The Art of Doubting

As a software tester, it is my job to question things. Questioning involves doubt, but is that doubt of a certain kind? Perhaps; let’s call it ‘good doubt’.

Monday May 15th 2017, I facilitated a philosophical, protreptic salon in Copenhagen about the art of doubting. The protreptic is a dialogue or conversation which has the objective of making us aware and connecting us to personal and shared values.

Doubt is interesting for many reasons. Self-doubt is probably something we all have and can relate to. But there seems to be value in a different kind of doubt than that with which we doubt ourselves.

Doubt is related to certainty. Confidence can be calculated statistically, and that seems to be the opposite of doubt.

Science almost depends on doubt: Even the firmest scientific knowledge is rooted in someone formulating a hypothesis and proving it by doubting it and attempting to prove it wrong.

Even religion, faith, seems to be related to doubt.

It is always interesting to examine the origins of a worud. The Danish and German words “tvivl” and “Zweifel” have the same meaning as the English doubt and all relate to the duo; two; zwei; to.

That appears to indicate that when we doubt we can be in “two minds”, so to speak.

So is doubt a special type of reflection, “System-2”, or slow thinking?

The protreptic is always about the general in terms of the personal. We examine our relations to doubt.

“What is it that our doubts wants or desires for us?” was one of my protreptic questions during the salon.

We circled a lot around that particular question. Finding an answer was difficult and we came back to self-doubt, which can be difficult to live with. Self-doubt can even harm our images, both the external ones and those that are internal to ourselves.

Leaders are usually expected not to have self-doubt: A prime minister risk loosing the next election if he doubts his own decisions and qualities. A CEO that doubts her own actions will drive the share value of the company down.

But there is a good doubt, and good doubt seems to be of a helpful nature.

Good leadership requires having the courage to doubt. It seems to help us act wisely and based on our experiences.

During the salon, my personal image of doubt changed. In the beginning I thought of doubt as a kind of cognitive function, perhaps a process I had to go through. Doubting could even be an event.

But at the end of the salon, my image of doubt changed into that a good friend walking with me through my life. Continuously present, if I want him.

With that image we found an answer to the question: Doubt is my friend. A friend who wants my actions to be driven not only by my instincts or simple gut feelings. A friends that help me shape my actions by my values.

dsc_4588_jpeg-srgb

Passion for Testing and the Need for ‘Julehygge’

Christmas is almost over and while I am still having holiday with the family, I’m beginning to think a bit about testing again.

I am passionate about software testing.

There is a lot of talk about passion, but do we know what passion is?

The word shares roots with the greek ‘pathos’, which is one of the three key components of persuasion in rhetoric. The other two are ethos and logos.

Good communication should be fact based (logos) and serve a common greater good (ethos), but passion adds something important to communication.

The passionate lecturer

I remember two math lecturers from university. One taught analytical algebra, the other graph theory and combinatorics.

Both were personalities of the type you would notice if you saw them in the street, but if someone would then whisper to you: “He is an associate professor in mathemathics”, you would exclaim “ah!” and understand exactly what you were seeing 🙂

Their style of lecturing was very different, however.

Every lecture in graph-theory and combinatorics was unique. It seemed the lecturer literally reinvented what he was lecturing while he was doing it. He was not particularly organised in his teaching, sometimes he would even forget the subject, and divert off a wrong ‘graph’ (sic!). But he had passion for the subjects, and that showed. The lectures were often very engaging and fascinating.

The other lecturer prepared his lectures to perfection: He always started on the exact minute putting his chalk to the board in the top left corner of the first of the six large black boards in the auditorium, and by the end of the 90th minute, he would finish writing formula in the last available spot of the lower right corner of the last board. He repeated that time after time. A fascinating performance. But there was a problem, as he had obviously lost passion for the subject he was teaching. I felt bored to death during his lectures, and I am not sure I ever passed that exam.

