Learning Pairing

13950522581_3a3a23c8cc_oThe last year was a bit of a journey into pairing for me. Not that I hadn’t paired before and didn’t appreciate and enjoy it. But pairing got amplified in the last year as a more conscious effort and an initiative in the groups I was working with. It took place in different forms, but often would mean (two) people working on something together, as a dedicated session, potentially time boxed (to an hour), where we set ourselves a goal or a mission, did the thing, and debriefed. 

Looking back: A year of pairing initiatives

Beginning of last year, I’ve organised a pairing experiment for our tester team at work, inspired by Katrina Clokie’s talk from TestBash 2016. I’ve set some guidelines, we assigned partners, we paired, we retrospected, adapted the guidelines, switched partners, paired again and in the end I constructed a survey and presented the findings to the team. Some of us are still going strong pairing with assigned partners which we switch every few month, some got back to more ad-hoc pairing. All, I hope, got to learn something – about themselves, about working with other members in the team, about the task and area they were working on, about different pairing styles. And I, in addition, got to learn about setting up a survey, analysing the results and presenting findings.

I’ve also played around pairing in my own project team. It’s an agile team, so we were used to working closely together, by discussing stories, planning the sprint and such. But we also saw a need to pull people more into testing activities, share responsibility, skill-sets and knowledge and have closer feedback cycles between development and testing. We expanded pairing on multiple levels – exploratory testing sessions with one or more members of my team, test idea generation meetings where we also got to explore the architecture of the product, test automation reviews and feature walk-through’s, to just highlight the ones I was part of. And to support the pairing activities, I’ve also worked to up-skill people by doing a workshop on testing heuristics, by having check-lists at the ready and by doing briefs and debriefs on tackled testing tasks. I loved to work that closely with the members of my team, and it was absolutely thrilling to see people engage in testing activities and enjoying it. Sharing the fun of testing with non-testers and the positive feedback I got on all those activities were amongst the highlights of my year, and also culminated in a conference talk and a blog post on the topic.

So what of it? What have I learned about Pairing itself?

Pairing is a lot about knowledge sharing – on many more levels than you might imagine. 

This should not come as surprise, it’s an often heard argument in favour of pairing. But you can get so much more then just a knowledge brain dump of the task at hand. I mean yes, you’ll learn what your pairing partner does or does not know about the area you’re working on. But, if you pay attention, you will also learn how others transfer knowledge and how they take it in. How they approach a task, what strategies they use, and how they come to conclusions and decisions. What kind of questions they ask. What kind of questions you ask, yourself. If they jump straight into it or if they take their time planning their steps first. They might use a tool that’s unfamiliar to you, or a familiar one in a different, more or less efficient way, with fancy keyboard shortcuts that you’ll soon adopt. You’ll walk in their shoes and get to see the world from their perspective for a while. And I mean quite literally – sitting next to them, you’ll see who comes by their desk, what the office looks like from their viewpoint, what they have lying around on their working station.1

All of the above can become new tools in your belt, new techniques and approaches you’ll make your own, new connections you’ll have with a team mate. In short, any of those can make you a better, fitter, happier tester.

Pairing can help you to exercise and establish communication, on testing. 

Testing is a lot about getting and providing information and is made that much easier if you have good communication channels established with developers, product owners, UX designers, customers, system administrators and others. Also, testers are often on their own in a team, so there is a strong argument in us finding (testing) buddies through pairing. It will make it easier when you’re not there – others will know what you would do, because they’ve seen you do it and they’ve heard you’re thoughts on it.

Pairing will challenge you to talk about testing, to explain (and question!) why you’re doing what you’re doing. You will need to show and apply a testing mindset on the spot, you can learn how best to bring a message across or make an argument for something. In pairing you can tell a testing story. Pairing offers an opportunity to train communicating testing in a safe 1:1 setting with a willing partner.

Pairing lets you validate where you are and nourishes a fail fast (and learn lots) attitude.

You might think you still have a lot to learn, or you might think you know everything there is to know about an area. You might feel a bit like an impostor at times and live in fear you might be found out any day now. You might want to learn a certain skill, but have no idea how to go about doing it, and don’t dare ask; after all, you could look stupid. You might think there is nothing special about the skills you acquired as a tester, certainly everybody can do what you do; there’s nothing to it. Or is there? Or you might underestimate what others do, because, seriously, how hard can it be?

Whichever it is, you won’t know unless you open up, and try to validate and challenge these beliefs. And what easier and safer way to do this then pairing with somebody in your team? Pairing is incredibly helpful in gaining actual evidence on where you stand and where the value lies in what you do. It will help you to understand what you know and identify areas you want to improve. And it will demystify what others do, how they do it and give you an opportunity to learn from them. Regular pairing sessions challenge you in a good way to open up, to be transparent and honest with yourself. It can teach you humility. And it will help you to not fear, but to embrace failure as a fast track to continuous learning and growing. And frankly, I couldn’t think of a more valuable lesson.

Pairing is a skill. Train it.

Pairing is a skill. You might be naturally good at pairing, or you might find it challenging. Whatever your starting point is, it’s a skill, and an incredibly valuable one for a tester. So train it. Pair regularly. Don’t wait for an opportunity or a necessity, make the opportunity. Dedicate an hour a week not just to pair, but to learn to pair, consciously. Experiment with different types of tasks, pair with different people, pair with the same person regularly. Iterate on the format, find what works for you, reflect and debrief. It’s time spent with a team mate collaborating, it’s time spent on your personal development, it’s time spent using pairing as an efficient way to grow and learn as a person and as a tester. What’s not to like? Enjoy.

Picture: © Blondinrikard Fröberg: Pair (CC BY 2.0)
¹ If you ever come to pair with me: Don’t judge me. My desk can be messy at times. Creative chaos, right?


About Karo Stoltzenburg

Software Tester in Cambridge. Views are my own.
This entry was posted in I've done a thing, I've thought about a thing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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