Let’s Test prequel with Oliver Vilson

As a prequel to the Let’s Test conference in May, I interviewed some of the European context-driven testers. Today we have Oliver Vilson a context-driven tester from Estonia.

Markus Gärtner: Hi Oliver, could you please introduce yourself? Who are you? What do you do for work?
Oliver Vilson: Hi Markus. Of course I can introduce myself. I’m an Estonian tester, team lead and learning coach (or coaching learner). For work I test as much as I can, lead a small context-driven testing team, coach my team and teach different people as much as I know. Besides more casual things I’m currently working on building up a local community of context-driven testers through tester meetups, peer conferences & Testers Tower. I am talking about testing to as many people as are willing to listen to me and discuss with me.

Markus Gärtner: You are setting up a testing community in Estonia. What you do to grow that community, and what has been the state of the art for software testing in Estonia until when you started? How does it look like today?
Oliver Vilson: Since a community is formed by more than one person, I can’t take full credit for being the one setting it up. It was still a team effort. I see myself more as a catalyst connecting people with ideas and giving the additional positive push required to start the motion.

Even though currently there is also an official board of testing in Estonia, we are trying to form a community of people with whom to argue, discuss, and challenge each other and share experiences in more informal ways. We (at least try to) grow the community through various events – we have just started our monthly meet-ups, hold 3-4 Test Camps per year (similar events to weekend testing, but we spend a full day of testing real applications with pizza & coke), peer conferences known as PESTs and just casual meetings whenever someone needs a little help, wants to discuss some idea they had or just share war-stories behind beer or two.

Before we initiated this community I didn’t sense much of collaboration and communication between testers. Testers were viewed as programmers who couldn’t write code, weren’t experienced enough to do analysis or project management and thus sadly the attitude was carried over to testers as well. Being a tester wasn’t something to be proud of and thus testers used to keep to themselves. Testers of one company hardly collaborated even amongst themselves. Even though the local official board of testers tried to bring them together, I sensed it wasn’t enough due for various reasons.

Now I feel that things are changing. Being a tester doesn’t mean that you are a failed developer. It means you provide different kinds of value to your projects. At least some companies have started to take testers as a profession seriously and I see the attitude is increasing. I also feel that the community is almost getting a life of its own. People are showing initiative instead of hoping to be dragged around and pointed on what to do. Another local CDT community speaker launched his first episode of a live broadcast series called Testers Tower live which I think has great potential. I even feel that I don’t have to be so engaged anymore as I was 2 years ago when the current core members of the community first met. I just need to nudge the progress regularly to avoid too large gaps between events. Some companies have even started forming their own inner communities of testers which is great.

Markus Gärtner: How have you crossed the path of context-driven testing?
Oliver Vilson: I think my paths started to cross before I actually understood it. I was assigned to test a loan management solution built upon the MS CRM 3.0 platform and I started having questions like why should I write test cases for every single validation that is done by the platform itself. Shouldn’t it be enough to verify that the platform validates the input correctly once (or twice) and then spend more time on more important areas. Why-why-why were my main questions even though at the beginning I wasn’t willing to speak these out loud much due to being a rookie in the industry. I wanted to understand why programmers shouldn’t test their own code, why project managers find it hard to understand testing, why some things work on some projects and fail on others and so on. However the breaking point of my (at least partial) understanding came after meeting Michael Bolton in 2008. After those long talks I started understanding more about different why’s and how’s and wanting to learn more.

Markus Gärtner: What do you do differently instead of asking all those “Why” questions since you met with Michael in 2008? I assume you still challenge some underlying assumptions in your projects? Do you do that differently since then?
Oliver Vilson: After meeting Michael I understood that I’m not weird with all those “why” questions; that it’s normal and actually should be done. I started to focus more on “why” questions themselves. Like trying to find out why I’m asking some questions and not asking other ones. And how to explain my reasoning behind my questions. I was also more willing to speak out about my doubts and questions. The boost of self-confidence and motivation was really important.

Of course we still face loads and loads of assumptions in projects, but now I at least try to recognize them and make them visible. Even if the assumptions are considered as-designed and the questions irrelevant, then at least they are out in the open and I learn more about the project’s context – what is relevant to whom and why.

Markus Gärtner: How do you apply context-driven testing at your workplace?
Oliver Vilson: It’s the hardest and easiest question at the same time so far. If I focus on projects we do, then most of the work we do is highly context-driven to meet specific project’s needs. Since we offer testing as a service, then our team is usually involved during the most critical phases of various projects for various customers and thus we must be able to change our approach rapidly to be able to provide the most relevant information about the project in any given time to anyone who is interested. If I focus on how I apply it to everything else, then it’s more of a team effort. We create challenges for each other and try to learn from them to be better tomorrow than we are today. We try to find new ways every day to push ourselves further and further.

