Interviewing a Testing Expert - Karen Johnson

I understand that it has been a while since I have posted anything new on “Software Testing Zone”. This was partly because of the hectic schedule through which life has been going through recently for me. Anyway, I think I have settled down for now and hence I took liberty to come back with yet another interesting Interview with a Testing Expert; this time with Karen Johnson from Karen is an independent software test consultant. She views software testing as an intellectual challenge and believes in the context-driven school of testing. She has over 17 years' of experience in software testing and software test management. She is a frequent speaker at software testing conferences and is an active participant in several software testing workshops. She's published articles in software testing publications as well. I must thank Karen for honoring my interest in taking her interview. Here is what Karen has to say:

Debasis: What led you to become a software tester? And what was the topmost reason that attracted you to the field of testing?

Karen: I fell into software testing, it was an unplanned career. I majored in journalism in college and worked as a technical writer at a software company. After a few years as a tech writer, I was getting burnt out. I was quickly becoming more interested in testing software. I had a conversation with the president of the company I was working at and asked if I could switch roles and become the company's tester. He agreed and said we could give it a try for six months. That was back in 1992 and I haven't left software testing since.

Debasis: Did you try testing anything other than software before diving into software testing?

Karen: I didn't try testing other things before I started testing software but now I feel like I could test anything. I could test the construction of a chair, I could test the functionality of an airplane door and I could keep writing a list of things that could be tested. I feel like I could find flaws in anything. And every year more and more so, I don't feel I'd have to be a chair designer to test a chair or an avionics person to test an airplane door. General systems thinking makes more sense to me now. I've learned I don't have to know every nuance about a technology to be able to break it down, dissect it and find flaws.

Debasis: Tell me 5 unknown/least-known facts about you.

Karen: 1. My dad was an elementary school principal and my mom was a kindergarten teacher. In our family, we talked about school and what we learned every night. Our homework was reviewed. While the kids were doing homework, our parents were usually reading themselves or helping one of us. I grew up believing this was what most people's weeknights looked like.

2. I grew up in Boston. I spent some amount of time every summer down Cape Cod. I have a deep attachment to the beach and the water. I'm not much of a swimmer and I don't know a thing about sailing but being near the water is important to me. I feel better near the water. I live less than 1 mile from Lake Michigan and walk the beach frequently even in the winter.

3. Over the years, I’ve believed that if I wanted to be a good writer, I should push myself to write in different genres. I worked as a news reporter. In college I published some poetry. I even tried writing greeting cards. I wrote a puzzle that was published in a children’s magazine as recently as a couple of years ago. I feel similar with software testing; if I can test software then I feel I should be able to work with different types of software and software for different industries.

4. I enjoy traveling. I have tried several times to find work in Europe and would like the opportunity to move there for a year or more.

5. My daughter is the most important person to me. I think she's fascinating. I have tremendous respect and faith in her. Having a daughter changed my entire life.

Debasis: What was the hardest challenge that you found in your career as a tester?

Karen: Not having a technical background, I took only one computer class in college and frankly, I didn't enjoy the class in the least.

Not having a strong math background, I'm amazed at how often I think having a stronger math background would have/could help me.

Not having taken a single business course, I wasn't interested. All I wanted to do was read and write and preferably be left alone to do both. I was painfully shy as a kid, loved reading and wanted to be a writer for a living.

I got over being shy, most of the time; I’m still an introvert and a loner to a great extent. I write pretty frequently now. I write various items for clients, some articles and I’m currently working on a couple of longer writing pieces – hopefully you’ll see those published this year.

I see myself as an outlier of sorts. I don't have the more typical academic background of a software tester but that's ok. I think I'm proof that if you want to pursue something it may be that sincere interest and motivation matter more than other factors.

Debasis: Tell me about the most satisfying moment in your testing career.

Karen: This is probably the hardest question you have on your list for me. I've had many satisfying moments.

