The Women in Test Series
Women in Test is a series focused on women in the software testing world, and the ways they advocate for inclusivity and diversity in the discipline. The software industry has traditionally been a homogeneous field, but as we know, times are changing. Leadership and employees alike have begun to recognize the value of diversity, even as they often struggle to practice it. Speaking to an industry undergoing intense change in its makeup, our series participants share their stories, thoughts and advice as advocates for inclusion and diversity in test.
An Interview with Gem Hill
Podcast legend Gem Hill uses “Let’s Talk About Tests, Baby” to chat about software test topics with a variety of influencers, and about the health challenges faced by people in what’s often a high stress environment. If you’ve worked in test, or tech, you likely know how important self-care is in what’s often a high-stakes and decidedly time-crunched world. Gem shines a light on mental hygiene with a non-judgmental, ‘been there’ understanding of how depression, anxiety, and imposter syndrome can affect us at work and beyond.
Gem graduated from university with a degree in biochemistry. From there she went into pharmacy where she found the job appeal lackluster, at best. Her heart was in science, but she found research to be “a slog”. After spending time learning the ropes by working for digital agencies, she landed a dream job as a senior tester in The BBC’s Voice and AI department. Gem’s other dream job, podcasting, gives her the perfect opportunity to create a safe space to talk about mental health issues in the software test world.
I was introduced to Gem via podcast #95 titled “You don’t need client approval, you just need self-approval.” This 2018 talk took on the topic context switching, or the issues that arise when our focus is divided among many projects or clients, with fellow tester James Sheasby Thomas. Gem’s intro blurb for the podcast reads, “Before I moved to the BBC, I worked in a couple of agencies and after talking to a few non-agency testers I realized a lot of people don’t know what it’s like working in an agency.” Having spent half a year doing agency work myself, I realized she was right. Until you’ve worked as a hired gun in an agency you have no idea how the gig economy, where temporary jobs are common, and companies tend toward hiring independent contractors and freelancers instead of full-time employees, impacts life.
QualityLogic: Agency work requires constant focus switching. That must be a challenge. It probably feels like there’s a point of diminishing returns, where it becomes a detriment to all your projects. How did you handle it?
Gem: Gem clarified by saying “I loved my time in agency. It taught me a lot. You’re on so many different projects you can learn a lot in a very short space of time.” “But,” she said, “I think there is a detriment in that you can’t absorb some of those things properly. They’re gone the minute you’re doing something else.”
Her advice? Get serious about structuring your time! Gem told me she was lucky that a lot of clients she worked with were still sort of ‘waterfall-y” so she had an idea of what was in the pipeline week by week, or even day by day “in this sometimes-chaotic environment”.
QualityLogic: How do you structure time when you’ve got different clients with different demands?
Gem: Gem told me that no matter what, it’s always going to be hard to juggle the multiple client scenario. But, “With test, knowing I had some sort of space planned for a project gave me calmness in the moment to deal with what was in front of me.” One technique Gem suggested is to split user stories into the smallest chunks possible. Doing this helps because it allows us to schedule smaller chunks of time for each point.
QualityLogic: What’s your overall take on the ‘gig economy’?
Gem: “I worry about how it seems to encourage a race to the bottom” Gem said bluntly. “It’s suddenly ‘how cheap can you do this; how quick can you do this?’ Then, paying employees a decent amount of money and offering decent working conditions just goes out the window chasing those contracts. This leads to terrible projects and the whole cycle of awfulness continues.”
Still, Gem’s take on agency work isn’t all cautionary. “I think it can be done well. I’ve seen agencies do it well, where they consider basic mental health and they encourage physical health instead of just buying people beer and pizza.” Gem’s frankly over the beer-and-pizza paradigm! “Just give me a salad, please!”
QualityLogic: You’ve often talked about mental health in your podcasts. Anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome seem to be common in test.
Gem: “Sure, I love to talk about mental health because everyone has it, but some people don’t think about it. It’s nice to think about mental health before you absolutely have to.” Gem told me that she had been one who ended up ‘having’ to think about her mental health when she reached a point where it was “basically look after myself or lose my job.” She realized depression and anxiety had crept up on her without realizing it. “Depression and anxiety happen. They’re just part of life. Life’s going to give you a kickin’, sometimes, no matter who you are, but it’s important to realize when it’s been going on for too long and you’ve actually slipped into a mental illness.”
Gem believes that raising awareness of mental health issues helps everyone.
“It’s like accessible design. It helps people with disabilities, but it helps everyone else at the same time. The same applies to thinking about mental and physical health in the work environment. It helps everybody.”
QualityLogic: So, how can we recognize ‘the creep’? How can we, as employees, tell when we’ve crossed the line from just having a down day to mental illness?
Gem: Gem suggests we monitor creep by assessing the different levels of self-care we practice. “So, you’ve got your basic stuff, showering, brushing your teeth, making sure you’re eating properly and drinking something besides coffee, Red Bull, and alcohol. Just making yourself suitable for public consumption. Then you have the house that you live in, which is the next level up, because now you’ve got to look after something that isn’t you. So, you’ve got to hoover and wash the bed sheets. Then, you’ve got doing things that you enjoy.”
Gem said that when we find ourselves not having the energy to do the things we enjoy it’s time to start thinking about what’s going on in our lives.
“You might just be going through a bad time, but maybe keep an eye on that.” The real warning sign is “If you don’t want to do housework, and not because it’s the most boring thing in the world, but because you cannot gather the energy to care that you haven’t hoovered the carpet in a month and there’s hair everywhere, that’s when I’d start to be worried.”
Gem’s premise is this, that tracking how much effort we can put into self-care and the care of our surroundings, translates directly to our mental state. Monitoring when we don’t have the energy for fun stuff, or tidying the house gives us the opportunity to reach out for support and course correct before rock-bottom happens.
QualityLogic: What can employers do to raise awareness of mental health?
Gem: “The BBC offers a program called “Mental Health First Aid” training.” This is a training program to help employees support employees in crisis. “The idea is teaching employees how to spot danger signs and how to respond to someone if they need help.” Employees who’ve taken this training wear different colored lanyards so that people who are feeling anxious or depressed can identify graduates of the program as a safe person to seek help from.
“We can look around and see the lanyards and know that person knows what I’m going through. When mental health issues aren’t stigmatized it’s much easier to ask, “Can we have a chat?”
In Gem Hill’s 2017 TestBash Manchester talk she says, “marking yourself as someone that is safe to talk to…and engaging with those that look like they are having a bad day” can be a huge lifesaver.
At any given time 1 in 5 people are dealing with a mental health issue. Even if you don’t have a mental health issue, someone around you likely does. You can be a mental health ally by educating yourself about the issues and regularly checking in on the people you work with. Simply asking someone about their day may be what that person needs to feel seen and valued.
Note: If you feel like you don’t have anyone at work to talk to there is an awesome Slack channel you can join. It’s a place where you can check in and chat with people all over the globe who may be experiencing the same things you are.