How do you know you’re improving?

I remember a lively discussion at DEWT 4 around self-education, and how you would know whether or not you are improving. There are lots of ways to engage with self-directed learning – in software testing, software development, leadership, and other areas surrounding this field. But with all these methods around, a single question remains: How do you know whether you’re improving with whatever technique you follow?

Deliberate Practice

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (20 hours per week for 50 weeks per year for 10 years) to become an expert at anything. So, in order to become better at what you are doing, you better put some additional effort into it.

Unfortunately putting 10,000 hours into anything will not automatically make you an expert at anything. For example, if I learn how to dance my name, that won’t make me an expert at dancing, no matter how much effort I put into it.

With that said, we should pick things for our 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that help us move forward. What options are there for the different fields?

For software programmers, there is a variety of stuff out there. You can listen to a podcast on your way to work. You can read about the basics of your programming language. You can learn a new programming language every year. You can exercise in code katas and coding dojos, at times varying the constraints that you enforce on yourself. You can visit conferences, and user groups, and exchange thoughts with others.

For software testers, there is also a variety of stuff out there. Of course, there are podcasts. There is free learning material out there. For example the BBST course series, and the RST course have their material posted publicly so that you can work through in your own pace. Of course, you can also take one of the courses, and challenge yourself. Beyond that there are testing challenges put onto you publicly, or in Weekend Testing sessions, or in Testing Dojos. There are also coaches out there that can help you advance in your profession. Oh, and don’t forget the various testing related conferences, user groups, and meet-ups.

For other fields, there are similar things that you might pick. I am not aware of other fields. If you are, others probably would be glad if you can leave a comment with your addendum.

Does it help?

Now comes the difficult question. How do you know which one to pick? How do you know which one helps you at a particular topic? How do you know you are advancing in your craft?

Think about it for yourself right now. How do you know whether you are advancing?

I let this sit for a moment.


The problem is, you don’t.

Alright, here is the longer explanation.

Some folks relate higher pay with advancement in their craft. Just like the school system though, a higher pay merely relates with someone else telling you that you are delivering the results that he is looking for thus providing you more money for these results. So, a higher pay from your employer merely tells you whether you are able to produce more of what he is seeking. So, you are referring the answer to your boss. How does your boss know whether you are advancing? How does your boss know whether he is on the right track with evaluating you?

The problem is, he doesn’t. He might claim so, but probably relies on a bunch of second-order surrogate measurements to do so. Oh, and of course, even if he doesn’t, how does he know whether the community he is involved in really moves forward, and you’re not merely adhering to a set of standards that does more harm than good?

Hard question.

The same holds true if you pay attention to your outside world, like professional organizations, different communities, etc. Of course, the combined view of several “experts” provides some clues whether you could be advancing. Still, I find this measurement rather shallow. The problem probably is that we are mostly relying on other people telling us. Oh, and don’t forget that all these indicators are trailing indicators. You can tell when you have gone way off-road. But the indicators can’t tell you which one thing to pick now in order to put your energy from the 10,000 hours budget on, in order to become an expert.

Now, enter my critical self. A few years back, I was asked similar questions by James Bach. He provided me the solution that I have a back-up of a larger community that shaped me, and that has answers to all the questions at heart. My critical self still questions that. How do I really know that I am not misleading all these folks? In the end, there have been folks before me that told some things, that turned out to be wrong in our current understanding.

The Advancement Fallacy

I truly think we cannot know what will be advancing ourselves. Us humans are terrible at predicting the future. We cannot tell whether our current picture of ourselves and the problems that we face is the correct picture. We cannot know whether a particular topic will attack the struggles we currently have.

That said, the only option I see is to pick something, anything, and start experimenting with it. You will find out whether it is advancing yourself – over time. So, make sure that you can opt out of it. Make sure that you put such an amount of energy into that, that helps you to evaluate yourself. If your energy drains, leave it. Probably you’re done with it. That’s ok.

When it comes to stuff like Weekend Testing, if you have become a facilitator, you should watch for other people that can step into your footsteps. This is the harder problem. There might be volunteers, there might not. If there are not, it might mean that you are actually shutting down all the effort that you have put into it, and no one is stepping in your footsteps. That should be ok with you as well. Don’t get too much hung up on your deliberate practice. Remember, it’s your exercise time.

However, always remember that you should enjoy the amount of work and energy that you put into it. It’s your free time. That should be fun. If it isn’t, step out of it. It surely will not help you advance any more than necessary.

Of course, there are times where you need to push yourself. I have this when exercising for running right now. That does not mean that I don’t enjoy every single run. It needs some stretch for me, but it’s worth my time. Keep that in mind before prematurely leaving some of your deliberate practice behind.

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One thought on “How do you know you’re improving?”

  1. I recently wrote about this, but in a broader sense in How do you know when you are right?. The problem you experience is the same as what René Descartes struggled with when he concluded Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). Without going into the complexity, Descartes later used this as a diving board to show that he knew more than that because God existed and God wouldn’t lie to his creations. He needed an outsider to help him measure the world. Even if you accept the community as a measuring stick, we often fail at measuring accurately ( ). With learning it is even worse because we suffer from the boiling frog problem, where we can’t detect the subtle changes as the temperature rises. Even our institutions fail for similar reasons: .

    Even if we place all these concerns aside, how do you know if you can trust the what others actually tell you. In our culture (not QA, but western societies), we tend to avoid telling people blunt truths. You probably wouldn’t call your boss an idiot, even if you thought so. From what I can tell, community based trust is no better than self based trust, other than personal taste (please cite any studies to the contrary, I’d love to be proven wrong!). Pay-based job oriented judgments maybe a slightly better method, but do you know if you have you have 1 year of experience 10 times or 10 years of experience? Your boss might not know either.

    I ultimately agree with your conclusions, you effectively can’t know, but I think there is a subtle piece you assumed without stating. Following your energy or choosing what is currently popular or …. Those are just methods of choice, but you have a built in assumption that goes like this:

    You can state how many different techniques you have tried to date compared to the past you. It is probable that some of those techniques are better than others and thus you have developed more skills and likely some better skills. Thus you can say you attempted more skills than your past self, and that in and of itself is an improvement under the theory that having a larger array of skills is better than a smaller array. But that is an assumption. Is that theory absolutely true? Hard to say, but it feels true to me as well (is that community support? ;) ) and sometimes that’s the best we can get to.

    – JCD

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