On a day to day situation, I look for a moment on every project when I know I've helped the team. I'm not always sure at the start of a project how I will provide the most value, it’s not always directly software testing. For example this past winter on a project, my most valuable contribution on one project was running a UAT session. For a variety of reasons, the UAT and the audience for the UAT had the project stakeholders anxious. I wrote materials and ran the kick-off session. It went very well. If I don't provide value on a project, I feel awful.

Outside of my more typical day to day life with project work, my most satisfying moments have been invitations to other countries. In 2008 being asked to present in Sweden and Spain was wonderful. The opportunity to present in two countries in the course of two weeks felt like an award of sorts. In 2009 I'll be traveling to Australia and New Zealand. I'm pretty thrilled about having that opportunity. I enjoy meeting other people and being exposed to different cultures.

Debasis: What do you think as the most essential skills that make a great tester?

Karen: I have to laugh, one skill – I’m not sure about that. I often see multiple factors come together in a blended way – you’ll notice in all my answers that I struggle to name one factor and instead see multiple factors.

Curiosity: If you're not engaged in what you're doing and you don't continue to ask questions, then I don't think software testing is the right match for a person. When I say asking questions - it doesn't always mean walking down the hall and asking someone else a question. It easily can mean you're asking questions in your mind and seeking answers for yourself.

Tenacity: Tenacity comes into play when you work with a team that might not be used to having a tester or doesn't want a tester around and the team maybe less inclined to help you. Stand your ground.

Caring: And finally, if you don't care about software testing and find your work interesting - then find something else to do. I feel like it’s a big world with so many possible options, find something you love to do. As recently as last week I had a day when I thought I can't believe I get paid to do this - I wish everyone could feel that way about their work at least some of the time.

Debasis: What single thing would you want to tell every newbie who is struggling in the early stage of building software testing career?

Karen: If you decide you want something don't give up. Figure out what you're strengths are and focus on those. If you're pretty good at coding, learn test automation. If you're pretty good with people, look to a test lead or management role. Not all testers are the same. Everyone has different strengths. Be an honest critic of what you're good at, know what you want to do and then steer your career in those directions.

There are some aspects of software testing, I think every tester has to handle - one aspect is change. Learn not to be intimidated to learn new things, technology moves at a rapid rate. Will you be able to move with it?

Another aspect is continually working around other people who are more technical than you might be - I think of several system architects that I've worked with who simply know so much more about whatever technology than I do. Learn not to be intimidated by people who know more than you may know.

And a third aspect is stress. Testing is at the end of the cycle and it is often inevitable that the time compression factor will add stress to your work. Learn to fight for more time and learn to cope when you might not get the time you feel you need. Being able to manage stress is essential.

Debasis: Is there anything else that you would like to say?

Karen: Thanks for asking me for this interview. I like when the software testing world feels like people I know and not an anonymous field. I think between blogs, forums and other outlets, many of us have gotten to know each other - at least a little bit. I like when the community feels connected – even when we disagree and argue about ideas and approaches.

I hope all of you enjoyed the interview as much as I did. Let me once again thank Karen for allowing me to take the interview and for sharing her experience, views and ideas with us. Feel free to comment and let me know if there is any particular Testing Expert whom you would like to see me interviewing. Check back soon for more interesting interviews.

Happy Testing…
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About Debasis Pradhan

Debasis has over a decade worth of exclusive experience in the field of Software Quality Assurance, Software Development and Testing. He writes here to share some of his interesting experiences with fellow testers.


  1. There is one thing that those who worked with Karen share in common - She is a great lady and a tester to work with.

    She asks questions that are insightful and helps in setting new learning goals for the life.

    Kudos to you both.

  2. very good article, i really like it. I am doing a bit on research about "Software testing" and i found also macrotesting to be very good source for software testing Knowledge base article.

    Thanks for your article


  3. Nice informations shared.Its motivating and enlighteneing.

    Honouring Karen and you Debasis.

    Thanks and Regards

  4. Seems like this book is an interesting one and I can't wait to search it at the bookstore nearby.


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