On quality over quantity and my career journey

As you might have read in last week’s blog post, TestBash Manchester, the talks I’ve heard there and the discussions I had around the event with other speakers and attendees, left me with a lot to think about. Especially Martin Hynie’s talk on tester craftsmanship, apprentices, journeymen and masters of the craft led to me asking a lot of questions to myself on where I am now, how I ended up where I am today, where I want to go and, most importantly, if the things that I am doing at the moment contribute to, or maybe hinder me, in my own journey towards who I want to become.

Martin’s talk and how he described masters of a craft confirmed me that that, for me, is what I do want to become: a master in the craft of automation. Someone that others turn to when they need help, and someone that is able to help and guide others on their way to becoming a master -or at least a better craftsperson- themselves. I also immediately realized that I’m nowhere near that point yet.

I might be on my way, possibly (hopefully!) even on the right way, but having thought about this for a bit now, it once more occurred to me that there is so much more to learn. Some aspects that I need to improve are directly tied to automation and testing, others are skills that are more broadly applicable (public speaking, teaching, communication skills, to name just a few), but all in all, there’s a lot of learning left to do.

I am very much looking forward to taking the next steps on my path towards mastery, but I also realize that I need to get rid of some superfluous baggage at the moment, consisting mostly of activities that take up a lot of my time yet aren’t contributing (enough) to my journey. In the words of the German designer and academic Dieter Rams, it’s time for ‘less but better’, or ‘weniger aber besser’ as he puts it himself, being a German and all..

Anyway, there are a couple of work-related activities that I will need to get rid of -or at least change significantly- in order to carve out the time required to work on the important. Starting with the projects I’m working on. I’ve just wrapped up one, but I’m still working on two different projects in parallel.

Where I used to think this was the ideal situation to be in (I do get bored quickly if I’m working on the same thing for too long), I’ve slowly started to come to the realization that all this context switching is driving down the quality of my work. Believe, no matter how hard you try dedicating specific days to specific projects, there will always be overlap in the form of emails, phone calls and other seemingly urgent, and sometimes even important, interruptions. Just like with other forms of multitasking, I lose a lot of time moving my mind from one project to the other and back again, sometimes multiple times a day.

What doesn’t help is that not all of the projects I’ve been working on lately have been equally satisfying (and in specific cases, that’s putting it mildly..). Doing only one project at a time should allow me to think more clearly about whether or not the project is, in fact, a good fit for me. So, effective as soon as I wrap up my current projects, I’ll start committing myself to working on just a single client project (meaning by-the-hour consulting work) at a time. Ideally, that would take up 3 (maybe sometimes 4, maybe sometimes 2) days of my working week, ensuring that I am both set with regards to my financial commitments (gotta feed the kids!) as well as have enough time left to dedicate to the other things I want and/or feel the need to work on. Most of those things revolve around training courses, workshops and a bit of public speaking, by the way.

Committing to less but better also means that I’m, at least for the moment, giving up on writing weekly blog posts for this site. Even though it is a highly rewarding activity, it takes up a lot of time to plan, write and review blog posts. I’ll leave the discussion on whether or not my blog posts look like significant time has been put into it to you.. Instead, I’ll shift towards writing at least one blog post per month.

The good news is that this will leave me more time to do research and thinking for my blog posts, which (at least theoretically) should lead to higher quality output. Again, less but better.. I might post more often than once a month, in case I’ve read a good book related to testing or automation, a conference experience I want to share or anything else I feel like writing about, since those posts take less effort in my case. However, I think I need to stop pressurizing myself to write a weekly blog post, since it might start to affect the quality soon. If it hasn’t started doing so already.

Lastly, I am considering looking for a mentor who can help me take the next steps on my journey towards mastery. The above measures I’m taking should help freeing up time to do the things I feel are important (e.g., more time for learning, more time to invest in teaching and developing courses), but I am by now quite convinced that I might benefit from a mentor that helps me to navigate the career and life path that’s ahead of me. I’d love to hear from others who either have been on roughly the same point in their career and have (or have not) benefited from having a mentor, or who can help me find a good mentor. All input is greatly appreciated.

So, in short, you’ll hear less from me from this moment on, but hopefully also more. And better. I’m looking forward to the next stage of my journey.

On why and how I became a freelancer

Every now and then I get an email or a LinkedIn message from someone asking me for advice on how to become a freelancer in the test automation space. Since I’m a lazy guy, I prefer to not do the same thing too often, and that’s why I’m writing this blog post. In the future, it’ll save me some time, hopefully, since I can simply answer similar questions by sending this link. Also, I think it might give you, my readers, some insights into how I work and what I do.

