A Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast Interview with Benjamin Kelly, Author of Standout: A career guide to gainful employment as a skilled software tester
Benjamin Kelly is the author of the Leanpub book Standout: A career guide to gainful employment as a skilled software tester. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Ben about his background, his martial arts training and competing in kendo, software testing, his book, and at the end, they talk a little bit about his experience as a self-published author.
This interview was recorded on December 19, 2017.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
A Note About the Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast
In the summer of 2017, we split the old Leanpub podcast into two distinct podcasts:
Frontmatter, which is a general interest podcast where you can listen to Leanpub authors talk with Leanpub co-founder Len Epp about their books and their areas of expertise, from data science to molecular biology, to the history of labor and management. And for those interested in the nitty-gritty of what it takes to be a successful self-published author, at the end of each episode Len asks the author about how they made their book and how they are spreading the word, and other publishing shop talk.
Backmatter, a new podcast focused specifically on the publishing industry and its latest trends. In each episode Len interviews a professional from the publishing world about their background and their insider’s perspective on what’s happening in the huge and evolving world of book publishing.
Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast, I’ll be interviewing Benjamin Kelly.
For more than 15 years, Ben has been involved in the software testing industry, working both for start-ups and for large, established enterprises, and he is currently the Managing Director of House of Test UK.
Ben is the author of the Leanpub book Standout: A career guide to gainful employment as a skilled software tester. The book is meant to help you get noticed and land a job, in an environment where hundreds of people are applying for roles these days. It also goes into detail with practical strategies for something increasingly important for people from all walks of life, especially those with an independent streak, which is building a personal presence or a brand.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Ben’s background and career, his professional interests, his book, and at the end, we’ll talk a little bit about his experience as a self-published author. So thank you Ben for being on a Leanpub Podcast.
Benjamin: Thanks for having me.
Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. You’ve been around, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up, and how you first became interested in software and computers?
Benjamin: As a kid, I was into computers. But I guess you could say I was into computers the same way that a fat kid’s into cake: I was more of a consumer than a creator. So I got through high school, and if you looked at my grades, you probably would’ve said, “Yeah, that guy’s probably really good at video games.” And that was about it.
I went to university, did computer science, and dropped out after the first year. And then ended up working for an ISP, Internet Service Provider, and that’s where I started to gain the really employable skills that I’ve taken and continued to use.
I went to Japan for a year, to a sports university actually. It was a complete sort of break from my career. Then I went back to university, and actually stuck it out, graduated — still not particularly talented. I was still looking to get into being a programmer. But once I received enough rejection letters to wallpaper a room, a friend of mine suggested to me that perhaps testing might be a way to bridge in.
So I got a job as a tester, and then realised that I was far better at finding how things didn’t work, than making them work in the first place. That probably should have been apparent to me far earlier than it was. I enjoyed testing, and then started to get quite good at testing, and then started to meet other testers, who were also good. And that’s pretty much where I am.
Len: And the events you’ve been describing, apart from Japan, were taking place in Melbourne. Is that correct?
Benjamin: That’s right. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and that’s where the vast majority of my education happened.
Len: I’m just curious — was computer science something that all the kids were into?
Benjamin: Most of the nerds, yeah, the guys who didn’t particularly like playing football or other sports. We used to hang out on the other side of the high school and play Dungeons & Dragons, and talk about various nerd minutiae.
Len: I think you might be being a little bit overly modest about sports there, because I’ve got some questions to ask you about that in a few minutes. But one thing I always like to ask people on this podcast, if it’s relevant, is, if you were starting out tomorrow in a career, like the one you’ve developed, or if you were giving advice to someone who was embarking on a career like that, would you recommend that they do a full university degree in pursuit of that career?
Benjamin: That’s a really interesting question actually. The conclusion that I’ve reached after a number of years of study of martial arts, is that I think software development and the various disciplines should really be taught as an apprenticeship. So if I was going to suggest that people do anything, it would be look for some sort of education that combines theory and practical things, with the heavy emphasis on the practical.
I think there’s nothing wrong with doing three years of fundamentals, and really learning about how computers work and the underlying systems that hold them all together. But at a university — certainly my university education wasn’t what I would call a good preparation for stepping into how software development’s actually done or how software development actually works in the real world.
You tend not to see things like understanding how to describe business value or how to realize business value. Certainly as a programmer, the emphasis on testing is very, very slight. At least it was back when I was at school. So I think the sooner that you can get into coding at the coalface, in a place that actually matters, in terms of what you deliver — then the sooner you can do that, the better.
