On the test automation pyramid (again), opposing views and TestBash Manchester

Short blog post this time, since I’m smack in the middle of three projects while also preparing for my talk at TestBash Manchester, some training stuff and reviewing a book. It can’t always be long form!

With this blog post, I’d like to draw your attention to episode #31 of the Test and Code podcast, where Brian Okken (the host) replayed parts of the recordings of him being on another podcast, hosted by Paul Merrill. Paul’s a great guy and someone whose opinions and view I hold in high esteem, so I knew this was about to be good. In the interviel Paul and Brian did, they shared and discussed their opposing views on the test automation pyramid. By the way, more news about a collaboration (of sorts) between Paul and myself to follow soon!

It seems like Paul roughly shares my own views on the pyramid (read this recent blog post to see what I think of it and how I still use it, whereas Brian thinks the pyramid is falsely promoting the fact that unit tests are the most important tests you can write. Instead, in the recording, he advocates that there’s no value in software until it’s useful to an end user (be it a human being or another system) and that therefore UI tests are the most important and should be treated that way. I deliberately didn’t use the word ‘graphical’ here, by the way, since Brian talks mostly about writing tests for software where the GUI isn’t the interface that’s most extensively used.

You can listen to the podcast episode here. I thought it refreshing to listen to someone that has such an alternative view on a well-worn concept such as the test automation pyramid. Even though my own opinions on the model and its use remain unchanged (for now), I’ll try and make it a habit to listen to other voices and opposing views more often, rather than staying in my comfort zone and listening to podcasts and reading blogs on topics I’m already familiar with. Who knows I might learn a thing or two!

On another note, as I said before, I’m quite busy putting the finishing touches to my upcoming TestBash Manchester talk, and it’s both a talk and an event I’m very, very excited about. To those of you with Ministry of Testing Dojo Pro accounts, my talk will be available shortly after the event. For those of you that haven’t got such an account, you’ll have to wait for next week’s blog post, which will highly likely be a review of the event.

See you next week!

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 where I think the test automation industry is going

One of the funny things about running a blog for a while is that people start to see you as an expert. Whether or not this is a reasonable observation in my case, I’ll leave to answer for the rest of you. Still, they’ll turn to you with questions regarding their career, advice on that, and if I know where the industry is going. I won’t disclose my answers to the former here, since there’s no such thing as general career advice and I don’t feel comfortable sharing questions and answers asked by individuals on a public blog.

In this post, I’ll share a couple of things that tend to make up my replies to the question of ‘where is the industry going?’. You’ll see that hidden in there is some career advice anyway..

The need for good automation will keep growing
This is the answer to a question I get sometimes, and one I’ve been asking myself quite often as well. Is test automation a good field to be in for the foreseeable future? I tend to think that it is. Sure, the field will change due to new technologies, market trends and research breakthroughs, but in general, test automation will remain an important (though I don’t want to overstate the importance of it either) activity in software development. That is, good automation. Hopefully the industry will start to learn that there is a lot of horrible automation being written and maintained at the moment, and will see that we’ll all be better off if the plug is pulled on those efforts. I’ve seen some things.. I don’t even want to know how much money is wasted in these projects!

People that want to be good automation engineers will see that they need software development skills
As a logical follow-up to the previous point, I foresee that the industry will start to recognize that in order to write good automation, one needs actual software development skills. I expect (or at least sincerely hope) that the end of creating automation that is hard to use, explain and maintain is nigh. I myself will do my very best to create this awareness, even if that means standing on some people’s toes. It’s about time test automation is taken seriously, by all parties involved. So, for those that want to move into the automation field, make sure you’ve at least got a grasp of the basic concepts of software design and development. You’ll need it to succeed in the long term.

Automation turns out not to be the silver bullet
Repeat after me: automation is not the silver bullet. Sure, it can make things more effective if applied well. But if you automate horse shit, you’ll get automated horse shit. Just automating something because you can (or because someone asks you to, for those with less backbone or less ability to think critically) does not mean that you should. Again, I see more and more people starting to become aware of this, mostly due to others that have seen the truth earlier and are willing (or feeling obliged) to share. Thanks guys, keep up the great work!

Machine learning and artificial intelligence will not take your job
Sure, ML and AI are emerging trends. And sure, they might have an effect on your job and the way you do it at some point in time. But I refuse to believe that at least in the foreseeable future, ML and AI are going to replace me. Maybe they’ll replace some of my tasks. Writing yet another Page Object and tests that use it (in a valuable way!), for example. And you know what? I’d be happy if they did. It gets boring, after a while. This means that some of my time will be freed up to dedicate to more interesting stuff, such as teaching others, doing research, devising and implementing automation strategies, or becoming the world expert on tiramis├╣ I always wanted to be. I’m looking forward to it.

Despite numerous efforts, the software industry will not be able to get rid of testers
Lastly, and I hope this is the last time I ever need to refer to this fallacy (although I suspect it won’t be), those pesky testers will live to see another day.