Thursday, September 07, 2006

Developing Testers: What Can We Learn From Athletes?

This is an article from the September edition of the EuroSTAR Newsletter - STARTester, written by Paul Gerrard, System Evolutif, UK. You can view the complete newsletter by clicking here and don't forget to subscribe to receive future issues.

This article presents the first section of the paper that Paul is writing to accompany his keynote talk at EuroSTAR 2006.

1.1 Motivation for this Talk
This article is based on my experience of doing two things. Coaching rowers and coaching testers - two things close to my heart. There are some universal rules about coaching and I wanted to explore some of the commonalities between coaching athletes (rowers are athletes) and testers.

A couple of years ago, I (rather foolishly) volunteered to coach the ‘development women’ squad at Maidenhead Rowing club. The Devwomen squad, as they were called, had learnt to row in 2004 and were keen to carry on and compete in some events the following year. I offered to create a training plan, and coach four sessions a week for the next 11 months. The plan was to take people with a few weeks experience and develop them into competitive rowers in a year.
This sounds quite ambitious, but the beautiful thing about the sport of rowing is that you can compete at almost any level. The levels of enthusiasm and commitment were high enough and I was confident we could make good progress. Whether they competed and won, was another matter.

I briefed the squad on my proposed training plan for the year with a PowerPoint talk. It’s a long story, but between September 2004 and July 2005 the squad were very successful. The squad embraced the training and stuck to it, were enthusiastic and committed throughout. Every person in the group had at least one ‘win’ by the end of the summer – some had three or four pots and medals to display on the shelf. (Half of the devwomen subsequently moved up to row in the ’Elite’ squad last year).

Now, it struck me some time later, that the training plan I worked out at the rowing club had a structure, focus and detail more sophisticated than the personal development plans most testers agree with their employer. (In fact, I subsequently discovered that probably less than 10% of testers have any development plan at all). I was curious to see if a development plan for athletes could be used as the starting point for a tester’s development plan.

1.2 From Athletic Training Plan to Tester Development Plan
I took the devwomen training plan, and using the same headings and appropriate substitutions for the content of my PowerPoint presentation to see what such a plan might look like. It started as just an exercise but much of what I had learnt from working with the devwomen had a direct correspondence to working with testers. There were of course some ‘rough edges’ but far fewer than I would have anticipated. So, it seemed to me that there was value in pursuing it further and developing a talk around this curious exercise.

I took my original training plan and slides and re-ran the thought process for each aspect of the plan. I asked myself, ‘if I were coaching testers and I had that kind of framework, what would I put into a development plan for testers?’
In the paper, I walk through a development plan for athletes and then use the same framework to explore what might be done for testers. I think there is quite a lot of commonality in the resulting proposal, and the thinking that goes into such a plan is at the heart of the message I want to provide. The remainder of the paper sets out a proposed structure for a tester development plan.

1.3 Coaching and Mentoring is Critical

Now, one of the first of several surprises (to me, anyway) was that you cannot separate development from coaching. Coach and mentor are terms often used in the context of people and organisational development, but they are often used just as labels for one’s team leader or manager. Coaching and mentoring are critically important activities that reflect two support roles for every individual that wants to develop their skills and capability.
In my dictionary , a coach is ‘an instructor or trainer (in sport); a private tutor’. The implication is that the coach imparts knowledge, guidance and advice to an individual. In this respect, the coach is pro-active – leading people towards improved performance and capability.

In the same dictionary, a mentor is defined as ‘an experienced and trusted advisor’. The implication seems to be that, whereas the coach takes the initiative, a mentor might wait for the individual under instruction to ask for advice. Whereas a coach would direct the individual, a mentor waits until asked for support. Needless to say, trust and effective communication between coach/mentor and the individual are critical to success.