Some testers are passionate about what they do, others try to be perfect. I always prefer passion over perfection.

Suffering by Passion

Passion is one of those tacit capabilities we know by heart, but will probably never be able to code, teach to a neural network, or explain to someone who has never experienced it.

The word has an interesting record in the Douglas Harper online etymology dictionary. Apparantly, passion used to be a kind of suffering:

Passion: late 12c., “sufferings of Christ on the Cross,” from Old French passion “Christ’s passion, physical suffering” (10c.), from Late Latin passionem (nominative passio) “suffering, enduring,” from past participle stem of Latin pati “to suffer, endure,” possibly from PIE root *pe(i)- “to hurt” (see fiend).

The article even goes on linking passion to sufferings of martyrs.

Let me confess now: While I am very passionate about good testing, I am not going to become a testing martyr.

Words change meaning over time and passion is certainly a word that has become more of a daily language term than it probably was back in the late 12th century.

Today, linking passion to sufferings, even physical sufferings, may seem out context.

However, it reminds us that passion does involve trading in some things that I like too: Staying relaxed, calm and cool, for example.

I am neither of those things when I am feeling passionate.

Passion seems to be a kind of double-edged sword.

Passion-Fatigue

I am always more tired after working passionately on a testing problem than when I’m doing more trivial things in my job: E.g. diligently replying to e-mails, writing factual test reports, checking out plans and schedules.

Could there be something called passion-fatigue? I think so, and when passion is a driver in daily work life, relaxation and recharging is important to stay healthy, sane, and well in the longer run..

The need for Hygge

Now that Christmas has just passed, but I am still enjoying days of holiday with the family, it seems right to mention ‘hygge’ (pronounced “hyk-ge”).

Hygge is Danish for relaxing with others, a good book or in other nice ways.

Hygge is difficult to define. In that way it’s similar to passion, except opposite: Relaxing, calming and mentally soothing.

A day with hygge could be so relaxing and good that it deserve finishing off with a good tequila, scotch, or another good drink of your preference 🙂

What’s interesting here is that hygge seems to be a good cure for passion-fatigue. Hygge creates space for passion.

And this is exactly what ‘Julehygge’ is about: Getting away from daily life, relaxing with family and friends, and recharging.


Is “hygge” becoming a global fashion trend? The New York Times had an article on the fashion of hygge a few days ago: Move Over, Marie Kondo: Make Room for the Hygge Hordes


 

dsc_5846_jpeg-srgb-2
Detail of Christmas tree in our living room. Perhaps more than anything, a Christmas tree is in Denmark a symbol of “Julehygge”.

Playful Software Testing

I met with and enjoyed a very good conversation with Jessica Ingrassellino in New York back in September. Jessica presented a workshop on playful testing during the Reinventing Testers Week (I presented at the conference about “Testing in a Black Swan Domain” which, unfortunately, I have not had time to write about yet).

We talked mostly about philosophy.

Jessica is quite a multi-talent: Plays the violin virtously, is an educated music teacher, has switched career to testing, taught herself Python, authored a book on Python programming for kids, and is teaching Python classes at a local community college, as well as music classes.

She has a vision of making testing playful and fun.

Structured work govern testing in professional settings, work which has nothing to do with play. So why is play important?

Jessica puts it this way:

When the power of play is unleashed in software testing, interesting things happen: The quality of the testing performance becomes noticeably better, and the outcomes of it too. This results in better software systems, higher product quality.

I have a product engineering background and play is important for me too. Engineers have methods, calculations, and procedures, but great engineers know that good solutions to problems are not found by orderly, rational processes. Good solutions depend on creativity and play.

Friday December 9th, I met with Mathias Poulsen in Copenhagen. Mathias is the founder of CounterPlay, a yearly conference and festival on serious play in Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark.

About three years ago, Mathias got the idea for the conference.

