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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!

be different, be yourself

Today I feel like telling stories.

on my parents farm

I come from small country called Latvia. As a kid I was member of choir, learned to play piano and flute, danced folk dances, once even on the big stadium during Latvian Song and dance celebration. When I was 11, Latvia became independent again and my family got back properties, which were took away in 1941. We moved to our farm and I got a dog!!! I loved freedom of farm – we could see houses of our neighbours, but between us were fields, meadows and ponds. Years later when I moved to study in Riga, even than I was lucky to find a little house with a garden for a rent.

And than I met Him. He happened to be German and love of my life. It took few years, but finally I left my family, my friends, my work and little house with a garden behind me and moved to Germany. No matter than Latvian and German are quite similar cultures, I was shocked. There were so many things which I had to learn! At first that there are still two Germanies (for two years we lived in place near Stuttgart, where even my German husband was a foreigner).  I learned to know neighbours, which were very curious, untactfully controlled our waste and gave me suggestions how to better sort it! (Nowadays I get small crises myself if I see plastic waste in paper bin, but I do not know which of our neighbours are sorting wrong). Than that every one and everything has an insurance e.g. die Haftpflichtversicherung what is something like “public liability insurance”. When we got our kids, it became more interesting. I could not imagine to talk with my kids in other language as in Latvian. Some people had and have a problem with that, offended call it secret language and many think that I backbite them. Of course I want to integrate myself and to belong to the community, but I also wanted to keep my personality. Besides I wanted that my kids are able to talk to their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Latvia. There are no schools or lessons for Latvian kids in Thuringia – how much I will talk, read, play, make, sing to them, that is how much they will learn Latvian language and culture. So I decided and talked consequent with my kids only Latvian. At home, on the street, in the kindergarden and at friends. To others I explained that there are no secrets, that I simply talk to my kids Latvian and if they want, one of us can translate every single sentence. My experiment was successful. How do I know it? First of all, my kids speak good Latvian and are not ashamed to do it. Second, children in kindergarden know that there are at least three languages in the world: German, English and Latvian. Latvian for them is not a strange exotic language from nowhere, but simply a language.

Now my oldest is already in grammer school and time to time I get so tired to be different, but I know that there is no way back.

Why do I write all of this? Because I see similar pattern somewhere else in my life – in my profession. Software testing is like strange exotic language in the world of software development. They hear it, rise their eyebrows if it is too loud, but do not take it serious. How I deal with it? Similar like talking Latvian in Germany:

  1. be proud of yourself and your work
  2. be consequent
  3. be tolerant and translate to others how and why you do what you do

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