sunnuntai 2. lokakuuta 2016

Mixed thoughts about context and diversity

This is a strange post in many ways. First of all I usually blog in Finnish because I feel the English speaking testing blogosphere is quite well populated without me unlike the Finnish one, and that's why my intention is to stick with Finnish. Only this time it's not an option because my thoughts are related to a conversation conducted in English. Secondly, my goal in this blog has been to mainly stick with subjects that are quite concretely related to work and this time I'm definitely not doing that. Third, this is a subject that is actually none of my business, I'm just having difficulties keeping my mouth shut. It's about the slide incident, which I did not witness as it happened, I've just been reading about in twitter and in many blog posts, the most relevant ones being from the people who are the actual parties of the incident, Maaret Pyhäjärvi and James Bach.

I'm one of those nice people who like to try to see good in other people even when they behave badly. So I'm not going to speculate on anyones intentions on this issue. I really don't know about that, I'm just under impression that the interpretation of the slide may have been influenced by older incidents. That's what we humans do, we interpret other peoples intentions by how they make us feel and how we see their behavior in respect to our current view of the world and our impression of the person who we are observing. (If you are interested to read more about these phenomena, google Correspondent inference theory.) And this affects on both sides of the incident.

All I'm saying about what happened is that in my opinion the slide would have been ok if it had been given another title not mentioning Maaret. The contents of the slide may tell a lot about the presenter himself and with that title it also gives impressions about his views on Maaret as a person. But even after reading James' explanation on it I find it really hard to see how it tells anything about Maaret, who explains the misinterpretations in her most recent blog post about the incident.

So what makes me curious is how come it is possible to make such big misinterpretations about another persons point of view.

I can't help but to take a rather feminist approach on the subject. There are three clear aspects in the incident that bring to mind the concept of priviledge.

I understand that this is an approach that easily raises difficult emotions so I start by a disclaimer that I fully understand that there may be aspects by which the situation is quite the opposite or by which the situation can be viewed as an argument between two equals. But I find these three aspects quite crucial when considering how the testing community is shaping it self. Who will feel priviledged to be included and who will feel safe to contribute. So these thoughts go beyond Maaret and James and the slide. They are questions to the community on what should be the role of diversity in the future of testing.

The gender talk

When a woman is accused by a man of avoiding debate and valuing niceness over facing facts we are pretty much in the heart of gender stereotypes. It could be that the accuser makes his interpretations through lenses of gender stereotypes, or it is possible that he fails to see how the world works differently for a woman than for a man.

When it comes to how you can build your role in a work environment, the gender issue can actually make a huge deal on how you can get your ideas through. Men may need to have a role of a strong and fearless leader to be taken seriously when raising surprising issues. But a woman is expected to treat people nicely and support men. We are supposed to let men take the leaders role, and when we feel that they are leading us in wrong direction, we are not supposed to speak out about that but rather feed hints to let them realize the situation and make right conclusions themselves. A woman talking like a man is pretty easily stigmatized as a bitch and after that it becomes difficult to get any type of interaction to proceed like things should proceed between adults.

Of course there are huge differences between people and workplaces, most people I've had the pleasure to work with have treated me more as a person (or as a tester) than as a woman, but when facing a new team you always have to be aware that there may be someone who has issues with getting feedback from a woman.

So when we talk about building a testers role as a person who gives feedback that should lead to someone changing the code or changing specifications or expectations or anything, we need to have views from both genders.

But I don't see a reason to highlight that difference. Taking how much we talk about being context driven, it should be obvious that when listening to conference talks we all choose the advice that suit us best. And the more diverse the presented views are, the more chances that everyone will find something useful.

The culture talk

In twitter the conversation has been quite much about whether nice and authentic are contradictory or not. This brings us to the culture talk.

We Finns are raised to value honesty and straight talk. Traditionally we don't do small talk and we don't say polite things unless we really mean them. Finnish writer Jari Tervo has compared us to autistic people, arguing that many things that are related to the spectrum of autism are pretty normal for us Finns.

A story tells about a Finnish manager who delivered a speech in Italy about the situation of their company. Understanding that the Italian employees were not used to such straight words about negative issues he ended his speech saying "I know this didn't sound nice but at least I was being honest." The Italians found this hilarious.

The social rules are very culture specific, and when a Finn talks about growing to being a kinder person towards others, you should interpret it from a perspective that it's a Finn speaking. Naturally you have to know some Finnish people to be aware of this. It is understandable that an American does not know about the peculiarities of the Finnish culture, after all we are an extremely small minority in the global perspective.