Len: You brought up martial arts, and I know that martial arts — as you just mentioned, with the concept of apprenticeship — and software testing are sort of joined themes in your career. And I wanted to ask you how you got into kendo in the first place?
Benjamin: I’ts a bit of a long story. When I was in primary school, we had a Japanese exchange teacher who was into kendo and kenjutsu. He did a demonstration, and at that point I was hooked. I think it wasn’t until I was 17 or so, I found a kendojo in my area. I started, and been training ever since.
Len: For those who aren’t necessarily aware, can you talk a little bit about what kendo is, and a little bit about its history?
Benjamin: Kendo is the art of the sword, or the way of the sword. It’s a Japanese martial art that’s approximately 400 years old. After the Battle of Sekigahara, which was where Ieyasu Tokugawa more or less took over the country. It was one of the last major battles, certainly for a couple of hundred years.
There were a number of sword schools that existed at that point, that found themselves increasingly with not that much to do. And throughout the years, it’s sort of a consolidation of styles, and training with a sword obviously is reasonably dangerous, so they ha different ways of practicing, to make that less lethal.
But even using a wooden sword is quite dangerous, and also potentially fatal. They ended up coming up with what’s called a shinai, which is essentially a bamboo sword or a bamboo representation of a sword.
This was refined over many years, from upwards of sort of 32 different slats of bamboo held together by leather strips, down to four — what we use in modern kendo today. So there’s a long sort of story/history of kendo. But there was a practical application to it that perhaps isn’t quite so relevant today. It’s certainly deeply rooted in the actual use of the Japanese katana.
Len: It’s interesting, I happen to know a little bit about this. I read some books edited by Diane Skoss a few years ago, one of which is called Koryo Bujutsu, and I want to ask you about that distinction between jutsu and do, which I’m sure I’m mispronouncing, which I know you’ve written about.
If I can digress — there was another group of people in Japan who ended up with less to do after a certain juncture in history, and that was ninjas. I don’t know if you’ve — have you seena book called Bansenshukai?
Benjamin: I have not seen it.
Len: It’s fascinating. The copy I have is the first English translation of these manuals, written by this ninja community. What happened was, they were mostly farmers who were called upon to do their ninja duties when required. And then basically, things changed in Japan, including a change in castle architecture, which made getting in a lot harder.
As they complain in the manuals, they would claim that everybody just decided they were harder to get into. But, it became harder for the ninjas to convince their patrons to hire them, to try to break into these impenetrable fortresses.
They were basically becoming impoverished, and so they wrote these manuals, to give them as a gift to a local potentate, to try and convince him, “Hey, you still need ninjas.”
There are all these contradictions built into what they do. For example, one thing they say is, you can’t let anybody know that you’ve hired ninjas, or who they are. So, you need to let them in the back door to your castle. And by the way, it just so happens that we ninjas know the back doors to your enemies’ castles too.
It didn’t work apparently. So there’s this wonderful artefact of all these manuals, but they they sort of continued to decline from their moment of glory.
It’s interesting, because this distinction between jutsu and do, I believe, is important to be framed in that historical context. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Benjamin: Very briefly, jutsu is a martial application. If you look at judo, this is jujutsu, which is probably something most people are familiar with. Jujutsu is a series of techniques to rapidly incapacitate another human being, in order to either get away or to subdue them. Judo, whilst it has the same sort of techniques and same sort of grappling and throws and so forth — the aspect behind that is really self-improvement through the study of similar art. And the same goes for kendo.
In kendo, it’s improvement of the self through the principles of the study of the sword. And so when you look at other sword arts, like various sort of iaijutsu or tameshigiri, which is sort of test cutting of a makiwara 巻藁 （まきわら）, which is a roll out reed mat — those are quite practical in their application, and certainly with tameshigiri you actually end up cutting through something, which is, I’m led to believe, the approximate thickness of a human torso — the approximate resistance of a human torso.
In kendo, despite the fact that it’s a full contact martial art, there’s not a lot of actual practical application — it’s a crossover between how to use a sword. The way that you strike an opponent in kendo isn’t so sort of reminiscent of how you might use a katana to do the same sort of thing, despite the fact that the practice has developed from that.
