Welcome to the ninth in our series of open letters from members of the EuroSTAR Software Testing Community to their 28 year old selves.
In 2020 year we’ll celebrate the 28th edition of the EuroSTAR Software Testing Conference and 28 years of the testing community coming together. There is incredible community spirit within the EuroSTAR community. Testers sharing knowledge, supporting each other and shaping the future of our industry. To mark our 28th anniversary, we have invited members of our community to write an open letter to their 28 year old selves with advice or pearls of wisdom they wish they knew then!
This letter is from Peter Morgan, a huge contributor to the EuroSTAR Software Testing Conference. Peter created the very first Community Dinner at EuroSTAR – a treasured tradition that we have continued each year since! We hope you enjoy this open letter filled with honest advice and helpful tips that would benefit anyone in our community, in testing and beyond.
Today (February 1st, 1981) you are 28, assuming that you opened this letter, as directed, on your birthday. The rest of your life stretches in front of you. As someone who knows you well, I thought I would write some helpful thoughts for you, that may help you navigate the road that lies ahead. It could help you to avoid some of the mistakes that I myself made (it will not), to learn from these mistakes (it will) and grow stronger through them (it certainly will!). I know you very well and have carefully watched your journey thus far. You? You don’t even know that I exist!
So, what does the future hold? I will only give you glimpses, for if I told you too much, it could actually change the future for you. That is both impossible and not a good idea – you have read the books (‘The Time Machine’ – H.G. Wells) and seen the films (‘Back to the Future’) – hold on, that last one is still the future for you as it has yet to be made! As of today, you have been married to a lovely girl for just over a year. Before the end of this year, your first child will be born. Is it a boy or a girl? In 1981, people don’t know the gender of their unborn child. I still find it hard to embrace the technology that will be available, and because it was not “in my day”, I would still rather not know. So much so that, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand, I tried to close my ears when one of my grandchildren was “on the way”. Yes, you will have at least one child and more than one grandchild – further information about your future is up to you to discover.
Two helpful (“interesting”) thoughts regarding children.
#1 When bringing up children, the first 50 years are the worst! There will be frustrating times, joyous times, times of great heartache and times when your children will make you immensely proud. (Drat, I have now let you know that you will have more than one child! How many? – you’ll find out.) Build values and character into their lives, make sacrifices so that they can go further, learn faster and achieve more than you ever did. Give them wings – so that they can fly.
#2 Intelligence is inherited – you learn from your children. There will come a time, sooner than you think, that one of the offspring will give you some good, solid, career-changing advice. That will hit you between the eyes like a billiard ball at three paces. This is well before the turn of the millennium …
Let me remind you of the words of a favourite preacher of yours. “Constant change is here to stay”. Embrace change at every opportunity. You are eighteen months into a career in Computing or even Data Processing (don’t worry, it quickly becomes Information Technology or “IT”), doing a job that didn’t exist when you were born – Computer Programmer. You were born for the industry and that is what you will do for the rest of your working life, moving into systems analysis, systems implementations, trouble shooting and eventually into a profession that hardly exists in 1981, that of software testing. Many would date the birth of “software testing” to the publication of Glenford Myers book “The Art of Software Testing” in 1979. I wish you could read this book before I did – it will do you good.
You may question the path of your life thus far. Don’t! Your experience of training as a primary teacher left you clear that you couldn’t be a teacher of children, but that time will be invaluable into the future in both formal and informal sessions. What will you be talking about? It will be what come to be known as ‘war stories’ – experiences of software projects that worked well and those that didn’t, where there were unclear or missing user requirements, unmoveable deadlines, impossible users and grumpy project managers. Please don’t just concentrate on the successes – talk about the bad stuff too. These may be painful lessons, but if your pain can cause others to learn the lessons without the pain, it will somehow lessen your pain. Strange but true. Then there was your university education. For years you have wondered about the relevance of Philosophy of Science to what you do in life. All will become clear and in retrospect a thorough grounding in the Falsification approach of Karl Popper is the best education that a software tester can have. Looking back, you will find that you couldn’t have picked a better path. You will even write in the house magazine of The London School of Economics (LSE) – where you studied – of Popper being the first software tester, even though software did not exist at the time! The best route from A to B sometimes includes D, S, L and F!
