Episode 114 – Learn to Use Empathy to Become a More Effective IT Professional with Dan Billing
Phil’s guest today is Dan Billing. He has been involved in the IT testing sector, for much of his career, specialising in security. Dan is the founder of The Test Doctor and a leading member of the testing community. His workshops are well-attended and he is a popular conference speaker.
(0.58) – So, Dan, can you expand on that brief introduction and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Dan says he is now based in the southeast of England. Initially he trained to be a teacher, but changed his mind and after briefly working in an AOL call centre, he kind of floated into testing.
But, the foundations for his career were really laid when he was a child. He started out by programming his ZX Spectrum and Commodore Omega. Dan has always been fascinated by how people use and interact with applications and products.
(3.15) – Phil asks Dan for a unique IT career tip. Dan says his biggest tip is to learn to understand and alleviate risk. Understanding what your clients and members of your team feel the risks are is a good way to do this.
However, it is not just the technical risks that you need to understand. It is important to keep an eye on the well-being of your team too. First, check that it is a healthy team. Identify any blockers and manage them to negate the negative impact they tend to have.
Also, look out for anything that may affect your team’s ability to work efficiently. For example, does your team have enough room to work in? Can they work flexibly enough to be able to take care of family responsibilities and maintain a good work life balance? Asking yourself these sorts of questions will help you to see where things could go wrong. Looking out for the wellbeing of your team, being empathetic and communicating effectively all reduce the risk of the team not being able to gel or burning out.
(5.49) – Dan is asked to share his worst career moment by Phil. Dan explained that happened very early in his testing career. Basically, he lost his temper with a member of his team. At the time, he was not familiar with Agile working practices and was not good at communicating. Plus, the software was not sufficiently developed to allow him to test it properly. All of this led to him becoming increasingly frustrated, until, eventually he lost his temper with one of the developers. Clearly, that was not good for anyone. However, that event taught him to own up to mistakes, learn from them and not let them stop him from moving forward.
By its very nature the tester role is one that can lead to conflict. After all, a big part of their role is to be a professional critic. So, for testers, learning how to highlight the issues in a way that is positive is important. Testers need to ask the right questions at the right time and in the right way and do so without being rude.
That early negative incident taught Dan to take a more empathetic approach to his work. When he is testing, he thinks about the various software engineers. How they work and what they are trying to achieve, so that he can tailor his feedback to be as useful to them as possible.
Naturally, he is also thinking about the product owner, the customer, and the end users. The system needs to meet the customer’s spec and be user-friendly. However, at this point, Dan points out that quality assurance and testing are not the same things.
(11.04) – Phil asks Dan to tell him about his career highlight. Dan says that the most rewarding work he has done is when the team he has been a part of has achieved something good. For example, on a recent project the team had struggled to deliver on two or three sprints. So, when they did gel, hit their stride and achieve they were elated, Dan included. For him those moments where everyone successfully pulls together and achieves are his career highlights.
From a project point of view, the naval charting systems job he worked on, when he first started working as a freelancer, was a highlight. Being part of a team delivering charts that keep people safe at sea was a great feeling. Landing his first keynote speech also felt great.
(14.46) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? Dan is excited by the challenges, in particular, the ones that are unique to the UK. With Brexit nearly upon us the IT industry is potentially facing having to operate in a very different environment.
The UK IT community is going to have to adapt quickly to the changes that Brexit brings, whatever they may be.
In all likelihood, their customer base will change significantly. For example, it is highly likely that UK firms will find themselves with more non-EU clients. These clients will likely approach things differently, something UK-based developers will have to adapt to. Drastic change always brings big challenges, which makes for an interesting work environment.
At a global level, one of the biggest challenges facing the IT community is recruitment. To deliver products that work, you need the end customer, or user base, to be represented with the development team. Attracting the right people to the industry is a big challenge that must be met. A diverse workforce is essential, so the way recruitment is done has got to evolve.
IT has the potential to solve a lot of the world’s most important issues. The products we develop can play a role in stopping things like climate change, famine and conflicts. Dan is hugely interested in, and excited by, the potential IT has to literally change the world.
(21.59) – What first attracted you to a career in IT? When Dan was training to be a teacher, he realized that he was good at supporting his colleagues and students. In particular, when it came to anything computer related tasks. He really enjoyed that, especially when he was working on projects to make day-to-day teaching admin tasks easier. So, when he realized that teaching was not for him, he thought he would try IT instead. Right from the start, he enjoyed the work, so decided to make that his new career.
(22.36) – What is the best career advice you were given? Dan said that he picked it up from a TED talk given by Karen Elazari, an Israeli born cyber security analyst. It was titled “Hackers: the Internet’s immune system”. During her speech, Karen pointed out that without hackers flaws with applications would remain in place. When hackers publish their research they let the world know about those issues, which pushes developers to solve them. Listening to this talk flipped the way Dan thought about security problems and has led to him becoming a more effective tester.
(26.46) – If you were to start your IT career again, now, what would you do? Dan said he would want to gain more coding experience. He feels that doing so would help him to become a far better tester. Dan says that, right from the start, he would hone his people skills, so he would be a better colleague.
(27.47) – Phil asks Dan what he is currently focusing on. Right now, Dan is working on better understanding his client’s needs and frustrations. He is also learning how to juggle the needs of several clients, at once, in a more effective way.
Dan is also putting time aside, to reflect and review everything, each day. This is his way of ensuring that he stays on track and achieves his goals.
He is also working on becoming a more concise communicator. Part of that process is preparing better for presentations, meetings and interviews.
(29.05) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Dan has recognized that being a good communicator is crucial. Most of the problems you find in an organization are down to failures in communication. He feels that it is important to be able to recognize the non-verbal signals and learn how to be a good listener.
Dan points out that a lot of IT people are on the autistic spectrum. So, you need to bear this in mind and adapt the way you communicate to take account of this. So, Dan feels that being a good communicator is his most important non-technical skill.
(31.08) – Phil asks Dan to share a final piece of career advice. Dan’s advice is to pursue your passion and explore what interests you. It is all too easy to spend all of your time working. You need interests outside of your work to relieve the stress and a way to feed your curiosity, so that you carry on learning.
(7.18) DAN – “Where we make mistakes, we need to be able to own up to them and get past them and understand them and why they happened.”
(10.29) DAN – “Quality assurance and testing are related. They aren’t the same thing.”
(18.15) DAN – “We need to recognize that diversity is important not only in skill, but also in our workplace as well.”
(31.15) DAN “Pursue your passions, do it with vigour. Take time to explore what you are interested in.”