So in effect, what you’re doing is studying how to face off against an opponent. How to defeat them, how to out think them. It’s essentially a very physical, very rapid game of chess, with the ultimate aim to improve yourself, as opposed to defeat someone, or defeat multiple people.
Len: In competition, are there any parts of the body where you’re not allowed to strike with the weapon?
Benjamin: Yes. That would be most places. There are four main targets in kendo, which is the head, the wrists, the abdomen and the throat. Everything else is pretty much out of bounds.
Len: I imagine these parts are covered. You say, “abdomen.” Is that stabbing? I don’t know what the correct term would be, but are you allowed to slash there as well.?
Benjamin: It is a slashing motion there. The only real thrust is to the throat.
Len: I’m curious. I’ve done a little bit of competing in other martial arts. What happens in kendo if you strike in the wrong place?
Benjamin: If you’re in competition and the judges agree that you’ve done it on purpose, then you might be given anything from a warning or a foul, to being disqualified. It depends on how sort of egregious the hit is. If it’s clearly unsportsmanlike conduct, then you’re done.
Len: And is disarming the opponent part of it as well? I imagine the wrist strike is probably part of that?
Benjamin: You can disarm, actually. There are techniques where you can completely knock or flip the opponent’s shinai out of their hands. And if you’re quick enough, then you can follow up with a strike that will count. If not, then they’ll have a half point scored against them.
Len: You said you studied at a sports university in Japan, it was called the International Budo University. What was that experience like?
Benjamin: That was pretty intense. We were training six days a week, between four and six hours a day. That was pretty full on. For me, that was part of my preparation for an attempt at the World Championships. That particular attempt was unsuccessful, but I was successful on future efforts.
It was a good grounding for me. It was a great way to spend a year, training with people who were studying to become police and high school teachers. It’s great to be able to study at a place where you can get a degree in martial arts, or a degree in a specific martial art.
Len: And what was the four to six hours of studies a day like? Did you get up at six in the morning and run up the mountain, or?
Benjamin: There was morning training. You’d get up at about six, and you’d train for an hour. Then you’d probably go and collapse somewhere for an hour and a half, and then there’d be practical classes throughout the day. Those were somewhat less intense. You’d be practicing techniques and various applications, some kata. And then another two hours of training in the evening, so that was five days a week, and I think we had another three hours on the Saturday. They went pretty easy on us on the weekends.
Len: You just mentioned, at least once you represented Australia at the World kendo Championships. Was that during your time at The University of Melbourne?
Benjamin: It was — partially there, and shortly thereafter. 2016 and 2009 was when I represented Australia. It was in Taipei and Brazil.
Len: Can you talk a little bit about the pressure? I’ve never competed at anything remotely like that level, but going into a match is an intense thing. And being in a match is an intense thing. What was your first match like? How did you feel?
Benjamin: My first match, I was pretty hungry for it actually. I’d been training for such a long time to make the Australian team, and been unsuccessful I think in three or four campaigns. So I’d had maybe 10 or 11 years of not making the team.
I was going to make that one count. So I don’t remember much about that first match, other than it didn’t last very long. And I was happy with how that went.
It’s funny, because when you go in there, you can look around and you see, every other person in that space has been training for three-plus years, with the sole goal in mind to do well in the matches that they’re there for. It is another level of intensity, even from domestic competition. It kind of ratchets up a notch or two. You have to be on, you have to be prepared. You can’t bring anything but your A game. Otherwise, it’s just not good enough.
Looking around, you see — particularly with the Japanese team, also to an extent the American, Brazilian teams, also fielding really, really strong people — these people that you know through various relationships, a lot of these people will train in Japan. And so you run into them on a fairly regular basis. And of course the Japanese team is full of all-stars. You see them on the All Japan Championships on a regular basis as well.
But to whatever extent you can, you try and push that to one side, and focus on the match that you have to fight next. It can be distracting with the crowd around you. But ultimately, once you step onto the Shiaijo 試合場 （しあいじょう）, the place where you actually fight, most of that goes away, and it’s just the person in front of you.
Len: You talk about the person in front of you. One of the things that’s unique about that type of competition, and of course it’s true in boxing and in wrestling, is that it’s you and this other person. And you’re not out to beat the other person in the sense of like crossing the finish line before they do, and you beating them, literally. And there’s no teammate for either you or your opponent.
Benjamin: That’s right.
Len: There’s just you. And there’s something very invigorating and special about that type of competition.
Benjamin: Funnily enough though, there is team competition in kendo.
