Ep 47 – Beyond Unreasonable Doubt

As I said last week, I’m going to talk about unreasonable doubt.

‘Unreasonable’ doubt (for these purposes) is when you doubt your own abilities wrongly – imposter syndrome, or under estimating your own abilities, maybe due to inexperience.

Sometimes this can be a good thing; doubt about a skillset you have can be a motivator to learn more and become better, but it can be detrimental; holding you back when you have no need to doubt your abilities.

I think you can tell the difference between the two – imposter syndrome is a lot more anxiety inducing than being inexperienced is. If I don’t feel confidence in a specific area, it feels like a weakness (even if I’m not actually deficient in that area), but a specific weakness. Imposter syndrome is a much more overwhelming anxiety, one that is much more diffuse; its not an area or two that can be pinpointed, its everything you are and do in your professional world.

I want to talk about a few different strategies for tackling these kind of doubts.

I’m going to start with being new, or inexperienced.

I read a brilliant blog post this week about being ‘a dumb girl in computer science’. It’s really good – it’s about just saying loudly ‘I don’t understand’ and people coming together to help each other out.

Asking questions is really important! And yeah, sometimes it does feel like showing weakness, but everyone’s been where you are, and a lot of us still are – the world of testing is huge (and I think this applies to all spheres of professional life), and you can’t know everything and all things.

So question things. You may get corrected, in fact, through your career you probably will get corrected. Firstly, try to step back when someone corrects you. Assuming they’re not being a cockwomble about it, they’re helping you out. Also, don’t be afraid to question their corrections. They might be wrong? Both of you could be wrong? Start a discussion, go somewhere with it.

You could try focusing. This is something I’m having issues settling on. I’m very much like a magpie in that I’ll go ‘ooh, shiny’ and go over there for a bit, then get bored and never actually sit down and focus on anything (like this podcast!). You may find, if you focus on one or two areas that interest you, and settle on those, becoming more knowledgeable, keeping upto date, you can carve a place for yourself, and feel a bit more grounded and ‘deserving’ of your place in your professional world.

While some of these may help to lessen your imposter syndrome, there are some steps you can take help tackle imposter syndrome specifically.

Talking about it is a key step (yes, it does feel like you’re fishing for compliments, but sharing experience is important). This is a thing that a lot of people suffer from, and so you’ll get a sense of solidarity and knowledge that it’s not just you. It will help.

Studying is sometimes recommended, and while professional and personal development is important, if the motivation is to combat imposter syndrome, you’re gonna get worse, because there is always a lot of stuff you don’t know, but that doesn’t make you a fraud, it just makes you human. However, if you’re aware of a deficiency in a part of your skillset, or something you want to get better at, it’s good to build on these, and it might make your foundation solid and help you find your place.

Share. Tweet, blog, vlog, podcast. Sharing has so many pros – it’s good for you, and good for others. Talking to others will help you structure your information, and will let you realise how much you do know about a thing. Share what you know, and, what you’ve discovered, what you succeeded and failed at. People will listen, and interact, and bring you into the community. Don’t want to maintain your own blog etc? Comment on other people’s’! Retweet, become a curator of awesome, because you’ll be reading this stuff anyway, you may as well share.

Comparisons will kill you slowly, they will. You have no idea what people are choosing to trade off when they do all these extra-curricular things, you just see them fly about doing talks and running events and holding down a job and they’re probably an awesome friend who sends you random texts once a week to see how you are, and has the neatest house in the world but maybe that person leaves toast sweat on their kitchen counter. They drink milk straight out of the carton. And they have a secret love for Sex in the City 2. You see the point I am making here, yes? Most importantly, they probably feel the same way as you when they think about themselves.

Therapy and drugs. I’ve spoken before about my clinical anxiety, and it may be that you need some professional help. Imposter Syndrome could be a symptom of some larger issues. Get help, reach out, if you need to. People will help you, and needing help is not something to be ashamed of. A therapist is a great impartial ear, and nothing deflates your jerk brain like having to justify it out loud. Practice kindness to yourself and others.

This isn’t a comprehensive guide to overcoming doubt. This shit is hard, and it’s hard to maintain, and some of it won’t work. I’ve taken a fairly lighthearted approach to this, but don’t mistake that for me making light of this. I know it’s hard, and I deal with it on a regular basis. If you need to talk, reach out, whether it’s to me, or to the community, or a loved one, or a professional. (Incidentally, would people find an episode on how to respond if people reach out to you useful?)

Further Reading:

Ep 27: #FML

So, what happens when it all goes wrong?

As much as quality assurance is the job of everyone in a team, and getting QA involved at the planning phases means that QA is a process, not a step, work still goes through QA on the way to the client or user.

I still feel a level of ownership, which yeah, is my job, I’m supposed to own this, its what I signed up for. Its my job to work with the developers to make everything the best we can, and flag up issues. Its might job to find other people’s failure in a way. And sometimes its hard. Its hard to go ‘well, actually, there’s an issue here, we can’t go live with this’ but its the job.

But what happens when it goes wrong anyway? When the deadline isn’t hit, or the product isn’t up to scratch come the deadline?

I’m used to telling developers that I’ve found an issue with their work, that it doesn’t work quite right, or they’ve missed some part of the AC, but sometimes a bug is found after it’s gone through me – either the client picks it up, or a developer or someone else involved in the project does and I’ve missed it. And it sucks. But, you’ve got to use it as a way to learn.

A product hitting the client late, or with bugs that should have been found is always a blow to everyone, but how do you find out the cause and learn from that to move forward?

I think first of all you need the right atmosphere – looking for a reason and a process that maybe needs fixing is different from pointing the finger. You need that kind of atmosphere where people are – not comfortable being wrong, but comfortable admitting when something wasn’t right. I’ve been in retrospectives where developers have admitted they felt they missed too many issues before passing work to me, and that was noted but just accepted, and the developer moved on, knowing they wanted to approve. I’ve done the same. I’ve spoken to PMs about feeling like I can’t handle the workload, and I’ve been upfront where there have been issues.

I think this goes a long way to preventing failure by missing a deadline.

You also have to be able to look at the processes. Were they followed correctly? If so, is that the issue – is there a shortfall, or something in the project that needed a more custom process? If not, why not? If all of the above doesn’t yield any issues from the process, was it a communication issue, a client issue?

There needs to be a balance between assuming there is an issue with the process and assuming the failure in human error. And of course, allowing for the ‘shit happens’ defence.

The most important thing, I think, is to not immediately try to find who to blame. You want reasons, and responsibility maybe, if there’s an ownership gap maybe, but you don’t want to play the blame game, that makes people immediately defensive.

A couple of months ago, at the North West Tester Gathering, there was a meetup themed ‘Failure is Not a Dirty Word1’, and there were three talks about failure, and it was really interesting to hear people be so open about failing. And its useful, because hearing other people talk openly about failure and what they learned from it encourages other people to do the same, and admitting and learning from failure is more useful than being defensive about it.

My points of failure tend to be:

I rush a lot. And sometimes I do miss things I should catch because of this. Generally I’m good at catching myself and going back and looking over the task again, because I know this about myself, but my first reaction to pressure is to go faster – a legacy from working in pharmacy

Communication. Sometimes my anxiety means that I find it hard to communicate in a timely manner, especially if it’s bad news. And procrastinating on that can mean the bad news turns into worse news.

And talking about failure is important because we need to face it in order to learn and grow from it. So let’s share our fails today!