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Oct 5, 2018 - 5 minute read - Linkedin

Luck, Opportunity and Contextual Advice

Original Pulse Article on [Linkedin]

I find advice interesting.

How much of that advice is based on ‘luck’ and how much on ‘deliberate and strategic choices’.

How Much Advice is Based On Luck?

I face this difficulty when responding to emails from people asking about what to do for their career:

  • Should I learn to automate?
  • What language should I learn to code in?
  • What training should I do?
  • Should I get technical?

How much of what I do, and the career I’ve followed was based on ‘luck’?

  • I learned to code, and programmed commercially, before learning testing.
  • I programmed tools, that helped people design and test software, before learning testing.

The above were not deliberate and strategic choices, but they provided me with a different base to explore Software Testing than other people.

Not “better”. Not “worse”. Different.

Which means I find it hard to give “absolute” advice. I try to provide contextual advice.

Absolute Advice

Where ‘absolute’ would imply: don’t, never, you must, always.

For example, I would find it hard to say:

  • “don’t learn to automate”
  • “don’t learn the technology”
  • etc.

Note: these are straw men examples.

I’ve seen generic advice online, phrased in absolute terms. If people want to give ‘absolute’ advice, then that’s fine, and if people want to believe and accept ‘absolute’ advice then that is their choice.

Can we believe ‘absolute’ advice, when provided by someone who already knows how to do the thing they are advising against?

I couldn’t authentically say “don’t learn to automate” or “you don’t need to learn to code”, given that I can, and I do know how to, and they have both helped me with my testing.

I couldn’t authentically say “don’t learn the technology” because I have, and understanding the technology has helped me.

At the start of my career, this was essentially, ‘luck’. I was lucky that I learned these skills because it opened up opportunities that I would not otherwise have been able to take. Over time, both of these turned into ‘deliberate and strategic’ choices for me. To continue to learn and expand my knowledge, because doing so opened up new opportunities.

I absolutely could not advise people against this.

Because… Contextual Advice

When I answer the emails I receive I want to try and help people maximise the opportunities open to them, at this point in time, to allow them to ‘get lucky’. And that means ruling nothing out. That means expanding, rather than limiting.

For some people that might mean:

  • do learn to automate,
  • do learn the technology,
  • do concentrate on test techniques,
  • do learn to explore as you test.

But with each statement there is a ‘because’

  • Do learn to automate because you already know the basics of programming and if you learn to use the libraries and tools associated with automated execution it can make you more attractive to a potential employer.
  • Do learn the technology because you already have experience of testing web sites, and by learning the technology in more detail you can deepen you testing and add value by increasing the opportunities open to you when you test.
  • Do concentrate on test techniques, because you’ve spent a lot of time learning how to automate and this has left you weaker in your traditional testing knowledge and by learning this you can make your automated execution more strategic and test software better.
  • Do learn to explore as you test because you already have testing experience and by learning to explore effectively you can work in environments that want to work more Agile or flexibly.

The same would apply to any “don’t”.

Contextual Advice Without Absolutes

And more likely I would say:

  • “you might want to…” rather than ‘do’
  • “I probably wouldn’t…” rather than “don’t”

The benefit of “do” and “don’t” communication is that it can lead to short, succinct, sound bite based communication, very suitable for social media.

But, it comes with the danger that some people actually take the absolute statement as fact and then “do” or “don’t” without identifying what outcome they want to maximise their opportunity for success, and without realising what opportunities it blocks.

When you do realise what opportunities it blocks then you have made a strategic decision, and it opens the opportunity for adopting a different strategy later. Absolutes don’t generally do that.

Consultancy

When I provide consultancy I do the same thing, approach it contextually.

I’ve worked in other companies, so I’ve seen what other people did and can use them as examples. But I also try and bring in more context:

  • what decisions they made,
  • the basis for those decisions,
  • what worked,
  • what didn’t work,
  • what factors might have led to their success/failure,
  • etc.

If I was a big consultancy, I would phrase this as Advice from Industry Best Practice. But I’m not so I describe it as, “based on experience”.

But I also have to, and this is more important, look at the specific client context.

  • What are they doing?
  • What are they trying to achieve?
  • What are the current skill sets?
  • What are the current experience levels?
  • What budget do they have?
  • What risks do they perceive?
  • What appetite to risk do they have?
  • What are their communication approaches?
  • What have they tried?
  • What worked, what didn’t?
  • etc.

A lot of analysis of them as a System. To provide contextual advice and to allow us to conduct experiments that fit in with their current questions and next steps.

Consultancy feels like a relatively vague word, and I wish I had a better word to describe my work.

Consultancy leads to ‘advice’:

  • the outputs
  • the experiments
  • and the process

Hopefully, advice which concentrates on the client context. This will include “because”, to allow strategic decision making and deliberately choosing to aim for specific opportunities and outcomes. Knowing that other paths exist which can be explored if/when necessary.

I don’t think that absolute advice supports that as well as contextual advice.