Monday, 8 September 2014

The FaceBook Effect

I recently celebrated the birth of my 4th child. Whilst my wife was recovering from the birth I enjoyed the opportunity to take my older children to school and to speak to friends and other parents wanting to pass on their congratulations and wishes. One such day I was chatting with a friend of my wife's and the conversation strayed into an area which she felt particularly passionate about, which also struck a chord with me both in a personal and professional capacity. The friend was telling me that she was so excited to hear news of the birth that she had logged onto Facebook for the first time in months to check my wife's status. She explained that she had previously stopped using Facebook as she felt that it compelled her to present a false image of her life. Whilst I occasionally use Facebook I was inclined to agree with her that there is a lot of pressure on social media to present a very positive image of yourself and your life. Indeed this pressure is such that many people seem more focused on staging personal occasions to take photographs and post details to social media than on actually enjoying the occasion themselves.

But What's this got to do with Testing?

Whatever your position on social media, you're probably wondering why I'm recounting this conversation on a testing post. The reason that the conversation struck a chord with me on a professional level was because I think that there is a similar pressure in professional communities and social media groups, with those associated with Software Testing being particularly prone for reasons I'll go into.

With the advent of professional social media in the last decade, professionals now enjoy far greater interaction with others in their field than ever possible before. In general I think that this is a hugely positive development. It allows us to share opinions and discuss ideas and accelerates the distribution of new methods and techniques through the industry. Social media channels such as Twitter, LinkedIn and discussion forums also provide less experienced members of the community far greater access to experienced individuals with a wealth of knowledge and expertise than ever possible than when I started testing. More importantly social media allows us to be vocal and criticise activities which could damage our profession and find other individuals who share the same concerns. The recent rallying behind James Christie's anti ISO 29119 talk would simply not have been possible without the social media channels that allowed like minded individuals to find a collective voice in the resulting online petition (I don't suggest that you go immediately and sign the petition, I suggest that you read all of the information that you can, and make up your own mind. I'd be surprised if you decided not to sign the petition ). Social media has the power to give a collective voice where many individual voices in isolation would not be heard.

On the flipside of the positive aspects, Social Media carries an associated pressure - let's call it the 'Facebook effect' - where those contributing within a professional community feel the need to present a very positive image of what they are doing. It is easy to compare one's own work in a negative light and engender feelings of professional paranoia as a consequence. This is not something that is specific to testing and the phenomenon has been highlighted by those writing on other industries, such as this post highlighting problems in the marketing community.

For the many who make their living in or around the social media industry, the pressure to be or at least appear to be an expert, the best, or just a player is reaching a boiling point.

The message is clear. Advancing in the modern professional work is as much about climbing the social media ladder as the corporate one and in order to do that we need to present the right image.

Living up to the image

Based on the article above, and the references at the end of this post, it is clear that the negative side of social media affects other industries, so what is it about testing in particular that I think makes us particularly conscious of how we present ourselves?

Before putting this post together I approached a number of testers to ask whether they had ever experienced or observed the symptoms of the Facebook effect in their testing careers. I received some very interesting and heartfelt responses.

Most accepted the need to present a sanitised, positive image on social media

You don't want to wash your dirty linen in public

And the need for constant awareness that everything posted publicly was open to scrutiny

I know that anything I say is open to public 'ridicule' or open for challenge

Some went further to admit that they had experienced occasions where they felt paranoid or intimidated as a result of interactions with testing based social media. One tester I spoke to highlighted the problem of opening dialogues requesting help or input from others and being made to feel inferior

when you make an opening to someone in our industry asking their thoughts or opinions and they seem to automatically assume that this means you are a lesser being who has not figured it all out already

I don't think either myself or the person writing that feel that assumptions of this type are always the case, but I've certainly experienced the same thing. A few years ago, as an experienced tester finding my feet in the agile world, I found myself frustrated by the 'you are doing it wrong' responses to questions I posted in agile testing lists. I don't want a sanctimonious lecture when asking questions on my problems, I want some open help that acknowledges the fact that if I'm asking for assistance in one area it doesn't mean that I don't know what I am doing in others.

Why is testing so affected?

I think there are a number of factors that contribute to testing being particularly prone to the 'Facebook effect'.

  • what are we admitting?

    I obviously can't comment on how it is for other professions, but I think for testing the pressure of presenting a positive image is particularly prevalent due to the implications of any negative statements on perception of our work or organisations. Any admission of fault in our testing is implicitly an admission of the risk of faults in our products, or worse, of risks to their data as customers. Whilst we may be prepared to 'blame the tester' in the light of problems encountered, it is not the case that we want to do this proactively by openly admitting mistakes. Some testers also have the additional pressure of having competitor companies who can pick up on revelations of mistakes to their advantage. As a tester working for a product company with a close competitor told me:

We are watching them on social media as I am assuming they are watching us. So I do need to be guarded to protect the company (in which) I am employed.
  • what are we selling?

    Some of the most active participants in any professional communities will be consultancy companies or individuals, and testing is no different. These folks have both a professional obligation not to criticise their clients, and also a marketing compulsion to present the work that they were involved in as successful so as to present value for money to other prospective customers. The result is a tendency towards very positive case studies from our most vocal community members on any engagements, and an avoidance of presenting the more negative elements to protect business interests.

  • Where are we from?