1.4 The Mentality of IT People is a Barrier to Change
Coach and mentor are terms that are over used in the IT industry, not just testing. The IT industry sees itself as distinct from the rest of business – as if the interpersonal skills so important to most disciplines no longer apply. We are all familiar with the stereotypical deep-techy programmer who has difficulty with the other members of his team, let alone non-technical folk or end-users. Usually male, these ‘types’ excel when it comes to solving difficult problems with technology, and find it easier to communicate with operating systems than people.

I’m exaggerating perhaps, but the perception of most business people is that most folk in IT simply do not appreciate the needs, thinking or motivation of business users. The gap between Business and IT starts at the top and runs through to lowest-level practitioners. The concepts of coaching and mentoring, as softer disciplines, are still met with suspicion by many people in IT even though business folk appreciated their importance decades ago. Can IT-folk even spell interpersonal?

Coupled with this ‘mistrust’ of soft-skills, we tend to assume that we can attend a technical training course, learn a new skill and become instant experts. This preposterous; but the push and pull of certification schemes for example (emerging in all aspects of IT nowadays), tempt you into believing that certification is the same as capability. Don’t get me wrong, certification schemes have some value, but they are no substitute for evidence of achievement and experience and interpersonal skills.

One of the problems we have in IT (and not just testing) is that we seem to think that everything has to be invented from scratch. We are continually reinventing wheels in our industry and this mentality dominates many people’s thinking. Unlike most other industries we are continually reinventing stuff that we probably already have. We are ever so keen to adopt the latest process improvement or capability model, regardless of its relevance or usefulness. No matter – it’s techy, looks simple and it’s new.

But when it comes to adopting approaches that support leadership, motivation, communications, learning methodologies and interpersonal skills in general we shy away. They are soft, alien, non-techy, and worst of all, invented by non-IT Folk.

So, IT tends to be very inward looking and introspective and this is partly because the industry attracts people who like the technology more than the business of exploiting and working with technology. Quite a difference, don’t you think?
Although system and acceptance testers are less obsessed with technology than most, we have to recognise the influence – some would say hold – that technology has on many IT folk.

1.5 The Importance of Leadership

The development process (as an athlete or tester) is mainly about human interaction. Yes, of course, there is a lot of hard work required to be done. Slogging over technical exercises, cranking out test plans and grinding out test results is indispensable. But the real value of preparatory work comes when feedback is obtained and the work is discussed with peers, a customer, the coach or mentor.

The reason a coach exists is to set the vision, to explain how to do things, to hint at faults in technique, to suggest improvements, to cajole, to motivate – all to achieve a change in someone else’s behaviour. It’s not about, “this is how you test boundary values, I have explained it, you have tried it once and now you know it”. Coaching is not like that and learning is not like that. Whether you are learning a new technique in a sport or an approach, technique, mentality or attitude in a discipline like software testing, there is little difference in the thought process of the individual. The coach is trying to change someone else’s behaviour and that is no trivial thing.

Not many people wake up in the morning and say ‘at the end of this day I am going to change the way I do XXXXX’. Usually the drive for change is coming from someone else. The change will not be initiated in the individual. Everyone with a personality, ego and confidence in their own ability is innately resistant to change.
Change threatens one’s ego and confidence in one’s ability. So with few exceptions, people resist (consciously or unconsciously) external demands for changes in their behaviour.

Motivating and encouraging people to change are hugely difficult things to do from the point of view of the individual as well as the coach. Although most team leaders and managers may be good technically, they have poor leadership skills. Needless to say, the development of leadership skills in managers helps practitioners to sustain training and development efforts and improve their capability.

1 comment:

Pradeep Soundararajan said...

This is interesting not just to read but experience too.

The athletes had something to win and keep in shelf and there came the motivation to work for that but for a tester, there is no certificate or medal after every release to keep on shelf and hence the self motivation could be lesser than the athletes.

Every tester should be awarded on a regular basis which does not happen anywhere and I am sure, when I am at a senior position I am going to award the testers in my team and I shall ensure, my testers think of increasing the size of their shelf by staying with me for a long time.

This is my view and perception and it could be wrong but I find it worth experimenting.