The “testing moment” with Jon Bach

Recently, I met a so-called “testing expert”, and it was a profound experience. 

I was on a project at a client site in the Bay Area.  I was doing an exploratory session, modeling a product, but sloppily so.  I was not using the session template.  My notes were rough and unpolished. I was not using James’ HTSM or GFS or even SFDPOT.  I was not using any of the skills I teach others, it seemed. 

I was winging it because I was overwhelmed.  With all there was to know about a new product to test and only two days to learn it and deliver a test plan for the crew back in the lab, I let myself take on everything at once, get scattered, lose my focus, disoriented, and the pressure fed on itself the more aware I became.

There were 20 documents open on my screen, there were interruptions from the client as they gave me new pieces of info, there was email coming in to answer, there were things installing on my laptop that were crucial, there were IT issues for me to attend to as I got set up. Everything was getting done at once, but I was making no progress.

A thought came to me right away:  “Jon Bach would not be proud.”

I felt he was watching me — this expert famous tester Jon Bach guy — co-inventor of SBTM, conference keynote speaker, article author, blogger, blah blah blah… He was watching a person I’ll just call “me” — a struggling student tester for 15 years, not as technical as he should be, certainly no programmer, scatter-brained, impatient, too self-critical, easily overwhelmed at times as he tried to live up to Jon Bach’s reputation.

I was in the “testing moment” and I was not doing well. My habits were awful. I started things and left them unfinished and moved to something else. It was like I forgot everything I had learned in 15 years of testing.

As I got up-to-speed on the product given to me to test, I found that habits were driving me more than my skill. I felt compelled to dive in and know it all right away — the readme, the build notes, the FAQ, the software, the test plan, the spec, the strategy, the existing bug database.  I had no compass. I had lost track of my charter. I read things and didn’t know what they meant, and tried to cure that by reading it again, slowly. I read things 5 times and it bounced right off. Nothing got in.  I asked the same question to a stakeholder 3 times that day. It was not good. I felt out of shape and not good enough.

Recently, I traded Tweets with Pradeep Soundararajan, one of India’s most famous testers.  We have never met, but his stock has been rising over the past few years because of his soulful dedication, practice, leadership, and writing about our craft. More and more, he is someone I want to meet. When I commented on his notoriety lately, he said: “I think I am doing what every other tester is actually supposed to do. [Others] are just offering an opportunity to me to make me look good.”

I agreed.  Others have made me look good, and I, too, am always trying to do what I think every tester is supposed to do.  But why did I feel like I was failing (and flailing)?

It occurs to me now that we can take all the training in the world, and have all the experience in the world, but what it often comes down to that drives us in that “testing moment” is our own self-worth.  We are only as good as our last great test idea, our last bug found, our last oral report to stakeholders; and if we have none of those to immediately recall, we can feel pretty lousy.  Worse, that attitude tends feeds on itself and we expect more from ourselves, adding to the pressure and compounding the problem.

This blog has always been about the humanity in software testing, and I never felt more human than in those recent overwhelming moments at that client site. I should have stopped testing and taken a break.  I should have written an issues list with every concern and question I had. I should have not dismissed my confusion so easily.  I should have remembered what I tell people — “confusion is a powerful tool — use it.”

I did not do any of that until the plane ride home the next day.  That’s when I had a coaching session with Jon Bach, the expert. He schooled me there on the plane.  He gave me a robust critique and reminded me of some key points to practice.  Outside of the pressure cooker, he systematically called out my mistakes. Better, he helped me point them out for myself, and he was fair about it. He also called attention to the things I did well (even though I disagreed with him on some of those). 

More importantly, he and I decided to write this blog together, and we wanted to say that we agree on one major point: “We should find ways to rehearse our testing so that when we’re in the “testing moment”, we have a better chance of feeling worthy.

If testing is a performance (as some say), then when do we get a chance to play badly before the curtain goes up? When do we practice scales and read new sheet music, and study other musicians to see how they play?

One answer is why Pradeep is so notorious — he inspired and mentored the “Weekend Tester” phenomenon into what seems to be a reliable and powerful culture of learning and testing practice that offers everyone a chance to try new things and fail safely.  I’ve been a part of just three of them, but there have been over 30 as of this writing. It is a culture of “learning moments” borne from many participants’ “testing moments” on projects.

So with this blog, I dedicate myself (and challenge so-called “testing expert” Jon Bach) to do more in his training to create more “learning moments” — epiphanies and discoveries of one’s skills through hands-on exercises that give testers a chance to rehearse.

If we both do that well enough, we may hear an inner voice in those testing moments that says things like “slow down, remember your charter, ask for help, one thing at a time, remember this tool, remember this technique, remember that this is normal, and I know just what to do…”

Else, we may feel lost when those testing moments come, and beat ourselves up about it.

But Jon Bach reminds me in this last sentence to say there is another choice — we can realize that the failure to be brilliant and proud of ourselves in any given “testing moment” could be considered an important “learning moment”.  (With that, I agree and hopes he reminds me of that from time to time.)

19 Responses to “The “testing moment” with Jon Bach”

  1. Michel Kraaij Says:

    So very recognizable! 🙂
    I have just one symbol for this blog: _O_

  2. Markus Gaertner Says:

    I’d be pleased to see you as a session participants in WT some time. It’s about being the worst and showing what we do, that makes us grow in these moments. I like the nature of your thoughtful self-reflection here, and hope that you don’t get into schizophrenia based upon it.

