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Personal Branding

I am a professional. I am all about techniques, methods, processes and approaches. I have nothing to do with marketing and branding. I used to think those things are for companies only. Oh my, how wrong I was…
What changed my mind? Three unrelated situations made me think that maybe, just maybe I am missing something.

Getting hints

The first situation happened in Manchester 2016 during TestBash. Attendees in big group were walking to the next location and enjoying their conversations. While waiting on crossroads green light someone said to me: “I know you! ..no, I don’t really know you. Your face looks familiar. I have seen it on Twitter. So you are famous, but not famous enough that I would remember your name”.
To be honest that short exchange scared me. Yes, I am a frequent Twitter user, but I use it to get access to information and to “store” interesting, thought provoking or simply useful pieces of it. I am professional, remember? Fame doesn’t exist in my world. But ok, let’s take “famous” part out of that message and what stays, is that he could not remember who I was. When I look back, I see that was the first clue that I am missing something.

In August, 2017, the Women In Testing (WIT) group with Agile Testing Days’ (ATD) support, published a list of 125 awesome testers. I am not on the list. I knew many of authors, and had some business together with a few of them, but when they put that list, they forgot me. Some authors felt very bad afterwards and apologised to me. I did not take it personally –  it happens right? I am on second edition, thanks Maaret! But this was my second clue that I am not memorable. I realised that it could be based on my behaviour. In the testing community which is supposed to be so welcoming and inclusive, I did not feel welcomed. Even in WIT group which most of the participants described as a safe place, I don’t feel safe. All this  leads to the impression that I am reserved, restrained and unemotional, which is the exact opposite of how my friends and colleagues would describe me. There was an imbalance between who I am, and how I behaved and that did not come across well.

In September 2017, I started to work for trendig – I finally found people and a place where I am not the strange one (I had worked for companies where I was the only one married/with children, or the only woman or only tester etc). At trendig everyone is accepted as he or she is. Also for me, it was very important that Jana and Pepe, owners of the company, have a very similar value system to mine. It is a pleasure to work together if you don’t have to bother about general things, because you know you are on the same page.
Then came ATD and I got a “cold shower” about how it looks for outsiders. During one break, I was talking to some of sponsors and having questions about their newest product. We were interrupted by someone who I knew, with the sentence: “Don’t put so much effort in explaining it to her, she is one of Pepes people.” To my surprise, the conversation stopped and I did not get answers to my questions.

The Decision

That one sentence made me really angry and that was the last push to start doing something about how people perceive me. After a quick research I realized it will be not so easy. Building own brand is a part time job itself. If you are used to invest your free time to study on testing/ development/ agile 4-8 h a week, be ready to invest the same amount of time into your brand. So I decided to focus it and because I was on a new job and new domain, I built my brand as a trainer for a very specific audience – my students.

I started with everything around how I introduce myself: what is my story, what is my message, what kind of emotions I want to create/provoke. Because I was new to this – I experimented a lot. Every week before starting a training I decided to highlight a skill/experience and observe the reaction. I learned that there is no such thing as a “Best Introduction”. Every group is different, every individual is different. I am happy if I manage to achieve the sweet spot where my students trust me and open up for new ideas, new experiences, if we have deep discussions over lunch and at the end of training people decide to say good-bye by hugging me. But sometimes there is nothing I can do to ignite people to put their smartphones aside. Or a group that refuses to interact with me to shape training according to their needs. They are used to being controlled and to follow commands and that is how they want to be in the training.

Now that I feel good with my brand as a trainer standing in front of my students, I feel comfortable to share some of my learnings. From time to time I will share resources which I found useful for me. Right now, I share three questions with what I suggest you to start.

The Three Questions

Who am I?

Sounds like a simple question, – You know yourself, right? – but I found it very hard to answer. Here are just a few of the things that I considered. When I think about who I am, I start with things like: I am a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend. I am Latvian, my heritage and my culture, my age, my background and experiences. Only then I think about my professional details. At the beginning when I was shaping my trainer brand, I chose to skip personal details and look only at my professional life, but I did not feel good about it. I decided to experiment and to introduce myself as a family person. That decision created the opportunity for discussions about family and work. I like to think that I encourage people to know that it is possible to have both: kids and exciting work which demands traveling.

Where is my strength?

Another simple question, but many (including myself) sabotage themselves by choosing to name things that they think others want to hear and does not really represent who they are. Typically what is suggested as strengths are experience/education, talents and soft skills. As a trainer, I have several strengths that I want to highlight: my experience in IT projects and as a tester, my moderator skills and my teaching skills (I was a substitute teacher in my 20s). One of my soft skills is observation which fits my trainer profile and gives me e.g. the ability to spot team dynamics.

What emotions do I have?

This was the easiest part for me. During most of my 10 year testing career I was flying solo, and the feeling I had and wanted to share with my students was understanding. I can teach and coach because I had very similar challenges as my students have. The biggest difficulty that I had to overcame, was to learn to talk freely about my mistakes. The  mistakes I talked about before, were mistakes made by my “friends” or “colleagues” had, not mine. I didn’t feel comfortable publicly to admit that I have made mistakes as well. My turning point was a conversation I had with a young professional. At a meetup where a mutual friend introduced us, she told me about her current challenge at work – she got promoted as manager and felt powerless. I  listened to the story which was so similar to my story and was thinking about how to help her. I gave a few tips, but she didn’t believe me and she said: “It is easy for you to talk! Look at you, you are so experienced and established!”. I closed my eyes and thought, if I really want to help her, I need to take my mask down, tell how I came here and to show her my scars. I did that and she appreciated my honesty. I heard she has become a good manager and found strength to change things. I learned valuable lesson – if I truly want to build trust and an understanding atmosphere, I have to talk about my mistakes first. It is hard and exhausting, and I am aware that not everyone will appreciate it, but I am willing to pay this price.

