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Overcoming Self-Imposed Limitations

People can feel limited when challenged, which slows them down or keeps them from trying. It can be a real problem, but their fear might actually be in their imagination. Sometimes the only thing that’s holding you back is yourself, argued Joep Schuurkes. Survival rules can hinder us; sometimes you have to break them.

Joep Schuurkes, software tester and Scrum master at Mendix, spoke about overcoming self-imposed limitations in his talk There’s More to You Than You Think at the European Testing Conference 2017. InfoQ is covering this event with Q&As, summaries, and articles.

Schuurkes told a story about a time when he started working at a bank as a tester. At the bank they were working according to agile and Scrum, something that he didn’t have any experience with at that time. As he likes to work together with developers and business analysts, he simply assumed that things would work out.

Initially there were some challenges, for example the daily stand-ups weren’t really effective and they had too many actions coming out of the retrospective. The team, including Schuurkes, focused mainly on doing the Scrum ceremonies as well as possible. He learned a lot about agile while working in the team and discovered better ways by trying new things.

You do not need prior experience with agile when you start working in an agile way, said Schuurkes. He started without a basic understanding and didn’t have an end goal in mind. Looking back he realized that by doing it this way he didn’t impose any limitations on himself. Schuurkes stated that "you don’t need to master agile immediately, you can start and improve your skills along the way".

His current view on agile is that it’s mainly about creating a more humane workplace. Schuurkes said that there is still much more to discover on agile; he aims to continue learning new things and he knows his view will change as he keeps on learning.

Schuurkes said that you don’t need the perfect opportunity to try something as long as it’s safe enough to try out. You can do something which is good enough for now; don’t limit yourself because you feel you need to do too much, too soon.

InfoQ caught up with Joep Schuurkes after his talk.

InfoQ: Your talk at the European Testing conference is titled "There’s More to You Than You Think." What made you pick this title?

Joep Schuurkes: Since I became a scrum master about a year ago, I wanted my talk to reflect that and not do a "pure" testing talk. Then the question became: which topic am I enthusiastic about? Because that’s the only way I can do a talk; I have to feel a certain energy about the topic. And then I remembered this awesome tweet by Existential Comics:

  • "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
  • "An honest, brave, compassionate human being."
  • "No…I mean, how do you want to sell your labor?"

Which resonated with me, mainly because I think that a large part of agile is finding more humane ways of working, allowing people to be their whole selves at the workplace.

After submitting my proposal, something very cool happened. Instead of simply rejecting or accepting your proposal, someone from the European Testing Conference engages in a conversation with you about your proposal. In my case that was Maaret, and she challenged me and my proposal in two ways. First of all she asked if my talk could be a growth story, something empowering. Secondly, she asked if I could connect it to current testing challenges, such as agile, or test automation.

By trying to connect those challenges to my experiences, I came up with the topic of my talk: overcoming self-imposed limitations. Hence the title; there are situations where the only thing that’s holding you back is yourself. If you realize that and break through it, you’ll find there is more to you than you think.

If people limit themselves by believing that they are not capable of doing something, then they might be suffering from the impostor syndrome. Earlier, InfoQ interviewed Gitte Klitgaard about dealing with the impostor syndrome:

The impostor syndrome refers to people who fear being exposed as a "fraud". They think that they do not belong where they are, don’t deserve the success they have achieved, and are not as smart as other people think. According to Agile Coach Gitte Klitgaard, many high-achieving people suffer from the impostor syndrome. It hinders people in their work and stops them from following their dreams.

The imposter sydrome make people feel insecure, and as a result they often limit themselves, and are afraid to try something new. Awareness is the first step to remove your limitations, argued Klitgaard:

(...) becoming aware that you have the impostor syndrome allows you to work with it and with yourself to get a better life and feel better about yourself.

InfoQ: Can you share your story on test automation?

Schuurkes: A few years ago I was working at a bank. We had a set of tests in which we compared a general risk report with a country risk report and a bank risk report. The reports were in Excel and there also was an Excel sheet containing detailed test instructions: apply these filters, take this sum, apply different filters, take a different sum, etc. When the other tester in the team explained me how to perform this test, I immediately decided to automate it. Doing it by hand was simply too mind-numbingly boring.

There were many reasons why it was a bad idea for me to do this. First of all, the most obvious language to use was VBA for Excel, with which I had no experience. Even worse, the most complicated code I had ever written was a Perl script of less than 100 lines. This also meant that I had no idea how much time it would cost me to automate these tests. Finally, I didn’t spend any time thinking about the benefits either, except preventing myself from getting bored out of my mind while performing these tests manually.

So this was far from the perfect opportunity for me to expand my experience with test automation. Luckily, I was completely oblivious to this and proceeded anyway. And with success. I did manage to automate these tests. I did so within a timeframe acceptable to the project manager. And I did increase test coverage by allowing us to run these tests many times faster than we could execute them manually.

To this day I’m glad I was so determined never to perform these tests by hand, that I didn’t realize it was a far from perfect opportunity to teach myself about test automation. Had I realized that, I may not have tried at all. Or I would have asked permission from my project manager. He would have asked sensible, critical questions about my lack of experience and then I’m not sure what would have happened.

What I learned from this is that you don’t have to wait for a perfect opportunity. There are always reasons not to do something. And too often we take those reasons more seriously than we should. As they say: nothing ventured, nothing gained.

InfoQ: What advice do you have for people who feel unsure about something, and are afraid to do it?

Schuurkes: Ask yourself the question: "Is there a chance I will die if I do this?" If no, go ahead and do it. If yes, be thankful of your fear warning you and back off (or, in some cases which I hope none of us will ever need to face, proceed anyway).

I’ve learned to ask myself this question in two different places.

The first is from the time I practiced an old Japanese martial art. To put it very simply: if someone regularly tries to bash in your head with a two meter long tropical hardwood staff - or to be perfectly honest, when a practice is designed to make you feel that way - a lot of other things become less scary in comparison.

The second place is from the work of Virginia Satir, which I discovered through Jerry Weinberg. According to her, we all have survival rules. Things we learned (e.g. if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all) and that are ingrained in us so deeply, that feel like they are part of our deepest identity, that it feels like we would die, if we broke one of those rules. Of course, these rules have value, they have helped us, otherwise we wouldn’t have learned them, we wouldn’t have held on to them. However, the survival rules can also hinder us. And that’s when you need introspection and courage to break one of your survival rules. One way to do this is by starting to contextualize them. You decide that often enough the rule is a good rule, as it has helped you to get where you are now. Yet you also decide that there are times when the rule is not a good rule. And you accept that in those cases it’s ok not to follow the rule.

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