How I ended up in IT

This is a long read, be warned 🙂

Honestly, I never thought I would end up working in IT. Now I’m here and enjoying myself, but it took me years to figure it out. I would like to tell you my story of how I got here.

When I was fifteen years old, I thought I would end up as a musician. I started playing the clarinet when I was nine years old. When I was fifteen I joined an orchestra with adult people in it for the first time and I enjoyed it so much that I formed a dream of doing that as a pro. Music was something I was at least excelling in, and besides, the rest of the school curriculum didn’t really interest me much. I only loved writing, philosophy (they offered that as a class in my high school) and reading for my literature class. So I poured my energy into getting better at making music. Getting extra classes on music theory, learning to play the piano and practising a lot of clarinet. After I had done my final exams for high school I also had to do an audition to get into music school. I was rejected in Utrecht (horrible experience), but accepted in Rotterdam.

And then a part of my life started that was pretty hard. The classes in Rotterdam started and I found my passion slipping away from me. What had happened? Some of the classes were really nice, especially the choir practice. Place me in a group of people and let me make music, that is pure bliss. But music school proved to be way more. I had responsibilities, I was no longer easily excelling in making music. It was hard work. I was busy with music from dawn to dusk and in the weekends. I could hardly keep up with all the classes. I felt a devastating feeling coming up: doubt. Did I really want to do this? I wasn’t enjoying it at all. Music became a chore…Six months after starting the music school, in January, I made the heartbreaking decision to quit.

What followed was quite a dark period. I barely touched my clarinet for a year or so. I was depressed. I had no goal in life and really pulled back in my own little world. Looking back at it, I understand it completely. When you have no goal in life, no passion for something, no fun…that’s not really helping your mood at all. To fill the hole in my heart I played an online game (no, it wasn’t World of Warcraft, that didn’t exist yet) so I didn’t have to think about anything. I had a little side job for a couple of hours a week, but I was living with my parents still, so no costs or pressure. In June my mother was fed up with my behaviour and started bugging me to get my lazy ass moving. I took on a full-time job for a couple of months and that’s when things started to get better. I had structure in life again and made new friends. With the money I had saved from the job I could go on a backpacking holiday with my boyfriend at that time. I came back feeling refreshed and ‘normal’.

I made the decision to go to Utrecht University. I started studying Language and Culture Studies, because that was really broad. You could pick your own classes in the first year and figure out which main subject you wanted to study. It was very much an alpha study, but that was my own fault. I was incredibly lazy in high school and hadn’t picked up the beta classes (because I had to work to get good grades there…ughhh I want to kick myself in retrospect). So, as a result I wasn’t allowed in beta oriented university departments. At that time though, I really didn’t care. The only thing going through my mind was ‘what the fuck do I want to do?’. I enjoyed the classes I took, so it wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t a great student though, same as in high school. During my time at university, I took a lot of weird classes. I mainly hung out with nerds (a positive thing in my book), and took a programming class for fun. I sucked big time, because I had so little background in logic etc. I couldn’t even use the terminal at that time. But it was fun to take the same class as my friends! (they were almost all studying Artificial Intelligence). If I look back on my time at the uni, I think I mainly learned to overcome my social anxiety, social awkwardness, learned to work in groups and do a little bit of researching. After I got my bachelors degree I knew one thing: NO MASTER degree for me. No way in hell I was gonna get myself into more student debt. Because at that point I also doubted the usefulness of my degree in relation to how easy it would be to get a job. In the end I majored in History of International Relations. Most jobs I could apply for I had competition….like hundreds of other people. Why would they hire me, the mediocre student with little passion for the subject?

In the meantime, my bank account was almost empty…So I just started applying for jobs that seemed remotely okay. And that’s how I ended up at an insurance company. Before you shrink away in horror, hear me out. Because actually, this job paved the way to greatness…(excuse my epicness). The job I had at the insurance company started out really horrible. I had to do a lot of telephoning. Mind you, I had telephone anxiety…So this actually helped me get rid of that, but I still hated it. My manager also saw that I hated it and asked me: “do you want to test at our acceptance test department” (lol there’s so much wrong in this sentence, I see now). I was like: “testing!?” *insert blank face*. Until that moment, I had NEVER heard of the notion of testing software. I snicker at my own ignorance now. I found the idea exiting though. I had always liked computers, being a gamer from a young age and prided myself of being ‘computer savvy’. I totally wasn’t, but I thought I was. So, I went to the test department as ‘someone from the business’. I had to follow test scripts in Quality Centre and log bugs with 20 compulsory fields in Quality Centre. But what do ya know, I really liked it way more than the telephoning thing. The test environments were down a lot, like 80% of the time. To pass that time, I started to analyse the bugs. It fascinated me, where do these bugs come from? I loved to learn about the system, the different databases, the different layers. I asked “why” a lot. Other colleagues in the department I was seated (test, ops, business analysis) saw my enthusiasm and would happily explain what was going on. I quickly built up domain knowledge and helped the ops team with analysing bugs in production. I found ways to work around the bugs and would tell my team at the business side how they could help clients they had on the phone. I thought I knew a whole lot about testing. Man, I cannot comprehend how stupid I was back then, but I really thought I was doing good. A guy from Sogeti helped the ops team as well and when my year contract at the insurance company was almost over, he said to me ‘why don’t you try to start as a test engineer at Sogeti?’. Well, why the hell not. The testing adventure seemed more promising than staying another year as telephone assistant (the testing position was only temporary).