Aftermath

I figured things out with me being a trainer, but me as a member of professional community is still work in progress. My most important lesson learned is to be myself no matter what. So who I am? I am straight forward – I like to call things how they are, passionate – if I do something I do with my whole heart, and persevering – I had to overcome so many obstacles in my life to be here where I am and this is not where I’ll stop! But I am also (over) analysing everything and wanting to belong by being likeable and politcorrect, which is conflicting with me being straight forward. Seriously: I had no idea that communication with English native speakers can be so difficult. E.g. to communicate properly I have to learn US history or to know that “female” is not a synonym for “women”. Otherwise I might offend people without knowing it.

Joining professional community I like to compare with moving to live in another country. You know what my biggest challenge as Latvian living in Germany is? To blend in, but not to lose my identity. Where I come from heritage and national identity is very important. Latvia was invaded many times over last 800 years, many invaders still live there and even after centuries their offsprings hold to their origin nationality and community – I start to understand them. I realised that by trying to fit in testing community, I made too many compromises. I didn’t act how I wanted to by trying to be nice, which all lead to me losing a part of myself and that made me unremarkable.

There are much much more than what you can ask yourself as those three questions what you can ask yourself when you are working on your personal brand. I plan to write more about this when I implement my next steps. I will be reshaping this website, make it more personal, more me. Last year I already changed my Twitter handle to my name and I plan to do the same with the website. Personal brand is about the person, so it has to have its name. There are good books available and sometimes a conference offers a workshop (I think all technical conferences should have every year a workshop on branding). Two people who inspired and supported me with personal conversations are about branding: Martin Hynie and Rob Lambert.

Do you have branding story? I would love to hear it!

Don’t Patronize Me

Some time ago I talked with a testing friend and he said: “I have never seen you test nor have we talked much about testing”. And suddenly it hit me, I am afraid to talk about testing. I am afraid to be patronised. There is always somebody who knows better. I remember the time 10 years ago – I wrote a question in some forum how to test something better. Very first response explained me that I asked the question wrongly. Since that time unaware I have followed unwritten rule:

  • do not ask questions
  • do not give statements
  • never claim that I know something
  • answer the questions

Why? Because I was afraid to be judged.

First step was to realise – I can hide as hard as I want, I am judged anyway. Second step was to accept it, but without impact on my self-awareness. It took me some time and energy to change it. I have confidence now to deal with somebodies opinion about my abilities or knowledge.

 

 

Pay It Forward

I am currently working on my Agile Testing Days talk, organizing MeetUp event to celebrate one year of Test Paradise and another bigger testing event which we will announce very, very soon. In the same time, my little daughter and myself got cold and had to stay in beds. We were watching a lot of Frozen.

Elsa in Let it go sings following lyrics:

“And the fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do,
to test the limits and break through.”

Is she singing about boundary testing?!

Albert Einstein Elsa of Arendelle

 

Why am I writing about children’s cartoon? Because I like the idea about gaining confidence and it makes sense together with one of my current read – Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun. To acknowledge consequences and be yourself. It is scary to stand in front of people and be some kind of an expert, even if only in your story, in one particular situation. Much safer it is to stay quiet in the crowd, that no one gets an idea to question your expertise. 

I know that because I was quiet myself for a long time. I felt very inexperienced, no matter what I learned or delivered. So why I finally left my fears behind and dare to step up? Did I suddenly become an expert? No. Really no. I know there is too much out there what I still do not know. I am on my way and now I know that my stories can help those who are just starting. Or as Albert Einstein put it together:

“Every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”

We are such a cool guys, why nobody loves us?

Software testing has huge public image problem and nobody really knows why. Or we do know why? Here is my version with main four points.

#1 You cannot study testing

Universities has tons of programs for applied sciences, but it is new to offer courses in software testing. Is it a real science? If yes – why I cannot study it? If not – why should I care?

#2 Anyone can test

How people get tester jobs? By accident! Wrong place, wrong time, no other opportunities, last chance to stay in company etc. I am no exception myself – my first testing tasks I got on my summer intern ship. Time to time all testing teams gets an offer to overtake bad performing developer, shop manager or other. While testers has a lot of empathy, usually they accept the candidate. In many cases it turns positive for both sides, but very important is a message to the outside: testing is not important, everyone can do testing, all bad performing employees we can relocate to software testing.

#3 Self confidence

What kind of people takes and sticks to the job, described above? My guess – people with low self confidence. There are many jokes about geeks, especially about their social skills and confidence problems. I see it applying daily for testers as well. Of course once you had a chance to attend local testing group or a conference, you will meet another kind of testers. But how many do that?

#4 Communication and other soft skills

No matter that every second tester says that communication is important testing skill, looks that we do it all wrong. We are testers, we tell people that we are trained to test a software with various approaches. For example, we observe piece of software as a black box. Sending signals in and analysing coming out signals.  If we would take a look to our image problem as a result of communication black box, than it is clear that we are sending wrong signals. Projects are different, customer needs are different, so why to keep focusing on found/open/fixed bugs? Why to use the same weekly report template?

And now?

Points above are my experience, lessons learned and observations. I found my way and can say that it works for me. For you I can suggest to learn your domain, to work on your self esteem and communication skills. Try to explain your kid or granny what do you do and why. Why one method is better then another? What do you try to find out? Why it is important to know? How do you collect and present the results? What profit has project manager, developer and a customer from this information? Use your experience as a solid base, but do not stop to look for new ways how to test. If your message has no advantage to other stakeholders than it is unnecessary.

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