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.
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.
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/