Archive for December, 2009

To India, an apology

December 17, 2009

I’m back.

At the behest of a colleague named Lanette Creamer (a fantastic blogger worth following), I just went ahead and decided to just get busy, just get over myself, and just post an entry. 

A few things went through my mind as to what to say after such a lapse, but the ideas seemed shallow — pet peeves, annoyances, ramblings, diary stuff.  Nothing worthy.

Then I thought of Lanette’s reliable, refreshing honesty and openness in her blog, and the idea came out of nowhere. 

An apology. 

To testers in India.

And here’s why…

For years, I put you in a box and closed the lid.  I labeled it “Indian Testers” and shelved it, thinking I knew everything I needed to know about you.  It was easy to do this.  For years when I worked for a local (Seattle) test lab, you were a competitor. I believed what others said about you because it made it easier to believe that the lab could compete with your testing companies despite being lower cost.  Even though I left the lab last year for a bigger company with more challenges for me, I found out a few months later that you were replacing me and most of my staff, taking jobs away from my country when we most needed them.

Nevermind that it was not your fault, nor that the few Indian testers I had worked with in my 15 years of testing were pretty good.  I dismissed that as an anomaly.  Besides, those testers lived and worked in the United States.  I considered them “American”, and let that other folklore rule my perceptions about testers who still lived in India. 

Folklore said you had no passion or skill or curiosity or personality.  Everywhere I went, people agreed.  They said you were too compliant. You appeared to do only what you were told, and you always seemed to agree and understand, nodding your head and saying “yes, certainly sir.”  You only wanted the software to work (not to fail) and your shallow tests only confirmed that.

So like the others, I tended to see you as commodities and machines.  You were only good for running easy conformance tests that required no skill — good for tests that no one else wanted to do. I would see short, strange emails from you that said “Kindly send me a sample test plan for the testing, please.”

This was more evidence for me that Indian testers didn’t think outside the box or have much imagination. They were not critical thinkers. They stuck to the test procedure, even if it was badly written. They wrote bad procedures themselves. They didn’t ask questions. They didn’t take initiative. They said yes to everything and rarely lived up to promises. While very polite, they had the “no problem” syndrome. They did not push back when something was difficult, or impossible.

In May when I last wrote a blog in this space, the company I worked for announced layoffs and told us that we had to train our replacements for the next few months.  In that time, the new Indian staff would have to be as good as we were even though most of my staff had many years of experience with the product. 

As a trainer, manager, and coach, I had fun teaching technical skill and product domain knowledge. But what I CAN’T train is curiosity.  I cannot train someone to have a hunger to learn and discover and explore.  Either they have it or they don’t. After all, remember that the folklore told me that companies who went to India to outsource their testing were coming back because of the poor quality. The trend even had a name — “backshoring.”

When I was told about the layoff and told I had a few months to train my 3 teams before our exit from the company, I knew the transition was not going to go well.  The Indian replacements would surely fail, and my career would go down with them, I was sure.  It was not a good time to be a test manager. There had to be a way, but I couldn’t think of anything.  Maybe by being a son-of-a-bitch boss, I could take these Indian folks and scare them into being good testers.  It was against my nature to do that, but I had no choice.  I didn’t know how else I could turn people who didn’t want to learn into those that did.

A month after the layoff announcement, I was right.  The transition classes for one of my teams’ projects had started, and the Indian testers were mechanical and uninspired.  They asked few if any questions despite the product being complicated. When asked if they had questions, they said no. It was going badly, right on schedule, just as I had predicted, just as the folklore said it would.

Just before the transition classes were about to start for another of my project teams (the biggest and most complicated), I learned about a class available for whoever on the team wanted to go.  It was called “Doing Business in India”, taught by an outside firm.  I was too depressed and burned out from training the previous day to do any real work, anyway, so I figured I go to the class and have an onsite “vacation day.”  The class would surely be full of boring, useless platitudes – a great place to escape for awhile. It was a free day away from the rigors of transition of our work to India, at a time when my great staff would soon be out of a job.

I felt like a problem child in that class.  I sat in the back row and defied the guy to teach me anything. This wasn’t like me at all, but on this subject, I thought I knew what I needed to know about Indian testers. 

But he did a strange thing.  He did not talk about platitudes.  He explained that he had been a cultural anthropologist, having lived and worked in India for 25 years.  He talked about why the generalities and perceptions of Indians were so pervasive. He validated my perceptions, talked about their history and why they seemed to be so complicit.

I went up to him at a break and told him more about my perceptions (listed above).  I eventually said “Listen, I just want one thing from this class: tell me the key to unlock their souls.”  I smiled when I said it, but he seemed to know that I wanted his help to break through the veneer of their politeness and complicity to expose if they had real personalities and talent like the few “American-Indian” testers I had worked with.

I was being glib, but he answered me plainly.

 “Such a key does exist, Jon,” he said with a serious look.  Then he looked away. “I’ll mention that when we reconvene.”

And true to his promise, when class reconvened, he said: “If American-cultured testers are 80% business and 20% personal, flip it when working with Indian testers.  Focus a LOT more on the personal than you ever thought you could stand. You’ll get the productivity you want.”

