My BBST Experience – A letter from an introvert

Dear Ellen, (fictional character who has signed up for the BBST Foundations Course)
I am writing to you in order to share my experiences with the BBST Foundations course. There are quite a few other blog posts and recent articles on this topic, but I’d like to contribute with another dimension to what has already been said.
This other dimension – or other story, you might say – is one about how this course was an immensely tough learning process for me personally. At times, I felt despair, alone and insecure. Thankfully, a small group of other testers helped me to get through, and just as they helped me, I hope this letter will help you.
The BBST Foundations is a great course. It’s a living hell as well. This dualism seems to permeate the narratives about this course; mine as well as others. I find it quite interesting that people tell me “it’s the best course I ever took” and in the same sentence “it’s four weeks in hell”. Can it be both? What is going on here?
There are several reasons why I personally found the course valuable and a real eye-opener. Firstly, it has helped me to get rid of a general test-lingo such as “I’ll test this with exploratory testing to find all bugs in the software” which I was accustomed to use. Now I am more attentive towards why “I am searching for this information so I’ll evaluate this piece of the software in this particular way”. A sharpened consciousness I might call it. Immediately after completing the course I began asking more questions: Why are we testing this? How do you want to test this? What is most important here? What information are we looking for? Time spent on this assignment has to be taken from another – which one should not be done then?
I find myself having a better focus, as well as a more critical view on how and why I test and a different way of talking about testing. Yet, in some ways the learning process has been a real tough one. I had help from people and other testers in my network and my hope is that by exposing myself a bit here and sharing my BBST course experience with you I might be able to help you get through as well.

Warnings and expectations
The course had been recommended to me by experienced and renowned testers, so prior to the course start, I had pretty high expectations. I had been warned about how tough and difficult it was too, and how people had fallen ill by taking the course! This combination of extremist information had me puzzled; how can a course that makes you ill be the best in the world? I think I had an unconscious, hidden agenda about finding out what was going on here –
this was going to be interesting for sure! It was more than interesting, and I really was taken by surprise at how the course turned out to be such a challenge for me.

Sharing everything
Maybe I’ve been living under a rock for the past 35 years but I’ve only recently discovered the archetypes introvert and extrovert. Reading about the introvert personality was a revelation to me. It was overwhelming, as I found it an almost exact description of my typical interaction with the outer world. I like to think before I speak, to build relationships one-on-one, I recharge by being alone, I do not like to take risks – and I truly prefer to complete my work before I present it to others. So you might guess – this is where the problems started for me in the BBST Course. Everything you do on the course site (Moodle) is available and “public” to all the other participants and course instructors. Everybody could read and comment on all of my work. My online status, my answers in the Exam Cram forum, my participation in the group work and comments were available to everyone. I could almost physically feel how this challenging process started with a large jerk – similar to that jolt you have as the rollercoaster in a Tivoli starts.
I knew that what I put on the course site was neither complete nor necessarily “correct”, but it was the only way to get feedback and guidance. This was the only way to find out if I was on the right track. That in itself was pretty huge for me to take in. Of course, I wasn’t always on track. Of course, I didn’t always pay attention to the call of the question. And of course, my work was criticized because of this. This was hard for me to accept especially in the first half of the course. It got better, still not entirely easy, but I had become hardier and positively tuned to receiving criticism for my work when we reached the final exam (where your work is graded by two other students and you then grade your own work).

A few notes of frustration
The course site, based on Moodle, which you have to navigate in during the entire course, is neither intuitive nor easy to gain an overview. I overlooked relevant information and almost missed an assignment. I subscribed to the email notifications for the relevant forums and threads and received 450 mails during the 4 week course. The subscription service did not always work, so I didn’t even get all the updates. Obviously, this added to existing workloads and created an element of confusion.

Could I have some more hours in my day, please?
I never had the feeling during this course that I had enough time to do a proper piece of work. The recommended hours to spend on the course are 12-14 hours a week, but I was spending 3 times as much and I felt horrible about it. I was beating myself up thinking I must be stupid or lazy, as I was spending all my time and energy on this course, but it lead me to question my abilities.
Even though I was under such pressure, I still found the course materials and subjects extremely interesting. I was also impressed by the quality, composition and variation. It might not be completely up to date, but it’s still a solid mix of individual assignments, video lectures, quizzes, required and recommended readings, group work, orientation exercises and exam questions. That packs a punch! Each had a variant which challenged me in thinking and writing on different levels and in a multitude of ways. This was great. What wasn’t so great was that I felt as though I never had enough time in general, so I ran from one task to another constantly. There were always additional tasks coming up, and I must admit I was getting more and more exhausted as the course progressed.

