Women Testers, Edition 6, October 2015

Co-author: Annie Rydholm


What is stress? We often use the term, sometimes as a positive, sometimes as a negative and sometimes as a badge of honour.

1Stress is an everyday fact of life. You can’t avoid it. Stress results from any change you must adapt to, ranging from the negative extreme of actual physical danger to the exhilaration of falling in love or achieving some long-desired success”.

1Not all stress is bad. In fact, stress is not only desirable it is also essential to life”.

“Good stress” is a motivating force. It gets you out of bed in the morning, it makes you relish the challenges in front of you. It makes you sharp and alert, it gets you thinking. Testers work under many pressures, short and tight deadlines, software that is complex and challenging to understand, and sometimes, just plain old “stuff happens”. Sometimes the challenges can seem overwhelming, and your anxiety will start to rise and the “good stress” positives will start to diminish.

When bad stress builds to excessively high levels, it is serious, and medical intervention is required. This article is not about that level of stress. This article is about strategies that will keep you moving forward and help you stay energised.

Stressor 1: Lack of knowledge

Strategy 1: Write down what you do and don’t know

It’s not unusual to find yourself assigned to test a software change where you have little familiarity with the functions you need to focus on. I have over 15 years experience with a particular piece of financial software and I still find myself in situations thinking “how the hell do I test this?”

The reality is you do know something about the software, the functional change and your relationship to it. Give yourself some clear air, that might mean moving to a quiet space for a few minutes, stepping out to a cafe and grabbing a drink. Have a notepad and pen handy and make 2 columns. The first column is “What I know”. In this column you make notes about all the things you know about the project you are going to test. Doesn’t matter how small, write it down. You’ll often be surprised at how much you write in this space. Now add a column called “What I need to know”. In here you can make notes on things that puzzle you, knowledge gaps, just any question that comes to mind. When you are doing this you might find that considering these questions prompts your memory to give up more things you do know. Note these down.

You have now created a means of asserting some control. Talk to people involved in the project to get clarity around the questions you have. I can almost guarantee if you have a question on something, others will have the same question. When this happens you are identifying potentially harmful knowledge gaps and helping to strengthen the product. Feels good right? Not only are you learning you are helping improve quality. While you are having these discussions you can also validate some of the things you do know, this will help increase your comfort level even further.

While writing this article Annie and I spent some time discussing this strategy. Annie, not having used this idea before, tried it out and found that it worked well. Annie noted that just writing things down produced an instant feeling of relief. It took things out of her head and on to paper where she could focus on the ideas and sort the more important from the less important. It helped her make decisions about her next move.

Stressor 2: System complexity

Strategy 2: Create a model you can understand

When you start on a project, the project itself could be reasonably advanced, or, even if you are at project start up, the project does not play to your specific domain strengths. People on the project team are busy, the project is complex, you need to sort out exactly what you are dealing with. Between you and understanding are pages of documentation and very busy project team members. You need to find ways to reduce complexity. It is so much easier to think freely when you can establish the basics in a way you can understand them.

Find the paperwork you need to get a handle on. Most likely this will be a specification document. Read through it once, just try to get a high level overview. Maybe make a small note or two. Once done put it down, take a walk to the kitchen, make a coffee, kick back for a few minutes (and maybe a few extra ones). Now go back to your desk. Open the specification start reading and sketching. Start drawing out all the relationships you get from the document. You are now creating a model. Models are great because 2“Today’s systems are complex with many moving parts (thanks to modern multi-tier and distributed architectures) — models enable us to cope with this complexity by providing a visual abstraction layer that focuses on the higher level concepts in the problem domain and de-couple the “what” from “how”.

In cases where you do not have a written specification, you need to into “ information discovery mode” you need to talk to people who may have the answers (note: having a document does not mean you skip “information discovery mode”). The people could be designers, product owners, developers, any stakeholder relevant to the project. Talk to them and sketch relationship from what you know, then update your model by asking them again.

