Monday, December 24, 2012

My Changing QA World


I hope you will permit this one selfish blog to have an opportunity to share some experiences with you being an American Quality Assurance professional working in a Swedish culture and at the same time feeling the impact of agile changing our profession.

Lately, I have become a forum and blog rat.  I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the opinions, ideas and experiences from many other testing professionals from around the world.  Thank you everyone for sharing!  One thing that has impressed upon me is all of us are a result of our own unique experiences and many of our ideas and opinions are derivatives of that experience.

I began my career as one of the many customer support representatives promoted to Quality Assurance.  Believe me when I say we were “green.”  The company had the idea that since we were working with the customers, we could test our products from their perspective.  They were right and they were wrong :).  I say wrong in that we knew nothing about Quality Assurance.  We knew nothing about what a test plan was or how to methodically derive good and interesting tests that could flush out critical flaws in the product.   Some of us, from our higher education experience understood the ideas behind system design and the system development life cycle but not in actual hands on practice.  The good thing was the company realized this and provided two weeks of training on quality assurance and software testing.  So the next couple of years would be how to transform this education into an actual usable process.

Now with training, experience and the beginnings of learning test automation, I moved on from this company.  In the beginning the experience was a team effort.  However it was also an individual effort.  Someone sent a directive, the responsibilities of it were divided and we were pretty much on our own to meet the objective.  Honestly they didn’t care about the how as long as it was done.  Only one time I worked with a company where we answered to a higher authority, the actual Quality Assurance team who enforced the process.

With the rise of technology companies and the dot com boom, it seemed development companies, especially small ones, who omitted the quality assurance role realized it was needed.  They produced good products that were failing with actual usage by the customer causing them to lose money.  So they hired quality assurance and software testing professionals for the first time.  This meant often working as a 1-man team or in a ratio of something like 20 developers to 1 QA.  This was my experience for the next 14 years of my career.  I was the start up gal :).  No one cared how I made it happen as long as it happened.  I was the analyst, the tester, the customer representative, the test automation specialist and the one with the rubber stamp with the word imprinted on it “Release.”  As long as the end results were a well-tested product, no one questioned what I did, why I did it or how I did it.  It was working and I got what I needed to do the job.

For me, test automation became a tool to survive.  Being one tester with eight financial products to test well, there was no way I could manually test all of the products as thoroughly as required at every release or emergency build.  So I developed what I called RATS.  It stood for the Rapid Application Test System.  Today, we might call it a method of TDD.  It was a method to help streamline and expedite the testing effort as well as always giving us the most maximum test coverage as possible.  The end result was one of our customers, a very famous financial and trading institution (I won’t mention by name) purchased the test framework as a way to perform their user acceptance testing of our products.  It was one of my gleaming moments as this sale helped pay salaries during a struggling period of time.  I don’t know how many of you have shared my experience but if you have, you know it is a tough role.

Then I came to Sweden.  The short story was a European company purchased our company and seeing how well I was using test automation, transitioned my role from QA Manager to Test Automation Manager.  THIS WAS BY FAR THE MOST EXCITING PERIOD OF MY LIFE!!!!!!!!  My dull Chicago life was transformed from daily routine to traveling to other countries for the first time in my life!  I was charged with educating and training my new colleagues on the techniques of automation as well as implementing the guidelines for it.  At the time, I was a SilkTest gal.  Oh you could not have convinced me of any other tool than SilkTest  at that time :).  Since I was so successful, no one questioned my choices or techniques.  Hence, I was never challenged to properly to be collaborative and present the methods and ideas to non-QA stakeholders.  So for the next 2.5 years of my career, now working part-time in Sweden, I didn’t have to do anything differently than I had been doing except the differences came.   Let me tell you, I was a very ill-prepared :).

The first major difference was, although I was the manager of QA or test automation, didn’t mean I had full autonomy to perform the job as I saw best.  I could no longer attend one or two meetings, learn the directive and then go into my own little world like the mad hatter and create magic and fantasy that produced a world of good.  Then come out of my little world and go “tada” look at the magic!  Things were different and the world of quality assurance and testing were changing.  The next 5 years of my working life seemed to turn into a horror story that could end in my demise if I couldn’t learn how to survive the various challenges and battles.

My first full-time roll in Sweden was quite similar to the one I had in Chicago except now instead of using a modified waterfall approach, they were using Scrum.  It was the year 2004 and the first time I heard the term Scrum.  This role introduced multiple new challenges!  Oh my there was this idea of time-boxed sprints, a scrum master, testing web applications and web services (I had no idea what that was), testing mobile devices and the major challenge, not being “lagom.”  In Sweden, it basically means “don’t be better than anyone else.”  I didn’t truly understand this, so I encountered many working challenges that had nothing to do with work and getting the job done.  For the actual work challenges, being a one man show again with no budget, I learned to use open-source tools like Selenium and soapUI.  Aha now we are beginning to transition to this so-called Agile Tester role.

