Category: Skills

A Road to Awesomeness

At TestBash Manchester I did a presentation titled “A road to awesomeness”. In this talk I tried to explain how testers can become awesome. I talked about learning and testing skills. To prepare this talk I created a mind map to list skills and ways to learn. The mind map is here and will be continuously updated in the future. Let me know if you have things to add.

The 4-hour tester

In another talk at TestBash Manchester Helena Jeret-Mäe and Joep Schuurkes talked about the 4-hour Tester Experiment.  They took the the challenge of teaching new testers useful skills in only 4 hours. They focus on 5 skills:

  • Interpretation
  • Modeling
  • Test design
  • Note taking
  • Bug reporting

Their experiment is an interesting try to teach software testers essential skills in only 4 hours. Of course it is impossible to teach anyone to test in 4 hours.  But the 4-hour tester has simple exercises that take at most one hour to complete. Interesting approach to help inexperienced testers to get started.


To become awesome, you have to learn a lot. But how do we learn? I like the 10/20/70 model: 70 percent of learning comes form job-related experiences, 20 percent from interactions with others, and 10 percent from formal educational. So training is only a small part of a learning journey. Interaction with others, like communities and networking, coaching and mentoring are a part of it as well. But the biggest part of learning takes place from work related experience. This doesn’t mean just working. Many years of working doesn’t let you necessarily learn effective if you do not get feedback, reflect on what you do in the right environment. Doing the same work for 10 years doesn’t give you 10 years of useful experience. If you never retrospect, reflect or get any feedback, I’d say you have 10 times 1 year of experience. To make learning effective in your job you need:

  • Concrete, challenging and achievable tasks
  • Realistic application of skills, processing and reflection
  • Personal interpretation, exchange with others and constructive feedback
  • A safe environment to experiment and make mistakes

But there is more to learning. In her TED Talk “Learning how to learn” Barbara Oakley talks about two fundamental learninglearning-how-to-learn modes of our brain: focused mode and the more relaxed diffused mode. When your are learning, you want to go back and forth between these two modes. When you are stuck, you defocus going into the diffused mode, generating new ideas. If you want to learn more about this, I recommend the coursera MOOC “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects“. Two of the things I took from that course is that active listening (e.g. by asking questions) is far more effective. Also learning by doing is a great way to learn fast.

Learning is the most important skill for a tester. And learning is closely related to thinking skills. I’ll come to that later.

What makes an awesome tester?

An awesome testers has many skills. In my blogpost “Heuristics for recognizing professional testers” I described 18 heuristics to recognize professional testers. This was the starting point for my talk at TestBash Manchester. The first steps to help me think about aspects to become awesome, was creating a mind map with a couple of things to focus on: what makes an awesome tester: who (characteristics), what (skills) and how (ways to learn and how to become an expert).

awesome-testers-mapThere are many skills that make an awesome tester. I think the most important skill is the ability to learn! Remember the definition of testing we use in Rapid Software Testing: “Testing is evaluating a product by learning about it through exploration and experimentation”. Besides learning I identified  5 categories of skills testers need:

  • Thinking skills
  • Testing skills
  • Technical skills
  • Domain skills
  • Soft skills

And of course there are many, many skills that make these categories. Have a look at the mind map to learn more about these skills. It is very important to recognise what skills are involved in being a great tester. If you want to learn, you need to know what to focus on. Not knowing which skill to train, will result in unfocussed and ineffective learning. I see many testers apply test techniques without knowing what skills are used and which methods are underneath the technique. This makes them apply techniques as recipes or trick. Being able to apply approaches, tactics and techniques effectively in any situation requires the right skills.

Thinking skills

Learning and thinking are closely related. While researching thinking and thinking skills, I stumbled upon a great TED talk by Dr. Derek Cabrera called ”How Thinking Works”. He talks the schooling system teaching about 4 universal thinking skills. Schools nowadays are over-engineering the content curriculum: students do not learn to think, they learn to memorize stuff. Kids are learned to follow instructions, like painting by the numbers. To fix this, we need to learn how to think better and for that he suggests four thinking skills: DSRP. A simple set of rules to become better in systems thinking.

