My brother, the Tester

Sometimes when James and I do a talk together, he introduces us this way:

“I’m James and this is my brother Jon. You can tell us apart because I’m the one with hair and Jon is the one who has the capacity to love…”

It’s usually a laugh line, and we like that. It sets the tone of him as Scrutinizer and me as Facilitator. It tells the audience we’ve done this before, we are aware of each other’s reputations, and we want you to be aware, too.

James introduces us this way because he knows that my reputation over 21 years in testing is one of being a “nice guy”. He knows it’s helped me thrive in everyday work environments that would drive him insane. For that, I have his respect.

He knows my brand was founded on helping people cope with imperfect testing techniques, rhetoric, and doctrine. His brand was built on exposing the dangers of those and starting crusades that promoted critical thinking and craftsmanship to fight them.

James may come across to “nice” people like me as being mean because we might think it rude for someone to put our beliefs and assumptions in the spotlight, because we do not. They might think conferences are for gentle, quiet learning, like going to a mall on a quiet Monday morning and doing some window shopping.

To others like James, conferences are an arena where ideas (and people) are examined to either forge them in fire or burn them to ash as frauds.

I think it can be both, but notice that the element of heat or fire is key in both analogies. Heat or fire means examination in public view. Some will take the opportunity to let that fire forge them.  For others, the fire burns and leaves scars.

I am a quiet guy, but I do see the danger in the more “quieter” conferences where speakers simply parrot doctrine to those who are desperate for simple solutions. And why not? When a speaker on a stage has an answer to a problem, they feel smart and conferences are a great way to look smart.  When they get scrutinized, they might not look so smart.

But that’s testing.

Testing is not the search for simple solutions (even though it seems that’s where we’re headed these days). Testing is about scrutiny.

That’s who James is. He is a tester.  He tests things by putting them in a spotlight. He tests people, too — their ideas and rationale. For those who take a stage to do this, the heat from this can be especially strong.

I know this because that’s what happens to me around James sometimes.


Actually, it’s not that I feel tested, but that I feel STUPID when I can’t pass the test.

That’s a problem *I* need to solve, not in handling being tested, but FEELING a certain way about it. After all, when I pass tests, I feel pretty good and take the credit, so it’s up to me to handle feeling bad.

There are times I felt stupid in public when I didn’t answer a question to James’ satisfaction, and I always respond professionally in the moment, then take it offline with him later. We talk about what happened, but we also talk about how I felt.  I own where that feeling comes from. That’s the key.

James will be who he is and I have to be who I am, so solving the problem means both of us need to understand what’s going on for each other — how I annoyed or vexed him in that moment and how his vexation triggered ME.

I’ve noticed that once I’ve thought about how I feel and take ownership of that, James immediately turns into a coach. I can also get him to soften by asking for his help in processing how I feel about how he treated me. In these times, he is masterful at helping me NOT feel stupid and focusing on what my strength is, even though he was the one who put me in hot water.

You might think that’s just a brother-to-brother thing, but I’ve seen him do this when he coaches others — men and women, newbies and veterans, people from Sweden and India and China and Israel and Brooklyn.  As much as he questions, he catches people doing something right.  And for those that reach a kind of excellence he can respect, they actually become part of his “team” — his army of colleagues to fight malaise and shallowness in our practice.

He is a teacher like Yoda or Professor Kingsfield (opening clip from “The Paper Chase”) — who in their scrutiny might be downright rude because of the way we feel about it.

When James was my boss in 2000, I often would feel bad for not being good enough. There were many dimensions to his scrutiny because it was his consulting business I was a part of, and many details were important to get right. What we sold was our reputation for excellent testing.

But as much pressure as I felt, James would also find ways to make me better (with my permission), sending me to conferences like STAR West to practice being clear and focused and confident in my slides and narrative as I practice presenting ideas. That same year, I went to Weinberg’s 3-day Problem Solving Leadership seminar where I found other people like me and learned about work by Virginia Satir — work James had studied, too, which made him better in empathy and conflict and in knowing himself.

I read his blog 3 times carefully and I think James is demonstrating what Satir would call “congruence”:

The Congruent Survival Stance

“The ultimate goal of the Satir growth model is congruence. Satir held that high self-worth, self-esteem and congruence are the main “indicators of more fully functioning human beings.” The congruent person holds equal balance in terms of self, others, and context. “When we decide to respond congruently, it is not because we want to win, to control another person or a situation, to defend ourselves, or to ignore other people. Choosing congruence means choosing to be ourselves, to relate and contact others, and to connect with people directly.”

Congruence doesn’t mean being nice, it means being true-to-self, seeing others in the arena of conflict, and considering context and behavior.

Long ago, James gave me something useful when I got annoyed at people: “What are 3 ways this person’s irritating behavior may be entirely rational?”

That line of thinking is something that a Donald Trump does NOT do.

For example, I see from James’ recent blog that he did not show any of the 4 dysfunctional archetypes like Blaming, Placating, Irrelevant, or Super-reasonable and was balancing himself, others, and the context of a situation that unfolded with Maaret.

His work lately has been helping testers reinvent themselves in a belief about Testing that is increasingly written off as DevOps or CICD or “Shift Left” — simple requirements-checking sold as “excellence” or “velocity” or “business value”.