Don’t stop learning and showing that you are learning. That will enhance your working life, and as you move into working on a freelance basis, show to potential employers that there is life in the old goat yet. The world is inhabited by young people. With youth comes enthusiasm and arrogance. Retain your enthusiasm, but remember that some of those around you have “been there, done that and got the T shirt”. In reaching into your thirties, forties and beyond, your raw intelligence will fade. What you will have is a growing body of experience, where you find situations with some similarities to those you have met before. Here, use the collateral carryover from those previous encounters. There may be ‘ageism’ in many areas of life, but much less evident in the IT world. Retain your enthusiasm to make a difference in the workplace – don’t be like some that you have met already (names withheld to both protect the guilty and stop the lawsuits) who may be 33-years old in age, but are serving out their time until they retire.
As you progress through life, retain a sense of humour. Talk to anyone and everyone about your experiences of software testing life. You will talk to 100’s of people about what software testing is – many will still think that it is “making sure that the software works”, the idea that you can show absolutely correctness – and you will burst that bubble with the story of the well-known on-line bookseller. (Even though no-one understands ‘the internet’ in 1981 and the well-known bookseller, named after the largest South American river and founded by Jeff Bezos, did not exist as a company in 1981). In case anyone reading this letter has not heard the story, when the bookseller launched their on-line business, if a customer ordered a negative number of books, they got a refund on their credit card. This actually happened, albeit for a short time; it is NOT an urban myth. Ordering a negative number of books has to be allowed – but only for a supervisor. Humour helps listeners remember the point of the tales you tell. Be prepared to laugh at yourself. Inevitably, some will laugh at you. Accept it and move on.
Then there is the (probably untrue) story of a former student who returned to LSE 25 years after completing his Economics degree. His tutor was still working in the hallowed corridors of Houghton Street, London WC2 and was very happy to meet up. After much persuasion, involving copious amounts of alcohol, the economics finals exam papers for the previous year were produced and the student read through the questions and as he did so, his mouth fell more and more open. Finally, he spluttered: “But …. but …. but …. these are exactly the same questions that I had on my finals papers 25 years ago”. Without batting an eyelid, the tutor calmly said: “Ah yes, in economics, the questions are always the same. It is the answers that are different!” The same can be said in software testing: in software testing, the questions are always the same; it is the answers that are different. How can we deliver on time? When have we finished testing? How do you train testers? Should all testers have a software development background? The list goes on.
The doctrine of Falsification has given you a healthy respect for truth and you have started along the path of stepwise refinement, small paces to evermore approach “the truth”. You have used as your guide the work of early mathematicians who took an approximation of an irrational number (e.g. the square root of 2) and were able to arrive at a better approximation that more nearly, when squared, actually equalled the desired and required “2”. (All this was done by these pillars of mathematics without calculators of any kind. For you, electronic calculators are becoming commonplace. They are still the size of a brick in 1981. Some of the early examples are now worth £1,000’s.) Your respect for truth will lead to some family difficulties, you unwilling to commit to a course of action because it might not happen – “the Dad uncertainty principle”. No matter, as a family, you will learn to navigate those choppy waters.
Later in 1981, you will go on a management course where you will encounter “Action centred leadership” – they will give you a small plastic card that then lives in your wallet for years and years, defining three purposes of work:-
- Get the job done
- Build the team
- Develop the individual
The FIRST of these has always been the one that gets your attention. A word of warning here; the prominence you give to accomplishing the end-goal highlights a weakness that you need to compensate for. You will find, time and again, that you are not cut out to manage people (as in be a line-manager). Play to your strengths: good technical ability, problem solving, leading (where no ‘management’ is required), mentoring and encouraging. In all of this, don’t seek the limelight. Be prepared to let others take credit for what you have played a large part in, and conversely take the blame when things don’t turn out well. That’s what team players do!