  • Making Distinctions – Any idea or thing can be distinguished from other ideas or things
  • Organizing Systems – Any ideas or thing can be split into parts or lumped into a whole
  • Recognizing Relationships – Any idea or thing can relate to other ideas or thing
  • Taking Perspectives – Any idea or thing can be the point or the view of a perspective

In his book “Systems thinking made simple“, Dr. Cabrera talks metacognition. “Systems thinking is a particular type of metacognition that focuses on and attempts to reconcile the mismatch between one’s mental models and how the real world works”, he continues to describe acts of metacognition: “Awareness that everything you experience is a mental model that approximates (either poorly or well) the real world”, “The ability to distinguish among cognition (thinking), emotion (feelings), and conation (motivations) and the awareness of how these different human capacities influence our mental models and behavior”. Recognizing that models are a big part of our thinking makes you a better tester. But also that your biases and emotions influence your thinking are great insights we have to take into account in our testing.

A second TED talk I recommend is “How to think, not what to think” by Jesse Richardson. He says: “The way we approach education needs to adapt! What’s different in teaching children how to think, we are involving them in the process of their own learning. Instead of just telling them to memorize the right answer, we ask them to engage their own minds, their own awareness by questioning things, attaining understanding not just knowledge. And that involvement, that engagement, is so important, because it keeps the spark of curiosity alive.”

He mentions the famous TED Talk by Ken Robinson: “Do schools kill creativity?“. One of my all time favorites.

Activities in testing
To fully understand what skills we use in testing, I made a list of testing activities. In Rapid Software Testing we teach the 9 Elements of testing and I took these as a starting point.

  1. Model the test space and risks
  2. Determine coverage
  3. Determine oracles
  4. Determine test procedures
  5. Configure the test system
  6. Operate the test system
  7. Observe the test system
  8. Evaluate the test results
  9. Report test results

The next step was to zoom in on the different elements in the list. Zooming in on “Model the test space and risks” we can distinguish:

  • Context Analysis
  • Creating a product Coverage Outline
  • Test Plan
  • Test scope
  • Risk & Value Analysis

I did this with all 9 elements and came to a pretty long list of activities. Maybe you can think of more activities testers do, let me know if you do.

This (making distinctions or factoring) exercise resulted in a huge list of things we do in testing and products we make. The next step was to lists the skills that we use, doing these activities. Obviously the first thing I thought of was learning and thinking. Researching this, I stumbled upon a lot of interesting stuff, of which part I have described earlier. But there was more, way more as you can see in my mind map. And this mind map expands every time I visit it.  Factoring the activities and skills helps me to see what is really going on while we are testing.

So how do you become awesome?

So now we have a map of activities and skills. But how do we learn them? And where do we start?

The most important part of becoming awesome is knowing what to learn and how. The first step is to know what to learn and focus on that. Stop trying to learn 10 things at the same time, it doesn’t work! A way to get to know what you want to learn is writing a Personal Development Plan answering 5 simple questions: Who am I? What are my skills? What do I want? What do I need?  How do I get there? This can give you great insight in your skills, ambition and learning needs. The second step is to find mentors who can help you and give you feedback. After that it is “just” a matter of doing it and practice!

I learned to be awesome by doing many things:

  • Observing others and myself: by becoming manager and a coach I found out that observing others gives you great insight in how testing is done and what the common problems are for people who are learning how to test. Observing myself, which is quite difficult in the beginning, I learned what I was doing and I found out that this was a big eye-opener and learning enabler. Using a journal a writing down stuff every day on my way home, gave me great insights in what my problems were. Knowing your problems, is the first step to solving them.
  • Explaining, presenting, teaching & coaching: by explaining stuff to others, you learn to structure your thoughts. To be able to present or  teach you really have to know your stuff. And still every time I teach, I learn new things about what I teach. New examples, new problems, new ways of doing things. Also answering difficult questions is very helpful learn deeply about topics. That is way I think we should encourage debate and questioning at conference way more.
  • Pairing: pairing is a fun and nice way to learn from others. Seeing how others do things is helpful and has many learning opportunities. Also the feedback you get from your pairing-partner is valuable.
  • Writing my blog: same thing as explaining and teaching. Writing this blog post made me think about what o write and how to explain. I needed to structure my thoughts. Great exercise.
  • Keeping a journal: see observing other and myself.
  • Always having a notebook with me: to practice note taking and it also helps me not to forget interesting stuff that others tell me. It is great to read back notes from conferences and courses from way back. It refreshes my memory and I often see new insights I didn’t see before.
  • Discussing & debating testing: see explaining.
  • Trying new stuff: experimenting is fun and also a way to learn about new techniques, tools, approaches, etc.
  • My coaches and mentors: I have had and still have many mentors. All these people help me to become better every day. It is great to have many mentors, each with their own expertise and specialties. I have a big international network of people I know and who I work with. So many sources of knowledge and skill help me quickly find an answer to almost every difficult testing problem I have.

