Testing through Storytelling: An Interview with Isabel Evans


In this interview, independent quality and testing consultant Isabel Evans discusses how to tell our testing stories. She covers how to adapt testing stories to different audiences and how we can change our listening style based on the situation.

Jennifer Bonine: Welcome back to day two of our virtual conference and virtual interviews. All of you probably had the opportunity, hopefully, to watch Isabel's keynote. Isabel, thank you for being here with me.

Isabel Evans: I was going to say it's a pleasure, but I'm actually quite nervous because I'm quite nervous of cameras and things, but I know you'll look after me.

Jennifer Bonine: I will. I promise. Isabel, so lovely to meet you yesterday during the keynote. I think it might be good, I was watching your keynote and watching the comments of some of the folks that are out there listening. Any advice you have for people who may say, "Oh my gosh. She's so brave. She can get up on that stage and be so calm and collected and tell these beautiful stories to all of us"? Any advice for people who may be terrified of speaking or telling their story?

Isabel Evans: I'm going to do this straight to camera, which is, for me, scary. If you are out there and you want to speak, believe me, it's terrifying, but you do it anyway. I'm such a bundle of nerves beforehand. I think that's true of all speakers, isn't it? Do you find the same thing?

Jennifer Bonine: Yes. Actually, no matter how long you've done it, before you go out there it's like these nerves that happen.

Isabel Evans: Some of that adrenaline starts to kick in really early in terms of, "Am I going to get a place to speak?" You don't always. You apply to speak, and maybe you're lucky enough to get a place and maybe you're not, because there are so many brilliant speakers. You're nervous at that point, when you're applying. Then, you start putting it together and getting ideas. It's exciting and you know you've got a story to tell. Suddenly, as it comes up towards the conference, you're going, "Why did I say I was going to do this?" I've done this where, with the lightning key yesterday, five minutes before going on, I was sitting there thinking, "I have no idea what I'm going to say." I don't know what's going to come out.

Even if it's a technical subject, I've stood there before thinking, "I'm not going to talk about test techniques. I can't remember any of them." Then, you get up there and they come out. If you've got a story to tell, give it a go. There's various sorts of mentoring schemes. Look for a mentoring scheme. Look for a mentor. For me it was Dot Graham. She encouraged me. Find somebody who can help you.

Jennifer Bonine: Before you do, just so people understand the preparation that goes into this, some speakers that I know spend months and months refining, honing, changing slides, preparing. Others, it's very much they know the broad gist of what they are going to speak on, and they get up there and they just go and they are able to do that.

What's your way that you get ready to do this? Are you one who does this for months and months and months, refining and preparing, or what's your process?

Isabel Evans: I rehearse, but not necessarily with the slides. I rehearse, so if I'm going for a walk, in my head I'll be running through the types of stories, the type I want to tell and the shape of those stories and the lessons out of them. I also find I get sort of inspirational moments. Something will come out in my head. All of a sudden, I'll think, "Oh, that would fit in there." I don't script it. I find that quite hard to do. I maybe put some bullet points down, particularly if it's a new talk.

When I was first speaking, I used to actually take papers up onto the stage with me and lay them out across the floor. I believed I wasn't going to be able to do it without having something there as a safety net. Then I suddenly realized, I wasn't looking at them so I didn't need to bring them. That was a major leap forward in terms of what it's like to be a speaker.

I think the other approach is also excellent. I saw the most wonderful presentation once by somebody who put up a single slide with the most beautiful photograph. Then, she said, "I have a very specific thing I want to say and I've written it down. I'm now going to read it to you." She read, beautifully, for 45 minutes. It was one of the best things I've ever seen. I would say the lesson there is do it in the way that's best for you. Sometimes you feel ready to extemporize and sometimes you won't be. I've just realized that yesterday I was saying to Jennifer, "I can't do an interview. I'll be too nervous," and I haven't stopped talking. What have you done to me? You've just done magic to me, haven't you?

Jennifer Bonine: You're brilliant and perfect. It's just, see what works and it just flows.

Isabel Evans: It's the magic.

Jennifer Bonine: It's the magic. One of the things—and that's beautiful because I think it's very important for people out there who are maybe nervous or anxious who have a great story but just haven't had the courage to tell it yet—to know is that everyone gets nervous. Everyone, no matter how brilliant a speaker they are, no matter how many times they've done it, they go through that sense of, "Oh, my gosh. Why am I doing this? Why did I sign up to do this? Okay, now I'm doing this. I'm doing it okay. It's going to be okay." You finish and you go, "Wow. That was great." You feel good when you're done. It's taking that leap, I think and being able to take those leaps.

