Saturday, August 10, 2013

Insecurity 103 - Developing through mentoring

In the last couple of articles, we've looked at how uncertainty and insecurity are part of being human, and how feedback can help us explore how we are really doing.  Feedback is a powerful tool to allow us to understand our strengths, and identify areas for growth.  But to really develop we need access to people who will coach and mentor us.  It means we need to seek out mentors, but also that we need to learn to mentor the more junior staff we work with ...

When my sister-in-law Emily was over in May, I managed to take her to a Body Jam dance class.  It was quite an experience for her, as she’s a trained ballet teacher, and found the format of an “aerobic dance class” interesting.  On the way back we were talking about Kara and Brandon, two of my friends who are training to become Body Jam instructors themselves, and the journey they’re going through.

Both of them have always been noticeable in class as they having perfect technique, and successfully auditioned in May 2012 for several potential instructor slots.  However , passing the audition was just the start of their journey.  You don’t get given an MP3 player and some groovy songs, and just thrown in front of a room full of people who want to do a dance class - that would be a great way to burn through instructors!

Taking that approach, some instructors would do well, but many would flounder, and end up leaving.  Meanwhile you’d have an audience of customers who’d be so turned off from the not-so-good instructors, they’d have voted with their feet and found a local Zumba class instead (Zumba is “the competition” for Body Jam, so that’s really not good).

Such a method would be an almost Darwinian “survival of the fittest” dance-off for instructors, who would have to sink or swim under their own power.  Like Flashdance meets the Hunger Games.

Thankfully Les Mills Body Jam is NOTHING like that.  Being “accepted” through auditions means you are put into a program which will eventually create an instructor.  But this program focuses on coaching and mentoring to develop world-class instructors.

For the Juvie Jammer such as Kara or Brandon, they’ve shown they’re capable as a participant, but now it's time for the next step.  But they’re put into weekend training sessions with fellow instructors, where they’re all put through their paces on dance moves, especially for upcoming releases of classes.  [Body Jam classes have a very tight set of choreography for each “release” which have to be learned – it allows Les Mills customers to attend any Body Jam class in the world, and know they’ll be doing the same release] 

The Juvie Jammer, has to show they know the routines and can execute the moves in a workshop environment.  Then comes the first test of nerves, “shadowing”.  They’re allowed on stage in a class with an experienced instructor.  They are silent throughout, basically acting as a “shadow” copy of the lead instructors moves.  It gives the Juvie Jammer, their first taste of facing a room full of eyes watching them intently, their first case of stage nerves and trying to remember everything from their when put on the spot.  The instructor then gives the Juvie all important feedback and tuition after the class to help them develop - what went well, what didn't, things they can think about doing next time.

This will go on over a few months, and eventually they will be allowed to “lead a track”.  This is much like “shadowing”, but for a period of about 5-10 minutes in a class, the experienced instructor and the Juvie Jammer swap places - the Juvie leads and gives instructions, whilst the experienced instructor is the silent shadow.  This goes on over several month until the Juvie is leading for half of a class (about 30 minutes), all the time with the mentoring from the experienced instructor helping with their technique, nerves, what to say what to do.

It’s only at this point – at least 6 months later, that the Juvie is really let loose on stage as an instructor, although even then, they might co-host classes for a while, all the time getting that instruction and direction afterwards.  Before too long, they’ll end up on stage “solo”, and they’ve graduated!

But even at this point, the coaching doesn’t stop.  The Head Teacher for Body Jam will observe a class, and film them four times a year, and make notes during a class.  This will then turn into a one-on-one meeting, where feedback of what’s working or not is given.

Furthermore, as an attendee of a class, you’re encouraged to give feedback directly to instructors.  If you enjoy classes, and want to build a relationship with instructors, this is well worth doing.  Even if sometimes you have suggestions in that grey minefield of “maybe it would be better if …”.  But at the end of the day, they prefer that over you staying silent, stop attending, only to be found "gone rogue" in a Zumba class some time later.

So far this might be interesting and whimsical to an audience of software testers.  But the point to this piece is that this process described isn’t just the way you train and develop someone to be a Body Jam instructor.  It’s the way you can coach anyone to do any role you can imagine.  The framework applies anywhere.

Give them mentoring, give them some room to prove themselves and try tasks and jobs outside their comfort zone.  However, an experienced guru, give them feedback and consult with them about what they're doing that works and what doesn’t.  But try to avoid moulding them into a copy of you, if they try something and it works, credit them.  Even (and especially) if it’s different to what you would have done.  Allow them to try things, and take “next steps”, but monitor and review as they do, until they show they’ve mastered.  Then find the next step.  This way they learn by doing, but it means more to them than you just showing, because the experiences are their own.

During KWST3, I gave an experience report on developing and training testers was around a similar method of mentoring through one-on-ones, and giving people new challenges, whilst monitoring to reduce any risk.  However, my talk I focused more on “the teaching of science” as it's core model.

This turned out to be quite relevant, as the following experience report by Erin Donnell about how she worked as a data analyst, only to be told one day that she and her colleague Jen had been arbitrarily press-ganged into testing with no prior background.  "So get testing".  There was no existing test team or support … it was sink or swim time.  However she managed to find mentors and coaches outside of her organisation in Ilari Aegerter, Aaron Hodder and James Bach.  People who helped to guide her, whilst at the same time she herself took charge, taking huge leaps of initiative to learn, seeking out BBST courses.

One issue about mentoring that Aaron mentioned during my experience report was whether it would cause “a cloning of software testers with the same mentality and approach, and potentially stifle fresh blood in the industry”.  It’s a good point, but goes back to what I said about if someone does something and it works, tell them they did good, even (and especially) if it’s different to how you do it.  This is what’s so exciting about doing mentoring – that once in a while the person you mentor will end up opening your eyes, and you’ll see something you think you know too well in a different light!

In the Body Jam world, instructors teach the same class, but they have vastly different styles, and this is really encouraged.  In fact they are urged to try to avoid copying other instructors styles, but to seek out "their own autheticity", because it's about instructors "being themselves".  This is why in the Wellington region you have personalities like,

  • Mereana (the head teacher), who very much like your bubbly best friend 
  • Pete, who is the reserved but focused Mr Miyagi of dance, with a very dry wit
  • Lil Jess and Rhodene who together specialise in hip-hop gangster dance style, with classes are full of attitude with a capital A. 
  • Cade who is what High School Musical would be like if done by David Lynch.  He is actually one of the chorus line in a number of musicals that run in Wellington. 
  • Nic who is like a Jazz-dancing kids TV presenter

Within the testing world, the same is true.  New blood, new ideas, new initiative is vital to help nurture and develop for the good of our industry.  We need a next generation of testers who won't just copy and paste the way we test, but who will know to change it and modify it to suit their needs.

We don't need the next James Bach, Lisa Crispin or even Jerry Weinberg.  We need the first Aaron Hodder, Erin Donnell, Jari Laakso ...

[Oh if you want to know what Body Jam looks like ... not my Wellington crew, but pretty cool video never-the-less ...]


  1. It's so true that a mentor probably learns just as much from the mentee as the other way around. And this is a great model for transferring skills. Lots of learning theory backs up the idea that people learn best by doing. What a mentor can do is help set up small experiments with quick learning feedback. I find it a huge challenge, but satisfying.

    And so true about the "new blood". These are exciting times in the testing profession!

  2. Nicely explained. Here you described the well written article from your in-depth knowledge. Truly impressive and nice information

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