How I continuously hone my skills and why you should too

As a consultant, and even more so as a freelance consultant, it is imperative to stay relevant and be able to land your next project every time. Or, and that’s the position I prefer to be in, have your next project(s) find you. I thought it would be a nice idea to share with you how I go about trying to keep up in the ever changing world of test automation and testing and software development in general.

Before I dive into the strategies I employ to remain relevant, though, I’d like to stress once more that test automation, like testing and software development, is a craft. I’ve said this so many times already, but I’ll just press ‘repeat’ and say it once more: being a good test automation crafts(wo)man requires specific skills that need to be constantly sharpened it you want to remain relevant. And I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here when I assume that you actually want to remain relevant.

Also, I’m writing this post partly as preparation for a potential mentee that contacted me with some questions regarding test automation career development. If this comes through it’ll be the first time for me in a mentor role, and that’s something I’m both very much looking forward to and scared as hell of..

So, what is it that I do to try and stay on the forefront of the test automation field as best as I can?

Discover your way to provide value
I’m no proponent of the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, excuse me, ‘generalist’ approach to career development. I think in order to be truly valuable to any team or organization, it’s important to pick your superpower and grow it as best you can. For me, that’s helping organizations define and implement the best possible way for their test automation efforts. For others, that might be writing the best possible Selenium tests, or being the best possible software tester, or … It doesn’t matter WHAT your superpower is, as long as it provides value to the software development process you’re likely to remain relevant for the duration of your career. You will need to monitor whether or not you’re providing value constantly, though.

Get hired for the role you want to grow into
This applies especially to freelance consultants. Teams and organizations that hire you tend to do that because you know how to do something well, simply because you’ve done it before. That’s all fine and dandy in the short term, of course (there’s always the next mortgage installment or child care bill that needs to be paid), but there’s a real risk of becoming a one trick pony in the longer term. Personally, I’m always evaluating a project offer for things I can learn myself and whether those are things that I actually want to learn, i.e., whether the things I’ll be learning will contribute to me being a slightly better consultant or trainer after the project has come to an end. I tend to get bored on projects quite easily, and that’s especially the case when I’m repeating the same stuff over and over for a couple of months. And that doesn’t help me nor my client.

For all of you that are employees, it might be a little easier, simply because organizations are often willing to invest in your professional and personal development. Still, I’d advise you to always ask as many questions on possibilities to grow and explore new things when in an interview. Being in a job that allows you to explore, learn and grow is much, much more important than an extra couple of hundreds bucks every month. Really, it is. Also, grow as a crafts(wo)man and that pay rise will come, if not at your current employer, then in the form of an offer from another one. At which point you’re advised to look for the professional and personal development options THEY provide, of course.

Honing your skills

Attend and speak at conferences
Next to my day to day work, I find that one of the best ways to grow as a consultant is by attending and contributing to conferences. And the talks and workshops offered by the organizational committee are but one of the ways you can learn and benefit from being at a conference. For me, meeting peers, discussing the craft with them, as well as some good old fashioned networking often proves to be even more valuable in the longer term.

And attending is just one side of the whole conference thing: actually speaking at one might be an even better way to improve your craftsmanship. Yes, preparing a talk takes a lot of time, but it is an excellent way to organize your thoughts and experiences and to ‘find your voice’. And yes, going up on stage is nerve-wracking, but remember: that’s what every speaker feels, even those that are way more experienced. Not convinced? Just read up on the #SpeakerConfessions hashtag on Twitter to see what I mean.

Reading blogs and listening to podcasts
There’s a wider testing and automation world out there, outside of the confines of your office (or wherever you do your work). I’ve been gaining access to the thoughts, experiences, successes and failures of fellow automation engineers and consultants for a couple of years now, simply by reading their blogs, learning from them and applying what I’ve learned in my own work.

Instead of singling out individual blogs that I read (which is quite a long list anyway), I’ll mention two of the greatest starting points for blog reading here: the Testing Curator Blog by Matt Hutchison and the Ministry of Testing blog feed. Both are excellent sources for all things testing and automation to read for your pleasure and learning.

Another way to learn from others is by listening to testing and automation podcasts. Since I spend a significant amount of time in the car (it’s been getting less and less, though, since I started reshaping my career, which is something I do like), I like to spend that time in a useful way, and one of the best is by listening to podcasts. There’s a large amount of software testing podcasts out there, so I’d suggest you to do a search on iTunes and find something you like. As for me, I almost never miss an episode of Joe Colantonio’s TestTalks or Keith Klain’s Quality Remarks podcast. There are some other podcasts that I listen to on and off again as well.