You play matches of teams of five. You play off down the line for one against one, two against two, and so on down the line. I actually always felt most comfortable in team competition, because I had people either side of me, people that were relying on me to hold my end up. That added expectation, the weight of that expectation, it gave me more energy, it gave me more focus to go into a match.
Len: Did you have any teachers that were particularly special to you in your time training?
Benjamin: This particular teacher I think is a favourite of many Australian kendoka, his name is Shizawa sensei 志沢 （しざわ）. He was the head instructor at Japan’s Sport Science University, Nihon Taiku Daigaku 日本体育大学 （にほんたいくだいがく）- or Nittaidai 日体大 （にったいだい） for short. He spent a year out in Australia — I couldn’t even tell you when, it was many decades ago now. But he frequently brought students of his out to Australia to visit. I don’t know that there’s a teacher who is more respected or more revered than him in Australian kendo, and certainly, I’m no exception in that regard.
Len: And what is it about him that makes him so beloved?
Benjamin: I think his approach to life in general. He just seems to have a — he sort of knows when to be serious but also knows when to have a laugh. This is a guy who you can talk at length with in terms of kendo and martial philosophy. Happy to have a chat. And as soon as you step into the dojo, he’s the sensei, he’s the teacher. One reasonably harsh word from him can make me question my life choices.
His ability to walk the walk, and do what he says he’ll do — you can’t help but respect that level of commitment. It’s difficult for me to describe. It’s not that he was the guy who won all the competitions. I think maybe he won one or two in his time. But he was the guy who was always able to get his point across. Always able to teach. Always able to take someone, no matter where they were in their kendo journey, and give them something they could use. I saw him do this time and again with any number of people. His ability to teach was unrivaled, as far as I’m concerned.
Len: On the subject of life choices, you, like many other Australians, actually decided at one point to move to London, and I wanted to ask you about that. Was that with the intention of going for a short period of time, or was it in your mind a permanent move?
Benjamin: I guess a semi-permanent move. I was born in London, and moved to Australia when I was very young, maybe one or two. And so in many respects it was sort of coming back, although I didn’t remember much about it.
At the time when I moved to London, I’d been living in Tokyo for maybe five years, and so it was actually a kind of a happy coincidence. There was a friend of mine working at EBay, and asked if I wanted a job with them in London, or asked whether I wanted to apply.
And my wife, who is Japanese, has this sort of love affair with London as well. So the opportunity for her to go and spend all her time in the West End seeing musicals and various other theatre, was something that she couldn’t pass up. And so at that point, it become a very easy decision.
Len: I can see from your profile online that you progressed steadily in your time at eBay. Let’s talk about the beginning and the end maybe? What was your first job at eBay?
Benjamin: My first job was a software development engineer in test. At that point, some people might see it as a step down. I mean, I’d been in management positions and was looking to step up to senior management positions in the consulting work I was doing back in Tokyo. But I really wanted to sort of reconnect with my technical chops, and I wasn’t quite ready to let those go yet. So I stepped in as a tester who was also a coder, and did that for a while.
But inevitably, I seemed to get pushed back towards management. This time I stepped into a dev manager role, leading a team of developers and testers. I did that for a little while, and then back into a test manager role, and ended up being the head of testing for European product development.
Len: Do you bring to your role in managing any of the examples or lessons that you’ve learned from your time studying kendo?
Benjamin: I like to think so. I don’t know there’s a one-to-one translation, but certainly in the way that you size up situations, and you deal with people — I’d like to think that the way I approach situations is similar to the way I approach a kendo match. You have to rapidly size up what’s going on, make decisions, and be ready for anything to happen, and be able to adjust accordingly.
Whether it be fighting one person, or whether you’re pitching several — an army against each other, the first thing that gets shot up is your battle plan. You have to be able to adjust and adapt and be flexible.
Len: Speaking of flexibility, you left eBay relatively recently, I believe it was just this year, and you’re now the UK Managing Director for the consultancy House of Test, which has a presence in Denmark, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the kind of work House of Test does, and what makes it unique?
I noticed reading up about it that there’s a striking line on the website, which says, “we call bullshit on dehumanizing factory testing, bogus certification schemes.” And I think I came across a term, maybe it was in your writing or on the website, “If you’re a client who just wants meatbots to follow some scripts, we’re not the consultancy for you.”