At present you work with some great people. WJ (“Bill”) Poolman will be an inspiration to you in the future and you will forever remember some of his expressions. A quick overview of a business scenario is ‘a thumbnail sketch’ and when wanting to get your head around a tricky concept, you will ‘sit with a wet towel over your head’. One of those on the large (150+ people, mainly men) project you currently work on will, in 30 years’ time, be the (woman) manager that signs your weekly timesheet. Hang on to the coattails of others, learning from their experience. As you get older, take professional interest in younger colleagues, as some will continue to take an interest in your career. Try to lead, guide, mentor and inspire one or two. And network, network, network, using whatever means you can. There are ways of keeping in touch that you could not possibly imagine; email – don’t ask, it would take too long to explain – text messaging, and what will come to be known as ‘social media’. Forget the mechanisms, just do it. The most fulfilling years of your working life will be ‘the testing years’ when you found out about the UK, European and worldwide family of software testers. Those with a worldwide reputation took time to talk, share ideas and inspire you! How fortunate you will be. For 10 years you will write a 6-monthly testing newsletter, sent out by the aforementioned email to a distribution list (“what’s that?”) of over 750 people. And the one tester who had the biggest influence on your life? Someone you lived with intimately, conversed with regularly and wrote about extensively: Brett Ignatius Gonzales. Yet you never met him in person, a pure figment of your own fertile imagination. In a difficult testing situation, the best question that anyone can ask is surely “What would Brett do?”
In your working life, you will see societal changes that are, in 1981, impossible to imagine. The widespread use of computers – when currently you have to book time on terminals, with perhaps 15 terminals between the whole project. Instant communication across the globe. Year-round availability for fruit and vegetables, robotics in use in manufacturing, the decreasing use of cash in society. The long-talked of Channel Tunnel finally opened on 14th November 1994, after over 100 years of discussions, and operated by Eurostar (a train operating company), not to be confused by our own software testing conference EuroSTAR, which began first, in 1993! That is all before the great BC / AC divide, when coronavirus was a game changer, hastening the acceleration of some of the changes and where your younger colleagues enabled software changes to be implemented in days or even hours when they would previously have taken weeks or months. What is “the BC / AC divide?” What came to be known as Before Coronavirus and After Coronavirus, a worldwide health pandemic the like of which had not been seen since Spanish ‘Flu in 1917 – 1920.
As I draw towards a close, I want to mention ‘retirement’. (Aside: what is the definition of an optimist? Someone who believes a preacher when he says: “And now, my final point”!) You and the gorgeous lady who is ‘the wife of your youth’ will walk off together into the sunset as you approach your Biblical allotted ‘three score years and ten’. Actually, you will walk, and walk, and walk (and then walk some more), all miles meticulously tracked on a spreadsheet. The lovely lady will have to wait longer than she had expected before receiving her state retirement pension, until she was nearly 66 years old and not the expected 60. Mind you, your children (however many that is) will have to work until they are 70 or beyond, on current projections. You love your work – but do plan for your retirement. There is life outside of work – have you heard anyone say at the end of their days “I wish I had spent more time in the office”? I look forward to watching you enjoy the opportunities that open up in your latter years. You will ‘keep your hand in’ with the worldwide brotherhood of testers, undertaking some exam-related tasks that pay a little – but that is not why you do them. It is you giving back to the profession.
You will also need to plan financially for retirement. This letter is so long because I want your working life to be a success – my future well-being, prosperity and travel plans depend upon it! Above all, live your life to the full, enjoy your time, learn lessons and aim to be able to say at the end of your days “It was a life well lived”. A possible tombstone inscription you will contemplate is “He tried to make a difference”. Whether you did is for others to decide – but try to ensure that their answer is in the affirmative.
From one who went before you, and who watches your progress with interest, and sometimes with bated breath.
Lovingly and affectionately
Join the EuroSTAR Community at the annual EuroSTAR Software Testing & Quality Conference this November.