Sunday, 30 December 2018

On Being Called a Testing "Expert" or "Guru"

About a year ago someone contacted me on LinkedIn to thank me for a talk I did last year on test data  frameworks for automated UI tests. His words were "Thanks.. You're a Test Automation Guru!"

I was a bit stunned, although of course flattered and honoured, by this. The person who contacted me had about ten years of experience in UI test automation with what appeared to be a wide range of tools. I had between three and four years on and off, using a smaller motley of tools and frameworks from the rather redundant White Framework for .NET to Selenium (to good and bad results), along with being reasonably competent at knocking out code in C#, Java and Python. The difference between he and I is that I once had to solve some problem by using a very easy specimen test generation framework written by someone else off the internet and then got invited to speak at a few conferences on it. Much of my career (including my last few projects until changing jobs) has been in manual (or very limited automation) testing gigs. To me, he was the "guru"!

Not long after that I got a notification on Twitter that somebody had added me to a list of "Testing Thought Leaders". My first thought was "Have they confused me with someone else?"

In the last project before my current job I mentioned in the interview that I spoke at a few conferences and have a blog on testing. After I was appointed, in the first month or so I had at least three or four of my fellow testers telling me (in a quite reverential tone) that they heard I am a famous testing "guru" or "expert" and that they were desperate to learn from me. I downplayed it, saying that I had a blog and had done a few talks at conferences and meetups on testing - that was all. While I was lauded as particularly good at spotting and raising defects I don't believe that my performance in that place was vastly better than those of my colleagues who had never been to much less spoken at a testing conference, or blogged or tweeted obsessively about testing as I do.

The idea of being considered an "expert" or "guru" in tech or even testing is quite unsettling. I'm a long way from being considered a well-known and respected name in the testing industry - much less the next James Bach, Michael Bolton, Angie Jones or Rex Black. I'm not sure that even the really big names in our industry are comfortable to wear the title of "guru", such a loaded term as it is. Nobody has some irreproachable insight into achieving quality in all situations - there are no gods in this industry - and there are as many exceptions as there are rules.

Whilst I would imagine that being called an "expert" or "guru" provides benefits in having testers respect your opinions, getting gigs as a consultant or contractor, writing high-selling books or being invited as a keynote speaker to any number of conferences and seminars, it also comes with enormous expectation. In my last gig, while being labelled a "guru" by my colleagues I was petrified of making mistakes or stating an opinion that could be wrong or challenged. I also felt as if I needed to continually promote new ideas in meetings and be seen to be "cutting edge", regardless of the state of the testing processes, the resources available or whether people were capable of or interested in acting on those ideas.

The idea that some people may consider me as a "guru" or testing "thought leader" (as opposed to how I see myself as someone who just has ideas and likes to talk about testing topics, caveat emptor) has sometimes resulted in my censoring what I write about in this blog or post on Twitter - the idea being that if my thoughts and writings are not completely polished then I will be judged accordingly and should refrain from posting them.

I consider myself a good tester with an interest and active involvement in the field, however the field of testing and the fields it touches upon (development, devops, process management, reporting etc.) are so vast and change so rapidly that even in my ten years of working in the field I only know a small amount. I am about as much an expert as we are all - experts of the specific areas and projects that touched upon our own experience and interests at the times we did them - and our knowledge and our relevance becomes more redundant by the passing day  - a quite intimidating and humbling fact that I related to in my first "Tester Mid-Line Crisis" article. Self-study does help to counteract this and keep one relevant, however without the opportunity to put what you study into practice in a work context (a struggle I have had in some projects) it only gets one so far.

I also think if we put those who have had the privilege to speak at conferences and who write blogs one the pedestal of "testing experts" or "gurus" then we intimidate newcomers who want to do the same - many of whom are more than capable to adding great advice and perspective. James Bach, in his 2002 StickyMinds article "Becoming a Testing Expert" describes it so -

"What we're left with, a lot of times, are candidates who are overconfident in their ability to find good bugs. The same holds true for conference speakers. I've met dozens of interesting people at conferences who have helpful advice and interesting experiences. But when I encourage them to get up and speak or to write an article, most of them say, "Well, I'm not an expert. I don't know the right answers. I haven't read all the books." Valuable insight thus remains bottled up inside the self-skeptical minds of many excellent testers, while too many people who do speak and write could stand to put their ideas through a little more testing."

This is a shame as nobody is ever the polished article at the beginning (I am nowhere near it now) and testing as a profession and practice gains much from its diversity of background, experience and opinion. Saying that, what I have seen and quite liked in testing conferences is less of speakers relaying grand, abstract ideas in the style of university lecturers and more speakers talking about and critiquing the application of various testing practices in their environments, projects and teams - along with what they learned. In this vein, we are all experts in our part and have something others can gain from.

