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Test-Driven Career Development

Working on a startup is the new graduate school--you learn a lot, and you hope it will pay off someday.

I've learned a ton from my startup experiences, but I'd like to share one of the most important concepts to which our software engineers recently introduced me. It's called Test-Driven Development - and it contains a kernel of wisdom for anyone seeking to develop their career-related knowledge and skills.

New Approach To Building

Humans have been building things for millennia, and there's been a standard approach:

  • Step 1: Think about what you want.
  • Step 2: Build it.
  • Step 3: See if it works.

Simple, right? And yet it's fairly dumb, because you don't know if 'it' works until you've already put in the time, the energy, and the expense to build it. If it doesn't work, you've wasted all three.

Enter some smart software engineers, who in the last 10 years have popularized a New Approach to Building Stuff, which goes as follows:

  • Step 1: Think about what you want.
  • Step 2: See if it works.
  • Step 3: Build it.

Read closely. They flipped Steps 2 and 3! They don't build stuff that's going to break, because they figure out whether or not it's going to work BEFORE they build it. Smart, right? That's Test-Driven Development. After they've thought about what they want, they first create a test. THEN they build. (More and more software is being developed this way--learn more here.)

Once Again, The Geeks Are Ahead Of Us

The Geeks (in my experience, the best of them don't consider that term pejorative) have hit upon a key insight: When you're building something, the most efficient and effective way to start is by testing it. Think about what you want. Test it. THEN build it.

What's the thing YOU'RE building? Your career. No matter your age, nor your stage, unless you're retired, you are likely building your career. Given that few careers remain stable these days, most of us need to build and rebuild our careers. But if we're building something, how do we know if it's going to work before we've put in the time, energy and expense?

The Geeks have pointed the way: We should first test ourselves.

Start By Testing Yourself

Professional Development, also known as Professional Learning, is a large global industry. Much of it is test-driven, as in the case of licensure exams (like the CFA) or voluntary professional certifications (like the PMP.) But there's much, much more to learn beyond just what's found on existing, formal exams.

Based upon my many years in educational technology and publishing, including companies like Kaplan and The Princeton Review, taking tests drives learning because (1) it makes you aware of what you do and don't currently understand and (2) it focuses your learning on the most important things. Just as in software development, testing your career development in advance can point out areas where YOU don't 'work' as well as you need to--so you can focus your learning and career growth.

Learn from the Geeks: Look for ways to test your career knowledge before you spend much time, energy, and expense on career-builds. Research and perhaps seek out the experts in your field. See if they have, or can recommend, a test for you. Odds are that it will help you build a career that works.

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