Benjamin: If I had to sort of put what we do into a nutshell description, it really is kind of professional irreverence. We’re people who will come in and size up a situation, and tell it to you straight. If you’re looking for people who will just go along and do everything that you tell them to, we’re probably not the droids you’re looking for.
Where there is work to be done, obviously we’re going to pitch in and do it. That’s part of the job. But as software testers in particular, your role is to be able to speak truth to power, even when that’s a difficult thing to do. Even when that’s not news that they want to hear. Even when there’s a risk that they might shoot the messenger. Being able to step into that space and understand that if they don’t want to hear what we have to say, then we can fire a client — that’s a nice position to be in.
It’s not a position that you want to be in, necessarily. But when they know that you don’t have a dog in the fight beyond helping them to do the best work they possibly can, I think that makes it a little easier. When my reputation hinges on me being able to enable a client to do better work, then obviously I have a vested interest in helping them do better. So even when I’m bringing them difficult information, if I can help them keep that in mind, then we have the ability to move forward.
Len: Was that a hard decision, to go from a big established company where you have seen some success, to — you’re with a group of people, but, being your own bosses?
Benjamin: Yes and no. It was difficult in the sense that it happened right around the same time that my daughter was born, my first child. And so starting a company, having a newborn simultaneously was, I guess, an interesting choice, but a motivating one, I guess you can say?
With eBay, I really enjoyed my time there. And there was certainly no dissatisfaction in terms of the reasons why I left. What I wanted to achieve at eBay, it would’ve necessitated me moving to the United States, and I wasn’t really up for that at this point in time. So again, this became a kind of a natural progression for me.
With House of Test, the people who were involved in the company are people that I’ve known for many, many years. I first met Henrik Andersson, Luke Parell, Carsten Feilberg at [CAST])https://www.associationforsoftwaretesting.org/conference/about-cast), the Conference of the Association of Software Testing, back in, I think it was 2006. I’ve been firm friends with them ever since. So really, when it came time to look at what was next, this seemed like a natural progression for me.
Len: That’s wonderful to hear. I know that there’s a pretty tight testing community, or a distribution of testing communities around the world. I just wanted to point out, there was an interesting coincidence. Recently I interviewed Rob Lambert for this podcast, and he has a book called Parent Brain, where he talks about a kind of turnaround moment in his life, which was the birth of his first child.
This happened later, not around the same time, but he happens to have struck off on his own as well, relatively recently from the company he’d been with for years. I just wanted to do a little call back, because that interview will be published before this one, and this wasn’t a planned coincidence.
One of the really interesting things about the testing world that I’m mostly learning about through these interviews, and reading books from testers on Leanpub, is that if you’re a company or you’re even a start-up, and you’re looking to hire some testersm, you have to be able to do some evaluation of your own, in order to decide who to choose, and, what do you do?
You talk in your article in David Greenlees’s book, *Software Testing as a Martial Art,” about — I’d never seen this term before, “Bullshido” and “McDojos.” I believe there might be a connection between that and criticism that you have of bullshit certifications in software skills and testing.
I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about that? Is it a similar situation in testing, where just anybody can put up their shingle and say, “Hi, Testers R Us.”
Benjamin: There is unfortunately a low barrier to entry for software testing. That is mostly because other vocations tend not recognise good testing when they see it. Unfortunately there is so much faux wisdom out there about what testing is, and most of that looks like writing test scripts or traceability matrices, and heavyweight scripting, and heavyweight documentation.
There’s been a sort of backlash against that from the programming spheres — “We can do our own testing, we can write our own automation.” Which is all fine. But I think there is something to be said about the discipline of software testing, and the amount of work that it takes to get good at software testing.
So the problem that I have with certifications, at least in their current form, is that I’m not anti-certification, but I am sort of anti anything which will give you some sort of so-called qualification without proving that you’ve got the practical application behind you. The thing about current certifications is, you can more or less study for a weekend, and then take a multiple choice exam, and call yourself a certified software tester, despite the fact that you might not have tested anything in your life. I could probably train someone over a day or two to pass this exam, despite the fact that they weren’t a software tester, or knew much about computers in general.
In their current form, I don’t think that they have a lot of practical value. And that’s really the missing element, is that practical side. Unfortunately for the people who are peddling certifications, that practical side doesn’t scale very well. You can’t teach it en masse the same way that you can with a syllabus and a multiple choice exam. And that’s really where my issue is. My focus at the moment really is — how do you teach the practical application of these skills?