So, I went to the Sogeti test day (as in: they tested ME). You had to pass a bunch of bullshit “intelligence” tests. After that, a conversation on why you wanted to become a tester etc. Because I had a little bit of experience it was kind of easy to explain. And thus, I had landed the first job I actually looked forward to. My master class (2 months) took me the US of A. Athens, Ohio to be exact. We followed a programme on High Performance Teaming. For three weeks, each week we had to work in different teams to solve a problem. It was really fun. Back in NL we had our compulsory TMAP course. At that time, I was convinced of the usefulness of this certificate. (To make it clear: I currently think the certificate is bullshit.). I thought that, “when I have this certificate, I will know how to test”. Boy, how wrong was I. In the end it didn’t matter. Our Sogeti masterclass of November 2011 was almost completely fired because of the economic crisis. Yep, you read that correct. It was a beautiful act of what I call “spreadsheet management”.

Thankfully, they arranged that we could go to Capgemini for a possible job opening as Test Consultant. I had my talk at Capgemini and was hired. In the end, 7 of us were hired at Capgemini. It was an exciting time, looking back on it. But the day I was fired from Sogeti I was very pissed. I was like: why would you spend so much money sending us all the the US and then fire us?? Can’t you see it’s an investment?? But anyway, after the fact I’m very happy with it. Because Sogeti is cursed by their TMAP brand by now, it’s not an advantage anymore. Capgemini also suffered a little bit from that, but much less so.

At Capgemini they were happy with us. They didn’t have to spent money on a traineeship, we already got that at Sogeti. So in January 2012, I finally had my first assignment as a test consultant.

I was put into a scrum team at a large Dutch bank. I had no effing clue what to do. I was TMAP trained, but what did I know about testing? I had the sort of weird luck that for the first six months, my team was only building software locally. It was never released. So I could sort of dabble around in testing without doing really harmful stuff. I did start helping out another team with their regression tests. Again I was forced to work with QC, but I didn’t know any better still. Making test scripts in QC. I started hating it already, because QC just isn’t a really user friendly tool. On the project were a lot of colleagues from Capgemini, so in the end it proved to be a great start of my testing career. I got friendly with more senior colleagues and they helped me test better. After six months we also started doing test automation (lol, so late!). I started learning a bit about Java and Specification by Example. I also joined a special interest group on agile testing, because it turned out that I liked this way of working. Although, looking back on this time, the bank wasn’t really doing ‘agile’, more like ‘waterscrumfall’. After a year I started asking my manager to give me a new assignment. In the 1 year and 4 months I had been at the bank we only did one release. Ugh. And it was full of bugs too, because of…lots of reasons.

My next assignment was much better. Here is where I matured as a tester. I was so committed to not make the same mistakes that we did at the bank. I was lucky enough to end up in a team with a greenfield situation. Ohh, the bliss. We started automating our tests (checks) right away using the Spec by Example technique. I fought hard to make the whole team responsible for the tests and it worked. Some developers where sceptical, but when the tests gave feedback within 10 minutes after deployment they quickly converted. I was the only tester in the team, but I felt so sure of myself. I had a lot of time to do Exploratory Testing and was so convinced there where no bugs in the software. I was wrong. When the software went live we had two types of problems. One: the mail server couldn’t handle the load, so for the first day our software was pretty much unusable. Twitter was flooding with ranting customers. Sadly, it wasn’t something under control of our team. The second problem was more minor, but the customers had to fill in their address and it turned out I hadn’t tested that with enough variation. Street names with dashes in them weren’t accepted by the system (we hadn’t tested for that), newly built houses couldn’t be entered because the zip code was unknown (we hadn’t updated our zip code table). Not groundbreaking stuff, but still, it helped me realise that it is stupid to think you can find all the bugs. I had my first meeting with the black swans of software development.

