From the ages of 9 to 18 I dedicated at least an hour most days to practicing the cello. I was far from a prodigy, but with work, private lessons, and endless nagging by my mother, I was able to achieve a moderately high level of mediocre. Seattle has one of the best youth symphony orchestra organizations in the country and for two years I played in the top level orchestra. I was clinging by my fingernails to the very back of the section, but I was there, nonetheless
It has been 30 years since I played the cello seriously, but I find many parallels between my experiences as a cellist and my career as a software tester. Being in a siloed test team, such as the ones I experienced at Microsoft, is like playing in an orchestra. Ideally, the different sections work in concert towards a shared goal, watching management for cues on where to put the most effort. But there isn’t very much communication between the dev and test teams. At my last Microsoft position, the dev and test teams were on completely different floors, so we didn’t even see each other in the break room.
By contrast, agile development is more like being in a string quartet. There is still a shared goal, but now we take cues from each other on how best to implement a feature. Instead of toiling in relative obscurity as part of a larger QA organization, the work I do is much more visible. A large part of my job is helping developers test their own code more thoroughly. Working side-by-side with the developers on my team, I have more insight into the code and they have a much better idea what I’m doing when I’m testing it. By being attuned with each other, we produce something better than we could working separately.
When I was a cellist, I was intimidated by chamber music because I didn’t have much confidence in my ability. It felt safer to hide in the back of a large section, taking part in creating the music, but knowing that if I fluffed a note here and there it would be covered by the other players. To play in a quartet I would have had to work harder at improving my skills, and I didn’t really want to put in the effort. Which explains why my cello career ended when I finished high school.
Thankfully, my testing career has been more successful. Working on teams where I can interact freely with developers, producers, and others helps me keep my skills sharp. And by making my work visible to the rest of the team, the appreciation of testing in general rises as well. Playing in an orchestra was an incredible experience, but when it comes to testing I am happier in a role where my individual contribution can have a bigger impact. Perhaps it is time to dust off the old cello and see if can stretch myself there, as well.