Talking Testing is back up and running! We sit down with Gem Hill, an experienced Tester and a true part of the Tester community, who has now gone on to fulfil a new venture. However, Gem always believed that their transition from Senior Test into Principal Quality Engineer is hard to define and measure, as it goes away from hands on testing and towards guiding and mentoring a team – How do you measure this? So let’s delve in to find out some of Gem’s top tips…
Hey Gem, can you please introduce yourself and give us a brief overview of your current role…
I’m Gem, I’m the founder of SelfCare Backpack. I’m currently self-employed, spending time doing contract testing work as well as working on self care either doing talks and workshops in organisations, or working with people one on one. I’m in training to be a person-centred therapist, with the goal of opening a tech-worker focused therapy practice.
I noticed you were an Outreach & QA Technician before you entered the world of Testing. What grabbed your attention about Testing and made you pursue a career?
The company I was working for only had one tester, and when they were swamped I offered to help out, as I had spare time between answering support issues. I realised I really enjoyed testing (and it was something I could do without writing too much code, which I’ve never enjoyed). I started googling, found the testing community and it went from there.
You seem to do lots of impressive things within the Testing Community, what does this consist of?
The testing community, and Ministry of Testing Specifically are the reason I made testing my career, really. When I googled software tester back in 2013, I found the Ministry of Testing, and found a home. When I was working as the sole tester, or in small testing teams, I had the entire community to turn to when needed. I’ve made some really good friends through the community, and learned so much. Giving back, introducing new people to the community and helping it continue to flourish is
important to me.
What is one of the favourite events this year you have been part of?
Leeds Testing Atelier is always a good time, and I really enjoyed doing a workshop there. I also volunteered at Testbash UK, which was my first time volunteering. It was incredibly fun and I got a lot out of helping out.
As you progressed from Senior Test into Principal Quality Engineer, how did your duties and expectations change?
So as I moved into Principal, I basically did no hands on testing. I did some in mobs or pairs with other quality engineers, but day to day, I wasn’t doing hands on testing or working with a particular team. I was coaching and mentoring quality engineers, working with principal software engineers, and doing cross-company strategy work with the other principal quality engineers.
How are you able to measure your value when you’re no longer doing hands-on work in a role?
Figuring out how to measure your value and make that visible can be difficult! If you’re used to having really visible work in tickets, and testing, you might find it hard to adapt. Also, the higher you get, the less detailed your knowledge has to become. You go from working with one or two teams day to day, attending standups, planning, retrospectives, and seeing tickets come through to maybe having weekly meetings with just the quality engineers, and getting a much more high level view. Where you spend your effort will depend on what your skills are and what your team or department needs. One of my fellow Principal Quality Engineers worked on a contract testing proof of concept, myself and another PQE looked at the interview process for quality engineers. I worked to put an Accessibility Champion network together, another worked closely with the platform team to build consistency in how we used tooling. The possibilities are functionally endless, which is why it’s so difficult! If I could go back and give myself advice, it would be:
- Find out the top 3 problems in my department
- Put together a 30 day plan with what I’m going to try to fix one of those problems, ideal outcomes, measuring outcomes
- Keep this up to date with discoveries, blockers, changing understanding
- Keep planning in 30 day chunks
- Make this super visible (trello, jira, miro, etc), and get regular feedback all in one place.
What are some key indicators of success in a senior role that involves coaching and guiding teams but not direct management?
