measures such as raw bug count, and baseless assertions that lack empirical evidence to substantiate the claim, etc). There seems to be an opinion that if someone writes automation, or comes with a coding background then they are not good ‘exploratory’ or behavioral, or (and I hate using the phrase) “black-box” testers.  (All testers are “black-box testers!). Yet, some of the most talented testers I know in the industry began with very little in-depth knowledge of the ‘system’ or an understanding of programming concepts and applied themselves to  grow their knowledge and skills about the overall system and technologies to advance their careers, their teams, and the industry by taking on greater challenges. I also know highly talented testers with great industry experience and very strong coding backgrounds who are masters at explorative, behavioral,  or “black-box” testing.

So, for those of you who have been living in a cave, or have your head permanently implanted in the posterior end of your alimentary canal it is obvious the industry and the profession of software testing is changing and there is an increasing demand for greater system knowledge, experience, and technical skills for many testing positions in the industry. There are many reasons for these changes, and the simple fact is that the industry’s needs and strategic direction primarily dictate what skills and knowledge are required to remain competitive in the industry and advance the business.

Are ya' gonna lay there and bleed, or ya' gonna' cowboy up!?

Now, many people mistakenly assume that I only promote technical knowledge or advancement though increased technical skills. (Of course, many of these people are so narrow minded and biased they only equate 'technical knowledge and skill with 'coding' skills and programming knowledge.) I do talk about these subjects a lot because...well, they are directly related to our professional growth, and because I studied and interviewed thousands of testers to perform a skills gap analysis (delta between the disciplinary needs of the business in relation to the actual skills and knowledge of the existing workforce at the time). The skills gap analysis indicated that many people in the testing industry at the time were well-educated, intelligent people who were very capable of thinking critically about problems within the appropriate context. But, it also illustrated that a significant population in the testing profession at that time lacked in-depth knowledge of the system they were working and the technical skills to expand their own productivity or become more influential in driving product quality. So, as a manager and mentor it was (and is) my responsibility to help people understand changes based on the maturation of the industry and the profession, and to help them grow professionally, and that is the role I took on with great passion. I decided to focus on growing people's technical skills and knowledge, and their understanding of established, and contextually effective software testing processes.

One of my first public talks revolved around the idea that good-enough was simply not good enough any longer based on changing customer views and increasing maintenance costs. That was in 2003! In 2005, I presented empirical evidence suggesting that exploratory testing by 'presumable power-users' and 'domain experts' is not as effective as some claims, and I advised testers to begin thinking about the future and the increasing demand for testers with more in-depth system knowledge and technical skills to not only remain effective and productive in the industry, but to help drive it forward. Some people jeered me, and one respondent from the StarWest 2005 conference wrote "Bj is a fool, and his talk shows why Microsoft products suck and why Microsoft will fail" on the feedback forms. A few others said they agreed with the message, but they really didn't like hearing it out loud. One person told me "Yes, we know we need to improve, but your talk was like hitting us in the face with a frying pan full of hot grease."

I mention this not to "toot my own horn;" that is simply not my style, for I am yet a simple man who is still learning to improve myself. I only mention this because here we are 5 years later still arguing over petty things that we sometimes do not have the knowledge, skill, experience, business insight, scope of influence, or credibility to change.  (And in case you don't know, whining. griping, and emotional conjecture is simply not viewed as being very credible in trying to influence change in a room full of decision makers or business leaders.) Right now, the industry, and the testers in the industry need leaders to help them adjust to changes, provide strategic vision, and guide career growth that enables each person to be successful in their professional development and compete with their peers. Responsible leaders are those who face challenges head on, who put forth logical and rational arguments based on analysis and empirical evidence, but who continue to search for ways to solve not only the immediate problems, but also have the ability to envision potential side-effects and deal with those as well before they become problems.

Our profession is multi-dimensional, and as testers we must continually strive to increase our knowledge and our skills in order to take on new and exciting challenges in this dynamic and agile world of software testing. The path is not always easy, but it does provide many rewards to those who work in a job they truly enjoy.