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Trying on a few hats (Sowing Seeds)

On January 16, 2013, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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As I have intimated here before, I have held several different roles in my career, all in the testing arena (or should I call it a stable, what with the farming metaphor-for-a-title thing and all…).  I have been a tester at three different companies of varying size/environment/culture.  At my current company, I started as an individual contributor, testing various parts of our product suite.  I was promoted to be a team lead, then a manager, and then a senior manager.  After four+ years in that role, that layer of management was removed and I moved back to a manager position.

After spending some time reflecting, especially on my more recent position change, I began to realize how much I had learned by wearing all of those different hats over time.

The time I spent at my first company (testing ATM software) taught me that I don’t like working in heavily regimented environments.  This company was (at the time) an ISO shop.  That meant I had stickers on all of my books and binders telling people, who may accidentally pick them up, that they contained out of date information.  It meant I had to go talk to the tester-turned-guard who manned the locked file cabinet if I wanted to see an actual “current” version of a document (this was the late 90′s).  I was eventually let go (along with all of the other contractors and some full time people) to help raise their stock price.  With that, I learned one of the consequences of working for a public company.

In my next position, at my second company (testing the print accuracy of engineering documents on wide format printers), I learned that I liked working in an open environment where I was allowed, and even encouraged, to work with my developers.  I was eventually let go (along with the newest 20% of the staff) to help prevent the office from closing (it was gone within a year).

At my current company, as a tester, I learned to really enjoy testing.   I was able to finally remove a (in my eyes) wrong approach to testing that my first employer had ingrained in me.  Later, as a team leader, I learned that I liked coaching people.  I felt satisfaction helping others to grow and mature as testers.  When I was promoted to manager, I had to completely change what I did every day.  I was no longer involved in testing the software.  I spent most of my time managing teams of varying sizes, trying to create training out of thin air, figuring out how to help develop and grow a team of people (up to 28 strong at one point), oh yeah, and making sure the software got tested.  After some time, practice, training, advice from others, and just possibly a little luck, I got my hands around most of the role.  I would never say I was awesome at it (I am a fairly strong introverted thinker if you follow MBTI), but I was able to manage (pun intended) and grow my people (yeah, and get some software tested as well).  Then, in the spring of 2008, I was asked if I would take on the new, not yet defined, role of Senior Manager.  A coworker and I were each given half of the department as reports.  I spent the next four years trying to manage my managers and stay connected with their teams.  I was too far removed from testing at this point to have any role in the development or advancement of testing.  Or at least I felt I did, despite some people’s best efforts.  I tried very hard to metricize everything.  I built Excel spreadsheet after Excel spreadsheet.  I reached the data filter limit of our internal support ticket and bug tracking system trying to report on the age of issues per manager.  I spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how to sum everything everyone was doing into a simple, easy to digest number that I could pass up the chain.

NOTE: If you are thinking of trying this yourself, please take a look at Paul Holland’s wonderful post on Bad Metrics.

Eventually, I realized this was all in vain.  Sure, I could measure some things, like how long issues have been in test, or how long it’s been since a support ticket was opened, but trying to boil it all down so that I could compare testers of differing backgrounds, on differing teams, testing issues of differing size on different portions of the product in differing environments with differing complexities is ludicrous.  It took me too many years to figure that last line out.  So, my one and only peer and I started trying to affect change as best we could.  We took control of our hiring process and worked to find new places and ways to find tester candidates , we worked to improve processes, and tried to find ways to get the testers we hired to stay testers for the long term.

Last March, when this layer was removed, I was initially dumbstruck.  I was angry.  I felt let down, and didn’t know what I was going to do.  A couple of days later I came up with two demands:  to be sent to our user conference to regain a connection with our customer base (I ended up participating in three half day training sessions, and co-presenting in a total of five informational sessions) and I wanted to go  to CAST for the first time to reconnect with testing (I was at CAST2012).  Over the past year I realized that in the end, I didn’t really like the senior manager hat that much.  Sure, I learned a lot about myself.  I was eventually able to function at that level fairly well.  I spent four years focused at a level above where I currently work.  That makes it even easier to do what I do now (manage a team of nine instead of 65).  I’ve experienced managing translation teams, international test teams, remote employees (in other states, and other continents).  I grew more confident as a leader in that role, making many of the decisions I make in my current role seem like child’s play.  As of today, despite all I learned from the role, I don’t know that I would take that position again if it were offered to me. I wouldn’t go back and undo my time as a senior manager, but that is not where my passions currently lie.

The point of all of this rambling is that I learned something from each of the hats I have worn.  Each position has helped to mold me into the person I am today.  I may be lucky, but I work in an environment where changing positions is generally looked at as a positive thing, especially if your passion can be better utilized in a role still within the company.  With this environment, I felt comfortable stepping back into a role I was in previously, without feeling I would be looked at as some sort of pariah.

My advice is to not be afraid to try on different hats.  Sometimes you might even find that an old hat fits much better the second time around.  Without retreading an existing post by my host, I would expand a bit on Paul’s Reinventing Yourself, to say don’t just look at reinventing your tests, or how you approach things.  Don’t be afraid to change your whole role.  Feeling stuck in the day to day grind of testing bug fixes?  Have a penchant for usability?  Begin showing the value of having a dedicated usability tester.  If wouldn’t expect it to work overnight, but if you show the right people where your passion lies, and what they can gain from letting you loose in that direction, it will happen.

If your environment frowns upon people changing roles (and possibly asking to switch back if things don’t work out) maybe it’s time to look for a new environment. If you happen to like the greater Cleveland area, I know a company that’s looking for testers.

 

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