To navigate in predictability and chaos
But it clearly did strike the right note. From the get-go I found the curriculum and associated deadlines clearly defined. The program is well-defined and you are given adequate information regarding which groups you have been assigned to and which assignments and other challenges are coming up. To that point, it was good. Just as I was settling into the well-defined course, I fell into confusion as I tried to fathom the instructors’ feedback on our answers. It seemed to have little structure in regards to who gave feedback, which answers received feedback at all, and of which reasoning was given. Was it given to poor answers, those of high quality or the ones the instructors found interesting? I found it chaotic not knowing if any feedback would be given to my answers of the assignments, and not knowing if it had been found of acceptable quality. Was I on the right track or had I missed some important aspects? I guess I was a bit insecure about my answers, and it wasn’t until the end of the course that I could truly appreciate and value fellow students’ feedback. All students are expected to provide peer reviews of the others student’s answers, but I simply didn’t feel I knew them well enough to trust their opinions on my work. When reading other students’ answers or peer reviews, I sometimes agreed with his or her criticism of it, only to read an instructor’s comment later on stating the direct opposite.
One of the learning points for me in this process, were firstly that: yes, things are sometimes chaotic and uncertain and there is always value in feedback, because it will challenge your thinking no matter what.

Group work and road rage
A significant part of the course is group work where you depend on others to do a decent piece of work and take responsibility for meeting the deadlines. I came to think of it as similar to driving to work where I appreciate and hope the traffic conditions are good and other road users behave reasonably. It’s just not always like that, and neither was it doing group work in the BBST course.
Some people don’t conform to the rules, don’t understand or participate in the problem solving and don’t bring anything constructive to the table. Just like everyone else on the course I depended on the group work to be at least decent and that the deadlines were met.
So I was stressed out by the fact that some other participants didn’t do their part of the work and didn’t respond to questions or requests. I was uncertain of what to do here (in the traffic I might use the horn or gesticulate), was it alright to ignore them and continue solo? Or should I have written to the instructors and ask them how I should address the problem? Or even hold a plenary discussion?
One of the arguments for accepting the time pressure and the challenging group work is that “it reflects real life”. I just don’t feel that way. If people are horrible drivers – or if my colleagues don’t respond to emails, phone calls or don’t show up at work – I consider this and I will let them know how they are perceived. I prefer to conduct this face-to-face, or at least one-to-one, but I didn’t find this possible on the course. I guess that’s why I ended up accepting crappy group work.

Back to the start and all the way through
So here I guess I should address the questions as to why one should even complete this course with all this complaining and symptoms of stress. The BBST course is not “just” an online course, at least not to me. It has gradually achieved a reputation and status as a test of manhood, a possible entrance to a special club of testers and a community. I realize now that from the very beginning, and all the way through the course, I had two coping strategies. These I’d like to pass on to you.

1. Be open, honest and use your network
I was lucky to have been “warned” about the course from several renowned testers so it was relatively easy for me to reach out to them and be open about how the workload and time pressure was getting to me. And the support I received was unbelievable, I am really grateful. They themselves had been there, so they recognized and acknowledged the stress level I was at. This was both a relief and an encouragement (I was not alone!) and furthermore it led me to the second coping strategy.

2. Make fun of it all (use your sense of humor)
Humor as a coping mechanism shouldn’t be underestimated. When sharing an extreme pressure sometimes you just have to look at each other – and laugh. There have been many jokes about the damn “call of the question” and instructors have been portrayed as cartoon characters (sorry, Markus). It was a way for me to distance myself from it all, take a deep breath and go for another assignment or answer in the Exam Cram forum.

One last piece of advice
One night I could not sleep as I was worked up over an assignment. I couldn’t find peace of mind, and my only thought was that I wanted out of the course, I simply wanted to quit. Immediately. Right Now. My husband talked me into persevering, and at the same time I couldn’t come to terms with going “public” by saying that I didn’t have it in me to complete the course. So I stayed, I ‘hung in there’.
A learning point from this is that next time I will be more open about the reflections on leaving the course if the pressure becomes too much for me. Self-flagellation maybe, but I will have that chance in the Bug Advocacy Course I’ve signed up for this coming winter.
So, dear Ellen, I hope I haven’t frightened you or discouraged you in any way by telling you my story. At least I didn’t intend to. On the contrary I wanted to tell you that you will learn a great deal from taking the course and not only things related to testing. For me it was a learning experience on reaching out, being open, it was also about accepting insecurity, fear and uncertainty.
I know more now about Information Objectives and Missions, floating-point numbers and Oracles, but the learning process was tough and I don’t think I was capable of doing my best. That’s not always possible, maybe there’s not enough time to be thoughtful and creative in all instances.
But isn’t that also a valuable learning experience.
Good luck.

Sincerely,
Bolette
PS. I’m @teglbjaerg on Twitter if you need support and encouragement from a likeminded searcher.

