I do a lot of mentoring and coaching within Microsoft. I like to help people, it’s fun, and it’s nice that I have a manager that sees the value in that. Sometimes, the coaching I do is on improving testing ability, increasing testing breadth or brainstorming testing ideas. Most often, however, I help people think about their career in test.
The career path concept is huge at Microsoft. I’ve been a tester (in some form or another) for almost eighteen years now, but there are plenty of testers who have been testing longer (and plenty of others who are at a higher career "ladder level" than me). We have a huge amount of resources on growing careers (including personas), and we expect people to "grow" in experience, ability, and scope on a fairly consistent pace throughout their career.
The problem many testers face is that they’re too busy with their "day job" to look up and think about the future. This is as true for looking at the big picture of testing as it is for thinking about their career. I call this "The Tester Treadmill". What I do often in my mentoring sessions is try to help people look up and see a little ways into their future. One exercise I use is to ask them this:
"A year (or two) from now, when people talk about you, what do they say?"
This (to me) is a huge twist on the typical "What do you want to be doing in a year?" type question. This gets people to think about the type of person they want to be and gets them to think about how they influence others (something we value highly at Microsoft). The answer to this question also gives me a lot of insight into where people really want to go that I may not get otherwise (at least not as quickly). I do this exercise with myself every few years, and it’s surprising how little it changes. The type of work I do changes a lot, but how I want others to perceive my contributions doesn’t change much at all. For others, direction changes more often, and that’s ok too.
Let’s say the answer someone gives to this question is, "I want to be thought of as a strong customer advocate, a great problem solver, and an influential tester". My next step is to ask, What are you doing today to be a customer advocate | great problem solver | influential tester?. Then we can focus on the types of work opportunities they can look for, discussions they can have with their manager, books they can read, etc. It’s an approach that has worked well for me, and helps me focus on career and personal growth simultaneously.
Somewhere later down the line, I bring up values. Values (to me) are what drives how you work, how you interact, and how you set about accomplishing your goals. However – if I were to ask you what your values were, would you know? A useful crutch I use to help people (and myself) determine values is to think about what really pisses you off – your strongest values are usually the opposite.
I value fairness and honesty pretty strongly – I know this, because the opposites really, really grate on me.
For example, I love soccer. I play and watch whenever I can. I’ll watch MLS, Premiere League, Bundesliga, or whatever I can find. I can watch a game between two teams I don’t care about at all or know anything about and have a great time. But the moment a referee makes a bad call (or non-call), fairness is compromised and I get annoyed angry. It’s silly, but I can’t help it. I know that "life isn’t fair", but I can’t help it – fairness is a strong value with me.
Another example – you know that kid in school that everyone liked (or at least most people) – but you know that his whole reputation was based on half-truths and downright lies? The guy that made up stories about things he had done – or skewed the facts just enough that they were hard to prove wrong, but you knew the full story? That guy bugs me – I just have a really hard time dealing with people who are so concerned with being popular that they are untruthful. Truth is a strong value with me, and after a while, no matter how much I respect what you do, I can’t have respect for you if you are untruthful. We all know people like this – depending on your values, you may despise them too – or you may follow them if that isn’t a strong value for you (or you have a stronger value that puts you in a different camp).
The point of all this, I suppose, is that no matter what you want to do, I think you need a plan to get there – and you need to know what you’re going to use to get you there. Thinking about a career is tough, and probably something people don’t think about enough.