    Testing is a new profession. I know that some folks have been doing it for a long time, but it just doesn't have the heritage of law, medicine or accountancy that provides stability and a structure of consistency across the industry. Whereas this does result in a dynamic and exciting industry in which to work, it also means that It workers operate in a volatile environment where new methodologies compete for supremacy. Attempts to standardize the industry may appear to be an attractive option in response to this, offering a safety net of conformity it a turbulent sea of innovation, however the so far flawed attempts to do so are rightly some of the greatest points of contention and result in the most heated debate in the world of testing today. The result is an industry where new ideas are frequent and it can be hard to tell the game-changing innovations from the snake-oil. Is it really possible to exhaustively test a system based on a model using MBT? Are ATDD tools a revolutionary link between testing and the business or really a clumsy pseudocode resulting in inflexible automation? In such an industry it is naturally hard to know whether you have taken the right approaches, and easy to feel intimidated by others' proclamations of success.

  • Where are we going?

    For some an online presence is part and parcel of looking for advancement opportunities. LinkedIn is particularly geared towards this end. Therefore presenting only the most successful elements of your work is a prudent approach of you want to land the next big job. Similarly for companies who are recruiting, if you want to attract talented individuals then presenting the image of a successful and competent testing operation is important.

Facing Your Fears

One of the problems that we face individually when interacting with professional social media is the fact that the same 'rose tinted' filtering that is applied to the information that we read on other testers and their organisations is not applied to our own working lives. We see our own jobs 'warts and all' which, during the leaner times, can lead to professional paranoia. This is certainly something that I have experienced in the past when things have not been going as well as I would like in my own work. I found that this was more of a problem earlier in my career and has got less as I gain more experience which provides perspective on my work in relation to others. The FaceBook Effect does still rear is head during periods of sustained pressure when I have little chance to work on testing process improvements, as I have experienced this year.

The manner in which we deal with these emotions will inevitably depend on the individual. I think that, whilst easy to fall into a pattern of negativity, there are responses that show a positive attitude and that can help to avoid the negative feelings that can otherwise haunt us.

  • look to the experienced

    Ironically it seems to be the most experienced members of a profession that are most willing to admit mistakes. This could be because many of those mistakes were made earlier in their careers and can be freely discussed now. It could be that having a catalogue of successful projects under your belt furnishes folks with the confidence to be more open about their less successful ones. It could also be that the more experienced folks appreciate the value of discussing mistakes to help a profession to grow and build confidence in its younger members. These are all things that I can relate to and as my experience grows I find an increasing number of previously held opinions and former decisions that I can now refer to personally, and share with others, as examples of my mistakes.

  • get face to face

    I wrote a while ago about an exchange that I did with another company to discuss our relative testing approaches. I have since repeated this exercise with other companies and have another two exchange visits planned for later this year. The exchanges are done on the basis of mutual respect and confidentiality, and therefore provide an excellent opportunity to be open about the issues that we face. There is an element of security about being face to face, particularly within the safe environment of the workplace, which allows for a open conversations even with visitors that you have known for a short time.

  • consultancy

    I don't rely extensively on external consultancy, however I have found it useful to engage the services of some excellent individuals to help with particular elements of my testing and training. In addition to the very useful 'scheduled' elements to the engagement, almost as useful is having an expert with a range of experiences available to talk to in a private environment. As I mention above, consultants should maintain appropriate confidentiality, and they will also have a wealth of experience of different organisations to call on when discussing your own situation. Having had the benefit of a 'behind the doors' perspective of other companies provides a far more balanced view of people's relative strengths and can put your own problems into a more realistic context as a result. There are few more encouraging occasions for a test leader in an organisation than being told that your work stands up in a positive light to other organisations (even if they aren't at liberty to tell you who these are) .

  • closed groups

    I was fortunate to be involved in a project recently that involved being a member of a closed email list. I found this to be a liberating experience. The group discussed many issues that affect testers and test managers openly and without fear of our words being misinterpreted by our organisations or others in the community. There were disagreements on a number of the subjects and I personally found it to be much easier discussing contentious issues with reference to my own position in the closed group environment. The problem with discussing internal issues in an open forum is obviously the risk that your candid talk is seen by the wrong eyes, a closed group avoids this problem and allows for open and candid discussion with sympathetic peers. In fact I obtained some really interesting input from exactly that group prior to writing this post.

  • trusted connections

    I am lucky to have some fantastic testers on my private email address list who I can turn to in times of uncertainty or simply to bounce ideas off before putting them into the public domain. For example I recently had some questions around Web testing. This is not something that I've looked at for some time, having been focussed on big data systems. I received some invaluable guidance from a couple of people in my contacts list without any stigma around my 'novice' questions, as the individuals I spoke to know me and respect the testing knowledge that I have in other areas. Their advice allowed me to provide an educated view back to my business and make better decisions on our approach as a result. As with the closed group, I approached a number of personal contacts for their experiences and opinions to contribute to writing this post.

Don't worry be happy

When my brother left his last job in water treatment engineering his colleagues gave him one piece of parting advice.

Lose the nagging self doubt - you are great at your job

So it could well be that I suffer from some familial predilection to being self critical. You may not suffer from the same. Whether you do or not, I think that when using social media as a community we should maintain awareness of how others will feel when reading our input. We should try to remember that just because others ask for help doesn't mean that they don't know what they are doing. We should consider admitting failures as well as successes so others can learn from our mistakes and gain confidence and solace in making their own.

If interacting with social media personally leaves you with a taste of professional paranoia - I recommend reading this excellent short post from Seth Godin, and remind yourself that the simple fact that you are looking outside your work to the wider professional community to improve your testing, probably means you're doing a fine job.

Other links

Image: Sourced from twitter @michaelmurphy https://twitter.com/michaelmurphy/status/492648065619492864

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