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So, You Want To Be a Tester?

In a previous post I talked about why I’ve stayed in testing. Here I want to be a little more concise around the idea of how you might frame testing beyond how it is normally described, particularly if you want to get someone excited about testing as a career choice.

Let’s say someone wants to hear from you what they can expect out of a specialist career in testing. What do you tell them? That was a question I was recently posed. My response is that I would say something like the following …

Do you want to be an experimenter, an explorer, and an investigator? Do you want to learn how to become a credible reporter of information that people value? Do you want to figure out how and why people make mistakes when they build complex things? Do you want to learn a bit about what it means to think like a historian, detective, cartographer, archaeologist, and a physicist?

Well, if you do: welcome to specialist testing! A discipline that will — if you pursue it and embrace it — guide you towards becoming cross-discipline associative. You will be embarking on a career that has a pedigree across just about every discipline that human minds have invented which has some aspect of investigating a part of the world, reasoning about it, and helping others learn how to make better decisions sooner.

You will be dealing with the area where humans and technology intersect. This means you will be dealing not just with our competence to introduce complexity and remove complication at that intersection, but also with the ethics that go along with doing so.

As you do this, you will learn that quality is never a single, empirical fact; it’s always a working hypothesis. Our understanding of it is an interpretation and an assessment of value. Value is a social judgment, and different people value things differently at different times and for different reasons. This means quality is best described as a shifting perception of value over time.

And thus you will learn to embrace uncertainty, ambiguity, and be able to not just harness but cultivate doubt. You will learn what it means to be a pragmatic (not ruthless) skeptic but also a natural enthusiast. Specializing in testing teaches you to balance exploration, investigation, and experimentation and so so while considering spatial and temporal boundaries. Specialist testing teaches you to focus on outcomes, not just outputs.

You will learn to glean insights from the most unlikely of places. For example, if you read the book Star Wars: Thrawn you will find:

“A battle is a balance between plan and improvisation, between intellect and reflex, between error and correction.”

Upon seeing that, you will learn to intuitively replace the word “A battle” with “Testing” and see that the sentence remains entirely true and provides a talking point in your career. A key point here, however, being that a specialist tester tends to find associations with testing in just about everything they see, read, or hear.

As a specialist tester, you will learn to understand the dynamics of the past and the causes of events. You will, like any good historian, have to engage with history to understand how people recast evidence. Like any good archaeologist, you will have to assess how the present is constantly forcing a re-evaluation of what we believe happened based on the artifacts that have been left to us to reason about.

A specialty in testing means, at some level, a specialty in analyzing the logic of arguments and identifying the assumptions that lie behind those arguments. What people believe about quality depends very heavily on the kind of logic they employ and the kind of assumptions they make. Evidence never speaks for itself; it has meaning only in the context of rules of reasoning which determine what may be considered and what counts as evidence. Those rules of reasoning are what specialist testers help people examine.

Along the way, you will help teams examine any evidence on its own terms, being careful to distinguish the evidence itself from any ideological or philosophical bias that might distort our interpretation of that evidence.

You will read books like The Half-Life of Facts and realize that we are often dealing with “mesofacts.” In a wider context, processes that act over decades (and perhaps even shorter time frames) are hidden in that sense that we often can’t interpret — or we misinterpret — their cause-and-effect relations. This creates what’s called an “invisible present” that approaches like Agile have actually perpetuated. The idea of mesofacts refers to facts that change at a ‘middle’ timescale between fast-changing facts (the ones constantly in flux) and the very slow-changing facts (the ones that for all practical purposes are constant).

As a specialist tester, you will become very good at looking for the points where the human-intuitive and the machine-expressive become disconnected. This will help you navigate the choppy waters of how the services and applications we provide are technology that is situated within a social context. And that social context often does more to determine the quality of the technology than what is used to build the technology in the first place.

As a specialist tester, you will most definitely have a chance to exercise technical tooling skills. Often this will take place in the context of providing tools that support testing, most often some form of automation. But as a specialist tester you will learn to view tooling through a prism. Specifically, for any bit of tooling, process, or distinction you want to create, you will have to ask this: does it make my delivery team more productive, less vulnerable, and more understandable?

You will be working with an entire delivery team to stabilize the development process, sustain the development process, and introduce cost-of-mistake curves. The latter point means you will be helping teams figure out how to shorten the duration between when mistakes are made and when they are found.

You will also learn that while automation can scale testing, it’s actually not the biggest driver of such scaling. As a specialist tester, you will help teams understand that it’s the interaction between design and testability that is ultimately how you scale testing.

There’s more. Lots more. But if the above doesn’t get you excited for the wide-open career path before you, then nothing else I say would likely do the trick.

Whoa! Whoa! Hyperbole, much?!?

Yeah, okay. I get it. I can imagine some people, particularly testers, saying: “Yeah, nice try. But that’s definitely not what testing is. At least not where I’m at.”

And if that’s the case, maybe you’re not in a place that understands what specialist testing truly is.


This article was written by 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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