Tuesday 13 November 2012

Sparing the Time for Personal Development

A couple of things that I have read recently have really got me thinking about the subject of personal development. Firstly, I read on twitter that Darren MacMillan will not be attending EuroStar this year as he wanted to focus his holiday time on his family. Although he clarified later when I quizzed him on this that he probably could get the time off from his company to attend, it seemed strange to me that he would consider needing to use his annual leave entitlement to attend a conference. In a similar vein I was talking to Anna Baik a while ago who said that she too used her holiday time to attend conferences.

Secondly, Huib Schoots wrote a blog post on his new job where they operate a 4+1 system. 4 days of working then "1 day per week for the gathering and sharing knowlegde and expertise". This sounds like a great culture with a healthy appreciation of the need for personal development time.

A worthwhile investment?

Perhaps I am very lucky but I've never had to take holiday to attend a conference. I have always justified both the time and cost of attendance on the basis that it is important to develop myself and doing this will in turn improve my work. I do apply self imposed limits though. I'm happy to justify the costs for the great one day conferences such as the Skillsmatter Agile Testing and BDD Exchang, or Ministry of Testing's TestBash. I was lucky enough to attend Eurostar 2011 as a speaker but the full cost of a ticket marks a significant investment relative to e.g. the per-tester hardware budget for a small company and may not always constitute a worthwhile investment compared to smaller scale events and other internal options. Comparing the cost with putting all testers through the same certification based training course, for example, and suddenly it is looking less expensive and I feel that the potential benefits to the company are higher.

A culture of learning

While not quite extending to the 4+1 culture in Huib's company, we do try to promote a culture of learning in my organisation. Some of the ways that I aim to promote this.
  • Each tester has a bi-weekly review of their personal development needs
  • I maintain a mind map of personal development areas for each team member and we work together on what interests them and tasks they can work on to build their skills and knowledge. If they have an interest in a skill or technology not directly related to their current workload then we'll try to find some tasks to get exposure to that area.

  • We allow team members to choose their own tools
  • Their laptops are their own to configure with whatever tools help them to be productive. The restrictions being that the software must be safe and legal, and that they must share the knowledge of any useful tools with others on the Wiki and in a lunch and learn session.

  • Testing research tasks
  • I often give team members background tasks to research a relevant testing subject and present their findings to the team to prompt discussion. Subjects we have covered so far include Exploratory Testing, State based testing, Risk Based Testing, Feature Injection, User Stories and upcoming sessions on Model Based Testing and Testing Oracles

I suggest that team members take a day per sprint on their personal development items and provide the option of attending conferences and meetups. I'm sure that what we do is very limited in comparison to some companies. I have, however, encountered testers who've spent 10 years or more in the job and not met up with others to discuss their craft. One of the arguments that I've heard levied against investing in conferences, for example, is how much of what they encounter the attendee will be able to apply back in their own company. I'd counter this argument in a number of ways:-

  • People will always have an eye on their career progression.
  • It is easy to feel that the world is moving on without you when in the confines of your organisation. Allowing your testers to interact with the wider community will give them a feeling of self progression but also reassure them that they are abreast with the latest trends.

  • The grass is not always greener
  • Personally I find one of the greatest benefits of talking with other testers is to reassure myself that other people encounter the same issues as we do. I recently discussed the problems of testing large data stores with test lead testing in a significantly bigger and well known organisation than my own and was pleased that they had hit many similar issues to the ones we face.

  • Losing staff through lack of personal development will cost more
  • I've been lucky to have had very low turnover of testers in my teams over the last 8 years and I think one of the main reasons for this is the opportunity for development in the individuals concerned, combined with working hard to find individuals who will thrive in such an environment.

  • You never know what is going to be relevant
  • Conference speakers and more importantly attendees come from a variety of companies and cultures. You never know when you'll hear an interesting technique or technology which can be directly applied to improve your own testing. Not attending conferences on the assumption that your process is fixed and nothing applicable can be learned from outside is myopic.

As with all things I think a healthy balance and a consideration for your context needs to be applied. Given the volume and range of conferences and meetings available it would be quite possible for a tester to spend an entire year (and a lot of money) just attending these and not actually doing any testing. I think that for a company, allowing some regular time on personal development items combined with time and budget for a few days per year getting out of the office and learning from others, is an sensible investment for the continuous, development , happiness and ultimately success of your testers.

Image : https://www.flickr.com/photos/slambo_42/558579574

Unknown said...

Hear, hear! I'd also say that fulfilling these needs for your testers will act as a natural selection process ensuring you retain the very best, and provide some social pressure on any others to improve. Give your testers expectations of greatness and watch them grow into it. Don't be afraid that trained and improved testers will leave, be afraid that the untrained and base ones will stay, because if you treat your employees like they're robots then you'll retain robots.. and in case it needs stating testing is a creative process performed by humans.

Adam Knight said...


Thanks for taking the time for making these great comments. "testing is a creative process performed by humans" - I couldn't agree more.


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