Gain better software testing skills: Practice what the pros preach

CAST Conference presentation on becoming a superstar tester provides insights into ways testers can further their careers. Well-known experts Michael Bolton and Matt Heusser share thoughts on becoming a 'go-to' person and working more efficiently.

CAST 2010 in Grand Rapids, Mich. attracts a very particular audience. They are innovative testers who go to great lengths to explore new methods and continually improve upon best practices for testing. Some of their methods might seem unorthodox, but none-the-less, everyone at CAST has ideas about how to improve testing and few are shy to share those ideas. Nancy Kelln's afternoon session was no different.

Kelln used a presentation format that was unusual. Her CAST session was conducted in the same fashion an Internet forum or bulletin board would be with conversation threads and anonymous users.

Each member of the audience was given oversized, colored index cards with numbers identifying them rather than using names. Cards were raised whenever a user had a point to contribute that related to the current discussion topic or "thread" as Kelln described it.

Kelln's session, titled Cutting the Mustard – Lessons Learned in Striving to Become a Superstar Tester, was used as a conversation aggregator that was reminiscent of an AA meeting just for testers. Attendees were encouraged to contribute their thoughts and experiences in testing that: a) Furthered their career; b) Helped further the careers of peers; c) Provided opportunities to mentor; or d) Enhance the testing experience as a whole. Each thread was meant to help define the goals and characteristics of superstar testers.

So what is a superstar tester? And what separates them from an ordinary, run-of- the-mill tester?

"Superstar testers practice what they preach. They find the best test paths and, in turn, share them throughout their organization," said Mike Balmer, a CAST attendee. "They become mentors to other testers. They write test improvement blogs which they use as vehicles to disperse information about testing."

Balmer's statement had many heads nodding in agreement. Regular SSQ contributor Matt Heusser added, "[Superstar testers want] to become the 'go to' person for all testing questions and solutions. They strive to be the guy that management says, 'we have to have him or her on this project.' It sounds good, but in corporate North America this can sometimes lead to trouble."

In becoming the "go to" person, you become a stand out, but it can also make you a part of the corporate foundation in not the most career-advancing of ways. When it's promotion time, some managers are reluctant to promote a tester they have become very comfortable with in a certain role. So what does this mean? Should testers just shoot for the middle? In short, no.

"Becoming the 'go to' is never a bad thing. Worst case scenario, you don't get a promotion, but the bright side is, you're still employed and likely you've solidified your place in the company. You've made yourself an asset, and assets are never cut and rarely held back for long," explained Kelln.

But there are other downsides in being the "go to" guy, she went on. "Sometimes 'go to's' are stretched paper thin. They are asked to perform in and outside of their comfort zone and on a large scale. They get pulled in many directions and need to find ways to manage their time more effectively and sharpen their skills all at once. They should also help to move their peers' skills forward; this will eventually decrease the company's reliance on a single person."

Michael Bolton, software test consultant, trainer and co-author of Rapid Software Testing, held his card high by the end of Kelln's speech. "Managers aren't able to pay full attention, and they are unable to watch everyone. At this realization, I learned a very valuable skill, 'disposable time.' Disposable time is time spent on things that aren't exactly on mission, but can be very useful. If I am able to invest my time well into a task and find a better, faster way to do it, than I've just freed up time to do some of my own exploration. I'm not cheating the company as they allotted me a certain amount of time to complete a task; if I beat the clock, than nothing is lost in me looking for new ways to do things better."

So what happens in a scenario where there isn't a single "go to" person?

In that situation, most of the testers in the audience agreed that diversity becomes very important. Heusser explained "Diversity really counts a lot. Organizations need diversity in testers, diversity in skills and abilities and diversity in individuals' knowledge and experience. Twitter helps me a lot in this regard, and it goes right along with Michael Bolton's 'disposable time' theory. If I don't know how to run a certain test on IE 6, I tweet my question and usually I have that test up and running within the hour."

The group agreed that in many corporate environments, Twitter usage would be frowned upon. But if proven to be an effective resource or tool, as it is for Heusser, there is no reason not to argue it. If you really aren't taking advantage then there is no reason not to.

To this Bolton added, "Well, Google has institutionalized a form of disposable time; they just call it an 'unsupervised work day.' Finding ways to do things more efficiently, adds value." No one could dispute that.

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