Markus Gärtner: Do you have some examples of the challenges that you present each other?
Oliver Vilson: Some examples: We have an awareness game going on in the office. Someone leaves a post-it note with their name around the office without telling anyone – some to more casual locations (like on the windows or on a mirror) and some to less casual locations (like on the table under someone’s wireless keyboard). When someone finds one of these post-it’s, then it is relocated to the monitor of the one whose name was on the post-it note and marked thus as “found”. Two things are counted – time-duration until all the post-it’s of a specific set are found and who found the most from a specific set. This game teaches to be aware of your surroundings and notice things that appear wrong or out of context. Very handy during testing to notice more than just things in focus. For example during testing to notice the appearance of a horizontal scroll-bar because suddenly the text jumped up a little to make room for the scroll-bar below.

Some other exercises are multiple questions games of course (I’ve asked to do it so often lately that I’m actually running out of scenarios, so any new ones are welcome) and just puzzles on both assumptions and logic (I’ll probably take some along to Let’s Test as well). We also challenge each other based on what we experience and sense – for example “explain why in a dry day there is a car parked outside with only 1 muddy tire”, “what was that sound you just heard and why you think it was that” or “Why one side of that car is dirty and another side is clean”.

Markus Gärtner: Your session will be on Exploratory Testing and Session-based test management as a service. Without spoiling participants too much, what are you going to talk about? What will be your audience’s main take-away?
Oliver Vilson: I’m giving an experience story how I decided to move to a different approach of testing. Since my experience is mainly based on SBTM and offering an approach as a service, that’s the context the story is focused around. I’ll talk about the journey to other side (and about successes and failures I had). I hope the main take-away for participants would be the knowledge that it can be done and some ideas how to do it as well.

Markus Gärtner: If you haven’t found your path to software testing, what would you do to earn a living today?
Oliver Vilson: I actually can’t imagine myself doing anything else right now. But when I have to speculate then maybe I would have become a farmer or fisherman or something similar. I’ve always liked to live closer to wild nature – to meet large elk during walks in the forest in summer or watching a herd of roe deers walking through the backyard of my house during winter. Our local nature luckily offers these encounters quite often and when I want to switch myself off totally, then I prefer going away to the country-side for at least a week. So I might be earning my living through something that would allow me to work more with and closer to nature.

Markus Gärtner: Imagine, Let’s Test is over. It was the most awesome conference that you ever went to. What happened there that made it awesome? What will happen after Let’s Test that makes it awesome even in the longer run?
Oliver Vilson: People of course. I don’t even have to imagine it has ended to be sure of that. I think that rather a small number of participants with such a list of speakers will definitely create very intensive vibes. Also it would be fun to finally meet some of the people I’ve talked in the virtual world that we call the Internet. I imagine the most awesome memories from Let’s Test are going to come from events going on besides the official program – discussing about anything and everything related even remotely to testing until early hours of the morning, playing testing games, solving puzzles and challenging others with my own puzzles.

Markus Gärtner: Europe’s Testing community in 2040. How does it look like? What will change in the upcoming 30 years for software testers?
Oliver Vilson: I would start from the second question first. I think the most remarkable change is going to be the versatility AND the high skill-set required from testers. The reason for it would come from the aspect that the complexity of our software is growing exponentially as well as the potential damage when something goes wrong and the more rapid development approaches at the same time. Testing software that handles documents (EDMS) to software that controls your financial well-being (banking software) to software that controls your surrounding environment (smart house software) to software that actually controls your biological aspects (automatic insulin delivery). Even if we simplify the model by just focusing on one type of software, then still more is demanded from testers because the average people have more computing power in their phones than they had in their computers 5 to 7 to 10 years ago. For example you can do your tax declaration via the Internet in Estonia for several years now. Now it’s going so far that you can do your tax declarations on your phone while having a beer in a pub. Users’ expectations have just grown so much.

in 2040 I see the testing community as living organism with more visible branches than now since testers just need that. They need to be able to find someone with specific knowledge fast without having to contact every tester in their network asking “Do you know anything about ‘x’ and can you help me”. A community changes and evolves as a living organism to fit current needs. New branches are grown and old ones disappear when they are not relevant anymore. So when I have to test loan management software I could inquire from the branch “financial domain knowledge – loan management” to get more accurate information without spamming those who have no interest in this specific domain. Information and know-how are shared more willingly and it is seen as normal behavior – instead of saying “I googled the information” testers say “I communed the information”. At least that’s how I would like to see it. (Disclaimer – I don’t mean easy questions you could still google, but more demanding questions).

Markus Gärtner: Thanks for your time. I look forward meeting you in May.

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