In the first year, 2014, it was an immediate success with more than 20 talks and workshops in 3 tracks on “Playful Culture, Playful Learning, and Playful Business”, and more than 150 participants. This year (2016), the conference had 50 scheduled sessions: keynotes, talks, workshops, mini-concerts and open sessions.

Mathias explains (about 0:30 into the video):

Counterplay is basically an attempt to explore play and being playful across all kinds of domains and areas in society. We are trying to build a community of playful people around the world to figure out, what does it mean to be playful and why do we think it is beneficial?

Processional IT has so far not been represented at the conference, Mathias told me. I found that a bit surprising, as at the moment almost everything in IT seems to be buzzing with concepts promising joy and fun – play.

Sometimes, however, there is an undertone to all the joy. Agile and DevOps have become popular concepts even in large corporations, and to me, both strive to combine productivity with playfulness. That is good.

But is the switch to Agile always done in order to pass power to developers and testers, allowing them to playfully perform, build and test better solutions? No, not always.

Play facilitate change and breaking of unhelpful patterns, but sometimes play is mostly a cover for micromanagement. There is a word for this: In a recent blog post, Mathias talks about playwashing:

Playwashing describes the situation where a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “playful” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing strategies and business practices that cultivate a playful culture in said organization.

A question is therefore how we genuinely support play? Are there methods or processes that better accommodate playfulness at work?

I believe there is. Processes need to leave space for exploring context, knowledge sharing and actual interaction with customers, stakeholders and team members.

But processes or methods will not do the job alone. In fact, putting play under the examination of psychology or cognitive sciences will never be able to grasp what play really is.

Play is more like music and poetry, where ideas based on assumptions about order, rational choice, and intention cannot explain anything.

Philosophy and especially the dialectical exploration of what it means being a playful human is much better at embracing what play means to us and how to support it.
Jessica and I are working on a workshop about playful and artful testing. It will combine ideas of playful testing with philosophy.

We are certain that breaking out of patterns will help testers, and breaking out of our patterns, participating in a conference which is fully devoted to play will teach us a lot.

dsc_5398
I took this photo in the local forest on a walk with our dog Terry (the black poodle). It is obvious, when dogs play well, that they have fun and learn a lot through play. Play seems a fundamental capacity for mammals.

Wanted: Test Leadership (or why verbs can be better than nouns)

The exceptional testing performance requires something from everyone of us: We are performing in teams, but as individuals we need to be experts in our craft, tools and methods.

That is not all, though. We also need to be expert ourselves.

How can I be myself? That is a question, which philosophers have discussed for thousands of years.

We have to talk and think more about our personal values to become ourselves. I find that knowing and acting on our values is key to our professional performance as testers, and even more as leaders. It requires a rich language.

The problem, I think, is that in the processes of perfecting our software and technology development, and manage our projects, our language has become dull, technical, command-and-control-focused and valueless. Am I right?

Language scientists believe that in the earliest languages, there were no nouns. Verbs existed before nouns.

This indicates that that our ancestors talked about our relation to the world and people around us long before they started naming things in it.

Today we spend almost all our working hours defining and naming things. We discuss whether one noun is better than another. Which is the correct noun to use in a situation. What noun names the best practice.

I find there is far too little talk about what to do with the things named by all the nouns. And more importantly: What comes out of doing stuff, in the world around us.

Naming things isn’t leadership. It is optimization of communication. I want to see more leadership in testing.

We should somehow go back to the roots of our language and start talking about testing values using less nouns, more verbs.

I am running a series of protreptic workshops with my friend Karen in Copenhagen. We bring together a very diverse group of people and talk about values. The setting is informal, but Karen and I facilitate it closely.

The experience is awesome.

One participant wrote to me that it requires a great deal of “brain work”, but is rewarding: “I have met people who are different from me, and that makes the experience interesting because you start thinking: why do I have the attitudes and opinions I have?”

We don’t do psychoanalysis or discuss reactions. We don’t talk about models of the brain either. There is, in general, no cause-and-effect-thinking in the workshop. Only lots of inspiration.