After 6 months I switched to the mobile team at the same client. I only had experience in web apps for now, so this was exciting. When switching to the mobile team I thought “ok, let’s automate the shit out of their regression test”. Haha. Hah….that wasn’t so easy. Firstly, because I was stuck in the “let’s always test from end to end” bias and that didn’t work at all in their context and because…it was just too much! The greenfield situation from the webteam had seriously deluded me into thinking I could fix anything easily. I have never encountered this El Dorado again.

When we started building a new app in the mobile team, however, I wanted to involve automation again. We used Cucumber and the Given/When/Then style of writing down tests. Here, I made mistakes again (of course). Our tests became waaaaaay to descriptive. We fell into a trap I have seen many times thereafter: treat these scenario’s as test steps instead of looking at them as  communication vehicles. The good thing in this team was that I managed to create a very nice working dynamic with the developers. They helped with testing, I taught them about Exploratory Testing, and the whole team was involved in the end. I really loved working at Ahold. I improved myself as a tester immensely there, learned more about technical stuff like coding in Java, git, API testing, analysing bugs, creating a test strategy etc. I left Ahold mid 2015 because I switched to another consultant company: Xebia.

I ended up being fed up with some things at Capgemini: too much corporate shit, change was hard, getting permission to go to a conference or course was hard, many people just worked there to do their hours at the client and that was it. I had a small group of passionate colleagues, we organised events on agile testing for the company. That was awesome, but again and again the same small group of people showed up. I longed for a bit more passion. At Xebia, everyone is passionate. And everyone is gooooood. Before I started working there, I mentally prepared myself for a tough period to come. I expected feelings of insecurity, realising I know very little yet…stuff like that.

And that has come true. I switched to a new client, TNT, and the change to a new company (Xebia) and a new client proved to be very hard on me. I realised I had been stuck at Ahold too long, almost three years. I built a very nice comfort zone for myself there. Now, I knew ‘nothing’ again. And, me being me, meaning ‘incredibly impatient’, I expected myself to be up to speed in a week. Yeah…that didn’t happen. The amount of mental resistance I experienced was more overwhelming than my thought experiment predicted. I was angry at myself, I cried sometimes, I had no freaking clue what was happening to me. Insecurities from the past surfaced: ‘what am I doing in IT?’, ‘am I smart enough to learn all this stuff’. My colleagues at Xebia are way more technical than I am, I’m still a mediocre technical person at best. I lost sight of my own strengths as a tester and started to think ‘I should be able to do everything they are able to do as well’. I can tell you, dear reader, that way of thinking leads to self-hatred so it’s a dead end.

It’s months later now and I cannot say I’m fully confident again. I’m taking programming courses, because I think I have to improve technically anyway and I’m trying to find my mojo again by doing lots of yoga, meditation and trying to get out of this poisonous mindset. I still have a hard time patting myself on the back and saying ‘you did well at X’, but I’m trying to let it go. In fact, I’m trying to let a lot of what I’m thinking go. The thought is there, and *poof*, it’s gone. Most thoughts about myself are not valuable anyway, since they’re too negative. I think, that when I’m better at letting things go and get out of this negative cycle, a lot of my ‘problems’ will be solved. This journey is quite rocky I can tell ya. Some days, I feel perfectly at peace and content, other days a huge inner storm is breeding and a tiny thing can set it off. Does this sound familiar to any of you?

The future?

Will I work in IT until I retire? I have no idea, I think it’s futile to think ahead so many years. I’m going to try and get more technical (maybe even be a developer?), but I want to do it for the right reasons. There’s a lot of stuff still to improve in IT, most of it not even on the technical side. I see a lot of troubles when people are trying to work together: communication goes wrong, processes are still too troublesome, motivation is off because of bad management (KPI’s anyone?), we don’t ask the right questions…There are an infinite amount of reasons why we still make bad software and for now I’m not bored trying to help improve it.

For the semi-long term I only know that I’m going to take a sabbatical next year or the year after with my boyfriend (we’re saving up for it now). I don’t want kids, so I might as well use my money to travel. A long term goal of mine is to be financially independent. We live in a tiny apartment for a reason, we drive a tiny car for a reason. I value experiences a lot more than having stuff, so I’m trying to minimise the cost of living. We also want to start paying off the house. Maybe we’ll move to another country. I could live in Scotland, but my boyfriend is more of a warm-blooded type so he’d prefer Portugal. Who knows? I only know I’m very happy to be with my boyfriend and that he wants to share these experiences with me.

And that’s how I ended up in IT. If you’ve read this story up to this point: you rock. I hope I haven’t bored you! Maybe share your own story in return? People’s stories always fascinate me, so feel free to leave it in a comment or write a blogpost of your own and notify me.

