I think this is a great question. It's specific, which makes it easy to start answering, but it's also general enough that anyone who is interested in specializing in something within software testing should be able to pull something from the answer. I think there are three overarching dynamics to your question:
Continuing to learning about performance testing
The activity that you have the most control over is your own learning. I've been studying and doing performance testing for eight years, and I honestly still learn something new about performance testing almost every week. It's a deep and rich specialization in software testing. There's a lot to performance testing that still needs to be formalized and written down. It's still a growing body of knowledge.
If your dream is performance testing, then you need to continue to learn. Reading articles, blogs, books and tool documentation is a good place to start. Attending conferences, training, workshops and local groups is a great place to meet others who have similar passions. If you don't have opportunities like those, then join one of the many online communities where performance testers have a presence. Depending on your learning style, dialog and debate can be as great a teacher as reading, if not greater.
Finally, no learning is complete without practice. I'm so passionate about the topic of practice that I wrote an entire article on it (you can find it here). Many of the materials you read will include exercises. Work through them. Many of the conferences, training, and workshops you attend will show examples. Repeat them. Going through the work on your own, even if you already know the outcome, provides a different kind of learning. Some people learn best when the experience is hands-on.
For performance testing, I think a great place to start practicing is in the open source community. Given the nature of performance testing, most tool knowledge is transferable to other performance testing tools. Learning multiple open source tools will also give you different ideas for how you can solve a performance testing problem. Many times, our available tools anchor our thinking about how to approach the problem. If you've practiced with multiple tools, you're more likely to have variety in your test approaches and solutions.
Once you know how to use a couple of performance testing tools, if you can't seem to get the project work you need at your current employer, and you're unwilling or unable to leave for another opportunity, then I recommend volunteering your time. There are a lot of online communities that help connect people who want to volunteer their technical talents to nonprofits or other community-minded organizations. Finding project work outside of your day job can be just as valuable as formal project work.
Start marketing your skills and abilities
If you're serious about performance testing as a career, I recommend you start pulling together some marketing material. A resume is the place most people focus their limited marketing skills. That could be a good place for you to start as well. What story does your resume tell a potential employer? Is it that you're a performance tester? How has each of your past experiences helped you develop a specific aspect of performance testing? Remember, one of the great challenges performance testing presents to practitioners is its variety. That makes it easy to relate a variety of experiences to the skills a performance tester needs.
Don't forget to include your training on your resume. I've had to remind several people of classes they've attended, workshops they participated in, or people who have been an active member of an online community for years and have not included that on their resume. If it helps you tell the story of your expertise, get it on there. Include anything that shows an employer that you're passionate about performance testing and you're continuously learning more about it.
Depending on the types of companies you want to work for, or the types of projects you might want, a certification might be appropriate. Certifications relevant to performance testing aren't just performance testing tool certifications. Appropriate certifications may also come in the form of programming languages (e.g., Java certification), networking (e.g., CCNA), application servers (e.g., WebSphere administrator certification), databases (e.g., Oracle certification), or even a certification in the context you want to work in (e.g., CPCU certification if you want to work in the Insurance industry). I'm not normally a big fan of certifications, but they are clear marketing products.
Finally, I think the best way to market yourself is to write. Start by being active in an online community. Answer questions on forums or debate ideas on mailing lists. As you learn, catalog your learning in a blog so others can benefit from your hard work. If you feel you're really starting to understand a specific aspect of performance testing, try writing an article or paper on it (for example, email your idea to an editor at SearchSoftwareQuality.com -- they'll point you in the right direction for help if you need it). Present your idea at a conference or workshop. The more of a public face you develop by writing, the more you learn. My experience has been that people are very vocal in their feedback on what you write. You should get to learn a lot. Even if you don't become the next Scott Barber, when a potential employer Googles your name, they'll quickly see that you know something about performance testing and have a passion for it.
Align your project work with performance testing activities
Even if you can't get performance testing projects at your current employer, you can still get project work that relates to performance testing. Does your team test Web services? See if you can get involved; it will get you experience with XML, various protocols and, often, specialized tools. Does your team test databases? See if you can get involved; it will get you experience with SQL and managing large datasets. Does your team write automated tests? See if you can get involved; it will get you experience programming and dealing with the problems of scheduled and distributed tests. Does your team do risk-based testing? See if you can get involved; it will get you experience modeling the risk of an application or feature and teach you how to make difficult choices about which tests to run. I could go on with more examples. Take your current opportunities and make them relevant for learning more about performance testing.
If you can't get your own performance testing project, ask if you can work with someone else. What if you volunteer some of your time? What if you work under someone else's supervision for a while? Work with your current manager to understand what factors are preventing them from giving you the opportunity. Perhaps they can't give you the opportunity for a number of reasons out of their direct control. Perhaps they can, they just haven't given it enough attention. After a conversation where you try to figure it out with them, you should have an idea of what opportunities are available at that company. Just recognize that sometimes you have to leave for different opportunities. If you do that, make sure you're clear with your new employer as to what your expectations are.
I hope that's helpful. Your question is a great one, and I feel like it covers a general concern software testers have. The general form of the answer is the same for people who might want to specialize in security testing, test automation, Web service testing, test management, or any other aspect of testing where there can be specialization. Stay focused on your learning and development, actively market your knowledge and abilities, and work to align your work with your goals -- even if that means taking projects outside of the specialization to help you develop a specific skill.
This was first published in April 2008