Len: And how do you do that?
Benjamin: That’s a good question. You learn software testing by testing software. I don’t think there’s any substitute for putting in the hours. The real key I think becomes how you set up your own personal syllabus, and how you find what it is that you need to be studying. I think now, there is a critical mass of software testing talent out there that you can tap into.
Organizations like the Ministry of Testing, for example, have any amount of free material that you can use to start to hone your skills. And there are people that are available on the various Slack channels, and other media that you can ask questions of. As long as you’re not a baby bird waiting to have information thrown at you, then people will go out of their way to help you. If you can demonstrate that you’re doing your best to help yourself, people will be happy to help you. I think that’s the real key.
There’s probably space to formalize that a little bit. I would like to see software testing or software development apprenticeships set up, where there are people who are recognised as masters, if you like, in software development, software testing, various other vocations, product ownership, UX. I’d like to see some sort of school set up where you could do a year on each of the fundamentals of the different disciplines. If you could spend a year studying programming, then studying testing, studying UX, studying product ownership — and then start to specialize as a journey person.
Then you’ve got a solid set of fundamentals, nd there’s this interactional expertise between the different vocations. And no matter which you decide to specialise in, or if you decide to remain a generalist, then I think your ability to operate would be far greater than if you just chose one and stuck with it.
Len: I’m curious, is part of the idea that, just like in martial arts training, as long as you remain active — or even otherwise — you retain a relationship with your teacher, even if you move on to another school or to make your own school? In your concept of apprenticeship, would this be something where you would maintain a relationship with your quote unquote “master” even as you went through different jobs at different companies?
Benjamin: I think so. Certainly that’s one of the things that I envisage. And certainly, in terms of your growth, you ought to be able to produce some sort of formalized, notarized history of what you’ve done, being able to call back on, “Here are the projects that I’ve worked on,” and have them signed off by your teacher or your Sensai, whatever you want to call them — someone who can review the work that you’ve done and provide guidance or mentorship or coaching, whatever the case may call for. I think there is space for that.
But equally importantly is the journeyperson part of the apprenticeship. I mean the apprenticeship is not just learning the fundamentals, it’s going out and applying them. And as importantly, misapplying them. People will learn their lessons imperfectly. And some of those imperfections will actually be useful. Some of those will be added to the canon that is the fundamentals of software testing, and that’s good, the way that you learn from different people, and synthesize different aspects, and produce novelty.
These are all things that I think are a little bit missing from the way that we approach learning about software development right now. There’s no real sense of lifelong learning about software development. I think that’s a real shame.
Len: Moving on to the next part of this interview, I’d like to talk a little bit about your book, Standout.
You’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years, and I’ve got a question about that. I want to ask you a sort of standard fun question: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen an interviewee do? But before that — I was surprised by a section in your book about bad interviewers, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? What are one or two examples of poor interviewer behaviour, that interviewees can encounter, and what can they do to help themselves out in those situations?
Benjamin: The one that I’ve most commonly encountered is the aggressive interviewer. The one who will try and sort of put you off balance, or make you feel uncomfortable, or make you feel like you’re unworthy. “Tell me why you think you deserve a position here?” Interviews can be stressful enough without laying that on over the top of it.
I think it’s important to remember that as an interviewee, whilst you’re being interviewed, you’re also interviewing the company. You’re also doing your due diligence. And there’s no reason for you to sort of sit in a room and be browbeaten. It’s quite okay to take someone to task for being rude. And you’ll probably find if you do that, then they’ll probably sort of backpedal and say, “Oh you’ve passed our test. We just wanted to see how you handle pressure.” Which is bollocks. But that’ll happen sometimes.
I have heard of, but not seen things like people being sat with the sun in their eyes, or on a chair that’s lower or uncomfortable or broken somehow, and arious other tactics to kind of assert dominance of the interviewer. I find all of that particularly irksome and unnecessary. I think as an interviewer, what you’re trying to do is understand what this person has done, what they’re capable of, and their potential is. Anything else is just a waste of time really.
Len: It’s a really interesting thing that there is this convention that an interview ought to be some kind of ordeal, and in particular, a type of ordeal that they will never encounter in the course of the work you’re hiring them to do.
If you’re hiring someone to be a fireperson, then yeah, sure, blare the sirens and make them run up and down the staircase, and then operate some machinery. But if you are going to simulate some kind of stressful environment, then simulate the kind of environment they might find themselves in for reals.
