Interview-with-Iain-McCowattIAIN McCOWATT
Organization – Barclays GTC
Current Role/Designation – Director
Location – London

Iain McCowatt is a context-driven tester, test manager and occasional automator whose experience and passion for testing spans multiple industries and more than a decade. He specializes in solving difficult testing problems on large and complex enterprise IT projects. In such roles, the greatest revelation that he has experienced in recent years is that the most important contributor to success or failure of testing is people. Consequently, he places significant emphasis on developing the skills of testers. In his spare time, Iain is active in the software testing community and blogs at exploringuncertainty.com

1. Tell us about your journey to becoming a software tester. How did it start and how has it been so far? Was it planned or by accident?
Like many testers I started out because I was a warm body. I actually had two starts with testing. The first time around I joined a department that was in the throes of introducing new software and having a hard time with user acceptance. The boss said “Iain can do that”, so I ended up managing the acceptance process. The second time around I was a consultant, and found myself sitting on the bench for a while – never a healthy place to be as a consultant – and figured I’d better make myself busy. A gig came up managing system testing for a large ERP program, and I thought “I can do that”. A few years later I went for an interview for another testing role and it was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life: I clearly knew nothing about testing, just managing. So I threw myself at roles where I could actually test. I think this was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made: it led me to testing all kinds of crazy and interesting software. And although I find myself managing again I benefited immensely from that experience.

2. Do you regret being associated with software testing today? Given a chance would you move from testing to any other field in IT?
Absolutely not. Testing is more than a job, it’s a passion, and I’ll be spending the rest of my career with it. Even if I won the lottery I suspect I’d remain involved in testing. Now, if you were offering to fulfill my childhood dream of being an astronaut…that I’d have to think about.

3. You have said that the single most important factor to success or failure of a testing project is people. Why do you say so?
Testing revolves around learning and communicating. Last time I checked, machines, tools and methodology were no good at either. People, on the other hand, have the capacity to do both rather well. Aside from that, software development – or at least software development that isn’t performed by the user for the user – is something of a social activity. Think of all the interactions between people on the typical project. Think of all the opportunities for misunderstanding, error and ambiguity. It’s in this space between expectation and reality that the tester operates, and it’s a problem that no amount of tooling or methodology alone can solve.

4. Exploratory Vs Scripted – Which side are you with? How important is automation in today’s testing industry?
Scripted/exploratory is a false dichotomy. Testing is an exploratory process, and scripts are one of many tools that can serve exploration. The trouble starts when the tools (be they scripts, “test automation” or a given set of testing techniques) start to dominate, at which point testers risk losing sight of their goal: to discover information that is relevant to their projects. Whilst I’m not a big fan of detailed test scripts, I can imagine contexts where I’d use them. I have used them from time to time, where I felt it was appropriate. I consider myself to be a context driven tester, and that means sometimes I choose to use practices that are not my immediate preference.
In terms of automation, I’m a big fan: in the same way that I’m a fan of taking the train to work instead of walking, or using a power drill instead of gnawing holes with my teeth. It’s all about choosing the right tool for the job, and there have been plenty of times that the experiments I wanted to perform on software demanded the use of tools. I just tend to think in terms of what tools can do for me, rather than “which tests can be automated”.

5. We hear that you and a few others have recently formed a new organisation, the International Society for Software Testing (ISST), what is that about?
Well, there’s a good deal of silliness in the world of software testing: many proponents for practices that are wasteful or counter-productive, as well as a trend for dehumanising testing and treating it as if it were a commodity. We are setting out to combat that, both from a supply side – by helping to build an international community of thoughtful, skilled testers – and on the demand side: through advocacy in the wider industry and reaching senior decision makers.

6. What things do you think are lacking in today’s commercialised training, especially in testing?
I can’t really give you a first-hand opinion on that, having very little experience of commercial training for testers. I’m largely self-taught, and have only experienced formal training (in the form of BBST and Rapid Software Testing) in recent years.

7. What qualities will you look for in a candidate when you want to recruit someone for software testing job?
The ability to think worth a damn and to communicate well. I’ve met, and interviewed, a lot of testers over the years. Unfortunately, whilst many can talk methodology until the cows come home they struggle to solve real testing problems. It drives me nuts when people fail to engage with the content of testing, and instead remain obsessively focused on process. And then there are the testers who don’t seem willing or able to share information in a way that their stakeholders can relate to. Expect your project manager or executives to speak tester? Think again.

8. What will you suggest to people who want to join IT industry as software testers?
One word: learn. Learn how to learn and how to love learning. Be ready, willing and able to learn whatever you need to learn in order to test well. That includes learning about the software, learning about your stakeholders, their information needs, and what keeps them awake at night. It might mean learning about the underlying technology, or about tools that can help you test in ways that would be impossible otherwise. I think this is one of the reasons I enjoy testing so much, the opportunities for learning are almost limitless.

9. Name a few people you would like to thank, people who helped you directly or indirectly in your career as a software testing professional.
Gosh, too many to mention. There are so many testers, developers, PMs and users I’ve learned from that it’s impossible to write a list. If there’s one person I’d single out, it would be Anne-Marie Charrett: we were students together on several of the BBST courses, and she was hugely supportive when I was thinking about launching a blog, and when I was considering putting in my first conference proposal. Thank you Anne-Marie!

10. One last question – Do you read Testing Circus Magazine? How can we improve this magazine?
Not as much as I’d like. Much of my reading time is whilst commuting, so it’s either good old fashioned paper or things that are easily accessible on my iPad. I find PDFs a little awkward on mobile devices, so I’d definitely read more if the magazine were available in an eBook format, or articles were available via a newsreader.

Blog/Site – exploringuncertainty.com
Twitter ID – @imccowatt

 

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Ajoy Kumar Singha

Ajoy is the founder and editor of Testing Circus magazine which is read and subscribed by thousands of professional testers around the world. He is associated with various testing forums such as NCR Testers Monthly Meet as a founding member. Follow Ajoy on Twitter.