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STPCon: Stepping up to leadership in software testing

SSQ’s Software Test expert Pete Walen talks about the importance of test leadership and how every one of us can be a leader. Read on for ideas and insights into how to best gain professional development skills by learning, teaching and interacting with others in the profession.

What is it that makes a leader? Do leaders set out to become a leader? I expect some of them do. Other people find themselves being leaders without intending to be.     

When I think of leaders, I think of people who colleagues turn to because they know that person might be able to help them with a problem. Most of the people I think of as “real leaders” found themselves, by chance, coincidence or fortune, in situations where others turned to them. Sometimes they step up and act because it needs to be done.    

Start by deciding to start

Sometimes we feel like we don’t fit in. It may be a feeling of discontent where we simply are not satisfied with what is around us. We might take a new job to try and find the excitement we’re missing. Sooner or later that same feeling comes back. 

When we decide we have had enough, we can break that cycle. To do that, we must decide to start, and then actually start. That is the first hurdle to overcome. Starting is more than taking steps to make you better at you job or making you more valuable to your company. It is making you more valuable to you. It is becoming a tradesperson and craftsperson instead of a laborer.

You may have opportunities become available to you if you are open to them. Learning to recognize them is part of deciding to start.     

Study and self-education

Training through our employers or other sources such as a community college may help give us a foundation. Remember that foundations are something to build on. The cool thing is that you can make your own foundation.

Blogs, online articles, testing forums, and sites such as all can provide information and ideas. Books and magazines are good, and many are available for downloading to e-readers for convenience. Ideas from a variety of sources can give information that contradicts other sources or what we have been doing on the job. It is part of learning our craft. Finding ideas and concepts for us to consider, even if we ultimately reject them, is also important learning.

Finding a mentor

There may not be a world famous tester to guide you. However, there may be someone in the office or the same town you are in who you can go to and ask questions of. Ask them for help. Ask them to be your mentor. 

When reading blogs or articles, some ideas may stand out from the rest. Look for those tester-writers whose work contains worthwhile information in each article. Drop them a line, and let them know you appreciate their work and you learned from it. Ask if you can ask them questions. Many will be glad to help when they can. Congratulations, you found a mentor. 

One really important consideration: we are allowed more than one mentor.

Building relationships

Along with mentors, an equally important step is finding people who share our interest in learning about testing. They don't need to work for the same company or even in the same city or town that we do. Look at online forums and join in the conversations. There may be other participants you can exchange ideas with and help each other learn.

The testing community is fairly small in most regions. We all know people who work at other companies. Some of them are testers, know testers or work with testers. Get in touch with them and bounce the idea around about getting together and talking about testing.  

It is possible, almost probable, that there will be remarkably bright people who know more than we do. That is not just OK, it is great! People with different experiences and understanding provide valuable insight into what we are learning.

Be patient, grow and nurture your network. While we are learning, others in the group can provide critical support, encouragement and insight to our learning. We may find that others reach out to join us in learning while asking for help themselves.

Helping others while you learn

None of us need to be an expert to help others learn. Simply sharing what we have learned and our experiences along the way is vitally important to others.

One important way to share this learning is to write about it. Writing about our experience as testers, our learning experiences and discoveries, is a huge aspect of sharing our ideas and helping others. 

This does not need to be magazine articles or books. Starting a blog is a good way to begin. It gives us practice writing for other people to read. There are many no-cost options available for blogs. Use your favorite search engine to find one you are comfortable with.

As you gain confidence in your own writing and when you are ready to share it, get feedback. Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media can help get the message out. Sign up and let people know that you have a blog! 

It is more than acceptable in your writing if you express you own reservations about your experiences. You can say, "Yes, I did this, but I had people helping me." The fact is, you did it, and now you can help others as you were helped.

Achieving things you never thought you could

Things that you once would not do or could not do can become the norm. With each success, celebrate with those who helped you on your path. Other people may turn to you and seek advice on things you have not thought about. Still others may ask you to help them with their problems, even if it is only to talk with them while having coffee or tea.

Talk with your network about learning and doing more. Look for workshops or local conferences to attend and participate in. Participate in a conference? Really? YES! 

Conferences, even small local ones, need all sorts of help. From running errands, arranging for transportation of speakers, setting up tables or displays or any number of things.  Usually such work can be done in exchange for admission to the conference sessions. 

There is another way you can help at conferences or workshops: offer to speak. Lightning talks are great ways to begin speaking, particularly if you do not have much practice with public speaking. Each conference has its own guidelines and requirements for topics and proposals. 

When you stand up to speak the first time, your next phase of learning begins. 

Being a leader

Think of the leaders of our craft. All of them began looking to learn more. All of them started somewhere. They were all where we are now.

Whether you have the title “leader” or not is irrelevant. No one designates you a leader in the truest sense. As you discover what you can do, other people will turn to you for advice and help. You will find yourself being labeled a “leader.”

The process of learning becomes the process of leading. Both are continuous and never finished. There are always new areas to explore and new ideas to consider. The more that is learned, the more there is to be learned.  

Keep learning and keep leading.

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