Finding the Specialist Tester

I’ve talked about interviewing testers before and I’ve talked specifically about hiring test specialists. Here I’m going to try to be a bit more concise, yet also a bit more expansive, about exactly what I think it means to look for specialist testers.

Everyone who is human can, and does, test. So I’m not looking for “testers.” I’m looking for people who have chosen to specialize in testing or have a strong desire to specialize in testing.

I could talk to you here about writing good tests, choosing good automation tools, writing excellent bug reports, and so on. These are all good tactical-level aspects to consider. But they are profoundly uninteresting in that all the good testers already know this stuff. This is the stuff everyone talks about. Yet none of it is the hallmark of the specialist in and of itself. When looking at specialist testers, you have to realize those tactics are epiphenomenal. They are ways of doing; but for specialists, you want to suss ways of thinking.

Harness the Intuition

Specialist testers — like any specialist — rely on intuition that is guided by experience. Determining the presence and extent of that intuition is a key skill for you as someone who is seeking a specialist. You have to be able to spot this intuition which, of course, means you must possess it yourself. I can’t stress this part enough: people hiring specialists have to understand what makes someone a specialist.

Generalist with Specialist Tendencies

As a specialist tester, you need a broad set of general skills combined with a deep core of specialist abilities. Working as part of a team to hire specialists, this means you should be able to articulate what those general skills are and what the specialist abilities are.

Certainly people on your team may attach differing level of importance to certain skills or abilities, but there should be broad agreement on what those skills and abilities actually are.

(Some) Axes of Specialization

There are a couple of spectra upon which to judge the level of specialization, particularly for testers:

  • Experimentation Spectrum
  • Technical Spectrum
  • Engineering Spectrum
  • Evangelist Spectrum

These could help you make some determination between “junior” versus “senior” without necessarily getting mono-focused on how much time the person has spent in the industry or how many automation tools they seem to know about. These also allow you to not hire for titles, such as “Software Development Engineer in Test”, with all the bias that allows for.

Some people ask me about the distinction between a “technical” and “engineering” spectrum. Aren’t they the same? The problem is “technical tester” is often equated with a “testers who can program.” The actual problem is that the word “technical” is a word that gets misused a bit. In effect, the word means a particular craft and its techniques. Testing, by definition, is thus already “technical.” Testers have just done a horrible job of reinforcing that notion.

The Specialist Focus

All specialist testers must demonstrate the ability to have a sustained focus around exploration, experimentation, and investigation. Those aspects are, arguably, what testing is ultimately about because testing is predicated upon imagination coupled with an empirical mindset.

When seeking out such people, you can determine the extent of these abilities by framing questions or exercises designed to let the person demonstrate the following for you:

  • How do you gather evidence?
  • How do you reason through a problem?
  • How do you decide what evidence matters and what does not?
  • How do you conduct experiments to get observations?
  • How do you decide what observations matter and which do not?
  • How do you decide where to focus your time when time is limited?
  • How do you reconcile differences of opinion regarding evidence or observations?
  • How do you articulate all of the above?

Since all specialist testers should be good investigators, they should have very good detection methods for the following:

  • Inconsistency
  • Ambiguity
  • Contradiction

Since specialist testers should be good experimentalists, there are certain behaviors they have to display when conducting an experiment:

  • You need to determine if it is going well.
  • You need to determine if it is going poorly.
  • You need a way to amplify the parts that are going well.
  • You need a way to dampen the parts that are going poorly.

Before all that, of course, a specialist tester knows that they need to have a reason for believing their form of experimentation is likely to produce good results in the first place and also an understanding of what a lack of success will look like. Specialist testers are thus able to balance confirmation with falsification.

Show, Don’t (Just) Tell

A key point of all of the above for me is that, when seeking to find specialist testers, watching someone perform in a context that you provide is part of how you will see people exhibit these behaviors, not just talk about them.

It is critical that you look for demonstrable skills. That means skills that are capable of being demonstrated. And that often means constructing clever, fair, and nuanced exploration exercises that you can engage in with those who want to join your team. And I would argue that the less “writing code” focused the exercises are, the better.

