Impostor Syndrome, and 99 Seconds of Fame

First in a series of posts reflecting on lessons learned and realisations, well, realised at Testbash Manchester 2017

Edit – Video now online at https://dojo.ministryoftesting.com/lessons/99-second-talks-testbash-manchester-2017 – I’m at ~7:10. Requires (free) signup.

I spoke! I spoke at a damn testing conference! Maybe I can make it in this testing game after all! Sure, it was a 99 second lightning talk about how terrified I had been of giving a talk… well, perhaps that’s not all. I’m not sure how much of my talk was actually audible, sensible or otherwise understood, so I thought I’d elaborate here, as well as reflecting on the experience of speaking at all.

The Why

Several of the day’s talks had dealt with anxiety, the psychology of testing and, crucially, Impostor Syndrome. Claire Reckless (@clairereckless) gave a great talk on this, and how prevalent it is amongst testers, working as we frequently do with more qualified, technical or business-minded colleagues. The path of a tester is one of criticism and doubt, and it can be very hard to switch that critical voice off when reflecting on our own achievements – we are quite happy to sell ourselves short. Claire suggested challenging oneself to step outside the comfort zone, to reflect on one’s own achievements, and to recognise when we HAVE achieved something.

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Claire Reckless on Impostor Syndrome – the feeling of being a fraud and knowing less than others, when in fact you just know different stuff to others and have plenty to be proud of!

And so to my talk…

The What

A year ago I attended my first conference EVER. Testbash Manchester 2016 was a huge eye opener for me, and I’m thrilled that I decided to attend. The door was opened to a wider world, a whole community of inspirational testers, and some crucial realisations that… I’d been getting this testing business wrong! I was very much your “Step-By-Step Functional Test Planner” when I arrived in 2016, and since then I’ve made great strides in allowing my testing to be freer and more exploratory in nature. But that’s not all.

I don’t get Impostor Syndrome at work. I know full well the value I bring to my team as an engineer, a designer, collaborator and rubber duck. The place where I feel like an impostor? Test conferences. Test meetups. Tester gatherings. I am so aware of my shortcomings as a tester, that the real value I deliver feels utterly insignificant beside the great minds I meet in this discipline. So… where better to face my Imposter Syndrome, than in front of a room of my (gulp) peers? Testing heroes of mine, some of the most inspirational voices in my career (unbeknownst to them)?

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The queue for the 99 second talks. There I am in red, sporting a rictus grin

The 99 second talk reflected on the last 12 months of achievement, all of which I attribute to Testbash Manchester 2016. It simply wouldn’t have happened had I not been fortunate enough to be in that audience, seeing test and the testing mindset in new ways. Because of that, in the last 12 months (and, I realise, many blog posts are overdue on these topics), I have:

  • Started this blog, for what it’s worth (more frequent updates are on the cards…)
  • Launched a Milton Keynes testing community with my good friend Jon (@setsunatesting), Test MK
  • Held the initial Test MK meetup, prepared and delivered a talk (on the non-silver-bulletness of automation) to a room including – much to my horror – an old test manager who had fired me without warning from a previous testing role
  • Worked hard to grow exploratory testing and front-end automation in our rather old school testing community (an ongoing journey!)
  • Attended Testbash Brighton 2017, felt very much outside the tester community, then had the nerve (some say balls) to let the community know – to which end I got to speak to lots of very genuine concerned parties, and gratifyingly observed a real shift away from cliqueyness at Manchester
  • Endured a crisis of confidence following all that, to the extent I made my mind up to leave test, interviewed for and was offered a Product Ownership role in my company
  • Realised after a couple of months as a PO… I am a TESTER, I will always be a TESTER, I am about QUALITY and COLLABORATION, CURIOSITY and PASSION and making those things sing in harmony
  • Very happily returned to the testing fold before too much damage was done
  • Faced my doubts and returned to a testing conference
  • Met a lot of really amazing testers in the process
  • Got up in front of them and delivered a 99 second talk

Of course, here the preamble is less muttered and the purpose may be clearer: my point is that ANY attendee of a conference can do these things. Many will be fortunate enough not to have to start their own testing meetup, and can perhaps join one in a town nearby. Many may think a blog is a bit old hat these days, but it works for me. Many won’t be able to afford more than one conference a year, or won’t have the experiences I’ve had, or won’t be so frequently cast into drama as I have been this last year.

But anyone can do this.

Anyone can begin to grow their craft, their understanding of their craft, their mindset and appreciation and engagement with the community. Anyone can take steps to be better in 12 months time than they are today, learn a hell of a lot in the process (a career in public speaking may remain elusive for me, I fear!), get to know themselves better. It’s been an exceptionally valuable 12 months and it ended just as I’d promised myself it would a year ago – with me on that stage, mic in hand, talking about – well – whatever.

The How

I won’t pretend I was confident, I was absolutely bricking it for the seemingly endless time (about 45 minutes) between deciding to give a talk and giving it, standing in the queue trying very hard not to look at the rather large audience, frantically hammering prompts I utterly failed to use into my phone.

The less said about the delivery the better. Happily (?) I have a recording of my talk so will sit down and learn about what I need to do more of – speak more clearly, face the audience rather than my feet, etc etc. And, kindly, the organisers gave me a moleskine style notebook for speaking, which much to the amusement of my colleagues I got out of its case and then couldn’t get back in, so much were my hands shaking (I noted I wasn’t the only speaker with this exact problem).

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To quote my kids about this pic: “Daddy looks VERY grumpy…”

And you know what? I cleared this hurdle, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to do so. The next one will be easier, and I will be more prepared, and I won’t be surprising myself by deciding to do it on the fly. So yes, it was weak, and cliche, and aimless. Next time will be intentional, and more measured, and hopefully more useful to the room.

But god… that was useful for me. I can’t begin to tell you how low my confidence has been as a tester-among-testers, this last few months. How I couldn’t sleep the night before travelling to Manchester for fear of… what? Being exposed as a fraud by my betters? Being resented for communicating my own negative feelings about a former event? Nothing could be further from the reality of the interested, supportive people I met in Manchester.

Especial thanks to Leigh and Vernon who were both exceptionally supportive, and really celebrated the personal achievement with me. Both were extremely generous with their time after my experiences in Brighton (as were many others) and made good on that sentiment at the Manchester event, making me and everyone else feel not just welcome but like an old friend. It means a lot, as someone who looks around and feels like a fraud, to question, listen, talk as equals, and to welcome constructive feedback.

And Next…

Who knows? I want to work on my public speaking, a lot. I want to talk at smaller events and get Test MK moving again. And I want to keep growing as a tester, keep learning and teaching and broadening my experience.

I can tell you I’m back writing this blog again, 11 months since the last post. That I’m almost sorry not to be in work next week to begin applying some of what I’ve learned. And that… just now? I’m feeling like slightly less of an impostor.


More on Impostor Syndrome here, and in a future post on this blog.

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