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Finding Your Own Integrity (James Bach’s Blog)

On December 24, 2013, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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I have a belief that I’m not going to justify– I’m simply going to say it and challenge you to look into your own experience and your own heart and see the truth of it for yourself: Your sense of identity, as a human among humans, is the most powerful force that animates and directs your choices. It is more important than sex or food or religion. It lurks behind every neurosis (including those involving sex or food or religion). As I read history and experience life, answers to the questions “Who am I? Am I a good example of what I should be?” are the prime movers of human choice throughout all of history, and the proximal cause of every war.

There are certainly exceptions to this rule: drug addiction, mental illness, or panic over a sudden, surprising, physical threat. Maybe those things have little to do with identity. Granted. I’m talking about normal daily life (and every Shakespeare play).

“I am an American. I am a human. I am a father. I am a husband. I am lovable. I am helpful. I am a tester. I am a skeptic. I am an outsider. I am dangerous. I am safe. I am honorable. I am fallible. I am truthful. I am intellectual…”  Each of these statements, for me, are reflective shards that tumble in a kaleidoscope of my identity. The models of personhood they represent comprise my moral compass. Although the pattern formed in that kaleidoscope may seem to shift with the situation, the underlying logic of my adult identity changes little with time.

That is the context for integrity.

Integrity means wholeness; the harmony and completeness of one’s identity. Practically speaking, a person with integrity is a person to lives consistently according to their avowed moral code, as opposed to someone who has no moral code, or who changes it as a matter of convenience. A person of integrity therefore creates continuity across the events of his life, and other people feel they know who they are dealing with.

The Challenge of Finding Your Integrity

Recently, in a discussion about what is reasonable for an employer to ask of a tester, a colleague felt I was trying to impose my own values onto potential employers of my students and wrote that as teachers of new testers “employment [for the testers] should be our first priority.” I disagreed sharply, writing that “our first priority is integrity.” My correspondent seemed to take offense to that.

Now, the employment-first position might be construed to imply that we should advocate robbing banks, because it is the quickest way to get money, or perhaps we should train prostitutes, because prostitution is an old and reliable industry with lots of job security for the right people. That would be absurd, but it’s also a straw man argument. I am certain no one intends to argue that any job is better than no job. Safety, legality and morality do enter into the equation.

Conversely, the integrity-first position might be cast as requiring a tester to immediately protest or resign in the face of any ethical dilemma or systemic ethical lapse, no matter how seemingly minor. This would turn most testers into insufferable, dour lawyers on their projects. We would get very little done. Who would hire such people?

These extreme positions are not very interesting, except as tools for meditating on what might be reasonable behavior. Therefore, I’d like to describe a less extreme position that I think is more defensible and workable. It goes like this:

1. Integrity is a vital and important matter. We suffer as people and society suffers when we treat it too lightly.

2. As testers and technical people, our integrity is routinely threatened by well-meaning clients and colleagues who want us to portray ourselves and the world to be a certain way, even if that isn’t strictly the truth.

3. If we never think directly about integrity, and simply trust in the innate goodness of ourselves and others, we are definitely taking this matter too lightly.

4. Integrity is not like a vase that shatters easily, and that once shattered is irretrievable. Integrity is more like an ongoing public artwork, exposed to and buffeted by the elements, sometimes damaged but always ultimately repairable (although our reputation may be another matter). Integrity is a work in progress for all of us.

5. Integrity, like education, is both personal and social. Your society judges you. It is reasonable that it does. But it is also reasonable to negotiate limits on that judgment. We spend our lives negotiating those lines, one way or another.

6. Forgiveness, although perhaps difficult and expensive to obtain, should always be available to us. (I test this by occasionally imagining my most “depraved” enemies in testing, and then imagining what they could do that would allow me to forgive them and even collaborate with them.)

7. Although integrity is our highest priority, in general, it is not the only thing that matters. We must apply wisdom and judgment so that the maintenance of integrity does not unreasonably affect our ability to survive. There is no set formula for how to do that.

8. Therefore, our practical priority must be: to learn how to think through and solve problems of survival while maintaining reasonable integrity. This itself is an ongoing project, requiring temperance and self-forgiveness.

9. New testers need to realize that they are not necessarily responsible for the quality of their work. Sometimes you will be asked to do things you don’t understand the value of, even though there may be value. In those situations, it’s okay to be compliant, as long as you are under supervision and someone competent is taking responsibility for what you do. It’s okay to watch and learn and not necessarily to make trouble. (Although, I usually did, even as a newbie.)

10. Experienced testers? Well, much is expected of you. Your clients (your non-tester colleagues and bosses) don’t know how to test, but you are supposed to. You can’t just do what you are told. That would be like letting a drunk friend drive home. Remember, someday your clients may sober up and wonder why you agreed to their stupid plan when you were supposed to be the expert.

