A note on specialists
Close to our head office there is a local business which captured my attention the first time I saw it. It appears to be a successful and well established shop which is targeting a very narrow market. The shop trades in books but, very specifically, nautical books.
Although Sydney is blessed with its famous harbour, the store itself is positioned well away from any quays, jetties or vessels. Of course there may be passing trade from people who own boats, but I would speculate that customers of this business generally make a trip to the area with the express purpose of browsing in or purchasing something from the store. There is also a website of course and it may well be that this is their primary channel for sales.
Either way, the strength of the business is that it specialises. If someone is looking for an item in this particular field they will probably go out of their way to draw on the knowledge and expertise of the people who work there.
Of course the opposite is also true. Specialising means that those people who do happen to be passing are unlikely to pop in for a little light reading for an upcoming holiday, or a birthday present for a friend.
To specialise or not to specialise… that is the question
Actually the question could be ‘specialise or specialize?’ but I am not going to open that particular can of worms. Instead I’d like to consider specialising, diversification and what they mean for the roles we perform and the career paths we take.
The industry which has emerged around the development and operation of is technology is vast and the range of roles and skills within the industry is, at times, bewildering. I looked into some of the job titles in IT to get a feel for just how bewildering it can be.
My first observation was that it appeared that there were more roles with the prefix ‘Senior’ than roles without the prefix ‘Senior’. This means that there must be some roles where even the most junior positions are classified as ‘Senior’. Impressive stuff.
My second observation is that we seem to have become a little like the Judean People’s Front in the Monty Python film ‘Life of Brian’. I can imagine a young Project Manager approaching a group of IT colleagues and having a conversation a little like this (apologies to fans of Monty Python for the corruption of this famous scene):
PM: Excuse me. Are you the Enterprise Solutions Architects?
Senior Architect: (Snorting) You what? Enterprise Solutions Architects? Of course not. We’re the Enterprise Architects.
PM: Can I… join your group?
Senior Architect: No!
PM: Please! I didn’t want to be a Project Manager. It’s only a job.
Senior Architect: Are you sure?
PM: Oh, dead sure. I hate Project Managers.
Senior Architect: Listen. If you really wanted to become an Enterprise Architect, you’d have to really hate the Project Managers.
PM: I do!
Senior Architect: Oh, yeah? How much?
PM: A lot!
Senior Architect: Right. You’re in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Project Managers are the Enterprise Solution Architects.
Architects (together): Yeah… Splitters!
Architect 2: And the Solution Architects.
Architects (together): Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters!
Architect 3: And the Enterprise Architects.
Architects (together): Yeah. Splitters. Splitters!
Senior Architect: What?
Architect 3: The Enterprise Architects. Splitters!
Senior Architect: We’re the Enterprise Architects!
Architect 3: Oh. I thought we were the Information Architects.
Architect 2: Whatever happened to the Information Architects?
Senior Architect: He’s over there.
Architects (together): Splitter!
Testing is no different in this regard. Testing role titles are multitudinous and testers are categorised according to experience, seniority (of course) and also according to their areas of specialism.
In the last twenty years I have (according to my job titles) held 12 different roles in testing. I have also spent time as an Implementation Consultant and a Support Engineer, so on average I have spent 1.4 years in each role. In the first eight years of my career I had ticked off ten of these roles; that is around nine months per role. Nine months. No sooner was I in a role than I was being conceived, gestated and reborn with a new job title.
I don’t think this is particularly unusual. If you have been involved in testing (or any other segment of the IT industry) for a number of years, you may well have a similar story.
Whilst my own role titles do not necessarily indicate any particular specialism within testing I have observed changes in the way testers are identified and recruited during my career. Testing seems to have become more fragmented. We now have specialists in many streams of testing activity, for example automation, performance, compatibility, usability and accessibility. There are specialists in testing in particular industries, for example banking, telecommunications, retail and defence. We also have specialists in particular tools, systems and applications.
I would suggest that the fragmentation in testing which I perceive, is merely a reflection of the way in which technology has permeated all of our lives. We now rely on technology in the way we work, play, relax, learn, communicate, shop and socialise. Our lives are affected by software and computers in ways we would never have considered even when I took my early steps as a tester. We now have many more choices in the career paths that we take and we have the opportunity to specialise in narrow fields.
I have long held the view that a good tester will be able to adapt to different industries and technologies. The skills and techniques which we acquire in testing can often (although not always) be applied in a wide variety of situations. Of course I understand that there are some technical requirements for particular roles which take time and patience to learn and which are better suited to some people than to others. There are also regulations and guidelines to consider in some cases, for example the WCAG standards in Accessibility.
However, I still believe that diversity of knowledge and skills is positive. Gaining a good understanding of WHY and at least a basic understanding of HOW we carry out different types of testing is something that I would encourage. The Performance Tester who can spot a problem with Accessibility, or the Accessibility Consultant who can identify where automation might be useful, are likely to be well respected and sought after.
Diversifying may also open up career paths which had not previously been considered. New techniques, skills and technologies can reinvigorate our passion for learning and can lead to new opportunities.
I do hold out a vague hope, a personal preference I suppose, that we can rationalise the role titles and perhaps avoid putting people in pigeon holes. In another twenty years’ time, perhaps the pendulum will have swung the other way and we will have testers once more. In the meantime, I hope that my colleagues in testing will specialise in diversifying.