Paying Attention to Paying Attention to Detail

One question I often ask a tester in an interview is what they believe are the essential skills that differentiate a good tester from a great tester. One of the common replies is “Paying attention to detail”. But what does that really mean?

Start with detail. What do you mean by detail? Mrs Google offers the explanation “an individual fact or item”, but what sort of detail? Visual detail? Detail from a coding perspective? Any detail or only detail that matter? Is it detail as in ‘small stuff’ as in the Devil is in the detail?

Also what exactly does “paying attention” mean?

Maybe it’s one of these interpretations:

  • A tester is attentive as in a teacher saying “pay attention!”? As in be alert?
  • A tester is only observing detail?
  • A tester is observing detail exists and then noticing they are problems?
  • A tester is noticing detail without a conscious attempt to observe in a methodical manner?

Going deeper, why ‘pay attention to detail’ in the first place?  Is it because you’ve been told to, or because the tester genuinely wants to? Your motivation and purpose play important roles in bug finding. For example what’s your ‘attention to detail’ on being told to complete 40 test scripts in one day, compared to your attention to detail if you get made handsomely for finding a bug or winning a prestigious competition?

Yes, paying attention to detail is important, but so is understanding what you are doing when ‘paying attention to detail’.

In my book, there’s not enough meat on that answer to figure out if someone’s a good fit for my team. I want more. I want my testers to suck the marrow out of that question, to boil it until the flesh falls away from the bone.

Professional testers¹ consciously observes systems using a multiple of models. Their maxim is “the more you see, the more you see”. And that’s only the beginning. Following observation comes evaluation. Now testers get to interrogate information by asking (either explicitly or implicitly) is there a problem? Not content with relying on one oracle they may consciously use many different oracles in their evaluation process.

They then report this information in a way that’s meaningful to the people who want to hear it.

So if you are a  tester coming for an interview on my team and I ask you this question, please have fun with it. Show me your testing process, demonstrate it with diagrams and models and show me a bit of your testing flair. All testers pay attention to detail to some degree. What in particular do you pay attention to?

¹ by professional tester I mean someone who makes an attempt to understand and then improve their personal testing process. They tend to develop a unique approach and style to their testing through years doing, thinking, talking & writing about testing.

This post is a result of a tweet I made which many testers. An interesting aside, my poor spelling was explained away by many as a purposeful trap designed to snare the unwary tester. It wasn’t, though I’m flattered that you would think that of me.

My Testing Manifesto 2014

It’s my first day in permanent employment for, oh, about 20 years. I feel a little giddy, like someone’s first day of school – nervous but excited.

Unlike my first day of school, I have some clear goals and ideas I want to implement. I thought I might outline them here to help remind me of what I want to achieve and also to see how different it turns out.

Testing Philosophies

Testing is an skilled activity(not a phase) that all, to some degree can acquire.
Testers need autonomy to make decisions, to develop and perform excellent testing.
Quality is something we all care about, though it means different things to different people.
Every test has a cost (design, building, maintaining, reporting)

Goals for Testing

To develop a company wide reputation for excellent testing
To develop a test team that is able to handle testing problems with courage, skill and humility.
To coach and help develop the skill of testing with whoever may need it
To identify where testing is occurring and help augment that
To develop and the grow the test team in size, skill and expertise.
To engage with and support the testing community

Personal Goals

To acquire knowledge in testing within a continuous deployment, delivery environment
To learn more about functional programming
To be able to identify how to repair code
To work with integrity and within the bounds of what I consider ethical

Where have all the good jobs gone?

If you follow and believe the twitter conversations, it seems that the main reason for getting ISTQB certification is to pass the screening when applying for work. No ISTQB? No interview!

My personal experience has been that yes, on one or two occasions I’ve failed to be interviewed based on lack of certification. Rather then see this as a negative, I see this as a blessing. After all, if your idea of a tester is that narrow, then I’m probably not suited to your company. On occasion I’ve cited ‘NO CERT’! to justify why I can’t apply for a role. “I’m so sorry, I’m not ISTQB certified…” as I edge my way to the door.

I think it’s naive to rely on a certification as a means to getting work. Especially if you are a thoughtful and intelligent tester who cares about the quality of your work, and who wants to be taken seriously in the industry.

But forget about certification for one minute. Are you seriously willingly going to put your career into a strangers hand who then decides your fate by a keyword? There are cleverer ways to play this game.