My advise is to try the same exercise I did creating the mind map. Create your own model of test activities and skills. Observe what you do, how you do it and make your own mind map (or any other way you would like to model it). Come back and compare yours to my mind map.

So why is this important?

I see may similarities with the problems in the current schooling system and in testing:  over-engineering the content curriculum, students do not learn to think, they learn to memorize stuff and to follow instructions (like painting by the numbers). In most testing classes testers learn tricks, procedures and the use of template like approaches in stead of the required skills to do an excellent job. In Rapid Software Testing (RST) we teach thinking skills. We learn testers how to effectively think and solve problems instead of using tricks, templates and standards to do their work. By learning to think better, you learn better. And isn’t testing all about learning? Also, if you are able to think, you are able to do better work, apply your skills in the right way. Adapt to changing context, find your own solution to problems that occur. We also teach testers to dynamically manage their focus: focus/defocus is similar to fundamental learning modes Prof. Dr. Barbara Oakley talks about in her TED Talk.

The DSRP model (distinctions, systems, relationships, perspectives) is very useful in testing. In RST we talk about models and learn our students how to model (distinctions, systems and relationships) and to think from different perspectives using a diverse strategy using heuristics. Great to see that the stuff we teach is actually backed up by scientists who study metacognition (thinking about thinking) and epistemology (the study of knowledge). Making a product coverage outline for instance helps you see distinctions and relations and helps systems thinking.

Good luck on your journey to awesomeness!


The slides I used in Manchester are here: slideshare.
The updated slides are here: pdf.

All talks at TestBash are recorded. My talk is here.

Too controversial?

On May 11 2016 TestNet (*)  held her spring conference with “Strengthen your foundation: new skills for testers” as the central theme. The call for papers that was send out made me frown.  It said:

“In the final keynote of the TestNet autumn event, speaker Rini van Solingen referred to the end of software testing as we know it. ‘What one can learn in merely four weeks, does not deserve to be called a profession’, he stated. But is that true? Most of our skills, we learn on the job. There are many tools, techniques, skills, hints and methods not typical for the testing profession but essential for enabling us to do a good job nonetheless. Furthermore the testing profession is constantly evolving as a result of ICT and business trends. Not only functional testing, but also performance, security or other test varieties. This presses us to expand our knowledge, not just the testing skills, but also of the contexts in which we do our jobs. The TestNet Spring Event 2016 is about all topics that are not addressed in our basic testing course, but enable us to do a better job: knowledge, skills, experience.”

I think that there are a lot of skills that are not addressed in our “basic testing course” where they should have been addressed. I am talking about basic testing skills! So I wrote an abstract for a keynote for the conference:

The theme for the spring event is “Strengthen your foundation: new skills for testers”. My story takes a step back: to the foundation! Because I think that the foundation of most testers is not as good as they think. The title would then be: “New skills for testers: back to basics!

Professional testers are able to tell a successful story about their work. They can cite activities and come up with a thorough overview of the skills they use. They are able to explain what they do and why. they can report progress, risk and coverage at any time. They will gladly explain what oracles and heuristics they use, know everything about the product they are testing and are deliberately trying to learn continuously.

It surprises me that testers regularly can’t give a proper definition of testing. Let alone that they are able to describe what testing is. A large majority of people who call themselves professional testers can not explain what they do when they are testing. How can anyone take a tester seriously if he/she can not explain what he/she is doing all day? Try it: go to one of your testing colleagues and ask what he or she is doing and why it contributes to the mission of the project. Nine out of ten testers I’ve asked this simple question, start to stutter.

What do you exactly do if you use a “data combination test” or a “decision table”? What skills do you use? “Common sense” in this context does not answer the question because it is not a skill, is it? I think of: modeling, critical thinking, learning, combine, observe, reasoning, drawing conclusions just to name a few. By looking in detail at what skills you are actually using, helps you recognize which skills you could/should train. A solid foundation is essential to build on it in the future!