Can you think of one or two of the funnier stories that you’ve seen people do in interviews?
Benjamin: Mostly it’s people just being nervous. Probably the most memorable one for me was a guy who was so nervous that he broke wind in the elevator on the way up to the interview room. So that didn’t endear him to me from the start.
But he was also reasonably incurious. Whatever question I asked him, his response was something along the lines of, “Well, I just do whatever the procedures say to do.” I couldn’t get him to open up any more about what his own ideas were. I’m not sure whether he was afraid to share those with me, but he obviously wanted to give the right answers.
The other unfortunate thing about this particular gent was personal hygiene issues. When he went to shake hands, he put out this filthy, monster talon, which frightened the hell out of me.
But I try and give people a pass when they’re nervous. Everyone’s nervous going into an interview. If you can set some sort of water-cooler banter — just trying to get them relaxed, then that’s great.
In terms of funny stories, unfortunately I don’t have that many. Most of it’s people forgetting stuff somewhere, or tripping over, or spilling water on themselves, or those sorts of things, and then the immediate look of panic on their face as they realize that, “Oh no, I’ve absolutely fluffed this interview.” You do whatever you can to reassure them that, “No, no we’re not going to not hire someone because they’ve spilt a drink on themselves. It’s cool, just chill.”
Len: I guess I should’ve framed that question differently. I didn’t mean for us to sit here and talk about humiliating experiences people had. I just — sometimes people can do outrageous things, and it looks like you’ve been fortunate enough to mostly not encounter those.
Benjamin: There was one guy, now that you mention it — I asked him if he could do anything that he wanted, if he could have any job that he wanted. This is a fairly standard question that I ask. “If you could do anything you wanted, what would that be?” This was back in Melbourne. And he said, “If I could do anything I wanted, I would open up a bakery in Akita-ken (Akita prefecture) 秋田県 （あきたけん） in the North of Japan.”
Me and my offsider looked at each other and asked him to open up about that a bit. Apparently he’d spent six months at high school in [?], and had fallen in love with the place, and wanted nothing more than to go back there. I think we suggested that he ought to go and do that. We probably ended up not hiring him, I think.
Len: That’s a very nice story, someone who knows what they want to do, can be pretty hard to find in a way. I haven’t done as much interviewing as you have, but sometimes you do find yourself in the situation where, without trying to second-guess them, you can actually see that maybe the job that they’re interviewing for really isn’t right for them, as much as they might think it is, and that as a responsible interviewer, it actually is partly your duty to make that distinction as well.
One of the interesting things, for the sort of readers that your book would be really useful for — one of the catch-22s that people encounter when they’re trying to start a career is, you can only apply if you’ve got experience. But how do you get experience if you can’t apply in the first place?
What’s your suggestion? Given all the tools and things that are available to people in our day and age, what can you do if you’re getting started, or you’re thinking about getting started and trying to plan your approach?
Benjamin: My recommendation would be to treat those sort of laundry lists of requirements as guidelines and recommendations, not must-haves. Even if they say “must have.” I would apply anyway. If nothing else, you’re still getting interview experience. Beyond that, there are any number of open source projects that you could work on. If you’ve got your own sort of GitHub account, then add code in there for instance.
Do what you can do to gain experience. It doesn’t necessarily have to be paid employment. If you look into volunteering, look into internships, there are other options out there. If you’re having difficulty getting a foot in the door, that might be one way to go about it. I’d also suggest looking at local meetups. And if you can, going to conferences. Just getting out there, and meeting people who are in the business and can provide assistance, and starting to, if nothing else, build those networks as well.
Len: That’s really interesting advice. I’ve seen it from a couple of other people as well that it will be very difficult for you to get started and to progress, unless you’re somewhat social in developing your career, and that fortunately, there are meetups that you can go to, to get started. And there are conferences that you can go to. And you can even start doing things like proposing talks and getting up there. You don’t need to approach it like you need to climb Everest on your first effort to climb a mountain. You can go at your own pace, and just like anything else, you will gradually become more comfortable with it and learn the ropes. But you do need to dip your toe in at least to begin with.
Benjamin: The other thing to remember, I think, is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Small, small amounts of effort consistently will do you a lot better than one major effort, and then nothing again.
Len: I wanted to call attention to a cause that you’ve been using your book to raise some money for: Saving Linnea.