This work started when he and I were talking about my roles at eBay and how I’m not in a defined testing role anymore. He helped me see that I naturally moved into areas tangential to testing or with aspects of testing like analysis, reporting, risk awareness, and problem management. He helped me not be ashamed of this, and see that each of my roles had important testing aspects I could coach others to do (or be aware of).

We started that work together, last year, showing others the value of their work in testing despite the shifting landscape in their organizations that treated testing as a checkbox any programmer could tick. Some on Twitter have compared James to Trump, and I can understand that because James is polarizing. He knows that, too.

But I don’t think Trump can see any merit in any other perspective but his, and his followers have strong emotions that tie them to him. (Trump’s opponents have strong emotion, too, which make them repel.)

People who know MY body of work in testing also know I am no stranger to debate. In years past, I have called out people by name, and used their names on slides, with their quotes, without their permission, to show everyone why I was stirred to action.

In a keynote years ago, I surgically deconstructed quotes from James Whitaker, who had written about how testing was dead. I didn’t merely disagree, I wanted to find those in the audience who needed to see what he said and learn how I felt about it. I got cheers from the audience, and it set a strong thread in other talks at that conference… “In Jon’s keynote yesterday, you heard… ”  That’s what a good keynote should do.

I was proud of that and I still am.

I find it ironic that some who are chastising him for using Maaret’s name without her permission (as I just did there) are invoking his name without his permission, in a public space.  Instead of flaming you for that (another fire analogy), I understand it. You have strong emotion about what he did. That you don’t find this ironic as I do is ok. I see how you might be triggered from it because it’s something in your programming. It’s not a bug, it just IS. But that’s not James’ problem. He’s just the Tester.  You’re the Tested. And just like on a software project, what the Stakeholders do with the information testers give them is up to them.

We can complain they’re not as conscious of the risks of ignoring bugs, but that just means we have an opportunity to do a better job on showing them what we’re really afraid of.

I urge you to do that here.

I learned from somewhere long ago that all Anger is Fear, and all Fear is Fear of Losing Something.

If you’re provoked or angry at him for using Maaret’s name on stage, what is it he’s taken from you?  Peace in our profession?  The reputation that testers are always nice people? Hope for mankind?

If you feel like responding, it’s probably because it tested you in some way that revealed something important.  Whether that’s good or bad is something interesting we could talk about. The merit of a discussion like that is why I named this blog what it is.

4 Responses to “My brother, the Tester”

  1. John Hunter Says:

    Great thoughts. Thanks for sharing them.

  2. Maaret Pyhäjärvi Says:

    Good thoughts, and well presented, thank you. I wanted to add a few perspectives though.

    I don’t think people are (including me) are upset about using my name, but using my name to describe my character and misrepresent me. A lot of the first reactions came from people who (unlike James) know me, and felt that the slide misrepresents me. It does not include claims I’ve made dissected, it includes statements of how James sees he is different from me. And quite frankly, I find many of them quite insulting.

    In his blog post, on the other hand, the continues the theme. He misquotes my slides from my presentation (not what I said, the text – the slides were already available for fact checking during conference and in particular when the article was written).

    With great power comes the responsibility. I find that James isn’t, in this particular case acting very responsibly, instead he chooses to continue to misrepresent me and not publish my response in his blog.

    I love how you talk about congruence and being true to your values, and I agree that is what James is doing. He says things as he sees them, and I value that. I’m not against that. I’m against forcing people into ‘debates’ with fishy tactics. I’m against intimidating people and not realizing that while some find it clear, others find it so scary that we lose relevant voices in the community. A lot of the voices I recognize as lost are women’s, and I find we’re in a place where we need to stop accepting losing those voices. It’s reasonable to expect a change.

    You mention the dysfunctional archetypes. I read his post very differently, He starts with blaming me for copyright infringement stating that while it’s a fact he’s not using that against me – he just did stating that. He corrected it after I quoted a piece of US copyright law and I find it interesting that I needed to do that. Similarly, he blames me for posting the slide. I would never had the chance of posting unless the slide was there in the first place. I find this is often the stance in James I’m witnessing.

    When James ‘tests’ you, he does so knowing you. He does not know me. He has not studied my writings apart from some tweets. He has boxed me, unjustifiably, as ‘not a tester’.

    I also find his actions in this particular case are not congruent of the message he portrays of himself as The Tester. He did not test the characterizations he made of me, he did not fact check his evidence. He lost focus on evidence for emotions around thinking I’m attacking our craft.

    I find, unlike James, that we break through our different beliefs and paradigms through being kind and working with real tasks with one another. Inflicting cognitive dissonance (doing and enjoying things people thought are worthless, like exploratory testing) is far more powerful than a debate.

  3. Perze Ababa Says:

    Thank you, Jon. I for one feel stupid and intimidated around James from time to time but that doesn’t remove that fact that he has helped me become better at what I do. James has challenged me to read more, research and ground myself on sound testing principles and continuously improve my skill as a tester and as a manager of testers.

    I am grateful to James.

  4. Eeva Pursula Says:

    Thank you for the post, interesting and relevant thoughts about the subject! In case you are interested, here’s one view of the incident: I believe that the thinking behind “testing Maaret” needs some challenging, as to what is the system under test.

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