My career so far
I’ve been in the test automation field for about 11 years when I’m writing this. After getting a master’s degree in Computer Science from Twente University and a 1,5 year stint in a job unrelated to testing, I started my test automation career as a young professional with Sogeti. Three years into that, I felt like I hit a ceiling and moved to Oelan, a smaller consultancy firm. This being a much smaller organization allowed me to make myself much more visible and work on much more interesting projects.

I had a great time there, with awesome coworkers and a relatively large amount of freedom. Next to being an automation engineer, this is also where I took my first steps as a trainer, providing tool-specific automation training to clients around the country. Lastly, in the final years of my time at Oelan, I also started this blog, which celebrates its fourth birthday next month.

So, why did I become a freelancer then?
Even though I was quite happy with my job, the idea of working as a freelancer started to nestle itself inside my head ever firmer in the last years. The idea of being

  • 100% free to decide which projects to say ‘yes’ to, and which to respectfully decline,
  • 100% free to decide how I fill my working days, instead of having to work with the target billable hours of an employer, and
  • 100% responsible for all decisions I make with regards to the way my career develops

was something that I’d at least wanted to try once.

Note that money was not a primary factor for me in the decision to start freelancing. It is true that my income has seen a decent rise since I quit being an employee, but with that comes responsibility. More on that later.

How did I start out?
The final trigger to make the jump towards freelancing came when I was invited for a chat by someone from The Future Group, a Dutch collective of freelance IT specialists. I joined them as a freelancer in November 2014, and in return for a part of my hourly fee, they arranged meetings, sales and administrative support and some other useful things. For all tax and legal purposes, I was a freelancer, but with a safety net.

After just under three years of working with The Future Group, I felt that I was ready to go fully solo, and as of September 1st of this year I’ve been working under the flag of On Test Automation. I couldn’t be more content. And a little proud as well (though that’s still hard to admit to myself..).

Now I really want to be a freelancer too! What I do need to take care of?
For me, the feeling of being a freelancer can be summarized in two words: freedom and responsibility.

  • I’ve got the freedom to decide what I want to do, when I want to do it. Sure, I need to keep my clients happy, but that still leaves a lot of room for freedom. Freedom to take a day off to spend it with my sons instead of going to work. Freedom to say ‘yes’ to an invitation for lunch with a prospective client or partner. Freedom to, in short, do what I want, not what somebody else think I should do. All without having to deal with a maximum amount of annual leave, billable hour targets, or anything else.
  • On the other hand, my levels of responsibility have increased vastly as well. I can’t rely on a steady paycheck from an employer anymore, yet I still have a family, a mortgage and other things to provide for. I have no automatic pension plan, yet I want to be able to retire comfortably at some point in time. I have no employer that takes care of insurance, yet I still run the risk of breaking stuff or becoming ill.

Some tips to deal with this: reserve time for business and personal development, take care of insurances, think about a pension plan, get a reliable accountant. And enjoy the ride! Even if you someday go back to being an employee, at least you’ve tried. That’s more than a lot of other people can say. There’s nothing wrong with being an employee, but there is no point in saying ‘I wish I did so or so’ when it’s too late.

So how do you get projects?
I’m the first to admit I’m in a luxury position. I’ve got decent automation skills, I have decent communication skills, and that’s more than enough to pretty much get work thrown at you at the moment. At least here in the Netherlands, I can’t speak for other countries.

There’s one thing I do religiously to make it as likely as possible that I remain in this position, though, and that’s investing in myself. This manifests itself in different forms:

  • I take time to talk to potential clients and partners and see if I can help them, even if this cuts into my billable hours.
  • I take time to learn and study, even if this cuts into my billable hours.
  • I take time to work on my personal brand (through writing or speaking), even if this cuts into my billable hours.

I sometimes get asked why it is that projects come to me. This is why. I invest heavily in myself and my network. In return, people call me when they need someone.

I haven’t had to actively look for a new project for a while and I’d like that to remain the same for the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t like to be one of the many fighting to be hired for available projects if the market gets worse.

Personally, I prefer working with consultancy firms instead of freelancers. Since I’ve been in the field for a while, and since the field over here isn’t that huge, my network is quite substantial, also within these consultancy firms. Some of them do work with freelancers in case they haven’t got anyone available themselves who’d be a good fit for their clients.