Can you talk a little bit about that, just for a couple of minutes, so people know about that?
Benjamin: A colleague of mine in Sweden, his daughter has a very aggressive form of cancer in the brain. And he is raising funds to give her treatment, which is reasonably expensive, and experimental in nature, and happening in Mexico. Of course, with my little one arriving in the world earlier this year, I can only imagine how difficult that must be for him and his family to go through. I would like to think that were I in a similar situation, that people would do everything they can do to help.
And so, knowing that and feeling that, I feel that this is perhaps the least I can do to help them out. I want to make sure that I give them every opportunity to save this little girl’s life, and I hope that she comes out of the other side of that happy and healthy.
Len: Thanks for that description. For anyone interested in learning more, or potentially donating — you can go to savinglinnea.com.
So, you decided to write a book at some point. What inspired that choice?
Benjamin: Looking at my career in testing, I’m surprised that thought didn’t occur to me sooner actually. There’s is a lot that has changed over the years. But really the thing that has stayed the same is interviewing. Most people, I think, don’t really know how to approach an interview, or how to write a CV. And that’s stayed pretty constant for the decade and a half that I’ve been in the business.
And so what I wanted to do was to pool the wisdom that I’ve accumulated over the years, and put that into some sort of practical guide, that could give people a leg up in terms of, How do I structure my CV, so that I can get noticed? How do I approach an interview so that I stand a good choice of being hired? But also, How do I make sure that I know that this is the company I want to go and exchange my only finite resource for? So that’s what I did.
Len: And why did you decide to use Leanpub as your platform?
Benjamin: I wanted to use a platform where I could control the message. Where I wasn’t going to be told, “Cut this,” or, “Add that.” I wanted to really make sure that what I was putting out there was my own voice, for starters. And beyond that, I’d seen a number of colleagues of mine also using Leanpub to good effect. And so it seemed like a natural choice.
Len: Normally I would have just one more question for you, but I have a special bonus question I’ll ask after. If there were one thing we could build for you, or one thing we could fix for you — if there’s anything you can think of, what would that be?
Benjamin: Good question. For me, I think it would probably be, when using the web editor, to be able to see the changes immediately reflected in real time, as opposed to having to generate the manuscript and then check it. I ended up using Atom as an editor to write the Markdown, and then copy-paste that into the web editor, because Atom was something that would allow me to instantly see the layout that I was putting in place. Even still, I found there was a little bit of trial and error in terms of generating the manuscript and checking the layout was exactly where I wanted it to be — that the pages were breaking in the right places and so forth.
Len: Were you writing in Leanpub-Flavoured Markdown?
Benjamin: I was.
Len: Thanks for that, that’s really interesting. I mean for us to hear you’re using an entirely different tool to then paste into Leanpub is a pretty good sign of a pain point for a certain use case. I believe that one of the reasons we currently make you generate the whole thing to create a preview, and we don’t have an instant version, is that we’re set up for being able to do things for the most complicated case.
For the most complicated case, we can’t really show you an instant rendering of what it will look like in PDF. But it is something for us to consider, that if somebody is not using Leanpub-Flavoured Markdown or Markua to make tables and all kinds of other things, then maybe we could do something around that. That’s something we’ll think about.
Benjamin: At some point, I’m probably going to write the obvious bookend to this book, which is interview on the other side of the table. And so, having something like that would make life so much easier.
Len: M special bonus question is, in an hour I’m going to be interviewing Jerry Weinberg.
Benjamin: Tell him I said, “Hi.”
Len: Do you know him?
Benjamin: I know Jerry, have met him a number of times. I did PSL with him a few years back. We have talked from time to time. So I’m very fond of Jerry.
Len: I just wanted to ask, if there’s one question you could get me to ask him for an interview, what do you think I should ask that either you’d be personally interested in hearing from him, or you think people might be interested in hearing from him?
Benjamin: Oh wow. I wish I had some time to think about this one actually. But off the top of my head — something cheeky to ask him would be which he likes better, testing or programming? But he’s also into you dry stone wall construction, so asking him his thoughts on that as it relates to software testing or software development would probably be an interesting thing to hear about.
Len: I will definitely do that.
Well thanks very much Ben for that, I really appreciate it. And thanks for taking the time to do this interview, and thanks for being a Leanpub author.
Benjamin: Thanks for having me.
Originally published at https://leanpub.com/podcasts/frontmatter/benjamin-kelly-18-01-18.