Having laid this hopefully reasonable and workable strategy before you… I actually think the dispute between me and my correspondent, above, was not about the importance of integrity or employment at all, but rather about the specifics of the case we were debating. I should tell you what that was: whether it is reasonable for an employer to expect an entry-level tester to “write test cases.”

From a context-driven testing perspective, no practice can be declared unreasonable outside all contexts. But I do know a lot about the typical contexts of testing. I have seen profound waste, all around the industry, due to reckless and thoughtless documenting and counting of things called “test cases.” So, I don’t think that it is reasonable, generally speaking, to require young testers to write test cases. First, because “writing test cases” is what people who don’t know how to test think testers do– so, it’s usually an indicator of incompetent management. Second, because entry-level testers do not have the skills to write test cases in such a way that won’t result in a near complete waste of their client’s time and money. And third, because there are such obviously better things to do, in most cases, including learning about the product and actually testing the product.

Many people disagree with me. But I believe their attitude on this is the single most direct and vital cause of the perpetual infancy and impotency that we see in the testing industry. In other words, it’s not just a disagreement about style, it’s something that I think threatens our integrity as sincere and thoughtful testers. Casual shrugging about test case writing must be stamped out the way transfats are being outlawed in fast food. Yes, that also took years to accomplish.

Speaking of fast food…

Here’s a metaphor that might help: eating at McDonalds.

Eating at McDonalds will not kill you (well, not outright). But what if you were forced to eat at McDonalds for your work? Every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nothing but McDonalds. What if it were obvious to you that eating at McDonalds was not helping you actually succeed in your work? What if instead it was clear to you that such a diet was harming your ability to get your work done? For instance, perhaps you are a restaurant reviewer, except you are almost always full of McDonalds food so you can’t ever enjoy a proper meal at a restaurant you are supposed to review? And yet your manager, who knows nothing about restaurant reviewing, insists that you maintain a McDonalds-dominated dietary regimen.

Couldn’t someone say, hey, it’s a job and you should do what you are told? Yes, they could say that. And it might be true enough at first. But over time, that diet would hurt you; over time, you would have to cope with how poorly you were doing what you believed to be your real job. You might even be criticized for missing bugs– I mean– failing to review restaurants fully, even though it’s largely due to your employer’s own unreasonable process prescriptions.

At some point you might say “enough!!” You might refuse to eat another Big Mac. From the point of view of your management and colleagues, it might look like you were risking your job just because you didn’t want to eat a hamburger. It might look crazy to them. But from your point of view, the issue isn’t the one burger, but rather the unhealthy system, slowly killing you. This breakdown comes more quickly if you happen to have a gluten allergy.

Ethics and integrity in testing is not just about following prissy little rules that many other people flout– it’s about not making yourself sick even if other people are willing to live a sickly life. This requires that you be able to judge what health and sickness means to you. Integrity is about identity health.

A Story of Quitting Even Though I Needed the Work

In 1998, I was hired by a consulting company outside of Washington D.C. I negotiated for a $30,000 sign-on bonus, and bought a house in Virginia. I was the sole breadwinner in my family, with a wife and son to support. I bought a new car, too. In short, I was “all in.”

Six months later, I quit. I had no other job to go to. I had bills due. It took me seven years to pay back my sign-on bonus, with interest (I forfeited it because I did not stay for two years). But with the help of colleagues and family over the following weeks, I made the transition to running my own business. I am most thankful for my wife’s response when I came home that night and told her I walked out on our only source of income. She shrugged and said it was surely for the best, and that something good would come of it. (I can only recommend, gentlemen, that you marry an optimist if you can.) I am also thankful to Cem Kaner, who bought me a laptop (my only computer was then owned by my employer) and said “times like these are when you discover who your true friends are.” This was fitting because it was partly because of Cem that I had previously decided never to sacrifice my professional integrity.

This illustrates one lesson about ethics: community support helps us find and maintain our integrity.

I quit because my company was insisting that I bill hours on a project that, in my opinion, was absolutely certain not to benefit from my work. The client wanted me to create fake test cases. They didn’t call them fake test cases, of course. They claimed to want real test cases; and good ones. But no product had been designed at that time! All I had access to was a general description of requirements, which in this case were literally statements of problems the product was intended to solve, with no information on how they would be solved. It was a safety-critical factory process control system, and no one could show me what it would look like or provide any examples of what specifically it might do. The only test cases I could possibly design would therefore be vague and imaginary, based on layers of soft, fluffy assumptions. The customer told me they would be happy if I delivered a document that consisted of the text of each requirement preceded by the phrase “verify that…” I told them they didn’t need a tester for that. They needed a macro.

