Friday, September 19, 2014

A tale of two tutors ...

Several of my recent blog posts have talked back to my experiences at University, and I'm somewhat shocked to find out that 25 years have since passed, and yet I still feel I'm out on an active path of learning.

University was a formative time for me in a lot of ways, as it is for many people. Apart from the independence aspect, it's also a time where you learn there isn't a textbook syllabus anymore.  Instead there's a whole world of different ideas and theories in your chosen discipline, many of which contrast, and education at this point becomes trying to reason between this knowledge.

An important role in shaping me as a human being through these years came from two very different individuals who were my tutors in physics and astronomy at the University of Sheffield, and this post is about who they were and where that influence came from ...

Professor Fred Combley

Fred was my tutor for physics.  It's hard to think of him as "Prof Combley", he was Fred, a very warm and gentle person, whose office was almost always open to any student.

His approach for our third year course in cosmology was really unique.  He didn't teach a single lecture. We did!

Now that might seem like a very lazy lecturer, but it was both inspiring and revolutionary.  Each week, three students were given an area to prepare a lecture for, and we'd present the next week.  We'd have to go to the library to research, and we had a session booked with Fred to discuss the topic.  We were in fact given the keys to our own learning.

I loved doing it, and loved sitting and exploring the topic with him.  Versus the many other lectures we attended that seemed to get droned out by writing out mathematical formulae by rote, this was us, the empowered student, picking out what was important and what to say.  And the information from those lectures stuck.  I loved it so much that it led me to trying teaching, and is one of those reasons why I'll almost always put my hand up to speak or present when given an opportunity.

But what stuck with me most of all was as I said was his warmth.  I wasn't a model student at all.  At school I was the top of the class in physics, but at University within a group of my peers, I was decidedly below average at the subject, and that caused me a lot of stress.  I felt almost robbed of my identity.  In fact I failed exams in my first two years and had to do resits (I did say that failure was my natural style).  But with perseverance I got through - although despite not being a star student, as I said Fred always had a time for me, and more respect than I felt I deserved at the time.  I always felt he believed in me, even when I didn't believe in myself, and that was important getting through some tough times.

I bumped into him again three years later - I was popping back to the University of Sheffield to have some lasers etched for my project at the University of Essex.  [Essex was partnered with Sheffield, who had superior clean room facilities].  He saw me in the corridor, and to my amazement remembered me (as a physics tutor I imagined I was one in a sea of faces), and dragged me into his office to catch up - he was very pleased to hear I was still in physics and enduring (although I was still failing exams).

Thanks to the wonder of the internet (Fred was involved with CERN, so got it first), we kept in touch afterwards, with an email a year to catch up and tell him about my new career in software, and the interesting things I was learning.

Then one day in 2001, I realised he was no longer on the staff at Sheffield University, and smiled as I realised he must have finally retired.  Sadly no, as another of the teachers at Sheffield, Dr Susan Cartwright had to inform me that he was due to retire, but alas an aggressive cancer had killed him before that could happen.

I was gutted.  Anyone who knew him couldn't help but be gutted ...

Prof David Hughes

David Hughes was my tutor for astronomy and in many ways the polar opposite to Fred.  I mentioned him of course in previous blog posts ...

David was a hero of mine, I'd seen him speak on astronomy on The Sky At Night, and he was simply brilliant in the televisation of the Giotto probe intercept with Haley's Comet.  I've put up links before (such as this) of him speaking - he is without doubt the greatest speakers I've ever heard, able to convey incredible concepts in a simple and entertaining form.

But there was a problem - we really didn't get on well, at all.  I talked in my previous post that when we were asked to plot out a graph of 200 points, I asked why we weren't using a computer for the task, to which he replied ...

"You can feed a computer a string of numbers, and it can add them and divide them, and multiply them faster and more accurately than any human will.  It will even draw a mean graph line through them.  But it will never go "uh-oh, that piece of data looks out of place".  Only human beings can look at, and if need be, ignore data that could be erroneous.  If you just feed numbers into a computer without an intrinsic understanding of the data and the measurements you're using, you're essentially cutting out human judgement and intuition.  You're not here to learn how to enter numbers into a machine, but how to see those patterns for yourself, and trust to your own judgement over that of a computer."

