Friday, January 18, 2008

How Can I Become a Better Tester? Part IV: Mentors

A major step for career growth, in any role, is to find a mentor. Mentoring relationships come in many forms, the most common of which are:

  • Working for someone
  • Working with someone
  • Having a formal mentoring relationship
  • Having an information mentoring relationship
  • Reading and participating in specific test focus groups

Working With Someone

The best way to learn from someone is to work with them, elbow to elbow. There's no better way to learn. I think of a couple of great test managers I had when I was a test lead. Dan, a test manager in Microsoft's Mobile Devices Division, is a fantastic manager. He is great with people, protects his teams from politics and struggles above, and understands quality. One thing I learned from Dan is that, while a tester's appetite for more time or resources is never satiated, we can get the job done anyhow. When I complained to him that we shipped a product with too few people, he asked "Did it ship on time?" [Yes] "Have there been any recall class bugs?" [No] "Then you must have had the right number of people."

Another great mentor was Mike, group test manager for Live Meeting. Mike and I didn't see eye to eye on everything, but what a great manager he was! He enabled and trusted people to do way more than they may have ever done. He put me in charge of a beta release of Live Meeting (then called Placeware), and let me drive shiproom meetings of several releases of Live Meeting. He also knew how to have a lot of fun on the job. I miss many aspects of working with Mike, frankly. And I try to make every team member's experience the same - lots of opportunity to grow, lots of fun, and high expectations.

I'll make a wild statement: in your first few years of your career (generally two to three) WHO you work for matters significantly more than HOW MUCH you make. The first years of your career establish a foundation which will determine how quickly you will grow and what kind of habits you will form. If you're fresh out of college and have a choice between working at lower pay for an incredible lead, or earning more and working at a 'code factory', may I recommend you take the former? Establish yourself early on in your career, learn the principles, and THEN go out where you can impact and be rewarded accordingly.

Working With Someone

Almost as good as working for a great test lead is working with a great tester. At any level. In Microsoft as a junior tester, I worked side-by-side with a person who became a great friend. He taught me about equivalence classes, boundaries, and other key concepts. He showed me how to fight for bug fixes. He showed me where the bar should be!

Twelve years later, I was managing a team of 100. I worked with three test leads who taught me a lot. Sri taught me about getting the job done - he just sticks to the job until it's done (I've always prided myself in being known as a person who gets the job done, but Sri showed me how to take this to the next level). Debbie taught me about putting your head down and working through challenges - stick-to-it-ness, if you will. And Jenn taught me about taking pride in whatever you do. We never stop learning, especially by example.

My current manager is much the same. I have never worked for anyone as diplomatic as Tony (and I don't mean that in an office-diplomacy, fake-smile way). He really cares about people, how they feel, and what they think about their job. He's also ready at any moment to take advantage of a teaching/mentoring opportunity.

Having a Formal Mentoring Relationship

At Microsoft, each new hire had a new-hire mentor for their first three to six months. This mentor was the go-to for pretty much anything, from "where's the printer?" to "do you think I'm making my goals?" After that, everyone was advised to find a mentor within the company, and Microsoft even has an internal site dedicated to finding and maintaining a networking relationship.

The same should be true for you. If you're new to a company, I recommend you find yourself an internal person to mentor you. Once you're established, look around and find yourself a mentor. Generally you want to find someone who's ahead of you in some way (technical, project management, leadership skills, etc.). Ask them to be a mentor and be very protective of the time you take from them - make sure every time you meet you have a productive conversation. Never ask them to do your work - ask for help reviewing what you might think is the right proposal, and get feedback into specifics.

Have an Informal Mentoring Relationship

A key requirement for me is to work with great people from whom I can learn. As I pointed out, I learn from people I manage. I try to learn in almost every circumstance and every person. If there's someone you learn from a lot, try to be around them a lot even if you're not in a formal mentoring relationship.

Participate in Forums, Groups, Discussions and Seminars

Finally, there's a lot to be learned by reading and participating in forums, groups, discussions and seminars. I'm active on several forums (MSDNs testing discussion forum, agile testing forum in Yahoo Groups, etc.) I learn a lot just by lurking (although I'm so opinionated that it's impossible for me to lurk for long) or by joining in on the conversation. Other places to learn include seminars, networking groups, and even podcasts (BTW: stay tuned for a podcast from me over on, where I'm a Testing Expert)


  1. Nice post, seems you got lucky with the people you worked with but you're repaying the karma with the blogs and post that you do

    I took a paycut to join my present company as it had so many experience people that I knew I could learn from, this blog was a nice push for me to keep on learning from them

  2. Great--nice to hear it helped someone! Keep me posted and let me know how it works out for you.

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