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Four Stages of Testing Competence

I have Chris Ashton to thank for this little piece of inspiration. He refers to levels of competence in a recent post of his. I was intrigued by the reference and went off to check out what the levels of competence are all about.

The “conscious competence” is a model that describes how we progress through four psychological states in learning. They are:

  • Unconscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Incompetence
  • Conscious Competence
  • Unconscious Competence

I adore these terms and I can easily relate all but the last state to moments in my testing career. In particular the first one!

Unconscious Testing Incompetence

My keenest recollection of unconscious incompetence was at my first job, compliance testing ETSI standards. I wrote an official report for the standards body, bound it and was ready to send it off. It didn’t occur to me to read through the document to check it was in order. Fortunately, someone else did and found sections of the document were completely illegible.

Conscious Testing Incompetence

Things progressed, I learned how to critique my own work, and was put in charge of a new test team. I learned abourt IEE829, documented tests scripts, how to write a bug report and ISO9000. I felt I had arrived. I now had a wealth of information on top of which I could construct my testing. I have order and reproducibility and I got hung up about process. The process became more important than the testing.  It didn’t occur to me that most of the bugs I found where when designing my test scripts, and executing them was really just a formality.  I started to get bored with testing though, and set my goals on greater and loftier achievements. I wanted to be a test manager!

Conscious Testing Competence

Well, I ended ditching my career as test manager to because guess what? Yes, I got bored.  So I went back to the drawing board and rethought a) what I wanted out of my career and b) what really where my goals in life? I had always wanted to setup a testing consultancy, so that was what I went about doing.

I feel that I’m in a state of conscious testing competence now, not always though. Sometimes I pop back into unconscious incompetence, and on rare occasions I jump into unconscious testing competence.

I can say that because I’ve learned a lot about how to test well and I try to implement that. I’ve made a conscious decision to keep my testing skills keen and relevant, and I find the only way for me to do that is to keep testing. I’m putting myself on courses and training myself up where I need to.  I’ve learned that I will always have much to learn about testing. There are always new tools and  new techniques to try out.

Unconscious Testing Competence

Ah, the holy grail! I see glimpses of this sometimes, but there is so much more to learn about testing and its such a broad field, that I doubt I will ever achieve this for all areas of testing. Sometimes I do feel that exploratory testing is “second nature” to me but to be able to teach it to others? Maybe not so well. I find it hard to believe that I ever felt that I knew everything there was to testing. What arrogance!

So, what  testing competence are you?

14 replies on “Four Stages of Testing Competence”

Great post. The theory makes sense. I remember going from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence – from the time when I thought I knew it all to the time when I realised there was so much more to know. I think I’m somewhere between Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence – still trying new things, learning and seeing what’s most effective.
How would one know if they achieved Unconscious Competence? Surely the term implies that when you’re there, you wouldn’t realise it?

Great post – I love the different angles. It’s like getting a tune stuck in your head -> Consciously incompetent – oh, I’m going to have trouble to not think of that when I’m talking to certain people. (Maybe that makes me consciously-incompetent-in-denial!)
I think I probably go through aspects of them at some stage and that’s cool – having a label for it is even better!

It makes me think of testing knowledge/competence as a game of snakes’n’ladders – very rarely you throw a six (or is it a double-six?) and hit a ladder and avoid a snake at the same time, but then just while you’re feeling pleased with yourself you slide down a snake on the next go…

That’s testing imitating life for you!

Yes, great analogy, it makes me also think you will most likely have some natural skills (your strengths) in testing where you end up consciously competent, whilst other less natural skills you are most likely to be consciously incompetent. That’s because it’s easier to become competent at some thing your naturally good at.Well perhaps anyhow…oops just slid down the ladder…:)

Thanks for the great blog! I can so relate to the four stages and dream of the day when I can reach Unconscious Testing Competence. While so far I’ve never found testing boring, probably part of what has kept me actively interested in it is that I have never let myself get bored–i jumped right into having my own quality assurance and testing business while I was still interested in doing testing for another company! Ah and now it can only get better!
The sky is the limit when it comes to learning new testing tools!

