Friday 27 March 2015

Practising teaching and mentoring

While toying with the idea of writing a post, I saw this on Twitter:

Because 140 characters is definitely not enough for me to answer that question helpfully, here are some of my thoughts on how you can practice teaching and mentoring.

Value your experience

The beginning of a journey towards teaching and mentoring is in realising that you have something to offer to others. Learn to find value in your experiences. Recognise that you may provide insight and guidance by sharing your experiences with others.

I believe that every tester has something to contribute in a teaching and coaching capacity. Even if you are the most junior member of your team at work, you may still find that you still know one particular test technique or approach better than your colleagues. Or perhaps you've had an experience within your team that could be shared with a wider audience in your organisation?

You know your own work better than anyone. Start looking to share your ideas.

Offer assistance

This may seem obvious, but I am consistently surprised by how few people who want to develop their teaching or mentoring start by offering their help to others. If you want to develop a new skill, then it is important to create the opportunity for you to practice it.

I think the safest place to begin is within your organisation. Offer one-on-one assistance to your team mates. Offer to present a lunchtime brown bag session. Offer to deliver a short training workshop on a specific topic or technique. Put up your hand to start developing your teaching and mentoring skills in small steps among the people you know.

If you don't feel confident in sharing ideas within your organisation, then perhaps you will enjoy the relative anonymity of looking further afield. You could develop professional relationships through attending your local testing events or MeetUps, which may lead to mentoring and presenting opportunities. Twitter is also a great way to make an open offer, you may discover people with questions that you can answer.

As you grow, continue to offer your voice to wider audiences. Challenge yourself to challenge others.

Listen first

When establishing a teaching or mentoring relationship, I think it is important to listen first. Without this step, the people that you are trying to engage may instead feel disengaged, steamrolled and ignored.

It is easy to arrive at a coaching session or training course filled with expectations and assumptions. As the facilitator of learning you will have plans for what you anticipate people will ask, and what you want to show them. Don't work from these assumptions alone. It's important to give students an opportunity to feel part of shaping their own outcomes.

In a classroom environment, this can be achieved by asking the students for their input to help shape the structure and agenda for the session. In a more informal mentoring situation, I try to let the mentee direct the first half of the conversation. I want to have developed a clear understanding of their situation, problems and needs before I start to suggest options or discuss solutions.

Present passionately

Good teachers and mentors don't just communicate their content. They also inspire and motivate their students. Being able to present your message with confidence and passion will help your audience to engage emotionally.

Learn basic presentation techniques like pitch, pace, pauses, body language and gestures. Joining an organisation like Toastmasters will help you as a teacher and mentor. A poor presenter can detract from the ideas that they are trying to convey.

Read widely

I believe that good teachers and mentors know a little about a lot of things. If I am asked a question outside of my area of expertise, I am usually able to direct the student towards a group of people or a set of articles that will help them to discover their own answers.

This is only possible because I read widely and take an interest in developments happening across the testing discipline, within other roles in software development and more generally in the evolution of technology. The more you expose yourself to new ideas, the better equipped you are to handle unexpected learner-driven deviations from your material.

Having the ability to intelligently field impromptu questions will also help to create confidence in the relationship between you and your student.


I like to encourage reflection from my students at the end of our sessions, whether in a teaching or mentoring scenario. Providing an opportunity for people to articulate their personal learning outcomes or key takeaways will help reinforce those messages. These reflections also offer valuable insight into whether I have clearly communicated what I intended to.

I also see reflection as a key step in evolving as a practitioner. Continually step back from what you have done and assess how you went about doing it. Self assessment is an opportunity to recognise strengths, identify your weaknesses, and brainstorm opportunities for improvement.

The themes I reflect on in a self assessment align to the ideas in this post. I like to use questions as a prompt for my thinking, such as:  
  • Did I have a strong opening and listen to input from others? 
  • Did the audience find value in my experience? 
  • Could I have handled a question or suggestion differently? 
  • Do I need to do further research so that I can better respond to future questions? 
  • Could I offer to present this again? 
  • Would I propose a different structure or focus next time? 
  • How did I perform as a presenter?
Remember that teaching and mentoring are iterative not immediate skills.

Ask for help

Successful teachers and mentors are still learners themselves. If you observe attributes in others that you wish to emulate, then ask them to help you develop. They will probably embrace the opportunity to discuss their practices.

I think it's a good idea to start by asking someone within your organisation or local community for their assistance, as they are likely to have a better understanding of your culture, organisation and personal strengths. If there isn't someone suitable nearby, there are a number of mentoring programmes and people within the international community who can provide support.

