Attitude, NOT Certification, is the Real Differentiator

As I lay here in my sick bed, sneezing, aching and sneezing again, I am reminded of times gone by when I would drag myself out of the house, no matter how physically sick or exhausted I might be, in order to meet a client or a deadline. I was brought up to never complain or shirk my responsibilities and this meant “carrying on regardless”. It’s a lesson that has drawbacks (selfless acts or “stupidity”, as some may say) but I still believe the ability to soldier on is an important one; one that engenders a spirit of triumph over adversity, of fighting against the odds. It is this same sense of determination to succeed that has helped me be resilient in my professional life.

I chose very early on in my career to work as a freelancer – a decision that means frequently applying for new opportunities and undergoing job interviews. It was a decision that leads me to regularly focus on the direction my career is taking. It also means that I am very aware that I am only as good as my last job. Being a freelance software developer, a freelance software tester and now a freelance business consultant and writer means also taking control of my professional development to ensure that I remain employable. Anticipating the next commercial trend is central to my strategy. And it works!!

Have I been successful every time I’ve applied for a job? Of course not. Have I agonised over why this is? Not in the least! The reality is that today it is harder than ever to have a 100% hit rate when it comes to job applications, no matter how much experience I may have acquired. There are so many variables in the job market that I cannot expect to have control during any stage of the recruitment process. Time was when just showing up and breathing consistently pretty much guaranteed success, now a degree in astro-physics may not be good enough!!

I have never subscribed to the mantra that my worthiness is measured by my success rate in the job market. If someone needs a job done and I have the appropriate level of experience then I should be considered for the job, right? WRONG!! If someone needs a job done they have the right to choose whoever they like to perform it (appropriate experience or not). I have no right whatsoever to assume I should be chosen – NONE. Employers have the means (time and money) and I have the wherewithal; however, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a job for me. It just equates to a job for “someone”. But that doesn’t mean I’m not good enough, it just means I wasn’t the right “fit”.

Here’s a true story….

When I was 19 years old I applied for my first job as a Computer Programmer. It was 1972 and no one I knew worked as a Programmer (or Developer, as seems to be the preferred term today). I got the job as a Trainee Programmer and, as they say, “the rest is history”. But how did I get my first break in a fledgling IT industry? It certainly wasn’t because I was a computer wunderkind. It certainly wasn’t because I knew the bosses daughter. Plain and simple – it was because I took an Aptitude Test and gained a sufficiently high score to be considered for interview and then my enthusiasm for the opportunity did the rest – their words, not mine…

Enthusiasm is an under-rated quality. So is passion, self-confidence and a willingness to try anything when an opportunity is offered. You see, I was fortunate enough to have a belief in myself that anything I wanted to achieve was possible (great parenting and excellent schooling, I guess), even though I was never a star pupil. I was pretty good at Maths and crazy about Geography, but more importantly, I was determined and never gave up (except when it came to learning French!). I learnt persistence and resilience on the sports field, where I also learnt the importance of team spirit and true friendship. I learnt my work ethic from my Dad, who gave his all to keep our family fed and warm. I learnt humility from my Physics teacher (Dai Rees), even though he failed in his quest to teach me Physics!! I learnt to respect and cherish others for what they are from my Nan, who had an endless supply of hugs when the going got tough.

Why is this an important topic for conversation right now? Because, I am speaking to ever increasing numbers of software testers who want to know why it’s so hard to get (and keep) a job in our industry. They seem to think there is a magic formula and that someone like me (who has worked in the IT industry for over 40 years) may be able to offer them a silver bullet. As always, the elusive silver bullet is a figment of their imagination. The truth is, nothing has changed in our industry since Day 1 (sometime in the 1950’s) when jobs were just as rare and the right skills were just as hard to find – after all, who was qualified to be the very first Software Tester?

For me, the most important attribute required to thrive (or survive) in the Software Testing industry today is probably no different from the majority of other jobs out there – attitude. Attitude to learning. Attitude to opportunities. Attitude to other people. Attitude to yourself. Attitude to change.

You see, I would never have achieved what I have over the last 40 years if I had felt comfortable at any step along the way. I have never allowed someone else to create my boundaries. I learnt this early in life upon meeting our School Career Counsellor. She told me I would be well suited to working in a Bank. I told her that I wanted to count my own money, not someone else’s. So, I wrote to the three largest stockbroking firms in London and got three interviews. I got my stockbroking opportunity (from my first interview) and that led to my first interaction with commercial computing which, within two years, led to me writing software.

I followed my instincts and created an opportunity – I have never stopped following my instincts or creating opportunities. Believing and trusting in oneself is crucial when it comes to managing your career. Of course I’ve had my downs, it’s unrealistic to expect every opportunity to turn out the way I expected, but that’s how I learnt – from my mistakes, as well as my successes. I learnt to continually assess my position within each organisation I worked with. I learnt to seek out those I could trust and those I should be wary of or avoid. I learnt that standing still (in terms of skills acquisition) really means going backwards. I still spend time EVERY day learning something new – it may not necessarily help me today, but I believe that every new piece of information (or knowledge) will help me one day and when that day comes I will be thankful to those who helped shape my mind and attitude.

Thanks to people like Brian Barker, Vernon Stevenson, Terry Fletcher, Phil King, Mark Wells, Dot Graham, Maddy Oldfield, Baz D’Monte and Magnus Wikholm (for their inspiration and creativity) I have been able to maintain a clear focus on what is important in managing my career from junior software developer to where I am today.

What has also become even more important over the last few years is my worldwide network of specialists and professionals. Every job opportunity that has come my way during the past 10 years has been via my network, whether it be directly or indirectly. Sometimes this has been via direct contact and sometimes via social media. Do not under-estimate the importance of building a professional network – and I’m not talking about just pinging people on LinkedIn or following them on Twitter, I’m talking about really connecting with people and building a reputation for professionalism and delivery. Your standing in the software testing community is not measured by your number of connections on social media it is measured by your ability to successfully perform whatever job you have been employed to perform.

And while we’re on the subject of perception vs reality, I know plenty of people who “talk a good game” but can’t back it up with actions. Humility and diligence outshine bravado and bullshit. Be real. Be honest. Be kind and considerate. Be diligent. Be brave. But, above all, be enthusiastic.

Dateline: Friday June 13, 2014; NSW Central Coast

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One thought on “Attitude, NOT Certification, is the Real Differentiator

  1. Pingback: Testing Bits – 6/8/14 – 6/14/14 | Testing Curator Blog

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