Monday, June 29, 2009

How Good You Say You Are

So here's the thing. Some people are not so good at their jobs. Some people are good at their jobs. Some people are great. And there are a few who are just out-of-this-world at their jobs. These are the testers you get to work with once in a career, or the developers who blow your mind and write maintainable code while doing it.

And then there's an entire separate piece - the self-assessment. How good does this person think they are? And again this is all over the map. There are people who are convinced they're a mistake waiting to happen, and people who think they're probably pretty good. Then there's the cohort that can be heard saying at cocktail parties, "Well, because I'm very good at what I do." And lastly there's the gang that you hopefully only ever hear rumor of, who are convinced they are the best (whatever profession they are) that the world has ever seen.

The correlation between actual quality of work and perceived quality of work is very small.

So two questions:
  1. Who cares?
  2. How do we overcome this, assuming someone cares?
The short answer to the "who cares" question is: whoever is judging themselves. If my self-assessment is wrong, I will either be underestimating my contributions, or I'll be setting expectations higher than anything I can possibly meet. Underestimating means I don't get that job or that plum assignment I want. Overestimating... well... we call those "bad hires". It's okay to be a little wrong - we're probably all a little wrong - but when you get way off there's a problem. And you'll start to see it: you'll be passed up for things you could do easily; or you'll be hit with a string of disappointing performance reviews.

So how do we avoid this erroneous self-assessment trap?

First listen. You'll hear about how you're doing. Do you keep getting the hard bugs thrown your way? Do you get "good find" comments? Got a raise or a title bump? That's a sign you're probably not half bad. Go with it. Alternatively, are your performance reviews not as good as you would expect? Do you keep getting asked to redo work or explain your assertions? You may not be as good as you think you are.

Avoid extreme pitches. Are you billing yourself as "tester extraordinaire"? That's an awfully high bar to cross. You might want to back off that a bit.

Ask someone you trust. Find someone you trust - a colleague or a boss - and ask them how good you really are. It'll take a little convincing to get them to be blunt, but it's invaluable.

Your face on the world is first your self-assessment and second your actual work. Make sure your self-assessment gives you the opportunities you deserve and sets you up for success.


  1. This is all pretty general advice. Is there something more specific to testing?

    It seems to me that self-assessment require a model of what you think "good tester" means. We informally develop such models in the course of our careers (mine is a bit more formal than most).

    If someone tells me he's a great tester, I immediately ask him how does he know that. I expect to hear some kind of thoughtful answer. I don't want to hear "cause I can break anything" or "cause I have five years of experience." Those claims mean nothing.

    Actually, I'm immediately suspicious when I hear "I am a great tester." I'd rather hear "I love testing and I study and practice it to better at it."

  2. You're right - this is not at all specific to testing. You can be a tester, a developer, a lab assistant, and still have a difference between how good you are and how good you think you are.

    As for a "good tester", well, I don't think there's a particularly singular definition of that. A good web tester will be a very different creature from a good hardware tester, etc., and in general I don't think most of use are equally good at all types of testing. So in order to set the expectation of how well you will perform at job X you have to be able to calibrate your skills against the skills you think the job/task/project will require, and then convey that accordingly. I haven't thought about it thoroughly yet, as it applies to testers specifically.

  3. One thing I found myself practicing these days while receiving feedback (solicited or otherwise) is - do not interrupt while receiving the feedback, do not judge at that time whether the feedback is true or not.
    Most importantly do not defend yourself in response to feedback (barring those situations where you got to defend and respond to feedback - as appraisals).

    Feedback is something that you assimilate and act on .. not for immediate knee jerk response. One need to not convince the person giving the feedback. Feedback is for self consumption and action for the receiver.