A (former) tester interview – Beren Van Daele

A (former) tester interview – Beren Van Daele

Everyone knows Beren: he’s the TestSphere guy and he came in 2018 for a RiskStorming workshop during MixIt in Lyon. Today, as a former tester, a coach, a conference organiser or a Product Manager, he answers our questions in this new interview. Expect unusual answers!

Who are you, what are you doing, where are you working?

I’m Beren, a Belgian former-tester. I’m afraid I don’t have an easy answer to the question of what I do, as I do many things: Consult, create products, do workshops, help organise a conference and manage a company.
 All that… while traveling most of the time. I’m also homeless, you see.
 My address is at my brother’s house and all the stuff I don’t use sits in his attic.
 My essentials are in my bag, or bags when cycling.

Let’s say your current role is Nomadic Entrepreneur: could you describe in a few lines what it is about?

Free time and work time are especially fluid for me. One day I could be sleeping late, after waking up I’d answer several questions in Whatsapp and then go for a run.
Other times I’m travelling to a different city to do a workshop, meet potential clients or employees. Sometimes I’m doing calls from a coffee shop on the road while cycling from city A to city B. Or I could be doing a normal 9 to 5 sit-in-the-office job for a while.

When it comes to my employees, I’d say it’s mostly about helping other people by taking away their problems, making decisions if they need me to and providing a vision on where to go next; if needed. We have full transparency, everyone is able to see everything, including numbers such as; profit, costs, day-rates…
It makes for clear and honest communication between all parties and ‘levels the playing field’. We enter discussions on an as equally informed basis as possible.

For my own projects it’s a bit of a juggling act and trying to keep as many balls in the air as possible. I admit I sometimes drop one and let it rest for a while, usually that’s ok. I’m trying to do what I’m good at and which gives me energy: Networking, finding out what makes a certain individual fulfilled and helping them to grow that. Sometimes that’s profitable, most of the time it isn’t.

I like helping people who are on a path. Physically or mentally.

How would you define your ‘relationship’ between your current position and testing?

I don’t often interact with Testers in a professional context anymore. At least not in the sense of actually developing software. My last role where I interacted with one was as a Product Owner.
 I remember being frustrated often with my tester, since I felt that the feedback always came too late. Bugs from a Product Owner perspective are horrible.

I know that they are inevitable, that there will always be bugs to be found and that you can’t prevent them all.
However, being close to ‘done’ and then having a User Story flooded with several bugs is a difficult mental bridge to cross. Most of the time, I remained calm and accepted the situation, because you know it’s almost a law of nature. Yet, I was often cooking inside.

I don’t blame anyone for this. Because in all honesty, it was most likely my own fault of communicating badly or insufficiently.
The fact that it was the tester who always brought this news, day after day, makes it sometimes difficult to be positive about testing.
It helps if you bond personally with the person and make a clear separation between the person and the profession.

You also previously worked in testing-related roles; Could you quickly describe those different roles?

I started off as a Junior Test Consultant and after several months of training and smaller projects, I was put on a longer project for the department of integration of the Belgian Government. I learned a lot about ‘things that go wrong on software projects’ there. Both intrinsically and on project level.

Two anecdotes:

On project level: At some point, the contract between Belgian government and supplier changed to facilitate payment; The Testing part would get paid in three phases:

  1. Completing the design of Test Cases
  2. Executing the Test Cases
  3. Having all bugs fixed

You can imagine how easily we achieved that… and how much time we spent cleaning up afterwards.

Intrinsically: I remember driving back home thinking ‘I love this product’. It’s not a crazy thought. I’ve heard others say it about their products too. You get to know the ins-and-outs of the product, you become an expert and with that comes a certain power. People depend on you for answers and direction. It’s a weird kind of drug. If you ever feel like this yourself, stop it!
In my second bigger role, I joined a very sales heavy company as a consultant and felt I had to swim against the flow to keep things from going too fast and with too little quality. These contexts are difficult for me. 
They often operate like a speedway where the destination are very exact numbers, the concrete is made out of ‘gut feelings’. … and the vehicle is changed drastically while driving.

After that I worked in a DNA research project which was wonderfully complex and new. I still consider that to be the best project I was ever on, even though it had many faults.
That was when I started going to conferences, interacted on a personal level with the community and a whole world opened for me.

Amongst those testing roles, which one did you prefer? Could you also give us a few reasons why?

In every project I was in I started as a tester and then the test team grew. It didn’t matter whether there was a dedicated test team or group of testers, there just became more of them. Every time I became somewhat of a coach to these people as I was very passionate and engaging a lot.
Looking back at those years, I feel that a coaching role has always been a more suitable job for me than the testing role. Though I wouldn’t have been able to do that without building up knowledge about Testing.

