There are two predominant external views of the software testing industry. The first view is that anybody off the street can be trained to perform software testing, reinforced because the primary pathway into the testing industry is usually via another role.
The implication is that no other skill – other than being good at your current job – is a prerequisite for entering the industry. The second viewpoint is an extension of the first, and says that if you throw more and more people at a testing effort you will eventually uncover all the defects that exist.
Both of these are what I call monkey viewpoints, i.e., any monkey off the street can be trained to do testing, or, if you throw enough monkeys in a room they will hammer out Shakespeare.
Yet both of these are incorrect; it takes significant skill to be an effective software tester. Hence, my talk at QA or the Highway was focused on learning how to learn to develop skills to make you an effective software tester.
Knowledge and Skill Development
When I was in high school, Miss Starrett, one of my English teachers, put a quote up on the chalkboard that has stuck with me ever since: “Knowledge plus experience equals insight and wisdom.” I don’t remember who came up with that quote and I was unable to identify an author through a Google search; however, I appreciate the profoundness of that quote. When we are on the path to learning it is important to understand that knowledge alone will not get you there and experience alone will not get you there. It’s the combination of knowledge and experience that will lead you to insight and wisdom to become an effective software tester. So the question is: What is the path of learning?
The Stages of Competence
A great model for us to follow is Noel Burch’s “The four stages of competence.” In this model we progress through four stages of competency. (Some have added a fifth stage to this model.) They are:
“I don’t know that I don’t know how to do this.”
In this stage an individual is unaware of the existence of a skill, unaware they possess inefficiency or deny the relevance of the skill. To move people beyond the stage they first must be educated on the existence and value of the skill followed by training and experience with the skill.
“I know I don’t know how to do something, yet.”
At this point a person is aware that a skill exists and they are aware that possessing the skill provides value to them. But they are also aware that they possess a deficiency and don’t know how to do it. Moving past this stage requires continued training and experience, but more importantly they need time to master the skill. It’s not enough to receive basic training and simple isolated experience and then expect them to develop the competency.
“I know that I know how to do this.”
With persistence, training and experience people can achieve this level of competency. It’s characterized by the ability to perform a skill that will still require concentration. They can mostly perform the skill on their own and can demonstrate it but usually not teach it to others. Moving past the skill requires continued exercising of the skill, not necessarily more knowledge of the skill. Repetition is the key to moving on to the next stage.
“What, you say I did something well?”
At this stage exercising of the skill is second nature; it doesn’t require any concentration to perform. It’s expected that once this stage is reached you would be able to teach the skill to other people. Most people believe that they are at this stage of skill mastery, but in reality they typically are not. The ability to teach is a hallmark of reaching this level of competency.
“There is application beyond the traditional”
This stage primarily exists to differentiate the ability to teach versus the ability to philosophize about the skill and its application. One way to tell if mastery of the skill has achieved this level is whether or not the person is capable of contributing to theory and research that led to the development of the skill in the first place.
I would encourage you to look at your testing skills and evaluate where you may fall within the learning spectrum. Then identify skills that you would like to improve and create a plan to improve them through continual knowledge or training and application of that skill.
It’s important to know those skills that you already have and that you wish to retain require continued focus, as it’s possible to regress through the learning spectrum by allowing your skills to decay over time.