Stake holders wanting to see the green? (checkmarks that is)

Michael Bolton made an interesting post a month ago titled Gaming the Tests where he explores a situation where we are asked to provide incomplete or inaccurate information.  I would suggest reading the scenario he creates about this topic as this post will be talking about a possible approach to handling that situation.

Jason Strobush commented via Twitter about my previous post creating a situation similar to what Michael talks about in his post:

@WadeWachs Ah, but what if it is MANAGEMENT that likes to see the pretty, green, meaningless checkmarks?

Fast-forward two weeks to this morning as I was making my way through the daily RSS feeds where I came across the following quote:

Trying to be a first-rate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach’s ‘St. Matthew’s Passion’ on a ukulele.

That quote is referred to as Bagdikian’s Observation.  Ben Bagdikian is a professor of investigative journalism, author, former Editor, and expert in his field.  In reading a bit about Bagdikian, I have been thinking that the role of investigative reporter is very similar to that of being a tester.  An investigative reporter digs into society to find the defects that will cause harm to the general public.  A definition from Hugo de Burgh (via Wikipedia) that I particularly like says that, “An investigative journalist is a man or woman whose profession it is to discover the truth and to identify lapses from it in whatever media may be available.”

Is that not the same thing testers do?  We find the differences between the way software is expected to work and the way it actually works.  Those differences are merely ‘lapses in truth’ that need to be identified, which are then reported through our available media, typically a bug report.  Investigative reporter … bug report … tester = reporter … QED.

I digress, the point I want to make here is what do you do if your stake holders are asking for bad information.  What if all they want to see is a page full of meaningless green checkmarks without any real testing going on?

A bad tester would simply produce whatever information management wants, regardless of accuracy.  Test results (if run at all) would be falsified to make management happy.

A mediocre tester would likely run through as many test cases as possible, perhaps even intelligently pick features to test that are known to be working to give management the information they are looking for to help their team look better so the project move forward. (ok, good is a relative term)

A better tester would know which tests are more important than others, and will make informed decisions on what areas of the software are likely to be, and test those early in the testing time, provide feedback to the devs so the problems can be fixed while still providing the magical green checkmarks that management so desperately wants.

Great testers however know better than all of that.  If we want to be first-rate testers, and improve our craft, we need to look for a higher method of dealing with issues like this.  There are lots of aspects that go into being a great tester, and I won’t go into all of those right now, but for the interest of this post I will define great testing as identifying the truth about a piece of software, and reporting that truth accurately.

This is where Bagdikian’s Observation applies to us.  We can’t exist as first-rate testers in situations where great testing is not expected or possible.  The most intelligent tester will never have the ability to shine when only allowed to produce meaningless information to management that doesn’t care.  Bagdikian, in an interview with PBS, talking about similar compromising positions that journalists get stuck in made this comment, “I know a lot of journalists, I’ve taught them for a while … what happens to some of the best people … is that when things like that happen, they in effect say I don’t want to be in this business anymore, and they leave.”  Leaving the field is not the only option, but how many great testers are we losing to bad situations.

I would like to explore two other options of what great testers can do in situations like this.  The first, is to change management’s perception of what testers do.  The way this happens is through open, honest communication.  Don’t be afraid of management.  Don’t beat around the bush.  Don’t tell management one thing then do another.  Work with them in defining a reasonable set of expectations on what testing can do, then (if you come to a consensus) do it.  If you have to do some patching of bad promises made in the past (be it by yourself or someone else) then start now, move forward, and make progress in the right direction.  I don’t care how powerless you feel, or where you fit in the corporate structure, if you want to be a great tester, then create an environment where you can do so.

In my current company, I started in the call center, the bottom of the company.  After a couple open and honest conversations with our CEO, and a year of working my tail off, I was sitting in weekly meetings with department heads defining the direction of the company.  I often felt like a fish out of water, I was a grunt worker coming up out of the trenches to sit and talk about specifics of the company with the men that ran the company.  I held my own however, voiced my opinions, gained the confidence of those around me, and within a few months I too became a department head.  I now manage our QA department.  There is more to the story, but a lot of that has to do with not being afraid to talk to management and being able to have that open and honest communication with them.  You can create change for the better.

Now, I don’t know the political climate of every organization out there.  I’m sure there are some people that get stuck in situations that they truly can’t change.  In these situations you have the option to settle at one of the levels mentioned previously, or you can go find a location where you can be truly great.  That may mean leaving your current company and finding a place where you can grow and find your own greatness.  James Bach throws around a couple numbers related to this topic.  90% of the testing positions out there may be suited for mediocre testers, places where potential is stifled and there is no room for greatness.  That still leaves 10% of all the testing positions where great testers can truly move forward, better the craft, and better themselves.  James is happy working in that 10%, and I am confident that there is plenty of room for more great testers in that job market.

If you want to be great, then don’t settle for a mediocre position.  Push yourself, build your name and reputation, and refuse to compromise your integrity.  I don’t know the whole situation around Ben Simo’s recent employment situation, but from what I have read on Twitter, it sounds like he was a great tester stuck in a mediocre position.  In a tweet a couple weeks ago Ben commented that the decision to leave his previous employer was one of the best he has ever made.

Now in case my boss is reading this, I am very happy in my current position and I know I have plenty of room to reach towards greatness.  But what about your current position?

One Response to this post.

  1. Posted by Michael Bolton on 02.11.10 at 11:34 pm

    Thought you might be interested:

    Wade’s Reply – Notice this recording of St. Matthews Passion has over 661,000 views compared to your ukulele’s 33,000. So yes, you can use a ukulele to do amazing things when compared to other ukuleles, but still pale in comparison to true greatness.

    The question is do you want to be a great tester stuck playing your ukulele in an empty coffee shop, or do you want to be the soloist backed by an entire orchestra and choir signing to a sold out audience?


    —Michael B.