Specialist testers ultimately work to help teams gain transparency, reduce churn, and allow delivery teams to make better decisions sooner because they can reason about things more effectively. Seeing how someone exhibits the above behaviors — and seeing how if what they talk about is in fact what they actually do in practice — is key to seeing how well they will help your team.

Specialists Associate Across Disciplines

I wrote about the cross-discipline associative aspect, which is something I very much believe in.

But what does it mean in terms of looking for a specialist in testing?

What it means to me is that the person is aware of the methods of science, the protocols of investigation, and the dictates of logic. But they are not a slave to them. The person recognizes that fundamental discoveries are established by experiment, explained by theory. A specialist has a healthy respect for both, able to articulate the latter while performing the former.

Specialist testers display intellectual persistence, prudent thinking, and the ability to act on warning signs. Often much of our intuitions for these kinds of activities comes from a healthy study of other disciplines, particularly disciplines that involve humans dealing with complexity and uncertainty. Which, lucky for us, is most disciplines.

My Personal Focus

Going along with many of the points I brought up above, my personal stance is that I like to see where a specialist tester falls across a breadth and depth of thinking. For example, here are some points about how I view the testing discipline.

  • Like many scientists, we are acute observers and delight in collecting examples.
  • Like many psychologists, we are drawn to understand human behavior at its most enigmatic.
  • Like many philosophers, we deal with investigations into time, memory, and creativity. And how those translate into the specificity of experience.

I believe that specialist testers can deal with static and dynamic representation. Consider paleontologists, who reconstruct as much flesh as they can from such fossils that they have. That’s a static representation. But consider biographers, who “animate” as much flesh as they can from the surviving accounts that they have. That’s a dynamic representation.

And all of that translates into something actionable for the specialist tester: the ability to be socially close, but critically distant. This is as important of a dichotomy as the confirmation/falsification one mentioned earlier.

Again, consider biographers. They have get socially close to their subjects in order to make the reader better understand emotion and motivation. But critical distance is needed as well in order to not skew the picture of the subject. Historians have to do the same sort of balancing act. Arguably, so do geologists and paleontologists, particularly if they are looking at things with a slant towards a pre-conceived notions of how they believe the landscape or life has evolved.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not expecting specialist testers to be psychologists, or biographers, or geologists or whatever. But I am firmly of the belief that specialist testers have a “Testing is Like…” attitude and exhibit the attitudes and practices of other disciplines.

The extent to which this is done largely unconsciously is an indicator of how much the specialist has honed their intuition.

Final Points

Testers ultimately work to help teams gain transparency, reduce churn, and allow people to make better decisions sooner because they can reason about things more effectively.

We often talk about influencing behavior and changing behavior but specialist tester is really about presenting choices and enabling decisions. Specialist testers provide value of business outcome in the face of sensitivities and rational options in the face of uncertainty.

How all of that becomes practical is that specialist testesr treat testing as a broad activity and put testing at the most responsible moments using the most responsible technique. Doing so, we becoming credible, high-integrity reporters of information that people value.

So when you’re looking at specialist testers, turn it around and use that very same focus with them:

  • Are they presenting you with choices (for why they would be good for the team) and enabling decisions (allowing you to firmly decide they are or are not the person)?
  • Do they convince you that they view testing with a broad-angle lens, allowing them to see more areas where testing fits and how it fits?
  • Do they convince you that their intuition and experience has given them a broad range of strategies and tactics to rely on in helping you solve your biggest problems?

Hiring a specialist tester is not just “hiring a tester” and it most definitely is not just hiring a “tester who can write code.” Hiring a specialist means more than just looking for a set of skills. It means looking for a focus of exploration, a habit of thinking, a style of expression, a mode of articulation, and a demonstrable desire to combine imagination with experimentation.

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About Jeff Nyman

Anything I put here is an approximation of the truth. You're getting a particular view of myself ... and it's the view I'm choosing to present to you. If you've never met me before in person, please realize I'm not the same in person as I am in writing. That's because I can only put part of myself down into words. If you have met me before in person then I'd ask you to consider that the view you've formed that way and the view you come to by reading what I say here may, in fact, both be true. I'd advise that you not automatically discard either viewpoint when they conflict or accept either as truth when they agree.
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