  3. Kay Johansen Says:

    Thanks, Jon. I really needed this today. When there is nothing left for me to rely on, nothing productive to demonstrate to others, or feel proud of, I need to remember this post and the value of learning moments.

  4. Veretax Says:

    Hey, I’ve been there done that. I’ve been working as a full time tester for just about a year now. Most of my duties are tied to automating regression testing, and the regular testers had kept me out of some of the back and forth with developers. Something that still to this day makes me nervous. Are the excepting me because they don’t think I actually need to be involved, or because they don’t think its my job? Well, on the last development cycle, we got a bit crunched on schedule, and I was brought on to do regular functional testing of the site.

    The problem became that so many of the interfaces and forms for the site had changed. The new module was a completely different way of thinking for how to go about doing certain procedures. So even though I felt up to speed by that point on the product, getting dropped into the fire, I felt like you did, lost, confused, and forced to ask a lot of questions. It turned out this was a good thing at times because I was having to throw all assumptions out the window. When I did that I discovered a number of bugs that the other testers either had not thought to look at or had not thought encountered before. I felt I was asking a lot of dumb questions, but since we had developed this module with little of any requirements or design documentation that I had seen, I had to ask whether X or Y was correct or not, even though A or B seemed the obvious answer.

    My point is, that at times we all can feel a little lost, the question is not to let that feeling of lost get to you. As a Boy Scout they taught us how to use maps and compasses, how to read the land and get from point A to B. Sometimes though you don’t have that Map or Compass. You stop to take a breather and realize where are you? It’s happened to me in real life (and one time my younger, asthmatic, brother was with me.) We debated logically what to do and tried a few things to see if we could find our way back to where we started. After a few failed attempts, we came to realize that we were in fact lost.

    The question was how to get out from where we were. In any case we ended up going back one route to where we saw a fence. Fences are usually in places for a reason, but before I crossed it I climbed a hill and saw a Farm house. I didn’t know of any Farm Houses nearby, but I definitely new that was a land mark where I could at the very least get directions. So we went there and got help to get back to where we were supposed to be.

    So yeah, as you said, being lost can be a good thing, we just need to remember to keep our heads and consider what we need to do in a given situation. In a work environment, that often means speaking up and asking questions. Others may feel just as lost as we do, but if we don’t speak up they may shrug it off as nerves, when in fact there are legitimate things to consider.

    To conclude, feeling lost, overwhelmed, and taxed is not the time to throw in the towel. Its a good time to pause, rest, get some space from the problem and think about how you got here, and how do you get out. Don’t let the emotions of the moment overwhelm you, which seems like you’ve used it as a learning point, which is exactly what we should do. I actually find the most fulfilling days, when I was navigating some technical problem, with no clue how I would solve it and then when I suddenly see that answer at the end, knowing that it was finally done.

  5. Eusebiu Blindu Says:

    Was it something different in the project, some special conditions from the client that could have interfered? Or it was a project that was similar to others in the past?

    • jbtestpilot Says:

      Well, I haven’t led a project in about 6 months, so I was feeling rusty and trying too hard to get everything right on the first try — to make the perfect impression in a short amount of time. The client was actually pleased with my two-day onsite visit and gained a lot of confidence in Quardev because of it, but I’m my own worst critic.

  6. 90 Days of Manual Testing Says:

    […] finished with all of them.  That’s how lost I was in the details of every day testing.  Jon Bach’s recent blog post resonates with me for this very reason.  He writes about having  20 screens open and going back […]

  7. Prem Phulara Says:

    Hi Jon,

    I found this post as incredible, thought provoking and interesting. It is all about going to basics whenever we are stuck somewhere and at the same time enjoying the testing moments.

    Your ability to talk to your inner self is amazing.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. Jeff Fry Says:

    Wonderful post, Jon. Thanks!

  9. Frederick Wheelehan Says:

    This technical stuph is written well, but kinda’ boring to us Luddites.
    I find myself hungry for a Red Robin cheezeburger.
    Keep rockin’ the SBTM !


  10. Brian Osman Says:

    Thanks Jon,

    Great post – I know this feeling – been there too and i thinks its great to take the learning moments that come our way!

    Would be great to see you at weekend testers Australia New Zealand session one day if it works for you 🙂

  11. Danny Says:

    I really enjoyed your self-appraisal, it is something I find myself doing regularly.

    As a manager of a team of test managers, I very rarely get to practice what I preach, and that worries me. I take on smaller projects from time to time just to keep my skills fresh and love getting that feeling that I do actually know what I’m talking about, and I tend to learn so much more about what my test managers are facing every day.

    Thanks, this post has revigorated me.

  12. Danny Says:

    I really enjoyed your self-appraisal, it is something I find myself doing regularly.

    As a manager of a team of test managers, I very rarely get to practice what I preach, and that worries me. I take on smaller projects from time to time just to keep my skills fresh and love getting that feeling that I do actually know what I’m talking about, and I tend to learn so much more about what my test managers are facing every day.

    Thanks, this post has reinvigorated me.

    {please post above as noticed a spelling mistake in my previous post. Bad testing on my part.}

  13. jbtestpilot Says:

    Tis me! How are you?

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