How can you learn the right skills if you do not know what skills you are using in the first place? In this presentation I will take the audience back to the core of our business: skills! By recognizing the skills and training them, we are able to think of and talk about our profession with confidence. The ultimate goal is to tell a good story about why we test and value it adds.

We need a solid foundation to build on!

My keynote wasn’t selected. So I send it in as a normal session, since I really am bothered by the lack of insight in our community. But it didn’t make it on the conference program as a normal session either. Why?  Because it is too controversial they told me. After applying for the keynote the chairman called me to tell me that they weren’t going to ask me to do a keynote because the did want a “negative” sound on stage. I guess I can imagine that you do not want to start the day with a keynote who destroys your theme by saying that we need to strengthen our foundation first before moving on.

But why is this story too controversial for the conference at all? I guess it is (at least in the eyes of the program committee) because we don’t like to admit that we lack skills. That we don’t really know how to explain testing. I wrote about that before here.  It bothers me that we think our foundation is good enough, while it really isn’t! We need to up our game and being nice and ignoring this problem isn’t going to help us. A soft and nice approach doesn’t wake people up. That is why I wanted to shake this up a bit. To wake people up and give them some serious feedback … I wrote about serious feedback before here. But the Dutch Testing Community (represented by TestNet) finds my ideas too controversial…


(*) TestNet is a network of, by and for testers. TestNet offers its members the opportunity to maintain contacts with other testers outside the immediate work environment and share knowledge and experiences from the field.

A new level of testing?

Yesterday I saw this awesome video of Lars Andersen: a new level of archery. It is going viral on the web being watched over 11 million times within 48 hours. Now watch this movie carefully…

The first time I watched this movie, I was impressed. Having tried archery several times, I know how hard it is to do. Remember Legolas from the Lord of Rings movie? I thought that was “only” a movie and his shooting speed was greatly exaggerated. But it turns out Lars Andersen is faster than Legolas. My colleague Sander send me an email telling me about the movie I just watched saying this was an excellent example of craftsmanship, something we have been discussing earlier this week. So I watched the movie again…

Also read what Lars has to say in the comments on YouTube and make sure you read his press release.

This movie is exemplar for the importance of practice and skills! This movie explains archery in a way a context-driven tester would explain his testing…

0:06 These skills have been long since been forgotten. But master archer Lars Andersen is trying to reinvent was has been lost…

Skills are the backbone of everything being done well. So in testing skills are essential too. I’ll come back to that later on. And the word reinvent triggers me as well. Every tester should reinvent his own testing. Only by going very deep, understand every single bit, practice and practice more, you will truly know how to be an excellent tester.

0:32 This is the best type of shooting and there is nothing beyond it in power or accuracy. Using this technique Larsen set several speed shooting records and he shoots more than twice as fast as his closest competitors…

Excellent testers are faster and better. Last week I heard professor Chris Verhoef speak about skills in IT and he mentioned that he has seen a factor 200 in productivity difference between excellent programmers and bad programmers (he called them “Timber Smurf” or “Knutselsmurf” in Dutch).

0:42 … being able to shoot fast is only one of the benefits of the method

Faster testing! Isn’t that what we are after?

0:55 Surprisingly the quiver turned out to be useless when it comes to moving fast. The back quiver was a Hollywood Myth…

The back quiver is a Hollywood myth. It looks cool and may look handy on first sight, since you can put a lot of arrows in it. Doesn’t this sound like certificates and document-heavy test approaches? The certificates looks good on your resume and the artifacts look convenient to help you structure your testing… But turn out to be worthless when it comes to test fast.

1:03 Why? Because modern archers do not move. They stand still firing at a target board.

I see a parallel here with old school testing: testers had a lot of time to prepare in the waterfall projects. The basic assumption was that target wasn’t moving, so it was like shooting at a target board.  Although the target proved always to be moving, the testing methods are designed for target boards.

1:27 Placing the arrow left around the bow is not good while you are in motion. By placing your hand on the left side, your hand is on the wrong side of the string. So you need several movements before you can actually shoot..

Making a ton of documentation before starting to test is like several movements before you can actually test.

1:35 From studying old pictures of archers, Lars discovered that some historical archers held their arrow on the right side of the bow. This means that the arrow can be fired in one single motion. Both faster and better!

