5 Questions with Phil Kirkham (reprinted with permission)

A few weeks ago Phil Kirkham (another (but far more experienced) Blogging Tester) asked if he could include me in his “5 Questions With” series of interviews, for his “Expected Results” Blog. Being the quiet retiring type that I am, I agreed within a nano-second – after all, how bad could I be?? What follows is the uncut, unadulterated transcript of that interview…zzzzz

“Next in the series is Colin Cherry, a well-travelled Test Manager, currently living in the land of Neighbours, Fosters, koala bears and kangaroos, who seems to like having happy testers”.

1) What’s your background, how did you get into testing, did you think you would be in it as long a you have?

I began writing software for a small finance company, based in London, in 1974 (you can do the maths on my vintage). I then spent most of the next 15 years working my way through the world of software development and began transitioning into software testing around 1989. I moved into software testing because I enjoyed spending time with business folk, trying to explain to them why the software they were using wasn’t doing what they expected!!

I see myself as a problem solver and therefore working in an industry where I’ve been able to solve business and technical problems has been fantastic. In fact, over the last 10 or 11 years I’ve spent more and more time helping businesses adapt to the increasing influences of technology. I have designed the launch of several small and medium-sized businesses using the concept of the Model Office – a little known Testing technique that provides an environment within which you can model an entire business, a department or any sub-division thereof. I’m constantly amazed how few people use this technique – I’ve presented it at several conferences and now I’m working on an e-Book to spread the word.

The reason I’ve stayed within the world of software testing for over 20 years is that I have been able to influence organisational change across many industries and government agencies. I have a rule wherein I never work in the same industry/sector on consecutive jobs – this ensures that I remain flexible and creative in my delivery. I get bored easily, so working in new and challenging environments is good for me and my clients.

2) How is the testing scene in Australia? You’ve worked in many countries, does each country seem to have it’s own approach to testing?

When I first came to Oz in 1990 I found it very difficult to find any thought leaders in the software testing arena. In 1995 I wanted to learn how to automate my tests, but had to go back to England for training – which ended up being a blessing as I met Dot Graham and Mark Fewster, who have remained good friends ever since. I went to my first EuroSTAR in 1999 (Barcelona) and hooked up with Donna O’Neill (CEO of IV&V Australia) and we began a quest to bring a major software testing conference to Oz. We succeeded in convincing the EuroSTAR folks to bring the concept here from 2001 until 2004. Now we have a dozen or so conferences each year of various sizes and formats. We are also building vibrant testing communities, even though we have significant geographic and economies of scale challenges.

I’ve worked on projects in the UK, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia since 2000 and there are very few differences that I see. All of these countries exhibit pockets of excellence while they also struggle to manage and deliver the larger more complex projects. I also developed a “follow the sun” test strategy for one major project in Australia about 7 years ago that relied heavily on technical cooperation and understanding – we had no real gaps in our joint capabilities across Asia Pacific, the Indian sub-continent, Europe and the Americas.

I think the single biggest challenge for the Australian Software Testing community is in developing it’s own thought leaders and identities – we need to create more opportunities for this to occur. We don’t have anyone of the calibre of Dot Graham, Michael Bolton, Martin Pol, James Whittaker, Rex Black etc.

Like many western countries, Australia has a highly paid professional testing population and this has led to many organisations looking offshore for alternative solutions. While I am on record as saying I am not a fan of “testing factories”, I understand why this has happened. In fact, one of the Blog drafts I’m working on is about the current state of the software testing market in Australia, so hopefully you won’t mind if I maintain my rage until I publish my Blog!!

3) What’s your biggest challenge at the moment?

The same as it has been for the past 20 years – convincing Project Managers and business stakeholders that prevention is far more effective than cure. Many years ago I met Ross Collard (another Testing thought leader) who introduced me to the concept of poke yoke (a Japanese term meaning mistake proofing) and this started me on a quest of prevention over cure. If every major organisation that relied on technology (yep, that’s all of them) knew how to define their problems and needs effectively we would require far fewer developers and testers in the world.

4) You had a blog post about being a Samurai Test Manager – does this mean you only recruit Test Ninjas? How difficult have you found it to recruit good testers, is it getting harder or easier and what are the things you look for when recruiting?

Cute question, Phil. I’ll deal with the Japanese aspect first and then the recruitment bit second. Samurai and Ninjas were never the best of friends!! Samurai followed very strict rules, were bound by a code of honour and were usually served a single master as a protector. Whereas, Ninjas (or Shinobi) were mercenaries and covert agents who focused on espionage, sabotage, assassination etc. What these folks did have in common was their dedication to the cause – their ability to prepare and practice relentlessly in order to be masters of their trades. This is why I have gravitated towards the historic Japanese cultures over the second half of my career.

It has definitely become harder to recruit professional testers in Australia, especially in the 3 to 5 years experience category. In my opinion there are a number of reasons for this:
1) The arrival of various international consulting organisations (no I’m not going to name them and give them a free plug) into our testing market
2) The lack of realistic training and development budgets in the majority of organisations
3) The movement of young testers into the freelance/contract market as soon as they possibly can
4) The move to offshore jobs (this is also linked to (1) above) at the expense of building up our own software testing industry with graduate-intake programs.

I am a VERY harsh interviewer and hire based upon potential and beliefs/attitudes and this has been a very successful approach for me over the years. I refuse to compromise on the quality of the people I hire and how much I am willing to pay them. Far too many testers in Australia have a false sense of their worth and this is impacting the bottom line for many IT departments and increasing the focus on the “cost of quality”. I build small, effective and highly skilled teams and pay them accordingly. I usually cut the size of teams I inherit (sometimes up to 50% get the chop) in order to reduce waste and overheads.

I believe that there is a direct link between our poor track record with implementing effective test automation strategies, the lack of building local skills from the bottom up and the increase in Australian companies looking to cheaper offshore solutions for their quality dollars.

5) What books are you reading at the moment and why?

I’ve been thinking about books a lot lately, mainly because of the advent of the e-book and the impact it is having on our bookcase. As with music, I have fully embraced the digitisation of books, with my trusty iPad holding many technical titles and a few novels. However, I am beginning to miss the look and feel of my favourite books.

I’m currently sitting in our study looking at one of our remaining bookcases and I see cooking, travel, software testing, sports and self-help books dominating. I rarely read one book at a time – especially when it comes to technical titles and so my initial answer to your question is “Perfect Software…” and “Responding to Significant Software Events”, both by Jerry Weinberg, “How Much is Enough” by Robert & Edward Skidelsky and “Experiences of Test Automation” by Dot Graham & Mark Fewster. I’m reading/referring to these books regularly at the moment, but I will never read one of these cover to cover.

Because I’m travelling a bit at the moment, I’m reading various Lonely Planet titles. I’m also reading various Yoga-related books, as my wife has just begun a 2-year teaching course and I like to be able to understand at least the basics of whatever she is interested in at any given time. I buy novels and biographies regularly, but probably only read about 50% of them within the following 12 months. As I said before, I love the aesthetics of books. Due to a myriad of clashing priorities it’s been a while since I read a new novel cover to cover, but I am always dipping into our Douglas Adams collection (we have all his books) for inspiration and a great laugh.

Thanks Phil, it’s been emotional….”

Normal service will resume within the next 24 hours.

Dateline: Killarney Vale, NSW; Wednesday April 10, 2013

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