Career Advice From One Tester To Another

When I was asked to write an article for Women Testers magazine, I thought about what I can contribute in the context of the mission behind Women Testers: “to bring out the best in YOU”. I’d like to share some things that I feel helped my career as a woman tester. I learn best by example, so here are my own examples!

Network for improvement

I had an advantage when I started in the software industry: at the time, there were plenty of women programmers and analysts. I had many role models and mentors. For example, when I was a programmer with the University of Texas Libraries, the team leader was a librarian who was also good at code design. She taught me the importance of domain knowledge: once I learned library science, I could contribute much more value. I learned to collaborate closely with the librarians so we could build the right circulation system and online catalog. I feel these are still my main strengths as a tester: learning the business domain quickly, and working together with the business experts to help them identify valuable features and articulate their requirements.
Since the late 1990s, however, I’ve often been the only woman on my software delivery team, so if you started out during this period, it’s hard to find that kind of support. Fortunately, you can join communities such as Women Testers, Women Who Code, and Systers to find your own mentors and role models. Local testing user groups and meetups are another great place to build your supportive network.
One of the best ways to learn is to help others learn. When I was a programmer trainee, I was offered the job of “education coordinator”, and I gladly took it. I had to oversee a program of training classes that we programmers offered for our customers, so that they could learn to code their own reports in the 4GL we used. I also found that pairing with newer trainees to help them learn reinforced my own skills. Share your experiences by presenting at local user group meetings and conferences. Having a conference session accepted is also a great way to get to a conference more affordably!

Find your courage

People who have met me at conferences may not think it, but I’ve always been quite shy. I enjoy working with people and facilitating learning, but the experience leaves me exhausted. My first job after MBA School involved going to local governments and doing research and surveys. Having to cold call city managers (I have a phone phobia, too) was terrifying. My manager built up my courage. He told me, “Go bite ‘em on the leg, Lisa!” He didn’t mean I should be unpleasant, but just that if I got scared, I was capable of defending myself! And it made me laugh, so it made me brave.
When I subsequently joined a software delivery team as a programmer trainee, I forced myself to speak up at meetings if I had a question or an idea. I found that others often had the same questions but were too shy to ask. Getting people to explain things helped me learn and was rewarding.
One of my early managers (who was male) taught me a valuable lesson: communicating the contributions you and your team have made to management and people outside the team is part of leadership. I find that women are often reluctant to “toot their own horn”; I certainly am. But making our accomplishments visible helps us lead by example. I believe this advice is a major reason that my career has been rewarding.

We testers need lots of courage. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. In standups, say what you contributed yesterday. Keep track of your accomplishments, and communicate them. When I was a test team manager, I wrote a short summary to the company management each week listing ways my team had added value. Experiment to see what’s most effective for you and your team.

Look for the opportunities

One of my mantras is “If you can’t be smart, be lucky”. But we often make our own luck. Early in my career, I worked for what was at the time a sizeable software company. However, that company failed to perceive industry trends and was getting left behind, with their products seen as outdated. And all I knew was their hierarchical database, their proprietary 4GL, and so on. How would I find a new job if nobody used my employer’s products anymore?
In an attempt to build business, the company branched out into supporting many operating systems, including VAX/VMS, Wang, and all flavors of Unix. By this time I was a tester, and I volunteered to learn these other operating systems and do the testing. A whole new world opened up! I received training in system administration skills for these various platforms.
The company also started supporting relational databases, and I raised my hand right away to go to a

SQL course and start testing our products with Oracle and Sybase. OK, learning Wang didn’t help much in the long run, but my Unix knowledge and SQL skills got me a great new opportunity with a growing software company.

If you enjoy learning, and seize every opportunity to learn something new, you’re going to have a rewarding career. New skills can help in unexpected ways. And being good at learning is a skill in itself, which you should practice as much as you can!

How to find the time?

This sounds like a lot of work! I’m often asked how I have the time to write books, learn new things, and prepare conference sessions, on top of my full time job. If you love what you do, then you make time to do it. To excel at any profession, you have to practice. Think of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule in Blink. Successful musicians, craftspeople, physicists, they all spend years practicing, learning, improving.
If you’re working a stressful job 60 hours per week, or you’re a single parent, of course this is going to be a lot harder. But try scheduling a bit of time every day to learn and practice. I’ve written three books by spending at least five minutes a day writing them. Five minutes isn’t much, but look at the size of those books!
If you’ve built a supportive professional network, you find your courage, and you seize unexpected or unlikely opportunities, you’ll learn ways you can improve, and grow your career. It’s trite to say “follow your passion”, but I think that’s what we have to do!


About the Author

Lisa Crispin is the co-author, with Janet Gregory, of More Agile Testing: Learning Journeys for the Whole Team (Addison-Wesley 2014), Agile Testing: A Practical Guide for Testers and Agile Teams (Addison-Wesley, 2009), co-author with Tip House of Extreme Testing (Addison-Wesley, 2002), and a contributor to Experiences of Test Automation by Dorothy Graham and Mark Fewster (Addison-Wesley, 2011) and Beautiful Testing (O’Reilly, 2009). Lisa was honored by her peers by being voted the Most Influential Agile Testing Professional Person at Agile Testing Days 2012. Lisa enjoys working as a tester with an awesome agile team. She shares her experiences via writing, presenting, teaching and participating in agile testing communities around the world. For more about Lisa’s work, visit, and follow @lisacrispin on Twitter.


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