Isabel Evans: We were talking earlier about some of the people who haven't been so long in testing or not so long in test management. I think one of the things for me, now, as somebody who's been in the industry since the 1970s, when I was a programmer, in the '80s, started into testing. It's important to realize that for those of us who've been around longer, now we come into a stage of our development where we're learning from the younger people. That's a really important thing for me, that younger people are coming and telling their stories and I'm learning from them. That's really powerful.

In my workshops, earlier in the week, there was some things people were saying and doing. One guy was using shorthand and I was thinking, "That's a skill I've never learned. Maybe I should learn that." Or, you listen to somebody presenting about a software testing technique and it's one you maybe haven't used yet. There's always something new to learn. It's really important that people with experiences come forward to teach all of us.

Jennifer Bonine: I was saying a lot of the folks out there, I noticed, that were commenting on your talk were saying, "I'm new to this. This is great. It's helping me get inspired. I don't know a lot yet." Any advice for someone who maybe is newer in their career, is just starting out, saying, "You know, there's so much information out there. Where do I go? How do I start?" It can be overwhelming.

Isabel Evans: It can. It can.

Jennifer Bonine: When you start.

Isabel Evans: I would say, take a broad range of opinions, because there's different views about how testing should be done. They're appropriate in different contexts. Look at a broad range of what different people are publishing, whether that's online or in book format or at conferences. For me, the point of view of tests that you design, run, execute, looking for bugs, those are fundamental testing things, getting the techniques under your belt is really important, the test design techniques.

When you look at people who are really great exploratory testers, the James Bachs, the Jon Bachs, the Michael Boltons, and so on and so forth ... Rob Sabourin's people, who are really good. What they're doing is, they have those test design techniques inside them. They can use them and it almost looks like, I'm just saying magic happened. Actually, it's because they know the subject really well.

I find when I go to run tests, when I go to do testing now, I have to do some practice with the test design techniques. It's almost like, you know with a musician you do scales and so on. Just keep practicing them and practicing them and practicing them. There's a number of books that are really good. Lee Copeland's book is excellent, for example. It's a good started. Boris Beizer's books are more complex, but as you get confident, I think they're still a really good source. There are just so many good people to learn from. I would say, techniques. If you get that under your belt as a new tester, then that's great.

Jennifer Bonine: Yes. Absolutely. I think that's a great point. Pick a starting point, and maybe something like Lee's books. Something that's digestible, that doesn't overwhelm you. Then, you can always, if you pick up a book and it seems overwhelming, try a different one, right? Maybe come back to that one once you practiced a little bit more and it sinks in and the concepts make more sense, rather than just getting completely overwhelmed.

Isabel Evans: Definitely use what other people have done in the past. You'll find there are books with templates. There are standards with templates. In your organization there will be templates. The way I look at it is, because every human endeavor is flawed, whoever you talk to, whatever book you look at, wherever you pick up templates from or whatever else you're doing, there will be errors in them. You need to look at them critically as part of your testing. Also, them to be right for you. Don't be frightened of doing that. It's all up for grabs. It's all changing. What's appropriate is changing.

Jennifer Bonine: Yes. Absolutely. I think it's always interesting, folks like to hear the stories of how people ended up in this career. How did you get into this profession and what your story is. It's so fascinating. Everyone has their unique way that they made their way into testing. I think it would be fascinating just for them to hear your background and where you came from and how you ended up here today.

Isabel Evans: I did a computer science degree in the 1970s. That was almost by accident. I went to do ... Oh, dear. This is a story about attitudes to women. I went to do an interview for an electronic engineering degree. The guy doing the interview at the college said to me, "Well, you're intellectually capable of doing this, but you would be the only woman in the department. We think you should go to computer zcience because programming is a woman's job."

Jennifer Bonine: Really?

Isabel Evans: Yes. I went, "Oh, fair enough. I'm not going to argue." I went into computer science, which was brilliant, actually. Then, I did some programming. I was programming in the ‘70s. I really enjoyed that. Programming in those days was 95 percent testing and 95 percent static testing. Sitting at your desk with your source code, going through it. We had one compile every twenty-four hours and twenty minutes a week to actually run the program. I sort of enjoyed that.

Then, I went and taught nine- and ten-year-olds for about four or five years, as a sort of career change, just to do something different. That was enjoyable. Lots of storytelling in that. Good fun. Quite a breadth of things going on.