What was your first role which was not solely focused on the testing activity?

Product Owner. I started off as Product Owner of Test Automation, which is a bit of a silly role in most contexts, but there were good reasons in this one. After we disbanded the team, I joined a product team that strangled existing functionality out of a monolith into micro-services.

Why did you take that curve and how did you feel about ‘leaving’ a testing-focused role?

It wasn’t a conscious decision from myself. I had just left everything behind: my job, my house, my car and my relationship. I felt out of place and unsure. The previous months had been emotionally taxing, I had lost 10kg and had hurt a lot of people I care about. Symbolically, I was crawling through somewhat of a dark tunnel, trying to find myself again.

I visited friends, Marcel & Vera, in a different country who I met through Ministry of Testing and they offered me a couch, friendliness and eventually a job as a freelance Product Owner.
It seems they knew me better than I did myself at the time.

Would you recommend to try this different point of view in a career?

Ignoring my personal journey and focusing on the Product Owner role, I’d say it has helped me put many things into perspective. Many things that are invaluable for a Testing role too.
Whether you want to stay in testing or not, you should try different roles at some point in your career: Product owner being one of them.

We often talk about understanding our context (context driven testing) and how it’s important to be valuable; but how can you understand the context deeply having only the point of view of a tester?
Become a PO, Dev, Architect,… and come to intimate understanding of different views on the same context.

Within your current position, could you give us a precise example of reactions you have which are conditioned by your testing background?

I became much better figuring out the ‘Why’, by asking the right questions.
Most of the information, questions, articles,… that you hear or read are concealing a core message. The sooner you dig out the core, the better your understanding and communication will get.
I.e. This morning I got the question whether we should move the hosting and domains of a website to the same service I already use. The discussion lasted several minutes with different possibilities. The eventual decision I had to make was: Do we want to save some money and do it ourselves or shall we invest a bit more and not have to care about this too much?

What drives you crazy about the testing world?

That testers, companies, whoever, seem to ‘reinvent’ testing every few weeks. There’s a new tool and it gets marketed as ‘all the testing you need’. There are ‘schools of testing’ that are fighting each other for decades now. There are people fighting each other on Twitter or anywhere they can, which to me it seems, to be more about market share than anything else.
I see the Testing business as a rather small pot and too many hands are stirring it.

If you were to recruit a tester in the team, what would you look for in a candidate for this role?

I love working with people who enjoy making small changes. Within software, within themselves and within the people around them. People who like helping others and helping themselves become better versions of themselves, whatever that may look like.
I honestly believe that anyone with good intent can be a good tester. You usually don’t become a great tester overnight or after a training course, but working sustainably on yourself and with others will be fulfilling.
If you are sincere, motivated and can see a testing job to be fulfilling and not just a job to get paid for, then I’m happy to talk.

If you were to start again in a test-focused role, what advice would you give to juniors?

Engage with the Testing Community. Start writing on the Club. Start a blog. Note down your questions and insights during the day and write or talk about them. Reflect about the relationships that form between yourself, your job and your role within software development. Make the most out of your experiences by actively reflecting and sharing them.
It’s a long journey though, so find your own pace.

“The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.” – Baz Luhrmann

Do you have models, people inspiring you (testers or not)?

Rosie Sherry, the founder of Ministry of Testing. Hands down.
 Consider this:

  • She left her job because the profession wasn’t for her.
  • She kick-started a community about this profession because she felt there was a need for it.
  • She grew a company to support this community, doing good work with a lot of heart for people.
  • This company grew into a global haven for testers.
  • In the meantime, she raises 5 of her kids, is now retired though still doing work she loves.

I don’t know the full details of her journey. The above points are only what I can observe and read. Undoubtedly, there’s much more.
Rosie’s story of saying “no” to what is regarded as ‘normal’, doing her own thing and succeeding at it is a great inspiration.

What revolution should the testers be prepared for?

Here’s a crazy thought: Stop worrying and being afraid. When it comes to testing, they’ve been trying to ‘kill’ the profession for at least 15 years now. Yet we’re still being paid a lot of money to do all this fun stuff.
 The thing(s) that will define your life will most likely not be a career thing. Enjoy the things that matter and if that is your career, you probably are already prepared to adjust to whatever may come.
I say this from a very privileged position. A position I have shaped somewhat, but have mostly been born into. I expect most of the readers here to be in a similar position.

If you do have to worry,… worry about what you’ll do with that privilege.

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