Recently, I met a so-called “testing expert”, and it was a profound experience. 

I was on a project at a client site in the Bay Area.  I was doing an exploratory session, modeling a product, but sloppily so.  I was not using the session template.  My notes were rough and unpolished. I was not using James’ HTSM or GFS or even SFDPOT.  I was not using any of the skills I teach others, it seemed. 

I was winging it because I was overwhelmed.  With all there was to know about a new product to test and only two days to learn it and deliver a test plan for the crew back in the lab, I let myself take on everything at once, get scattered, lose my focus, disoriented, and the pressure fed on itself the more aware I became.

There were 20 documents open on my screen, there were interruptions from the client as they gave me new pieces of info, there was email coming in to answer, there were things installing on my laptop that were crucial, there were IT issues for me to attend to as I got set up. Everything was getting done at once, but I was making no progress.

A thought came to me right away:  “Jon Bach would not be proud.”

I felt he was watching me — this expert famous tester Jon Bach guy — co-inventor of SBTM, conference keynote speaker, article author, blogger, blah blah blah… He was watching a person I’ll just call “me” — a struggling student tester for 15 years, not as technical as he should be, certainly no programmer, scatter-brained, impatient, too self-critical, easily overwhelmed at times as he tried to live up to Jon Bach’s reputation.

I was in the “testing moment” and I was not doing well. My habits were awful. I started things and left them unfinished and moved to something else. It was like I forgot everything I had learned in 15 years of testing.

As I got up-to-speed on the product given to me to test, I found that habits were driving me more than my skill. I felt compelled to dive in and know it all right away – the readme, the build notes, the FAQ, the software, the test plan, the spec, the strategy, the existing bug database.  I had no compass. I had lost track of my charter. I read things and didn’t know what they meant, and tried to cure that by reading it again, slowly. I read things 5 times and it bounced right off. Nothing got in.  I asked the same question to a stakeholder 3 times that day. It was not good. I felt out of shape and not good enough.

Recently, I traded Tweets with Pradeep Soundararajan, one of India’s most famous testers.  We have never met, but his stock has been rising over the past few years because of his soulful dedication, practice, leadership, and writing about our craft. More and more, he is someone I want to meet. When I commented on his notoriety lately, he said: “I think I am doing what every other tester is actually supposed to do. [Others] are just offering an opportunity to me to make me look good.”

I agreed.  Others have made me look good, and I, too, am always trying to do what I think every tester is supposed to do.  But why did I feel like I was failing (and flailing)?

It occurs to me now that we can take all the training in the world, and have all the experience in the world, but what it often comes down to that drives us in that “testing moment” is our own self-worth.  We are only as good as our last great test idea, our last bug found, our last oral report to stakeholders; and if we have none of those to immediately recall, we can feel pretty lousy.  Worse, that attitude tends feeds on itself and we expect more from ourselves, adding to the pressure and compounding the problem.

This blog has always been about the humanity in software testing, and I never felt more human than in those recent overwhelming moments at that client site. I should have stopped testing and taken a break.  I should have written an issues list with every concern and question I had. I should have not dismissed my confusion so easily.  I should have remembered what I tell people — “confusion is a powerful tool — use it.”

I did not do any of that until the plane ride home the next day.  That’s when I had a coaching session with Jon Bach, the expert. He schooled me there on the plane.  He gave me a robust critique and reminded me of some key points to practice.  Outside of the pressure cooker, he systematically called out my mistakes. Better, he helped me point them out for myself, and he was fair about it. He also called attention to the things I did well (even though I disagreed with him on some of those). 

More importantly, he and I decided to write this blog together, and we wanted to say that we agree on one major point: “We should find ways to rehearse our testing so that when we’re in the ”testing moment”, we have a better chance of feeling worthy.

If testing is a performance (as some say), then when do we get a chance to play badly before the curtain goes up? When do we practice scales and read new sheet music, and study other musicians to see how they play?

One answer is why Pradeep is so notorious — he inspired and mentored the “Weekend Tester” phenomenon into what seems to be a reliable and powerful culture of learning and testing practice that offers everyone a chance to try new things and fail safely.  I’ve been a part of just three of them, but there have been over 30 as of this writing. It is a culture of “learning moments” borne from many participants’ “testing moments” on projects.

So with this blog, I dedicate myself (and challenge so-called “testing expert” Jon Bach) to do more in his training to create more “learning moments” — epiphanies and discoveries of one’s skills through hands-on exercises that give testers a chance to rehearse.

If we both do that well enough, we may hear an inner voice in those testing moments that says things like “slow down, remember your charter, ask for help, one thing at a time, remember this tool, remember this technique, remember that this is normal, and I know just what to do…”

Else, we may feel lost when those testing moments come, and beat ourselves up about it.

But Jon Bach reminds me in this last sentence to say there is another choice — we can realize that the failure to be brilliant and proud of ourselves in any given “testing moment” could be considered an important “learning moment”.  (With that, I agree and hopes he reminds me of that from time to time.)