When I came back into IT, the job I was offered was in a software testing department, which hadn't been a concept I'd seen before, because there had just been developers doing everything. They said, "Go into the testing department for six months. Then, when an opening comes up in development, you can move across to development." When I got into the testing department, I suddenly thought, "Oh, I'm home. This is where I belong." That's how I got in and I love it. I still love testing. I also love process improvement and so on.

Jennifer Bonine: That's so fascinating. The more people I speak with, it's always interesting, the twists and turns maybe that they take, that end them up in the path that feels like home. Talking to a lot of folks who maybe started in another area and now are in testing, it's like you just know when you get into that place that fits you. It just, it works for you. That's great for us to kind of get that background.

Any advice you would give to folks out there now about just any tips or tidbits that you think are important for people that are saying, "I'm in testing. I'm trying to figure out new concepts," or, "I'm challenge about whether I should get a certification or not. I'm challenged about what courses are important to take. I don't know if I should go into automation or manual." Any advice, just in general, around how to find yourself inside of testing, because that's a broad ...

Isabel Evans: It is broad.

Jennifer Bonine: It's broad.

Isabel Evans: I think there is a ... I think if genuinely you're new and not sure, then try different things. If it's important to you to get a certification, and it is, for some people, then do that. That's not the only thing to do. If it's important for you to not have a certification, then don't have one. It's like this, you can make choices here. You can do whatever you want.

I think it's worth looking at all the things that are offered out there, and thinking about them critically. I think it is important to think that testing is not just the functional testing. For me, a key area I'm interested in is usability and the user experience and the customer experience and the business. For me, my career's taken me in that direction. I do think for almost all testers, thinking about people and thinking about the business is really key, understanding that.

If you're actually somebody who's very technically minded and actually you've got a yearning to do some programming, then the automation direction could be right for you. It's not that you, you don't have to try and do everything. You need to think about where you want to specialize. What I would say is, if you're nervous about coding, don't be. Give it a little go. Have a little go at it. You might find you like it better than you think and that you're better at it than you think.

Also, when you're talking to the developers and the technical people, having a little bit of understanding about what they're doing is really useful. Actually, quite often, if you say to them, "I want to have a go at this. Can I try a little bit? Show me how it works." People will take the time to help you. They need to know that you understand and empathize. It's another people thing. They need to understand that you empathize with them, you understand the difficulty of their task.

I would say, there are all these specialties out there. You need a sort of a, I'm going to say foundational, but I don't necessarily mean a certification. It could be, it might not. You need a foundational broad knowledge right across; something about hardware, something about software development and a little bit about architecture. Right through, and to understand the business. To understand what this is about. Then, you'll see which of those feels best to you and that's one to pursue.

You also, I think, need to consider career development. Are you going to specialize as a technical expert up to a consultancy level in that technical expertise? Or, do you want to go into something where you're managing the process or managing the people and you're actually nursing projects through to completion. It's a different skill set and both are important. Think about things like your communication skills as well. Is that of any use?

Jennifer Bonine: That was perfect. I think that was extremely useful.

Isabel Evans: Okay. I'm a sage of the world. I'm sorry if I'm burbling.

Jennifer Bonine: No. Not at all. It goes so fast. We've already run out of time. Isabel, if people want to contact you, what is the best way. I know you've inspired a lot of folks out there. They may have more questions for you that I didn't get to ask. What's the best way to get a hold of you?

Isabel Evans: I would say, probably, I'm on LinkedIn. Send me something through LinkedIn. Don't just send me a random invite, because I'll turn it down if I haven't met you. If you can say, "I heard you at the conference," or "I heard you at the conference. This is what my question is," Then I'll help. But if it's just a sort of ...

Jennifer Bonine: Generic.

Isabel Evans: Then I won't. Thank you for your patience, people.

Jennifer Bonine: That you for being here with us. I appreciate it. I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did. We'll see you back for more interviews later today.

Isabel EvansIndependent quality and testing consultant Isabel Evans has more than thirty years of IT experience in quality management and testing in the financial, communications, and software sectors. Her quality management work focuses on encouraging IT teams and customers to work together via flexible processes designed and tailored by the teams that use them. Isabel authored Achieving Software Quality Through Teamwork and chapters in Agile Testing: How to Succeed in an eXtreme Testing Environment; The Testing Practitioner; and Foundations of Software Testing. A popular speaker at software conferences worldwide, Isabel is a Chartered IT Professional and Fellow of the British Computer Society, and has been a member of software industry improvement working groups.

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