Obviously some of this is context dependent. Your company may do OKRs that you may be able to apply to your own work. For example, if there are OKRs around customer journey performance, you might be able to look at how easy it is for teams to experiment, or measure their changes. You might want to look at performance and speed of customer journeys, or see what frustrations UX teams may have. This can then feed into the official OKR process, and you have a visible contribution there. Other options may come from individual teams. If you notice patterns across teams that you either want to spread to other teams, or stop, you can work with teams to see what’s happening and go from there, because you’re working at a higher level, so you have more overall visibility. Some of these changes might not have a concrete visible outcome. If you help teams figure out ways of working, you could arguably link that to DORA metrics or team health, or whatever your teams use to track their efficiency. But the variables are muddy, so you might not be able to draw a straight line from your work to an outcome. This is where feedback comes in. If teams you’re working with give you feedback, collect it and keep it somewhere. Keep a folder of ‘good things people have said about me’, and include context for each thing. This will be useful not only for those days when you’re struggling, but also for reviews, development plans, etc. For example, if you coach someone through a difficult problem really well, and they thank you, that’s a good thing to show for your value, but also might trigger some thoughts about you moving into coaching, or getting formalised coaching training.
How can you quantify my contributions in a non-managerial senior role?
As the role becomes a more empowering role, your measurements become different. Regular check ins with your line manager, other team leads, maybe heads of functions, become more important, because you need both that input, but also a chance to talk about what you’re actually doing. I’m a big fan of Done lists as well as or alongside To Do lists. Sometimes plans change, or something comes up last minute, so tracking what you’ve actually done can show you where you’re spending your time. This can be helpful to track what you’re achieving, but also can highlight patterns of tasks that you might be able to manage more efficiently (do you need to go to all of those meetings? Can you delegate or catch up with someone who was in that meeting later on? Can you read the notes?). 360 feedback is also really useful. Get feedback from people you’re working with to get some idea of how they see your work. Don’t be afraid to put something concrete on your list if it fits in with your work. If you can put a workshop together or a proof of concept, even if you work with someone else on it, it can help with the anxiety of you ‘not doing any proper work’, as well as contribute to your organisation overall. Also, it may be that you find opportunities for other people, which is something else that you can track. If you’re working with people who are more junior in their career, you might be able to find opportunities to grow and coach and mentor them, which is something else you can keep track of, and use that to measure your contribution to your team or colleagues.
How can you stay motivated and continue to add value in a non-hands-on senior role?
Keeping your work visible to yourself is so important in this kind of role. This is why all the things I’ve recommended are about keeping notes of things you’ve done, how your knowledge has changed, things that aren’t necessarily tangible, but still important. Making plans and finding other people’s goals to contribute to can help give yourself things to work towards that are more concrete. This also opens you up to people giving you feedback, including positive feedback. Don’t underestimate the importance of praise in this kind of situation.
Any advice for someone transitioning into this ‘in-between’ senior role?
Sit down and figure out what you do well in your current role. This ‘finding your superpower’ exercise can help you figure out your strengths and what you enjoy doing. Once you have an idea of this, you can start to think about how you can apply this to other situations. Sit down and figure out what you do well in your current role. This ‘finding your superpower’ exercise can help you figure out your strengths and what you enjoy doing. Once you have an idea of this, you can start to think about how you can apply this to other situations. Also: what do you need to motivate you? What gives you joy at work? This can be accountability, or achieving tasks, getting face time with people, having time to do deep focus work. This kind of knowledge can help you make sure you get that regularly, even if you have to make it happen yourself. This can help you keep on top of work, but also your mental health when it comes to transitioning into a new type of role. This kind of in-between role can give you some freedom to try things at a higher level, but it also can require more active work on finding and tracking work yourself, both for yourself and for others. Keep an eye on your motivation, don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is a big transition. Be kind to yourself.
Last but no means least, for those who don’t know about your latest venture what is “SelfCare Bagpack”?
SelfCare Backpack offers resources, tools, and coaching all around self care and mental health. My tagline is ‘helping people build better relationships with themselves’. Throughout this blog post I’ve talked about knowing yourself, and using that knowledge to help yourself. This is something I’ve done a lot over the years with my own mental health and healing journey, and the tools I’ve developed can help other people with this journey. I’m in training to be a therapist, with the ultimate goal of opening a therapy practice primarily aimed at people in tech, as I know the context and industry, and I know a lot of therapists aren’t familiar with the particular nuances of working in tech.