Eventually I moved on to another company.  Now, they were employing more agile methods and they were successful with their model.  My knowledge of scrum and agile was still a bit light.  I have to admit, I was so immersed in work that I wasn’t keeping up with changes to testing.  However, I am a bright girl and I caught on to the techniques of their usage of agile, scrum and kanban.  I truly liked kanban and thought it was a very good method for the multi-tasking testers.  Again, I fell into trouble.  It had nothing to do with the quality of my work and everything to do with personalities with my Swedish colleagues.  I found myself being pushed out and actually blocked out.  Then the savior joined the company and began coaching me about working within a Swedish culture.  I had to learn more about the fika paus (coffee breaks) and the need to participate in meetings although it jeopardized the amount of work one could accomplish.  Most importantly, how to be more savvy to certain challenging personality types as these people could truly be damaging if you didn’t compliment their outfit or their hair or acknowledge their efforts.  Wow ok.  Eventually I threw in the towel and joined another company.

Now this company I truly liked!  They were a group of fun and brilliant people! I was so excited to join them that I even took a cut in salary!  They seemed to have a similar work ethic as I did and I didn’t have to worry about fika paus or compliments or anything.  In the beginning, I thrived!  I was learning more about web services testing and now learning TestComplete as well as moving forward from scrum or quasi-agile to pure agile.  It seemed they accepted my work ethics and loved what I was producing.  Wrong! I guess I still had much to learn because the problems began again.  The things I thought if I did differently didn’t work.  The mad hatter mentality returned and I focused on the results I had to produce and forgot about "lagom."  I failed to embrace an important aspect of the job which was……people, stakeholders.  Now, there is this PO and other stakeholders in addition to the scrum master AND blurring lines between QA and development!  I made the mistake and returned to my comfort zone.  The Swedish culture truly is different than what some of us are accustomed to, they don’t pressure you about what you are not getting done.  Of course they want to get things done too but no one expects you to become Hercules.  People, social, collaboration and team seemed more important than being at your desk accomplishing the goal even if it means going around in circles for a very long time before moving forward.  In the US, I worked with more action-oriented situations.  It was more like the football huddle you see on the field at a game.

My Swedish working experience proved to be over-whelming and challenging.  I never in my career had such bad experiences with my colleagues.  These colleagues insisted on team collaboration, team decision, team effort, team drinking, and team gatherings.  They challenged me to pull out of my head the 18 years of experience I had and clearly articulate my position, my efforts, and my suggestions.  They challenged me to provide support to my suggestions.  Here in Sweden, I saw for the first time in my career that I was very used to “doing” not “explaining or selling it.”  In my five years living in Sweden, I finally had to learn to look out the window and see all the changes the world has made while I sat at my desk in wonderland trying to reach utopia that never came.  It became time to take some my lord and I time away from work and began to truly evaluate many things.  My own personality, my own work ethics, how agile was affecting my chosen career, how to move forward and many other factors.

The result of my time was to learn, embrace and understand things change and although we have a wealth of experience and knowledge, we are never too grown-up to try and learn new things.  The result of my experience lead to my own need to open that window and look out learn about decision-making techniques which is widely used in Sweden  These techniques would have helped me thrive better with my colleagues and I am sure they will prove valuable in the US.  It also put me on a path of team management and collaboration training.  I was so focused on getting the work before me done, I often would try to get out of some of the meetings because they impeded on the time to meet the sprint objectives.  However, in Swedish culture, I learned that these meetings are a part of your job.  It is part of the relationships you have with your colleagues.  It is part of being “lagom.”  You might not be in the meeting for yourself but for your team who needs your support.

I remember very well, my final and most major mistake.  I was in a retrospective meeting where we attempted to use a new decision-making technique.  I said “I would like to sit out of the brainstorming activity because this discussion we have had and documented.  So perhaps there is something I need to learn from the developers about why it is still challenging.”  I said the word “documented” which lead to a pissing contest.  I realized then, I should have shut up and just participated even though I was under a tremendous pressure to finalize a number of tasks before the end of the current sprint and there was no one available to help accomplish those tasks.  See that is the big difference!  In the US, I NEED to finish this work!  In Sweden, they adjust.  They get you help or just accept a percentage of the effort can’t get done.

I don’t know about you but I do feel the agile “fad” is a tremendously imposing practice.  It seems, most of the effort is about collaborating and meeting and decision-making and team building and talking.  As a QA professional wearing many hats, as I mentioned earlier, it felt nearly impossible to maintain the train of thought required to achieve any goals, successes nor complete the work.  I can see the benefit of agile but it truly demands different mannerisms, temperament and approach to help achieve those objectives.

So I realized for those who can relate to this article, we might need to rethink no we absolutely need to rethink and reposition ourselves.  My Swedish experience has taught me to be done with the days where I am the QA Lord trying to build a world in seven days and make every little aspect of it great and powerful and purposeful and demonstrating worth the effort!  Perhaps we need to decide “am I truly a QA process person, a QA Lead, an agile tester, a test automation specialist or is it time for something new?”  Because agile says we can’t and we should not play all roles alone.  We must and we should know what roles we can support and to ensure that tasks are not greater than the entire team.  This my fellow test practitioners  who are lords over their own wonderland is a drastic change to how we have been working.

If you like, I would love to hear your experiences and how you have traversed through the changing world of QA.  Feel free to follow me on twitter @mag4automation.

Happy Automation!

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