Shirley Tricker worked in a wide range of IT roles for almost 20 years before starting Elementum, a business that helps people in IT to develop skills, attitudes and habits to be productive and happy in tech roles. Shirley is active in the testing community as an organizer of the Auckland chapter of WeTest, an attendee at the KWST peer conference, and she runs the Auckland Testers Facebook page.She is also co-organiser of the Women in Tech Auckland meetup and she speaks to students via the ICT-Connect programme, which inspires and educates young people about a future in IT. She recently started blogging where she advocates for people to take back control of their careers and work happiness.

You’ve been an amazing mentor to not just me, but other people I have worked with. What do you find most rewarding about being a mentor?
I get huge satisfaction from seeing people achieve things they weren’t sure they could, and from helping people to do more of what makes them happy. It’s most rewarding when I see people take what they’ve learnt and help others to do the same.

And what do you find most challenging about being a mentor?

It’s challenging for me when it’s clear that the person I’m working with has valuable skills and attributes but they don’t see them. When people underestimate themselves I need to find other ways for them to understand their value so that they feel ready to take the steps needed to move towards what they want. I work with some really good people and many of them feel like imposters, so if any of your readers feel like that I’d say that’s a sign that perhaps they’re more talented and capable than they think.

What are some of the hardest decisions that testers face in their careers and how do you help them arrive at a decision?
The situation I come across often is testers feeling unfulfilled at work but not knowing if it’s better to stay on in their current company or move somewhere new and uncertain. To help them I try to get to the root of what it is they really want at work and in their life. This will depend on many things including their circumstances and stage of life as well as their skills and experiences and what makes them fulfilled at work and in their personal lives.
We assess if their current company can offer them what they want and if so what steps they need to take to make that happen. People often have more options than they think to improve their situation at their current employer.
If it makes more sense to move to a new company, I make sure they are clear about the value they offer to potential employers and we work together to plan a targeted job search.
What’s one issue you think a lot of testers face, but they don’t realise they’re not alone in this?
In my experience many testers feel at the mercy of poor practices in their workplace but they don’t think they have the power to change things. Maybe they’ve been told that it’s not possible to change, maybe they’re not confident standing up for themselves, or maybe they’re unsure what options they have.
My advice is to avoid merely pointing out what’s wrong. First, aim to understand the issues that contribute to these practices. Having understanding and empathy for other people’s constraints will make discussions about the impacts much friendlier and more useful. If one person feels frustrated it’s likely others do too so find them and work together to think of alternatives. Testers can also research better ways of interacting with the people they need to influence, as well as looking into how other people have made positive changes within their companies.
Testers are ideally placed to help companies to improve, but to do that they need to speak up and work together.

In your current role, you help develop people’s soft skills – which soft skills, do you believe, are the most important to develop and why?
Soft skills wrap around our technical skills and help us be effective in our jobs. They affect how we’re perceived and our ability to influence others. They’re called ‘soft’ but they can be quite hard to improve.
Communication is often mentioned as a critical soft skill, and I agree that it’s important that people learn how to present their ideas, listen and write. Since we hear a lot about communication, here are a few other soft skills that I see becoming more and more important.
Collaboration. This involves finding common ground with others, and working together as equal partners. Communication is obviously important for collaboration, but so is respect for the needs and contributions of others, and a willingness to share information and help whenever possible. Being able to collaborate is key in the lean and more iterative software development approaches.
Taking ownership. This is a great skill to develop if you want to be a leader (and there never seem to be enough strong leaders).
Taking ownership means you do things the best you can. We aren’t able to control everything at work, but taking ownership is an attitude and it’s entirely in our control. Be accountable to yourself and your team. Be enthusiastic.
Be someone who steps up and takes responsibility. By taking ownership you’ll be more effective and people will be more likely to trust and respect you.