Monday, 24 December 2018

The Fear of Age and Irrelevancy - On the Tester's Midlife Crisis (1)

I have managed some notable achievements this year which I am proud of. I have spoken at three conferences (to mixed responses admittedly), been invited as a guest onto a couple of podcasts and got a new job with great colleagues that I am very happy with - only my third employer in testing in a ten year career. Thay was after seven years working for a really good testing consultancy on various projects.

However despite the achievements above I am just as uncertain about my career and progress as before. My father, who I was the main carer for was battling cancer for the past year, sadly passing away on the 3rd December. In order to look after and be there for him I stood down from various activities and roles I was proud of - notably my co-chair role in the Sydney Testers Meetup and my blog and test automation live stream. I also withdrew from my postgrad studies in CS for a semester, my second withdrawal in 18 months - delaying my graduation by a year.

My Worries Set In

I don't begrudge any of the above - one's family is invariably more important than one's job, extracurricular test-related activities and university studies - however I do feel angst about it. Angst that I am getting older and my technical skills in testing (learning Postman aside) haven't developed in the past year. Angst that everything is changing and my experience is no longer relevant - a redundant dinosaur. Angst that there are so many tools and techniques I haven't learned or had much commercial experience in - Devops, CI/CD, NoSQL, Protractor, mobile automation etc.

Angst that in a tech industry that values - even fetishises - youth and dynamism and where change can wipe out the benefits of experience in a heartbeat, I feel close to being seen as "past it" and "over the hill" as I imminently approach my 40s - to be replaced by younger hotshots on the cutting edge of testing.

Is this just Paul's paranoia getting to him? Maybe. However anecdotally, in chatting with Sydney Testers and conference attendees I have come across similar angst in others. Testers in their middle age concerned about being left on the scrapheap or not finding a job at all, or alternatively desperate to learn automation even if they don't like programming particularly. I have spoken to a few who have noticed their colleagues being younger, more technically skilled, clued up on the latest buzzwords and willing to put in long hours. Sydney, Australia where I live is about as brutal and competitive a tester job market as you can find with 300-400 job applications per advertised role a routine occurrence.

I have also come across people around my age and older who are greatly dissatisfied or apathetic with testing. They feel that they aren't getting anywhere in their careers or are tired of the constant learning to stay relevant. They feel that they are being poorly treated or paid much less than their developer colleagues even though they all work in the same teams. They hate the low status of testing compared to other areas of software development. They regret not choosing other employers or doing something else earlier.

A Tester's Mid-Life Crisis?

Within the past month, and especially with the inevitable introspection arising from my father's death,  I have begun to think of the above as a sort of tester's mid-life crisis - a career or professional identity crisis caused by one's approach to middle age. What are the features of a mid-life crisis?

According to Wikipedia, typical career related mid-life crisis symptoms may be -

  • a deep sense of remorse for goals not accomplished
  • a fear of humiliation among more successful colleagues
  • longing to achieve a feeling of youthfulness
  • ennui, confusion, resentment or anger due to their discontent with their marital, work, health, economic, or social status
  • ambitious to right the missteps they feel they have taken early in life

The term "Mid-Life Crisis" itself is contentious. Evidence that it exists at a grand scale at all or the ages when it starts is mixed. According to this article it happens anywhere between between the ages of about 37 and 50.

While it is anecdotal and not scientific there is some evidence that the particular nature of the tech industry makes things worse and harder. This article in KrAsia uses the stories of various high fliers in the Chinese tech industry where long hours and high pressure, ageism, rapid change arising from company acquisition and restructuring and resulting periods of unemployment forced them into a mid-life crisis while in their mid to late 30s. This article in CNBC, following on a from a post on Quora, reports that Silicon Valley tech staff even no more than 35-40 years of age can feel over the hill in the tech job market. This was deemed partly down to ageism, an interview process that favours young recent CS grads and being surrounded by younger talent. Encouragingly it did also list success stories of those who were in their 40s and above who were progressing in their careers in the big Silicon Valley tech firms.

A Twitter Chat

I posted on Twitter the following update -

I was surprised at the number of responses I had from testers far more established and famed in the industry than I who offered consolation or stated that I was not alone. Posts of being unhappy with being a tester or that the testing community was great but stifling.


This is the first of a sequence of articles detailing what I consider my "tester's mid-life crisis". Based on the feedback from this and resources existing to alleviate the kinds of angst and worry listed above I will write further articles in the coming weeks. I would like to know your opinions and your experience - if you can share them then I would be most grateful.

In the meantime I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!