The journey to unconscious competence, and how we move toward that as testers, has been on my mind lately. You may already have some exposure to unconscious competence and the four stages of learning. If not, don’t fear; we will be covering it here. So, let’s jump in and all get on the same page.
Four Stages of Learning:
The four stages of learning relates to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence – You don’t know what you don’t know.
I cannot tell you how often I have felt this way about testing. What I try and remember daily is that, in some way with testing and other subjects, I’ll always feel unconsciously incompetent. I cannot know everything, but the goal at the end of the day is to move my learning forward. Even if that goal is an unattainable one. So, congratulations… you now know you don’t know everything there is to learn about testing and other subjects. Welcome to the club.
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence – You know that you don’t know how to do everything and it bothers you.
Now you know better. The veil of unconscious incompetence has been lifted. You’ve gotten to a point of realization that demands you take action to improve your limited knowledge, so it’s time to get to work and embrace a lifetime of learning. Everyone’s journey is going to be unique. We all learn in different ways and have varied interests. When I first started learning about testing, the barrier to entry was high. I just wasn’t finding a lot of content as a tester that I could apply. I ended up spending a lot of time reading unhelpful books and articles. It’s important that you reach out to other testers around you as well as peers and mentors in the community who can share their experiences, expand your thinking, recommend books, etc. If you have any trouble in this arena feel free to contact me and I would be more than happy to help. As a community of testers, externally and internally at Dealertrack, we can help one another. We not only need to be self-starters in learning, but also engaged in an open dialogue with others, as a testing community.
Stage 3: Conscious Competence – Through learning you know how to do something, but it takes effort.
I never said it was going to be easy. In my Good Testing Practices presentation I quote Aristotle. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Setting time aside in your professional and personal life to read and learn new things comes more naturally to some people. Unfortunately for me, it’s an act of pure self-discipline. I have friends that are voracious readers. I’m not that person, but I try to be. I mention this because I understand it’s going to be hard for some of you. Some of us struggle to find the motivation for self-guided learning. I mention it because I want you to know it gets easier as you go. You will find, something that seemed uncomfortable in the beginning can become an enjoyable adventure. Trying new techniques is also going to be challenging and taxing sometimes. The first time I tried to apply the HTSM (Heuristic Test Strategy Model) it took much more effort than it does now. I challenge you to try new things when testing. Not just once, but also multiple times before you decide they are unhelpful. Sometimes you cannot see value in something until you have tried it a few times. Just because something takes effort does not mean it’s not helpful. Most things worth doing requires a journey, and if that journey is too easy, then the pay-off might only be minimal. It also does not mean that you’re always going to struggle with it. Much of what we learn and use can be tweaked or improved. Find something that helps, tweak it for your needs. Iterate on your process to make it fit your context and share it with the community. We’re simply adding tools to our existing library of information. The more robust the library, the more robust a tester you can be. James Bach talks about the Omega Tester, someone who can be everything a team needs when it comes to testing, and then some. Ask yourself, “Can I be the Omega Tester?”
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence – You know how to do something and it is second nature.
I wish I could say I had achieved unconscious competence in testing. Maybe someone like James Bach or Michael Bolton (not the singer), feel they have achieved this benchmark. If they do, I would say it’s well-deserved. They are, after all, thought leaders in the testing community. That said, I also don’t think they would tell you their journeys had ended. I believe they would say they have unconscious competence in some areas and not others. Like every one of us they would say they are trying to get better at areas they feel weak in. Like me, they would talk about the journey of learning and not the destination. The reality is that learning never ends. We should always be able to find a way to become better tomorrow than we are today. If you cannot do that, then you need to change your approach to learning in order to achieve that goal, otherwise you have to ask yourself if you are content to plateau and stop learning, which is a dangerous place.
One of the ways I keep improving in areas I feel I am weak is by associating my reading list with a list of personal attributes I want to improve as a tester. James Bach mentioned in a lecture once the areas of focus necessary to become a skilled tester. Feel free to follow the link, but the areas are General Systems Thinking, Applied Epistemology, Social and Cognitive Science, Mathematics, Testing Folklore, Communication, Technology, Software Process & Dynamics and Self Management. Like James, I took his list and associated books that I wanted to read with each category. I also rated myself on a scale of 1-4 for each subcategory and averaged the numbers for each category, with “1” being the areas where I need the most work and “4” being the areas I feel strongest. Here’s a tip: Rate yourself one notch lower than your intuition tells you, then you’ll always feel you have room to grow. With this, I now understand what areas I am weaker in. When I want to improve a specific area I read a book associated with it. I reevaluate my numbers as I improve and read new books accordingly. Is this the only way to improve? No, but it sure helps to give me a tangible chart I can look at to decide between books for the purpose of helping me become a more well-rounded tester.
Ultimately, we all should want to build a solid reputation as a tester. We take pride in the work that we do and want others to see the value in that work. Learning is a huge part of the equation in my opinion. Everything we learn or try furthers the goal of becoming a better tester. We need to adopt a lifetime of learning and set a high standard. Don’t settle… Set your bar high and keep it high. Not only for you, but for people around you. Share your achievements and failures with the community so we can all learn and improve.