About the Author
Bolette Stubbe Teglbjærg is a tester from Copenhagen, Denmark. Combining her passion for people and software (she did two degrees: Master in Computer Science and Master in Educational Theory), the world of Testing beckoned. Bolette has been working in software development since 2001 and testing since 2007. Having recently discovered Context-Driven Testing, Bolette is interested in promoting testing as an independent profession and discipline. She has recently signed a contract with “House of Test” and will start as a Test Consultant from September 2014. She blogs about testing (in Danish) with Carsten Feilberg at http://testrefleksion.blogspot.dk/

7 thoughts on “My BBST Experience – A letter from an introvert”

  1. Very thoughtful blog entry, Bolette. Pretty much what I expected from an introvert.

    Being an introvert on my own, let me try to explain some of the underlying thoughts in the BBST style of classes. Much of this has become my understanding of teaching 10-ish classes by now, and taking the instructors course, and being an face-to-face trainer for classes using a combination of Experiential Learning and Training from the Back of the Room.

    All these methodologies have one thing in common: learners learn best by applying what they learned directly with fellow learners. In every class, there are folks that were already exposed to some of the material, already applied, or even wrote a book about it, and folks who never read the introductory material or welcome email for other information than “when to show up where”. As a trainer, I try to use that situation to get people connected together, and have people that are more knowledgeable teach the content to the ones who are not.

    You can see the same situation happening in BBST courses. We have lots of group assignments in place in order to connect people with each other, and learn from each other.

    Despite our best tries to set expectations with an email that you receive when signing up for the class, we appear to have failed in your case with those expectations. I looked up the mail I received when I first signed up for my Foundations course in 2012. Here is the full text:
    +++
    This email confirms your seat in the BBST Foundations Course beginning April 1st, 2012. We are looking forward to your participation and hope that you can still join us as we explore the foundations of black box testing. I will be sending out detailed instructions to you around March 29th or 30th that will contain everything you need to know to get started in the class.

    Most students find that the time commitment in this class averages between 12 to 14 hours per week. There are several assignments where your classmates depend upon you for input, both in group projects and peer reviews. This collaboration was one of the aspects that I found most rewarding when I took the class. This is also why having 12 to 14 hours a week for the class is so important.

    We recognize that work and other obligations intervene sometimes and plans may have to change from when you first signed up for the class. This class is completely full and has a healthy wait list of people who would like the opportunity to take the class should a seat become available. If your plans have changed or you know that you may not be able to spend enough time in the course, please consider taking the class at another time and allow someone on the wait list to take your seat.

    You can contact me at if you need to withdraw or have any questions regarding the class. I will be happy to assist you in transferring to a future Foundations course.
    +++

    Note that the text states that on average it takes students 12 to 14 hours per week. My current picture is that it takes some students that amount of time, many more students recently spent more time on stuff. This has to do with people not following up on the second piece that’s in the seconds paragraph: you have to collaborate with your classmates. Us instructors try to help with that whenever we can, and we all have been through the Foundations class on our own, knowing that some people simply don’t respond to some calls. I remember my personal Foundations class, where I reached out directly to some folks via email directly, and had some mild success with it, leading to two more people responding. For the third person, we stuck to what the instructors told us: don’t care about them for the time being. Maybe they will drop-out, maybe they will cope with it in the meantime. Reaching consensus in class is hard.

    Cem Kaner explains early on the goal setting for the Foundations class: most of it is in place in order to get used to the underlying teaching style, working in online classes, and maybe questioning some of the underlying assumptions that people bring to the table – like that ones that you mentioned.

    With so much diversity in class, so much reliance on group work and peer feedback, of course it may feel for students in the Foundations course to lack feedback from instructors and so on. That is on purpose, since we usually provide such feedback when the lesson is over, and people are supposed to have worked on the next lesson. On average, as you know, that’s around 3 to 4 days of feedback delay for folks who are responding very quickly. Why do we do that?

    We don’t want to prime folks who haven’t work on the individual assignments by providing the one true answer that everyone clever enough to read through before giving their first try will then parrot out. I can understand that this is frustrating if you are an early bird at some of these assignments, I can also understand that it’s hard for most folks to keep a sustainable pace during class, and some students fall behind sooner or later. We try to get them back on board, but guess what, some people don’t react to instructor emails as well. That’s mostly the time when we drop them from class after some reasonable period of time. (I think I am more mild in that. I have worked with other instructors that didn’t have the same patience with such folks as I have.)

    One thing I have to admit is that the current platform, moodle, is terrible. It seems to work for some folks, and totally distract other folks. From an instructor’s point of view, it’s also creating lots of things you need to take care of, despite helping much in this regard. I think with a better platform, these courses could be taught with at most three instructors in place. Right now, we usually have four to five that need to take care of the administrative overhead, i.e. posting quiz answers, assigning people into groups, and taking care of that posts end up where they should end up, rather than having the platform enforce that. Every now and then discussions come up on how to change that. I made some mild efforts, and haven’t found a reasonable way to improve in this as of now. Given that I probably won’t teach any BBST classes in 2015 due to personal work load reasons, I don’t think there will be large efforts on my end happening in the foreseeable future.

