What to Learn on a New Project

One of my blog readers recently wrote to me that she moved to a complex project and is finding it hard to learn quickly. She suggested I write an article that might help many first timers like her.

Getting placed on a new project is like your first day at school after a long and lovely vacation. You just don’t want to return, but you have to. New work, new team, new manager, new processes, new culture…. too many “new” variables and nowhere to escape.

On day 1 on the new project team, testers are mostly goaded with scores of documents to go through for next two weeks if they are lucky. If they are luckier, they start testing from day 1 and learn on the job. Where to start and how to start learning is a gigantic task.

Customer

Learning about the customer is the first and foremost task that any tester must undertake while starting to work on a new project. Understanding who the customer is, what their context is, what are their business goals, what is their main line of business, who are their customers, what is their history/legacy, what is their vision for the future and how they are making money are critical questions to ask. Many testers I worked with used to ask, “I am a tester, not a business owner. Why should I bother about these things?” Testers need to know these as it helps them understand the product better.

Product

Product or application under test is one of the important factors to learn about on a new project.

General Information

What problems or unmet needs is the product solving, how is it solving the problem, is the product sticky enough for users to try out, what kind of users use this product – consumers or enterprises, what is the revenue model for the product.

Testing Information
From a testing perspective, it is important to identify why the product owners need testing in the first place.

Understanding this reason is very important as it helps testers’ fine tune testing processes to be in sync with stakeholders’ goals. Testers need to ask questions on what needs to be tested, reasons for testing them, known risks and issues, which features/areas are of higher priority compared to others, what are the release goals for the product, what technologies need to be learned, what part of products can be tested versus which ones can be checked using automated checking and so forth.

Team

Knowing the team is a key factor for any project to succeed or fail.

Internal Project Team

Knowing the team not just includes getting introduced to testing team, but corresponding programming team, data setup team, inventory/content management team, business team, technical support team, sales/marketing team, leadership team and others as appropriate. Why know about so many people while testers work only with fellow testers, one may ask. Knowing as many people on the project puts testers in quick contact with many people who can help you learn quickly on the project. In much high risk, high tension projects, networking with other teams helps you gather important information that sets you apart as a new tester on the project.

I once worked on a project where testers had to work with seven other teams to get their test environment setup. Since many testers did not look outside testing team for help, they would be stuck for weeks. With me onboard, I reduced the ‘Got Stuck’ time to fewer hours just with smart communication with cross-functional teams.

Customer Team

Some customers would like to be in direct touch with development teams which may requires testers to interact with customers especially during critical releases, customer escalation meetings, bug triages and others. In such scenarios, it is important to keep a record of customers contact details including email address, contact numbers and their role on the project.

A cohesive project team is like marriage. Everyone involved has to work harder towards making it work. This can happen if and only if everyone is working towards a common end goal – of building a great product.

Technical and Soft Skills

Every project demands select set of technical and soft skills. Many testers take it for granted that testing is a common skill that is applicable on any project or domain. This assumption drives them to think that they have already arrived with all skills. It is important to draw a simple map of what skills may be needed – like new domains, technologies, tools and spend at least 20 minutes a day on learning them. There are scores of free courses on Udemy, Coursera and Khan Academy that can help. Even stalwarts like Satya Nadella spend some time every month learning a new concept. Learning is a lifelong journey and a critical one at that.

Some projects may need testers to interact with customers on a regular basis which in turn demands them to be aware of additional skills like client communication, email etiquette, presentation skills amongst others.

Work Protocol

New projects bring new guidelines/rules with them. Working style, timings, processes, body language of team member and culture followed on a new project may be completely different from those on previous projects. Testers need to be skilled to adapt to changing environment not just on technical front, but also on the culture front. Different people come with different perspectives. The objective must be to work in an elliptical model where everyone in the team works in a complementary way where everyone’s strengths are magnified and weaknesses are minimized. Many testers will have the biggest challenge here as humans, by tendency don’t like changes at a personal level. Since this directly deals with changing their interests and thought process, working on a new project can be taxing. Approaching changes with empathy helps cope with the change and also adapt quickly. In a very short time testers, might start to contribute positively to the project.

Note Taking Skill

Always carry a note book and pen with you all the time! We have limited memory and remember too few things. Capturing important information at all times helps not just in

getting things done quickly, but also helps you plan and organize tasks better. Critical information like setting up a cluster machine or configuring a server or reproducing a crash requires meticulous detail that can be supported by great note taking skill. Adding a visual touch to it by drawing visuals / sketches is more powerful and interesting way to capture notes.

Seeking Help

Knowing that you need help and seeking the help you need is a very important aspect of learning. If testers intend to solve all problems by themselves or spend several days before approaching someone for help, then they are setting themselves up for failure. If testers need help, they must SHOUT.

Here is a simple heuristic to ask for help. When you hit upon a problem, understand the problem deeply, come up with a few solutions and apply those solutions. Give it your best. If it still doesn’t work, reach out for help. When you ask for help, state the problem, emphasize on the steps you took to solve the problem and tell them how you failed. This will demonstrate to the problem solver that you care about the problem. From thereon, any person will be interested to solve your problem unless it’s your bad day or the person on the other side is a maniac.

Emotional Labor

According to Seth Godin, “Emotional Labor is doing the difficult work of bringing your very best self to each interaction braving pain.” It is to do the work even when you don’t feel like it. Expending emotional labor is a quality that is expected of everyone because they no longer do what they love most. People with a gift for emotional labor are called Linchpins.

Linchpins hope for a better world. They already live in the world that they are about to create. They slog it out, not knowing that they’ll become indispensable. Linchpins make changes happen. Every tester must ask them, “Am I a Linchpin? Am I capable of expending emotional labor?” What does it take for a tester to succeed on a new testing project? A combination of all factors mentioned above + Drive to accomplish personal goals which are tied to this project. It takes a lot of hard work, patience and perseverance to build credibility on the new team.

About the Author

Parimala Hariprasad has worked as a tester for close to 12 years in domains like CRM, Security, e-Commerce and Healthcare. Her expertise lies in test coaching, test delivery excellence and creating great teams which ultimately fired her as the teams became self-sufficient. She has experienced the transition from Web to Mobile and emphasizes the need for Design Thinking in testing. She frequently rants on her blog, Curious Tester (http://curioustester.blogspot.com). She tweets at @CuriousTester and can be found on Linked In at http://in.linkedin.com/in/parimalahariprasad. She currently serves as Delivery Director at PASS Technologies AG.

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