But when interpreting another persons intentions it would be good to understand that their cultural context may be very different and that affects on their views. The point where they started their journey was different, and therefore even if their direction is different than yours they may actually be coming closer to you. And if they are actually diverted away from you it may be because that's the only reasonable direction in their culture. A tester from India probably sees niceness quite differently than Finns or Americans.

So I would claim that some important aspects of a testers role are culture specific. Though we all have some idea about American culture we don't all live in it. If conferences are supposed to serve the needs of all testers, there should also be cultural diversity. This is not nourished by emphasizing the interpreted defectiveness of another persons views but concentrating in sharing what are the key points in each speakers own perspective.

The language talk

One more aspect is our mutual language. The most commonly spoken language in the world is probably bad English, as most of us speak some other language as our native tongues.

Language gives us the building blocks of thinking. It forms how we experience emotions, what phonems we are able to distinguish and how we comprehend the world around us. When you switch to another language, you also need to switch to another way of categorizing things. There are surprisingly few words for which the translation is not context specific, which is quite well demonstrated in the nine meanings of "kuusi palaa".

The fact that not all of us are communicating in our native languages emphasizes the importance of explaining our most essential words. It is important to be specific and to discuss the differences of concepts. But it also makes it important to understand that a careless choice of words does not always mean that the other person is deliberately choosing the meaning that comes to your mind. With Maaret this is not a big issue as she speaks and writes very fluently in English, but nevertheless she does not have the priviledge to express herself on her native tongue. How she is treated affects on other peoples willingness to open their mouths.

If we want to support diversity, we need to be able to do the refinement of words in a kind manner. Picking on a person for single words is one way to make sure that the pool of people sharing their thoughts publicly does not get new members easily.

So where are we heading?

To me one of the most fascinating things about testing is diversity. There are so many contexts to which to apply the empirical approach of a tester. So many ways of working and so many ways to position oneself in respect to other roles. So much to learn and so many views to take to sharpen ones mind. And even though the software industry is very male dominant, in testing we have many women both doing the silent work and leading the way.

One of the most revolutional ideas of the industry has been stating that there are no best practices. Another mind blower for me has been "QA stands for Question Asker" which I learned at a Janet Gregory workshop last year. We are working on a craft where discipline and systematic thinking meet curiosity, creativity and intuition.

So the question is, is the testing community willing to live up to these ideas? To accept that what's best for me may not work for you but we can still learn from one another. To question rather than suppress. To convince by sharing ones best, not by judging what feels difficult to understand. To cherrish diversity instead of letting only the priviledged speak for the industry.

And if it is, are there actions to be taken to achieve this?

4 kommenttia :

  1. Maaret claims that I misrepresented her views. I claim that I did *not* misrepresent her. I claim that she is misrepresenting her own views-- in other words, I'm saying that her statements are contradictory.

    But, I may be wrong about that. As a non-native English speaker she uses phrasing that is not always easy for me to parse. We have to debate it if we want to get to the bottom of it. My slide and my talk was a move in that process. It was a fair and reasonable move. I was not "behaving badly." For our craft to be respectable it cannot be considered "bad behavior" to criticize bad ideas, and that is what I believe I was doing.

    I have a history of being critical. I strongly believe in the culture of peer-criticism. And I have observed that many people take this as some personal cruelty of mine rather than as a professional tool. This makes perfect sense, though. Because anyone who has built their professional life on harmful ideas and gets criticized for it is going is potentially affected in a very personal way by that criticism. I criticize people who are doing the equivalent of selling counterfeit cancer treatments. Of COURSE they are offended by that. What else can they do? Admit they are frauds?

    I don't think Maaret is one of those frauds, but I think she wants me to stop going after bad ideas in the way I do. That will have the effect of protecting the frauds from reproach, when what we need is a lot more people who do what I do.

    1. Thank you for responding! It's true that sometimes we need an outsiders view to see where we are standing and where we are heading. But I believe (like Maaret said) that a person needs to feel safe to be able to learn. Maybe it was due to hurry in creating the slide, but the way it is, it is more likely to get a defensive reaction from the person it's referring to than to open her eyes.

      But that's not all. When I'm saying that you misinterpreted her I don't rely on her views only. I don't know her well enough to state strongly about what she is, but for what I've observed and what I've heard from people who know her better it's like you are talking about another person. Of course we have different data behind our opinions and we probably see the world differently in many other ways too, but as I share with Maaret these three features I blogged about I feel quite confident to say that your view is no more accurate than mine.

      I genuinely appreciate your thoughts about testing and your work on redefining a testers role. I see a relevant point in that slide as well, I just think that it doesn't describe differences between you and Maaret.

  2. A well written blog about diversity. Taking the time to understand where a person is coming from (their context), makes a big difference. That is what congruence is about - Self, other and context (Satir).

    1. Thank you! And this is a subject where we all have learning to do.