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.

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