Monday 8 February 2021

Turning from Testing - a Guide to Changing Careers

The decision to change course in your career is one of the most difficult you can make. Taking on the risk of doing something new is an intimidating option compared to the comfort of sticking with the familiar. When this also involves leaving behind a path that has provided you with success in the past it is particularly daunting, which is why far too often we put off making changes until it’s too late.

5 years ago I was a relatively successful software tester. I enjoyed being a tester and leading test teams. As well as my experience in the role I also had the confidence that came with being a member of an engaged professional community of fantastic, enthusiastic people. I'd spoken at conferences, I'd helped to write books, I had a lot to lose leaving this behind. But when my company was sold, and eventually wound down, I faced a difficult decision. While testing had served me well, I was already experiencing limitations associated with the title. Should I stick with the role I knew and loved or change path in an attempt to open up more opportunities?

Re-evaluate where you're heading

Contrary to what many self-help authors will tell you, the first important step in achieving change is not establishing a goal. It is discarding one. When working towards the things you may have seen as aspirations in the past it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the world shifts around you, and sometimes the role you were aspiring to becomes less valuable or simply less viable over time.

Despite being well placed in a testing career 5 years ago, I was also facing challenges with the job description. The advent of self-managing distributed teams had seen testing evolve towards a specialism within development teams rather than it's own vertical requiring senior leadership. On top of that my location in the West of England, and preference for working in small agile companies meant that attractive senior testing opportunities were limited. I made the difficult decision to move away from testing as a job description and try another path.

Being honest enough to re-evaluate your goals and change tack is a really difficult process. It's easy to fall prey to the sunk-cost fallacy and stick with the role you feel that you've invested in, particularly if that success extends beyond your employment into being part of a professional community. Writing this blog, for example, I'm acutely aware that writing now I lack the clear target audience I once enjoyed. Accepting that former goals may no longer be the right ones is a brave step, but it's the first one in achieving valuable change.

Find a new path

Identifying that change is needed is the first step, but it can be hard when you don't have an obvious destination in mind. I recently chatted with a tester who was in a familiar position to me - he was looking for work and trying to decide whether to push on with another senior testing role. Just this week I saw a tester pose a similar question on twitter relating to her career 'crossroads' of whether to stick with testing or change path. It's not a given that changing role is the right decision - for many people sticking with their role and progressing and excelling within it will open up great opportunities, so moving path needs careful consideration.

  • Taking time over your decision is OK - exploring and finding whether a new path is right for you is a valid part of the change process
  • Talking to current and former colleagues in different jobs can help with understanding whether it's a good fit for your skills
  • If you want to try out a new role then contracting or consulting can provide a great opportunity to try something out without the stigma of 'job hopping' - and can also be a great way to put some new roles on your CV or resume to step away from a former job description
  • If you try a new role in a new company and don't enjoy it then there may be an opportunity to move back to something you are more familiar with - after all good people are hard to find in any role

The beauty of considering a change in role is that you can tackle it with a completely open mind, safe in the knowledge that you have a great set of skills to fall back on if you don't feel there's a more compelling option for you.

Set yourself a goal

If you decide that a new role works for you then establishing a long term goal can help to make stepping away from your achievements of the past more acceptable

  • Despite what numerous advocates of 'SMART' goals will tell you, a goal doesn't have to be that specific to be useful - to drive change you just need to establish a clear enough direction to inform you at any decision points whether you are stepping towards or away from it
  • Having a long term aspiration allows you to assess your current options in light of which one most aligns with where you want to get to
  • Establishing a long term goal job title can help you research the requirements of the role and the gaps you need to fill in your skills
  • Identifying new blogs, learning resources and professional communities is a great way to familiarise yourself with a role and what it takes to be successful

Over the last 5 years I've made decisions which, based on their outcome, may have appeared to be the wrong ones. In hindsight what was clear is that even the riskier decisions were ones that got me nearer to where I needed to go, rather than safe ones that stepped away from it. Taking on a hugely risky greenfield product as I wrote about in "Life and Death of a Startup" wasn't easy and I still feel a weight of responsibility for the outcome on a great team. The learning from it, however, was more valuable Product experience than any number of safer bespoke projects.

Don't be scared to step back to move forwards

When moving away from a role where you have depth of experience, it's not necessarily going to be the case that the most progressive step will be forwards.

  • It's naive to expect to move from a high level of seniority in one role straight into another role at the same level without needing to rebuild some foundations.
  • Sometimes a step down is needed to allow you to get in and prove yourself to a new organisation. I learned this lesson many years ago when I took a step down in responsibility in order to learn and grow my career as a tester in an exciting startup.
  • Whilst it can be hard to take a step back in salary or role, the quicker that you get onto the right path the quicker you can start progressing away from the associations with your current position that are the reasons for wanting to change.
  • Don't underestimate how much of your experience is transferable. Most decision making roles in software development have a huge amount of overlap - something I realised early on in my decision to move from Testing to Product and wrote about in "Tester, PO, Armadillo" - so you already have a great base to build from in a number of different roles.

I've stepped back both in terms of role and salary more than once as a way of consolidating learning and establishing a new base to build from, and while it may not always be convenient it can be the best way to start the process of change.

Trust in your ability to get there

In the world of software, rapidly innovating is a key factor in competitive advantage and this relies on the ability to make mistakes. This principle applies just as much in personal roles as it does for product innovation. Driving change and creating opportunities is a mindset that can be just as rewarding personally as it is organisationally, and in the same way the biggest rewards will come with an element of risk. To handle when things don't work out as you planned it's important to believe in yourself and your ability to learn and grow again to get to where you want to be, it's tempting to revert to the familiar when you encounter a setback.

I'm now two years in to what for me what could have been seen as another risky move, but again it was an opportunity that aligned with where I wanted to move professionally. The way things have gone so far certainly support this, but I'm acutely aware that the future holds no guarantees. What I am confident in is that changing path was the right decision for me and has opened up opportunities for me that I simply wouldn't have had if I'd stayed with the safe option.

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