When you complete this exercise don’t expect it to be perfect, it doesn’t need to be. It needs to be good enough for you to have a visual model of the changes, that you understand, and how they impact the system under test. It needs to be good enough for you to use when talking to busy team members. It should help you understand components of the system under test and to identify areas of focus and conversation. Your models should be subject to continuous improvement.

Often when I do this I find it is the first time the team has sat down with a high level diagram that shows changes and impacts. It can be quite a conversation starter. An example of using this technique, and perhaps one of the first times I used it, I remember finding a bug in the design of a small project. As I mapped out relationships I create a path which showed contradictory actions (the document described a state that could not be allowed). I showed this to the project team who immediately recognised that I had indeed spotted an error. This not only helped the project, the conversation helped validate my understanding of changes and demonstrated that I was serious about helping the project be as good as it could be.

Stressor 3: What do I do next?

Strategy 3: Heuristics

3 “Heuristics do not replace skill. They don’t make skill unnecessary. But they can make skilled people more productive and reliable.”

Heuristics can be a great tool for both experienced and inexperienced testers. Heuristics are not infallible, they do not guarantee you are following the right path. Heuristics however do help you generate ideas about things you might or should test. The heuristic won’t tell you how to go about your testing, how to execute with the right focus. It will open pathways to  information that will assist you to generate thoughts, approaches, create meaningful questions. The heuristic will not do the work for you but it will help you make decisions about what you could do next. The most important thing they will do is get you thinking, and moving. A gentle push to gain some momentum is often enough to start generating that positive thinking energy.

Stressor 4: High work levels/tight deadline

Strategy : Prioritisation, information flows, working slow

Let’s get this straight, right out of the box. This is a problem, but it is not your problem. You don’t own this, but you do need to work with it and keep moving forward. The reasons for work levels getting significantly big against a deadline are many, but, generally, we get in this position because of systemic failure. An aircraft rarely crashes because of a single source of failure. A project is pretty much the same.

Make sure that your stakeholders are well informed about how testing is progressing. Be clear about things that are blocking testing and the impacts of those blockers. However, be realistic, also think about strategies that could help mitigate these issues. It is important to demonstrate that you are not just presenting problems but also helping with potential solutions. It is also important for you, your overall mindset, to think about solutions (positives) and not just problems (negatives).

The deadline remains set in concrete, your report on testing  impediments has been largely disregarded. That sucks but you cannot control others reactions and actions, so focus on things that you can control. Move your focus to agreeing priorities. Of the outstanding testing, what is the most important? Get agreement on scope priority. Work to this and report in terms of the priorities. By going into “priority mode” you immediately reduce the amount of testing you need to focus on and help your state of mind.

So now you want to go fast and really slash through the amount of outstanding testing. “If I go really fast we can still complete all the testing – that’ll impress everyone”. Don’t. The minute you think you need to “go fast” you actually need to “go slow”. Why? Rushed testing, testing to a “tests completed per day” target  is bad, you are focusing on the wrong goals. Rushing increases stress, makes you more likely to skip over things you would have otherwise investigated. It reduces your ability to clearly analyse and think. Give yourself permission to stay focused and calm and look for problems. You will find a sustainable and appropriate speed. At this speed you will do the right thing by you and your clients.

Clearly you cannot avoid stress, in reality you don’t want to. You do however want to maximise “good” stress and reduce any other type. In most cases simply doing something that will keep you moving in the right direction is enough to keep you positive and energised. We hope the strategies outlined in this article help you to maintain forward momentum and a positive focus.


1 McKay, Matthew; Davis, Martha; Eshelman, Elizabeth Robbins; Patrick Fanning (2008-05-03). The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook) (Kindle Locations 189-191). New Harbinger Publications. Kindle Edition

2 http://www.ashoknare.com/2009/03/30/why-do-we-need-visual-models/#sthash.Vhn2Kb1z.dpuf

3 <Source http://www.satisfice.com/blog/archives/462 >