Writing your own blog
There’s no learning from other people’s experiences through blog posts without there being people that actually write those blog posts, obviously. I’d recommend you considering to start your own. To me, there’s no better way to organize my thoughts and express how I feel about certain topics than writing a blog post (or a series of blog posts) on those topics. They’re also a great way to showcase your projects, thoughts, insights and experiences to the wider world, although it must be said that writing a blog post or two and expecting the work and the world to come to you might lead to a little bit of disappointment. Instead, you should remember that you’re writing for yourself in the first place, anyone else reading or reacting on your posts is a bonus. Having said that, when you’re consistently (and consistency IS key) putting out decent content and showing it to the outside world, the interaction and feedback will come.

It’s just not going to happen overnight. As an example: it took me three years to get that little bit of traction I’m having at the moment. I’m very glad I stuck with it, though, because so much good has come out of it! Being given the opportunity to write and publish an ebook, being offered speaking opportunities abroad, writing articles for industry websites, none of it wouldn’t have happened (or at least it would have taken me a lot longer) without this blog. I’m grateful for that every day, and apart from the interaction with readers, it’s one of the main reasons I keep at it.

Wrapping this up, I’d like to repeat that continuously honing your skills as a testing or automation engineer, consultant or whatever it is that you’re doing is imperative to remaining relevant and staying ahead in the competitive business we’re in. Hopefully the above has given you some motivation or pointers to start being an even better crafts(wo)man than the one you already are. Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

7 thoughts on “How I continuously hone my skills and why you should too

  1. Bas,
    Great post as usual, and quite timely for its topic and content. We, as professionals, need to continually be sharpening our skills and being aware of the changing trends in our line of work. Otherwise we, as you very well stated, run the risk of getting left behind and becoming not relevant.

    Any professional does tend to focus on certain things they are interested in and are good at. You are a specialist in that respect. Over time you acquire enough experience (you hope) that includes other areas related to the work and you can then cross boundaries and generalize a bit. This is where the “Jack of All Trades” can come into play. But you still have to be a “Master of Some”, and that is natural because of the focus you need to keep. With experience you can start to see the “Forest for the Tree’s”, the bigger picture. But you still need to work on the skills for being able to zero in and focus on the tree right in front of you.

    In Software Testing work we need to learn and understand a lot of different things to do our work. There are technical skills like programming & programming languages, software architecture & how systems are built, databases & working with data within them, operating systems & their commands, different types of hardware to work with & interact with, and more. There are the non-technical skills like business analysis, communication, time & project management, and other soft skills you need to learn and use. Thus we do at times get forced to handle a lot things at once, and juggling it all can be both fun and problematic.

    As someone who over the years has done a lot of what you say (read, write, participate in discussions, present at conferences, and generally voice my opinion – and some people know I’m not afraid to do so) you get to that point of “okay, now what”. And this does put oneself into a rut, but with an open mind you can recognize that and work to get out of it.

    That’s when and where something like your post is a small epiphany. Both a reminder and wake up call that an “Olde Dog” needs to learn a “New Trick”. I’ve done that a few times in my career (30 years now) and its time to do it again.

    I know this may all sound like a lot of blather, but what I’m saying is your post is much appreciated. And for the other readers of it that they need to sit back and think hard about what you are saying. It will resonate all through their careers.

    Best to you.


    • Thanks so much again for sharing your insights, Jim. Especially the part about getting into a rut resonates with. I’ve been through this recently myself. I got stuck in the 40 hour a week automation ‘production’ (i.e., here’s the scripts, now go automate it) for a while and only recently (in the last year or so) found a breakthrough to get to the next level in my career and do some actual consulting and education instead of what a lot of the big boys call consulting but really isn’t.

      I could never have done this without the tools and tips I’ve shared in this blog post: read a lot, study the craft, talk to and learn from others (that includes you, by the way ;), in short: get out there and don’t be afraid to do so. I thought it was time to share this with the wider world (or at least those who read this blog). Funny thing is: it’s true. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know and how much more there is to learn..

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  3. Very well written @Bas. Yes, we can only make a specific edge by enhancing particular domain knowledge in which we are. And I think this is the only way to make yourself positive to the flow. Thanks. Keep writing such articles.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Claire! I’ll definitely stick with writing these blog posts every now and then, it’s a nice break from in depth automation writing and career development and craftsmanship are topics that are dear to me.

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