Work collaboratively and ask questions to identify the strategies that will help shape your unique teaching style while achieving good outcomes for your students.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Superhero Retrospective

Late last year I facilitated my first superhero themed retrospective. It was an unusual situation in that I was asked to run a single retrospective session for a team that I had never met before. The team were between project phases in a waterfall development environment, but wished to use a retrospective to take the lessons learned from the first phase of the project to apply in the second. They were rumoured to be a challenging group, so I was quite nervous about getting them to interact constructively.

Given this context, I felt that the introduction was very important to lay the foundation for a positive environment. I started by introducing myself and asking the team to introduce themselves. I explained the purpose of a retrospective and shared the specific objective of the session. Then I set clear expectations that each person in the room would contribute their ideas, and that their contributions would be honest, constructive, specific, timely and impersonal.

Earlier that week I had read a slide deck on Team Driven Improvement with Retrospectives by Rachel Davies and particularly liked the idea of a superhero retrospective [Slide 40]. I decided to use this exact exercise for the first half of the session, which I wanted to focus on collection of information about previous experiences.

I asked the retrospective participants to self-organise into smaller groups of three people and reflect on the work that the entire project team had completed in the first phase.  Each group of three was given a large piece of paper, some coloured markers, and an instruction sheet that read:

Draw your own superhero

In your group, sketch your team as a superhero

What are your:
  • Super powers?
  • Weak points?
  • Who do you need as a sidekick?

I allowed 15 minutes for each group to create a poster sized display that reflected their ideas. The superhero construct was quickly understood with Superman being a good example for a super power (flying) and a weak point (kryptonite), while Batman and Robin helped to clarify the role of a sidekick.

The resulting posters reflected diversity in visualisation of ideas and the hidden creativity of the team, but had some consistent themes in the underlying information:

I asked each group to elect a spokesperson who then displayed their poster on the wall and presented the thoughts of their group back to the wider team. The audience were instructed to remain silent as the spokesperson shared their thoughts. I didn't want the presenters to feel attacked, which I thought may be a possibility given the environment as it had been explained to me. I only asked for questions in between each speaker.

Once all the posters had been explained, then I opened discussion for the team to debate and expand on the ideas. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive conversation that emerged.

For the second half of the session I wanted to switch the focus from reflection to improvement. I believe this is a common approach to retrospectives, to balance thinking about the past with looking forward to the future. I indicated this mental shift not just in verbal explanation but also by asking the team to self-organise into entirely different groups of three for the second activity.

I decided to continue the superhero theme and provided post-it notes with a second instruction sheet that read:

Creating a sidekick
Choose a poster that is not your own
Discuss how you might create the sidekick
Identify actions that the team could take to fulfil this need
As a group, choose the top 3 actions from your list
Write each of these on a post-it note

Again I allowed 15 minutes for each group to work together. This exercise was intended to get people to constructively discuss an improvement idea that they weren't emotionally invested in, to think broadly about all the actions required to achieve the desired outcome, and then focus in on the important first steps towards that goal.

I found that the sidekick construct allowed the teams to think freely about what would help them, and how they could help themselves, to let their super powers shine. It was interesting to observe two groups pick a sidekick named 'time' and generate entirely different sets of ideas.

Once the groups had settled on their top three actions, a spokesperson from each came forward and read aloud what they had identified, then stuck their post-it notes on the wall. Some clear themes emerged, and duplicate post-it notes were grouped together. Once all the ideas were on the wall, I verbally summarised each set of actions to clarify and reiterate.

Next I asked the group to dot vote on which actions were most important to them. This process identified three clear favourites for the first actions towards change. It also meant that the remaining actions could easily be converted into a prioritised improvement backlog.

The superhero theme helped create familiarity in the process for a team who were inexperienced in performing retrospectives. By adding an element of fun, while providing clear written and verbal instructions, the team were much more comfortable contributing to discussion than I had expected. Further, the change in thinking from superhero to sidekick helped to reinforce the shift from past to future, creating a clear change in thinking. The superhero retrospective is a technique that I would like to use again.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Automation Assessment

I have heard, in many organisations, speed being cited as a primary benefit of automation. In most cases the use of tools will make things quicker. But faster doesn't necessarily mean good. It's important to assess automation against other criteria.

The development team, not only the testers, should regularly reflect upon and discuss their automation. One approach to this conversation is to have each team member indicate on a scale whether they agree or disagree with the following statements:

I understand what is being checked by our automation

I feel confident that a failure indicates an important problem in the application

I do not manually repeat those checks that are automated

I find it easy to diagnose the cause of a failure

The collated answers will help to uncover whether people understand and agree with coverage, whether they believe the chosen implementation of automated checks is robust, and whether they are capable of investigating problems that are discovered.

Automation may execute quickly, but without assessing its value it may be quickly doing nothing useful.