The integrity picture was clouded, in that case, because the client believed they had to follow the “V-Model” process, which they had interpreted as demanding that I submit a test case specification document. It was a clash between the integrity of a heuristic (the V-Model) vs. the integrity of solving the problem for which the heuristic was designed. My client might have said that I was the one violating the integrity of the process. Whereas I would have said that my client was not competent to make that judgment.

I’m not saying I won’t do bad work… I’m just saying I won’t do bad work for money. If I do bad work, I want it to be for fun or for learning, but not to anyone’s expense or detriment. Hence a line I use once in a while “I could do that for you, except that you pay me too much.” This is one reason I like being independent. I control what I bill for, and if I think a portion of my work is not acceptable, I don’t charge for it– like a chef who refuses to serve an overcooked steak.

It wasn’t as sudden as it looked…

I didn’t just lose my temper at the first sign of trouble. Things had been coming to a boil for a while. On my very first day I reviewed the RFP for that project and concluded it was doomed, but management bid on it anyway, telling me I needed to “be practical” and that surely “we could be helpful to them if they hired us.” I needed the job, so I relented against my better judgment.

During my first staff meeting, my first week on the job, I challenged the consulting staff about what they did to study testing on their own time. My challenge was met with an awkward silence, after which one of the consultants, sounding soul-wounded, told me he was offended that I would suggest that they weren’t already good enough as testers, “These are the best people I’ve ever worked with” said the twenty-something tester with little experience and no public reputation. “But how do you know they are good?” I asked, knowing that our company had just issued a press release about having hired me (a “distinguished industry pioneer” to quote it exactly). There were other murmurs of annoyance around the table, and the manager stepped in to change the subject. I could have pushed the issue, but I didn’t. I needed the job, so I relented against my better judgment.

I was later told that despite my company’s public position, the other consultants felt that I was a mere armchair expert, whereas they were practical men. I don’t know what evidence they had for that. They never showed me what they could do that I supposedly could not. Management tolerated this attitude. That means they were lying directly to their customers about me– claiming I was an expert when clearly they did not believe I was one. I could have insisted they behave in accordance with their public statements about me. But… I needed the job, so I relented against my better judgment.

I knew the day had come when I must quit because I found myself fantasizing about throwing chairs through windows. That triggered a sort of circuit-breaker of judgment: change your life now, now, now.

So what happened after that?

I suffered for this decision. First came the panic attack. I felt dizzy and it was hard to breathe for a few hours. This was followed by a few years of patching together a project here and a project there, never more than 8 weeks from completely running out of money and credit. We were twice within a week of filing for bankruptcy in the early days. During that time I walked away from a few more projects. I resigned from a dysfunctional government project, hopefully saving valuable taxpayer dollars by not writing a completely unnecessary Software Configuration Management plan that no one on the team wanted. I got myself fired from a project at Texas Instruments after about 90 minutes, because I told them a few things they didn’t want to hear (but that I felt were both true and important).

It’s not all suffering, of course. I once was fired from a project (along with the rest of the test team) and then was the only one hired back– partly because the client realized that my high standards meant that I billed far fewer hours than other consultants. In other words, saying no and being a troublemaker earned me another 500 hours of work, while the yes-sayers lost their situations. I also got some great gigs, including my very first one as an independent, specifically because I am a rabble-rousing kind of thinker.

These days, I cultivate as many clients as I can, so that I don’t rely too much on any one of them. And I have established a reputation for being honest and blunt that generally prevents the wrong sort of people from trying to hire me. It’s not easy, but it can be done: I have made integrity my top priority.

What about before I was well known?

Well, I’ve always had this attitude. It’s not some luxury to me. It’s fundamental. That’s why I had to leave high school. I’ve never been able to “play the game” at the expense of feeling like a good honest man. Like I said, I suffered for it. I wanted to go try myself at MIT, where my much more pliable best friend from high school eventually graduated. I am born to be an academic, but since I can’t stand the compliance-to-ceremony culture of the academic world, I must be an independent scholar, without access to expensive journals and fantastic libraries.

Before anybody heard of me, I treated getting work like dating: be a slightly exaggerated version of myself so that I will be rejected quickly if the relationship is not a fit (a stress testing strategy, you might say). My big break came at Apple, where I worked for a man of vision and good humor who seemed to relish being the mentor I needed. The environment was open and supportive. There was an element of luck in that my first ten years in testing I worked for people who didn’t ask me to tell lies or do bad work on purpose.

So I know it’s possible to find such people. They are out there. You don’t have to work for bozos, and if you currently do, there is yet hope.

A person who does not live true to himself feels sick and weak inside. My identity as “excellent software tester” demands that I take my craft seriously. I hope you will take this craft seriously, too.

P.S. What if my sense of identity doesn’t require me to be good at my job?

Then, technically, none of this applies to you. Your ethical code can include doing bad work. But… why are you reading my blog? How did you get in? Guards! Seize him!

 

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