In that blog, I mentioned how inspirational that quote is, and how I return to it again and again.  But what I didn't tell you was how I responded to it at the time.  I hated it, and I didn't like him for what he said.  I felt belittled over my idea to use a computer program (I was good at using computers for such tasks) and annoyed at him over it.

It didn't help that unlike Fred, David seemed to have his favourite students to whom he was always joking and telling funny stories to.  However when I had to spend time with him, he always seemed to be being on my case and being incredibly pushy.

It took me years though to realise that compared to those student who got the funny tales, that I got the best from David Hughes.  I had excuses galore to hide behind, but he had a habit of blasting them away, and not letting me settle for "not giving it a go", frequently pushing me with "you can do better than this".

Another conversation I remember having was of me whining about a 1000 word essay we had to complete in a week, and how that was almost impossible.  He told me bluntly that if I did my research and got the ideas in my head, I could easily sit down an knock out that length (as he often did for astronomy magazines) in just a couple of hours.

And damn, he was right!  I've been working on this blog post for about an hour, and Microsoft Word tells me I'm over 1200 words.  Every time I do a word count on a blog or magazine piece, I just remember that conversation, and go "damn, you're right again!".  So it's fair to say he has been a major influence in my writing on testing.

But he wasn't always so gruff, when I started to appreciate how he'd not let me sabotage myself with ideas that "it can't be done", I also remembered him talking to me when I failed an astronomy paper, telling me not to let it worry me too much, and it was a mark that we could work on and "make alright" next time.

Unlike the tragic story of Fred, Prof David Hughes is retired, but still talking about the subject with which he has boundless passion, and has a nice gig doing astronomy lectures on cruise ships ...

Models of tutoring and coaching

These two characters were going through my head for the last week, and I've realised how much in any mentor or coach we need elements of both of them.  David's pushiness to not allow me to settle for second best or to sabotage myself with negativity before I'd begun and Fred's gentle nature to help pick you up and gently say "well, what do you think you can do better?".  A mixture of hardness and softness dictated on which is needed to coax out the best from an individual.

Everyone probably need a bit of pushing and a bit of picking up, but the focus for different individuals is completely different, because those people, how they view themselves is different - making learning and coaching itself a contextual activity. It makes me think of Shifu, the master and trainer in Kung Fu Panda.  He originally tries to teach Po how to do Kung Fu in the exact same manner he's trained all his other students.  But the training is disastrous, and Po eventually gets really dejected.  However when Shifu sees Po in the kitchen climbing shelves to find cookies, he realises that Po has more raw ability than he originally thought.  He comes up with a training scheme different to the others, and which focuses on what motivates Po.

In many ways, all these elements turned out of be part of the model that James Bach and Anne-Marie Charrett presented at Let's Test Oz 2014 as part of their workshop on coaching testers.  However instead of the two data points in my life called "Fred" and "David", they've been researching, trying out models, and looking for fundamental truths about what makes good coaching.  I'm going to resist the urge to paraphrase them but it was without doubt the session at Let's Test that I found myself taking the most away from.  If you have the chance to ever attend their workshop in future, I recommend you get yourself along to it!

[And if you can't manage that, hound them to write a book about it]


  1. Ah yes, the elusive "book" about coaching software testers :)

    Thanks for sharing your tips on writing. I'm just getting started with writing blog posts and articles, and it's a struggle.

    Do you actively seek out mentors or mentees now?

    1. Amazingly complex question to answer lol! Regarding mentees, that's easy - I of course through my job have a few direct reports I work with, plus I'm generally coaching people to "understand testing". I've been described at work as a "test evangelist".

      Regarding mentors, then that's the difficult one. I would say with my experience rather than a direct mentor, I have a whole group of peers, yourself included who I talk testing with, and share stories and observations. Sometimes in this peer relationship I'm the mentor, sometimes I'm the mentee.

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