    One final thing, when it comes to email load: I am way too curious about what’s going on. So, most of the times I subscribe to all forums right from the beginning, as I want to check out what’s going on in other groups than my own. In most classes that means that at the end of the class I will have 1000 to 1500 mails stemming from one class that I have read – or at least skimmed.

    All that said, thanks for sharing your experiences. We hear you, and invite you to help out improve the classes if you have ideas on how to do that. Please let us know.

    Best
    Markus

  2. Bolette, thank you for the thoughtful experience report about your experience in BBST Foundations. I’m pleased that you found the class challenging but also useful and practical.

    Time Commitment:
    All of the BBST classes require a significant time commitment from the students. The time expected of we have posted on the AST website is heuristic. Some students spend less than that, and some spend far more. We do understand that students have the need to strike a balance between BBST, work, and family lives. The course work is compressed in to a 4 week period of time. This is short for the amount of material presented, but there are reasons. Among them are simulating high pressure that one might experience in a real work environment.

    Introversion and BBST:
    I, like you, tend to be on the more introverted side. BBST classes can be difficult for all personality types. Exposing your ideas to others publicly for the purpose of having them critiqued and sharpened can be very difficult. This is one of the most important aspects of BBST classes and it also an important principle in the context driven testing community. It can be difficult and painful to separate yourself from a critique on your ideas. We try to make BBST a place where people can critique and explore ideas without feeling attacked.

    Instructor Feedback:
    The way instructor feedback is given will differ in style and frequency from instructor to instructor. As I see it, the main value of the course is in having questions and scenarios poses and then having students respond and work through them publicly in a safe place. There are however some commonalities. In general for each exercise, instructors will pick a sample of student work to comment on. These comments usually come in the form of leading questions which will guide the student work.

    This facilitates peers working together in a way that they may not in other learning arenas. The students are not in competition in BBST, there are there to work through real testing problems together. Instructors stand back to allow this experience to happen until they are needed. We are always observing though, the students are not entirely on their own.

    Group Work:
    The group work in BBST courses is structured to simulate what you might experience in a real on-the-job scenario. We often find ourselves working with people in different timezones, from different cultural and language backgrounds, and with varying experience levels. BBST group work is structured to simulate that. It does make the assignment difficult because you are managing working with your peers as well as grappling with the material, but it also prepares students for real (non-classroom) work.

    Thanks again,
    Justin Rohrman
    AST BOD, VP Education

  3. Hi Bolette,

    The BBST courses are indeed challenging and I’m glad you hung in and made it through Foundations. Now that you know the pace and style of the class and are a little familiar with Moodle I think you’ll have fun in Bug Advocacy (one of my favorites).

    It can be tough to work with people you don’t know, in a class with lots of work and assignments but you can learn a great deal more when you apply what you learn in real-time, get feedback and make adjustments for the next time. Some of the feedback will be useful and other parts will not. Usually in these classes there is so much work for the Instructors to do they aren’t able to comment on everyone’s work but I’ve seen those people who actively seek and provide feedback to others often get it.

    In my experience the classes do tend to take more than 10-12 hours per week but its also about learning to limit yourself and the amount of time you spend (time management). I might have spent 6-10 hours per class week which is about 12-20 hours per calendar week – at least with Foundations. As the courses go on you learn how to manage your time better.

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  4. Thanks for writing that article – you’ve really eloquently described this silent terror I feel when I write a blog post or magazine article. You are publishing your ideas and your understanding to the public, and there’s a gut-wrenching feeling that much like at school, someone out there will go “well, you’re wrong, are you stupid or something?”.

    Decent feedback, esp feedback we trust is a must for any of us to develop. But it’s a tough tightrope. You can’t always just tell someone they’re doing superb because you’re afraid to say anything negative. I always feel for the gal on X-Factor whose friends have told her “you have a special voice”, and then embarrasses herself in her audition, because really she’s pretty bad.

    But neither should be feedback a character assassination. More than just exposing weakness, it should also be about working with someone to help them with that – a relationship.

    I don’t think there are easy answers, but I feel for myself it starts with “living the values”. I trained as a teacher when I left university, and used to scoff at school reports because “we can’t say anything bad about our pupils”, but now as a manager I get it. It’s not about telling people they’re bad, its about casting a light on the path that leads to them getting better …

  5. It was good to hear another perspective of a Course even if its not this Course as it explains pitfalls and there will be failure but it is part of this learning zone. A Coach is important and maybe there should be more of this encouraged in the Education sector.

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