Thanks for posting that; it’s spurred me to revisit this model – which has been troubling me for a while.

Why? I have NO desire to achieve unconscious competence at testing.

Let’s compare testing to riding a bike.

First you have unconscious incompetence. You see someone riding a bike. You think “that looks easy” and climb on…

This is common in testing. The trappings of testing look easy; follow some script, monkey with the app, write bug reports. I spent a few years there. Many management folks stay there. We’ve all met them; the “anyone can test” brigade.

…and fall right off. That drives the incompetence home pretty damn quick. Suddenly you are aware that riding a bike isn’t as easy as it looks. Conscious incompetence has arrived…

I’m guessing that many of us who go on to actually learn about testing have experienced such a fall. In my case is was spending 6 months executing what I thought was 6 weeks of system testing, only to have the product ripped to shreds in acceptance. This motivated me to learn more.

…so you practice, you watch other riders, you practice some more, maybe – if you’re really ambitious – you get some books and videos and start learning tricks. As your skills improve you gain confidence and become aware of what you can do. This is conscious competence…

And learn I did. Read loads; mainly to become aware of what I didn’t know – bringing some stuff up to conscious incompetence – and practiced more – to develop conscious competence in skills I need every day.

…with the skills you have but still need to concentrate on to use – like the hops and spins. But actually riding? That’s coming automatically now, no thought required. Unconscious competence.

And this is where the model breaks down for me, at least as it relates to testing. I’d rather keep learning; both acquiring new skills and polishing the old ones. And I never want to tackle a new project with a “no thought required” attitude. What worked last time may not work next time.

Great post and feels very true.In my past life I used to work in the chemical industry as research scientist. I always thought that I had a lot to learn until talking to non-scientists who didn’t understand a word of what I was talking about. I think there are several levels of Unconscious Competence, testing or other – it depends on what level you measure.
An example from the chemical world:
Surely everyone knows what sodium chloride is? (common household salt)
Or can quickly throw the chemical analysis for photosynthesis on a wall? (Come on, they teach that to 12 year olds).
Or can analyse how this new drug might bind to proteins?

The better you get at something the more you forget what’s common knowledge and what isn’t. Of course common knowledge is just a heuristic. My wife’s a Yoga teacher and she has to consciously remind herself what her audience is. If it’s teaching to beginners she can’t expect everyone to touch their toes, that’s what they’re there to practice! Intermediates won’t have a problem with that but might want to learn to put their foot behind their head, etc.

As in many things it’s a matter of perspective.

Oh, and personally I’m probably at the third stage; test manager, bored and asking myself exactly the question you have already answered for yourself. 🙂

Hi Thomas,I like your thought about the common knowledge. In some ways that’s why I like working with startups, who sometimes have little knowledge on testing. I feel I am really providing value.

I am a Yoga practitioner, bobbing between beginner and intermediate depending on my level of enthusiasm, definitely in the conscious incompetence stage and foolishly jumping to the conscious competence whenever there are total beginners in the class (did I ever tell you I was massively competitive?)

Good Luck in your choices. I hope you come to a decision. I sometimes think there ought to be a co-op for all the software testers who want to go it alone. That way stepping out is not such a overwhelming prospect. 🙂

Great idea about the co-op for software testers, would there be money in it? Might be an interesting business avenue.
There’s which helps newbies but it’s not really what I have in mind. More than anything else I have a gut feeling that it’s about the mindset, ie at a conference your fellow testers are no longer peers but potential clients. I don’t think I made that switch, yet. Working with start-ups sounds exactly what I’d like to do as I worked in corporations for the last 20 years and have enough. Working with people who actually want the help sounds much more satisfying to me.
Let’s continue that discussion if we meet in person at some stage, what do you think?

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