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Be a better tester – do something else

If you want to be an extremely effective software tester, I highly recommend you do something else. Really. I’m not talking about being able to complete Halo3 in world-record time. Specifically I mean you should find something that you are passionate about; that takes practice and perseverance to become proficient in, and then master it.

I’m not talking about ‘I have nothing more to learn from anyone’ arrogance. Anyone who has mastered anything knows there is always more to learn. Always. What I mean is that you should do it at least until you can confidently teach someone else without fear of leading them astray.

Things like playing a musical instrument, speaking a second language, ikebana, playing golf, it doesn’t need to be remotely testing related or even related to computers. It may be better if it isn’t.

There’s something interesting that happens when you master an art. You can recognise that same mastery of something in others, even when what they do is completely different. When you understand the sort of effort required to reach a certain proficiency, you tend to appreciate it wherever else you find it. There is recognition too, of the many stages of learning one goes through on the way to mastering something. You see it in others because you yourself have been there.

How do you recognise that same thing in others? Because once you have mastered something, it reveals itself in everything that you do. Your experience cannot help but inform you about other things, and influence the way you take action.

How will that make you a better tester?

If nothing else, it will make it easier for you to play the simile game. X is like Y. It’s an effective way to learn something new – relate it to something you already know well. It can give you a different way of thinking about things. Paradoxically, any art worth mastering will have concepts that are unique to that art, that don’t directly translate into anything else. Opening your mind to new concepts can help you look at testing problems from angles you may not otherwise have considered.

Recognising various stages in learning allows you to become a better teacher. If you can recognise where someone else is along the path, you can more effectively tailor your guidance to be more meaningful. There’s no point talking about concepts they’re going to have no clue about if what they need is a simple, straightforward explanation that leads them to a deeper understanding.

So I maintain that if you really want to become a great software tester, be great at something else.

4 thoughts on “Be a better tester – do something else

  1. Not so much. What I am saying is that should Tiger decide he wanted to take up software testing, his mastery of golf would help him immensely in learning the craft.

    I’m not saying that you cannot master testing (or anything) without doing something else. I am saying that it helps. I am saying that having mastery of one thing is of great benefit when trying to master another.

    In terms of mastering anything, there is no substitute for putting in the hours. If you want to be great, it takes the sort of single-minded determination, focus and the will do act that few people seem to be able to sustain very long (and acceptance of the sacrifices that inevitably follow). If it’s something that you’re passionate about, the rewards can be experiences that money can’t buy (and depending on what you master, it can mean a whole lot of money too 🙂 ).

    Thanks for your comment and the article. It was an interesting read.

  2. I think your claim is interesting, and I agree with it to some extent, but the argument you give in favor of it (towards the end of the post) is too ambiguous and not really convincing.

    Do you have some examples of people you know or maybe from your own life that became better testers because they went and did something else? What about counter examples, people who learned other skills while their testing didn’t improve one bit? Can you tie directly skills learned in other fields that improved your testing? How exactly would, say, learning some Judo moves or whatever it may be improve my testing?

    Generally I think being versatile and learning several different disciplines helps you as a person. However, I’ve known and seen too many experts that just do one thing almost all the time and excel in their field.

    In my opinion being able to go off and master something else and have that improve your testing has to do with something deeper – with your awareness. I wrote about it in my own blog, you’re more than welcome to have a read: http://www.testuff.com/blog/2008/06/the-zen-of-testing/

  3. Mastering something else as a way of making you a better tester is a heuristic. It won’t always hold true for numerous reasons probably including the ones you mention.

    In terms of people that have mastered something and used it to inform their testing – Just about anyone who presented at CAST 2008 for starters.

    Michael Bolton, Jonathan Kohl, Chris McMahon – all accomplished musicians, all use their knowledge of music to inform their testing.
    Kem Caner – uses knowledge from his law doctorate (amongst a prodigious amount of other stuff) to inform his testing
    Scott Barber – uses knowledge from his civil engineering degree
    to name just a few.

    As to why mastering something else helps (aside from being able to play the simily game) –
    Understanding of what it takes to learn and understand something – progressing from being unconscious about how much you don’t know, to conscious about how much you don’t know and your progression toward acquiring that knowledge.

    Understanding other human beings, Understanding yourself – Throwing someone around (and indeed being thrown around) a judojo won’t in and of itself make you a better tester, but through repeated sparring with other human beings you learn how they think and more to the point, you learn how you think and act when under pressure. Other arts may give you other insights into human nature. I think they are there for those that invest the time.

    Understanding the difference between practice and application (I just wrote about this, so I won’t labour the point)

    and on and on.

    I don’t have any counter examples of people that mastered something worthwhile and didn’t become better testers. I suspect as you allude, that anyone who has the perseverance to master something will have the awareness to take that into their testing. I know some testers who are really good at other stuff and probably don’t incorporate that into their testing, but there is a difference between being really good at something and working to master it.

    I’m also not saying that the only way to master testing is to master something else first. I am saying that having done so will inevitably make you a better software tester.

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