Research and study is what is lacking in testing for many. There is much we can learn from the past, but also from social science, measurement, designing experiments, etc.

1:56 If he wanted to learn to shoot like the master archers of old, he had to unlearn what he had learned…

Learning new stuff, learning how to use heuristics and train real skills, needs testers to unlearn APPLYING techniques.

2:07: When archery was simpler and more natural, exactly like throwing a ball. In essence making archery as simple as possible. It’s harder how to learn to shoot this way, but it gives more options and ultimately it is also more fun.

It is hard to learn and it takes a lot of practice to learn to do stuff in the most efficient en effective way. Context-driven testing sounds difficult, but in essence it makes testing as simple as possible. That means it becomes harder to learn because it removes all the methodical stuff that slows us down. These instrumental approaches trying to put everything in a recipe so it can be applied by people who do not want to practice, make testing slow and ineffective.

2:21 A war archer must have total control over his bow in all situations! He must be able to handle his bow and arrows in a controlled way, under the most varied of circumstances.

Lesson 272 in the book Lessons Learned in Software Testing: “If you can get a black belt in only two weeks, avoid fights”. You have to learn and practice a lot to have total control! That is what we mean by excellent testing: being able to do testing in a controlled way, under the most varied of circumstances. Doesn’t that sound like Rapid Software Testing? RST is the skill of testing any software, any time, under any conditions, such that your work stands up to scrutiny. This is how RST differs from normal software testing.

2:36 … master archers can shoot the bow with both hands. And still hit the target. So he began practicing…

Being able to do the same thing in different ways is a big advantage. Also in testing we should learn to test in as many different ways as possible.

3:15 perhaps more importantly: modern slow archery has led people to believe that war archers only shot at long distances. However, Lars found that they can shoot at any distance. Even up close. This does require the ability to fire fast though.

Modern slow testing has led to believe that professional testers always need test cases. However, some testers found that they could work without heavyweight test documentation and test cases. Even on very complex or critical systems also in a regulated environment. This does require the ability to test fast though.

Lars Andersen: a new level of archery3:34 In the beginning archers probably drew arrows from quivers or belts. But since then they started holding the arrows in the bow hand. And later in the draw hand. Taking it to this third level. That of holding the arrows in the bow hand, requires immense practice and skill and only professional archers, hunters and so on would have had the time for it. … and the only reason Lars is able to do it, is he has been years of practicing intensely.

Practice, practice, practice. And this really makes the difference. I hear people say that context-driven is not for everybody. We have to accept that some testing professional only want to work 9 to 5. This makes me mad!

I think professional excellence can and should be for everyone! And sure you need to put a lot of work in it! Compare it to football (or any other good thing you want to be in like solving crossword puzzles, drawing, chess or … archery). It takes a lot of practice to play football in the Premiership or the Champions League. I am convinced that anyone can be a professional football player. But it doesn’t come easily. It demands a lot of effort in learning, drive (intrinsic motivation, passion), the right mindset and choosing the right mentors/teachers. Talent maybe helps, and perhaps you need some talent to be the very best, like Lionel Messie But dedication, learning and practice will take you a long way. We are professionals! So that subset of testers who do not want to practice and work hard, in football they will soon end up on the bench,  won’t get a new contract and soon disappear to the amateurs.

Lars Andersen: a new level of archery4:06 The hard part is not how to hold the arrows, but learning how to handle them properly. And draw and fire in one single motion not matter what methods is used.

Diversity has been key in context-driven testing for many years. As testers we need to learn how to properly use many different skills, approaches, techniques, heuristics…

4:12 It works in all positions and while in motion…

… so we can use then in all situations even when we are under great pressure, we have to deal with huge complexity, confusion, changes, new insights and half answers. 

5:17 While speed is important, hitting the target is essential.

Fast testing is great, doing the right thing, like hitting the target is essential. Context-driven testers know how to analyze and model their context to determine what the problem is that needs to be solved. Knowing the context is essential to do the right things to discover the status of the product and any threats to its value effectively, so that ultimately our clients can make informed decisions about it. Context analysis and modelling are some of the essential skills for testers!

There are probably more parallels to testing. Please let me know if you see any more.


”Many people have accused me of being fake or have theories on how there’s cheating involved. I’ve always found it fascinating how human it is, to want to disbelieve anything that goes against our world view – even when it’s about something as relatively neutral as archery.” (Lars Andersen)