And we inspire each other to talk about worth and personal values. Asking “why do I have these attitudes and opinions?” is one way of discovering them.

Leadership is about the team taking responsibility together, but that is not something that is monopolized with the constituted leader anymore. Taking responsibility is on everyone’s shoulders today, even you and me, the individual team members.

“To lead others, first you have to lead yourself”, my friend Maibritt Isberg Andersen says.

And now, that we are all test leaders, I really hope we will all start talking more about our attitudes and opinions, and why we have them.

It is about inspiring test leadership.

Say “Yes, but…” and remain true to your values

Testers sometimes have to make compromises. We have professional values and beliefs, but they may conflict with values in the contexts we act in.

Isn’t there always someone who matter who has an opinion about what testing is and how it should be performed? 

I remeber a few situations, where I have felt I was tasked to do something in a way that I didn’t agree with. How can I make a difference, then?

This feeling points to something which is a dilemma for every skilled professional: We can sometimes feel that our personal and professional values are challenged, but there is still a job to be done.

How can a I make the compromise, accepting a challenge, while staying true to my values and beliefs? 

It’s about learning and improving.

 

Social responsibility

To me, one of the most important things about being professional and a context driven tester is taking social responsibility. This is an important value to me.

Social responsibility is not about self-critique. As a professional, my personal doubts and worries are valuable.

Instead it is about trying to give customers what they need by understanding their situation and helping them get better with what we are doing together.

That requires what I call personal leadership. But foremost, it requires conversation and negotiation.

 

“Yes, but…”

In his “Improv(e) your testing” talk at Let’s Test 2016, Damian Synadinos @dsynadinos reminded me of a simple and efficient strategy to opening conversations. In improv, a golden rule is to start replies with with “yes, and…”. This helps adding to whatever is happening on stage.

In professional situations we sometimes have to subtract instead:

Yes, I will perform the test and report to you about it, but please explain me how the test case and bug count metrics you ask me to do will be useful?

The “yes“-part is about accepting the challenge. The “but” implies that I’m going to stay true to my knowledge, experience, values and beliefs and raise professional doubts about methods I’m asked to use, things I’m asked to report, processes I’m asked to follow.

I’m not asking rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions shut windows to the world and enclose me in my own thoughts and ideas.

So I keep thought in the back of my mind when I’m asked to do something in a certain way: “Is this really in the best interest of the people who matter: The project stakeholders?”

Replying “yes, but…” enables me to act on my personal values in contexts which have values of their own.

 

Masterclass in New York City

On September 26th, during Test Masters Academy‘s REINVENTING TESTERS WEEK in New York City, I will be doing a workshop titled: “Act on your values!” on values and personal leadership.

As testers and IT-professionals we have to quickly recognize and adapt to ever changing contexts in order to produce value for our employers, clients and various diverse customers. This can be challenging, both on the personal and the professional level. As leaders, team members and individuals we often have to lead ourselves.

The workshop will focus on how our personal and shared values can guide us. It will be based on the principles of protreptic dialogue, which is a philosophical facilitated conversation revolving around the values embedded in what we say, do and think. First described in ancient Greece in the fourth century, professor Ole Fogh Kirkeby of Copenhagen Business School has revived protreptic dialogue as both a concept, a leadership tool, and a coaching principle with the objective to “turn us towards ourselves”.

I plan for the workshop to be a safe space for exploration and learning. Participants are expected to share opinions, thoughts and ideas, and to treat others’ opinions, thoughts and ideas in a respectful and appreciative manner. No prior knowledge of leadership, dialogue, philosophy, or protreptic dialogue is required.

Key takeaways

  • Consciousness about personal values and values of the contexts we work in
  • Strategies for dealing with the dilemmas we face as testers
  • An introduction to protreptic concepts and dialogue

Get tickets here.

28cbe1e4-a4e5-4bc8-860c-3c7584be81d9