He was talking right to me.  He almost dared me to try it. 

So in defiance, I did.

When transition started for that bigger, more complex product – ushering in a new group of Indian testers — I took them team to lunch.  It was July 3, the day before Independence Day. I asked them about Indian independence. The talk quickly turned to ideas of freedom and culture and … well, marriage. After all, weren’t all marriages arranged over there? How could that be freedom?

Even though one of them was from an arranged marriage, another was from what they called a “love” marriage. That surprised me. I asked each of them to tell me more about that.  The one in the arranged marriage said “You grow to love them.” Being married for 10 years, I had to admit that I understood that.  There are things about my wife that I have grown to love over the years, even though it did not start out that way.

He later said that his wife was joining him the next day, and what he said next surprised me. 

“From what you said about your Independence Day in the United States, when my wife arrives tomorrow, it will not be Independence Day for me.”

I didn’t understand at first, but then he smiled.  Ah, a joke! 

As a married man, I got it.  And right there, I had my first success.  I saw a personality under the veneer, and I liked him right away.

The next day I went to my other team, the one I was not having much success with.  I decided I would start over.  I gave one of them a task.  I agreed to learn something I thought he might be interested in – cricket – in return for him learning our product – a database for attorneys and other legal professionals to store and review legal documents.  I made him a deal: build me a database (using our product) of documents about cricket.  He learns the product, I learn about cricket – same database. He said yes and that it was a fine idea and smiled. 

I asked the other tester to do the same.  He reacted flatly.  Then I caught myself. 

Ummm, maybe not ALL Indian testers like cricket…! 

So I asked him. “That is, if you’re interested in cricket.”

He said he was not, but that he would do it anyway. As I walked away with the first guy (the one who complied), I said “I guess I blew it there.  I should not assume everyone likes cricket.” 

“Oh no,” he replied. “Anir loves cricket.  He was messing with you.”

I couldn’t believe it.  That little event was yet another key turned in a lock, showing me promise of a personality and productivity, and it happened in an instant.

That little idea started a chain of other small ideas. 

I had a room full of Indian testers who had just flew in the day before. It was 8:00 am in a new time zone. It was hard for *me* to get up early, much less think about flying across the world the day before.

So I put a 3 ft x 3 ft map of India on the wall so they could each tell me where they were from.  As the pushpins were going in, a magical thing happened.  I realized India was a BIG country. Next to it, I put a map of Washington. Then it dawned on me – most of Washington they would never see. Yakima, Wenatchee, Bellingham, Long Beach, Spokane, Moses Lake, Orcas Island, Mt. St. Helens. Politically, Washington is mostly a “red” state, mostly Republican. The Seattle population, however, skews it so that Washington is almost always considered a “blue” state (Democrat) in national elections.  They wouldn’t know that.

Then I thought of Seattle. There are parts of Seattle that are wealthier than others, that have different value systems.  Capitol Hill tends to be liberal. Beacon Hill is conservative, and they are a mere 3 miles from each other.

It stands to reason then, I thought as I looked at the map, that India must be the same way. Maybe a tester from the south is not the same as a tester from the north. Tamil Nadu in the southeast is conservative.  Coimbatore is less so. Maybe this collection of people and their personalities would come out in different ways, but maybe the key toward getting them to show that to me was the same – make it personal.

The next day in a training class I was hosting for them, I brought up Google Maps and projected it on the wall.  I zoomed in on Coimbatore where they were from and asked each to show me on what street they lived. That way, maybe they’d be less homesick, and I’d learn about their city. No testing got done in that two-hour session.  No training got done. Nothing business, nothing productive, nothing measurable.  But all personal.

What really got done in that session was me getting over myself.  I was building a team, accidentally, on purpose, and I was seeing smiles and jokes, and shyness fading.  The next session when we got into learning the product, the jokes carried forth – not always by me.  I set the tone that it was ok, and they slowly followed suit.  It began to be fun.

At the next session, the walls melted a bit more and we played one of the testing-thinking games me and my brother are famous for.

A week of this, and none of them were machines.  They were people just like me, just like my existing teams that were being replaced. 

I saw them thinking more and more above and beyond my expectations.  They were hungry and wanted to learn more.  While still polite, the veneer dropped despite the jet lag and the homesickness.  They learned on their own, as a team, after business hours.  They took pictures of me with them, shared their family pictures with me, shared the pictures they took when they explored Seattle that past weekend.  They went places (in MY city) that even I hadn’t gone yet.

 We got down to business, but it was personal.  That was the key.  They dove into their feature assignments just like my team did.  They loved exploring, were not shy, talked over each other, even gaggled like kindergarteners eager to show each other as if it was show-and-tell time.  It was amazing, and it was as easy as a key being turned in a lock, just like the instructor said would happen.

And, you know, I suddenly realized that I was the same manager I was with my existing staff. This was me, my style.  This is what I had done with my staff well before the Indians came in to be trained. The only difference was my perception that Indian testers were not as capable as my staff.  For that, I was just plain wrong.

So, India, consider me schooled.  I have some keys now that I didn’t have before and my perception is different.  Like a good tester, I ran a different set of tests on you that revealed new data well beyond the folklore. 

Still, let this be my apology.