The big advantage they have over working with most recruitments firms is that they work directly with their clients, and as such know exactly what their clients need and if I’d be a good fit. This works well for everybody. There’s one recruitment agency in the Netherlands that I do like to work with, since they specialize in testing and automation and I know them quite well.

Other than that, I almost exclusively work through consultancy firms (it’s still quite hard to get a foot in the door with a client directly as a freelancer).

What does my future look like?
I’d love to do less ‘billed-by-the-hour’ projects and more training, writing and speaking in the future. I gave a talk at a Dutch testing conference last week, and I’ll be speaking at TestBash Manchester next week, so that’s a good start, but I’d love to become even better at public speaking. I’m working on it, though! I’ll also be delivering a couple of training courses (in various forms) in the coming months, so that’s improving too, but there’s room for more. Here, again, it comes down to investing time in selling myself and making others aware that this is something I have to offer.

In the end, I hope to be able to experience this freedom for a long time to come. I know that in order to do so, I’ll have to keep investing in myself, so I will do that. There’s a lot at stake, and I really don’t want to be an employee anymore! At least, that’s how I feel now. People change, and so may I, but for now, I’m quite the unemployable..

I hope this information has given you some insight in why and how I became a freelancer and what I think it takes to become a successful one. As always, feel free to comment or send me an email if you’d like to react or want to know more.

On finding my ideal ratio between consulting, teaching and writing

Those of you that have been reading my blog posts for a while know that I like to reflect on my own career from time to time. Since it’s been a while since I wrote such a blog post, I thought it would be a good idea to share with you what I’m up to at the moment.

Basically, my working time is still divided into three subjects: consulting, teaching and writing. I’m continuously trying to find out what is the ideal ratio between each of these activities, something that’s partly under my own control, yet also depends on the amount of work that’s coming my own. Or that I am able to steer my way, of course.

Here’s a quick recap of my activities in each of these three fields.

Consulting
On site consulting still makes up the major part of my working week. Not sure how the situation is in the rest of the world, but here in the Netherlands there’s plenty of work available for those who know a little about test automation and have some communication skills too, so getting projects isn’t too hard at the moment. I have to say ‘no’ more often than I can say ‘yes’!

That’s a very luxurious position to be in, I definitely realize that. And yet.. It’s safe, since I am guaranteed an income for at least 25-30 hours per week (it’s all billed by the hour), but I feel it does also make me complacent at times. This might sound strange (or spoiled), but I could actually do with a little less consulting work, but that would require having more work in the other two categories. Either that, or seeing a significant (but hopefully temporary) fall in my income, a prospect which I don’t particularly look forward to.

Teaching
It’s been too long, but I finally had (or created, depending on how you look at things) another opportunity to deliver on site training, this time with my former employer. I spent two evenings with around 10 students, teaching them about the concepts behind API testing and automation and introducing them to a range of tools (more on that training course and the approach I experimented with here). This reminded me how exciting and motivating it is to deliver training, and that it definitely is something I feel I should pursue harder. Ideally, I’d do at least two or three of these courses a month, but I’m nowhere near that frequency yet.

I have started working on a related project, though. It’ll be an online course around Selenium, which will hopefully see the light of day in the coming months.

Next to that, I’m actively working on finding more ways to deliver on site training, both at clients here in the Netherlands as well as at conferences. This is a slow process, but I’ve made some good connections in the past few months and I’m positive this effort will pay off soon enough.

And while we’re on the subject of conferences: I’ve got two talks coming up this month. First, I’ll be at the fall conference of the Dutch testers association TestNet (site in Dutch), and later this month it’s time for TestBash Manchester. Really looking forward to speaking at and being a part of both of these events!

Finally, I was a panelist at a webinar hosted by the people at Testim, where we talked about creating an automation strategy fit for CI/CD and the skills required to do so. For those of you that missed it, you can find a recording here.

Writing
This one I’ve actively put on the back burner for a while. In the past few months, I’ve written quite a few articles for TechBeacon, StickyMinds and some other one-off blog posts, next to my weekly blog post on this site, of course. That spread me a little thin so I decided to stick with my weekly OnTestAutomation blogs for a while.

I am currently working on something related to writing, though: I’m the technical editor for a book on test automation that’s to be released in the first half of next year. This is something I’ve never done before, but that’s only a good thing.

The gist of this is that I could do with a little more teaching and a little less consulting and that I’m actively working on making that happen. As ever, it’s an interesting journey.