Have you not noticed that the way companies recruit is rapidly changing? To get a job that interests you, its not good enough to send in your resume or hold a silly piece of paper with a over ornate stamp on it. Those days are long gone. Now you need passion, you need to keep up to date with whats happening in your field, you need to be committed to keeping yourself relevant.

Our family has experienced this first hand when my husband was looking for work last year. He suddenly discovered at the ‘old age’ of 42 that he was unemployable. He is intelligent and personable(yes I am biased) with a first class degree in Electrical Engineering and he had made the assumption that good people always find work. But that’s not enough. Today, if you want a job that’s worthy of you, you need make sure you earn the companies respect.

This is not only based on my personal experience, I’ve spoken to many recruiters in the last few months, and all seem to have similar stories. Companies are more reluctant to use recruitment agencies to find their staff. They want recruiters who know and understand the specific skills they are seeking. I’m seeing recruiters leave the industry, or re-invent themselves as specialists in one field. Other ways the industry has changed is that many recruiting companies work for one company and are in effect the procurement arm of the company.

Of course, the testing industry has changed significantly too. Now that the major consultancies have successfully sold testing as a commodity, testing (or an excuse for testing) is being performed wherever people are cheapest. The adoption of Agile as a development process and its dependency on automation has also reduced the need for testers (though this is not necessarily a bad thing). The fact is, there are less testing jobs out there.

That doesn’t mean there are less quality testing jobs though. While its true that the crumbs from the table need to be shared among more, there is still plenty of meat and gravy at the table. The question is, have you earned a spot there? Here’s a fact. You are not going to earn a spot on this table with a certificate. The path to this table is through credibility and reputation.

My first bit of advice is if you want a worthy job, then you need to be worthy. Examine the work that you have done to date. Does it reflect your skill and perhaps more importantly, your ability? What about your attitude? Does your work reflect that of someone who is passionate and who loves testing? You don’t need rockstar status, but you do need to be an eager apprentice. If you have aspirations to get a great testing job, but you’re not prepared to put in the hard work, then why should you deserve a great role?

Here’s something I do that has proven to be very useful. When I start a new role, I ask myself two questions. The first is “If I leave, how do I want people to remember me”? and second is “what legacy do I want to leave behind me”? It may sound ruthless to think about an exit strategy when starting a role, but the reality is, NO job is permanent so why treat it as one?

So, you are now a worthy tester, the next step is to be able to demonstrate this worthiness and please, put away that tired old resume! I’m talking about blogging, and speaking and contributing to the testing community. Contributing to the community is a great way of meeting local and international people and you learn so much. Regarding speaking, this doesn’t have to be large conferences, there are plenty of small local meetups that offer you a space to speak. No tester meetups near you? Why not create one, or speak at a developer meetup.

Thirdly you need to network. I can’t emphasis this enough. This is where the jobs are. You need to consider two types of networking, local and online. Local is essential if you want to find work in your area. This means meeting people face to face at the local meetup. Yes, I know masterchef is on a Tuesday night and this clashes with the meetup, but hey, do you want a great job or not? Online networking is important too because it allows you to connect with like minded people, plus its a great source of learning. Many jobs come from both online and local networks.

You also need to research. Find out the good companies, speak to people through your network (not agencies) about the ‘good places’ to work, and make a plan on how you are going to work there. Having an online presence helps a lot here, but so does face to face networking. And be patient, great jobs don’t just drop off trees and fall into your lap.

Yes, ultimately, these jobs don’t come easy. They require hard work, and a willingness to put yourself out there. It comes at a cost to your personal lifestyle. but hey! It’s all about choice. Great jobs are around, but its about seizing the day and making the opportunity instead of relying on an agent to do it for you. This is a good thing. Trust me. As I said at the start, why should you put your fate into someone’s hands?

The good news is more than ever before, companies who recognise and value their staff, who recognise and value quality testing, are recruiting in a grass roots way. If you want these types of jobs, it’s easier to get them.

Now maybe this all seems like too much work and you know? I can live with that! Seriously, its your call. But don’t tell me that certificate is mandatory to work in testing, because its not true. Many companies who ‘get’ testing will hire you without a cert. The question that is probably more pertinent is: “Do they want you?”

So get out there, work your butt off and then market your fabulous testing skills. If you stop putting your pearls before swine, one day that dream job will be yours!