Cheers!

5 thoughts on “How I ended up in IT

  1. Hello,

    Thanks for sharing your story! A lot of it rings true with me too and comes down to confidence – it’s difficult when you are thrown into the deep end in a role, you end up building domain knowledge and coping with what’s thrown at you but that often isn’t enough (I have realised!) so I do doubt myself and my abilities too. I am also trying to better myself (learning automation) but it’s not easy! I’ve been in a company for 4 years and feel like I am in my comfort zone but who knows what the future holds – I would love to be creative and start my own business in the future!

    Thanks again for sharing your story. I too like hearing people’s stories 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Maaike. In addition to all that I wrote to you directly, I want to a) show my respect for what you’re doing here and b) share a small part of my reason why I ended up where I am today.
    I tried to study mathematics, but I had to realize I’m not made for theoretical maths. Changing studies was tough, because the courses were crowded as hell. It was 1999. I ended up outside of university, taking vocational training as “developer light”. In parallel to school I learned how enterprise projects work and could even help out a little. I was working for a larger IT service company, which was split into several development areas and was also growing a “test factory”. After finishing school as one of the best of my year (which wasn’t hard to be honest, and I was lazy as sh*t at the end), I got a contract. After 5 months on a development team I was hired by one of the three big test projects of the “test factory”. In the end nearly 80% of our location were drawn or converted into that area. I stayed for 9,5 years in that project growing from tester, who has no clue about what he was doing, to a test manager and go-to-guy, who had also no clue what he was doing.
    My biggest problem was that my style of working didn’t fit to the factory-style approach of my company, and still I was a good tester and successful and respected test manager in my project. I realized only after a webinar from Michael Bolton and stepping into the world of context-driven testing afterwards, that I was not alone. I just didn’t fit where I was.
    So 3.5 years ago I left my company and joined a small IT company in the in-house test team. That was the time I started learning so much, like never before in my life combined. Mostly not on the job, but in my spare time, reading blogs, watching videos, listening to podcasts. Since the keyplayers in my product environment where having and still have a vision of testing from the ancient past, my grumpyness began. But still, I didn’t stop learning.
    And slowly I realized that I was high on Mt. Stupid and saw the huge world out there and how little I really know. And I can tell you, I was multiple times at the point where I wanted to give up. The last time the trigger was an interview with James Bach who quoted a conference talk that asked 90% of the testers in the industry to leave their jobs. I agreed to the statement and the given reasons, but I immediately asked myself if I’m in the 90%. Self-doubts are quickly arising for critical thinkers like us.
    So despite having a more or less classical career in IT, self-doubts if I’m allowed to stay there are always at my side for the past couple of years. The more I learned the stronger they got. I think Imposter Syndrome might be the problem, but I’m not sure.

    My tip for you and the readers of this open and honest story of yours. The more you learn, the more you doubt, but you should know, that you know more than others, who don’t doubt. So neither should you, because you have more reason to stay than others. It’s people like you who make this profession and this community to what it is. And it wouldn’t be the same without you. You might be only a small part of the community, but in a big puzzle, every piece counts. And you are one bright and shiny piece! And I’m glad to know you, and I look forward to your next blogs and your next tweets. And I’m happy that I will finally meet you in person in less than 2 weeks to say thank you.

    Have a good night
    Patrick

  3. A short version of my story – I got a degree in Computer Science, and then got an offer to do software testing, which wasn’t covered at all in my studies. It turns out that I love breaking things, and I figured out how to do it.

    But it wasn’t in IT – here’s an explanation for why I say that –
    https://www.stickyminds.com/better-software-magazine/do-you-work-it

    And here’s how I learned how to do my job –
    https://www.stickyminds.com/better-software-magazine/my-mentor-internet (The references are outdated, but the concept remains valid)

  4. Thanks for sharing this Maaike, I always like to read how other people ended up in the field.

    Ending up in software testing wasn’t a conscious decision for me either. Only after turning away from a horrible first job as a technical engineer (although in retrospect it taught me lot – especially what I DON’T want in a career) I too ended up at Sogeti. In my case I chose Sogeti mostly because someone I worked with in my first job was really positive about the company. And yes, I too learned a lot (fully agree on your comments on both Ohio and TMap ;), but after a couple of years it was time to move on.

    I then worked for five years at a smaller consultancy firm before venturing out on my own as a freelancer 1,5 years ago. Never looked back since.

    My educational background is pretty different though. I’ve been certain I’d do ‘computer school’ since I was 12, and I did exactly that. The only (small) drawback is that having to answer ‘You have an MSc. Computer Science? So why are you in software testing then instead of being a developer?’ does get a bit old sometimes..

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