The Know Thy Enemy Paradox

I started this post a few times before I realised I was actually dealing with two subjects rather than one. At CAST2010 I took Fiona Charles‘ workshop on Speaking Truth to Power. It turned out that this was one of the subjects that I was writing about and hadn’t managed to articulate at all (Thanks again, Fiona).

The other subject is the situation where you know that a particular subject, product, action etc is not a good one (at least in your context), but don’t necessarily have the familiarity with it to explain why. In order to do so, you’re going to have to learn at least enough that you can speak from your own experience why such a thing is not good.
I call this the ‘know thy enemy paradox‘ – In order to explain why you shouldn’t need to know/use/do something, you need to learn enough about it so that you can coherently explain why.

It would be nice if we could simply take the advice of our learned peers or mentors. No one I respect in the testing industry is going to pan someone or something without a valid reason. If my interest does not lie in that direction, I am happy to take them at their word. As far as directing our own learning goes, this is entirely possible. It becomes another matter however when your line manager proposes that you use one of these things (say, an expensive testing tool or certification or even an inappropriate testing methodology), especially if its use is to be tied to some KPI. This is where speaking truth to power comes into play.

Let us take a hypothetical situation. Your manager tells you that the company will pay for you to go and get certified as it is something that will help you in your career (now say thank you and get out of my office). You haven’t been testing long, but you’re a keen reader of testing blogs and you’ve read on some of them that some testing certifications may not be all they’re cracked up to be. Of course, you don’t have any direct experience (positive or negative) with the particular certification proposed.

You can find online a lot of information spruiking this certification method. There are also vocal groups saying ‘no, don’t do it!’.

If you need to argue with your manager about the pros and cons of certification, then it is not going to be enough to point at online info and say ‘Read this’. It will come down to ‘pointy haired manager’s glossy whitepaper from salesguy trumps your bit of paper from the internets’. As far as your manager is concerned, it’s just stuff that some dude said. It’s not your own experience (and by extension, not your own argument).

If you find yourself in this situation there are a few things you can do. If you are being pressed for an answer, an effective response is ‘Let me get back to you on that’. This will give you time to put together the information you need to argue your case.

Take the time you need. Study the material and the alternatives (I’ll come back to this). Put it into language they understand (probably money, but this is not always the case). Have whatever facts and figures you need prepared before you present your case.

When you present, use newspaper style. Your first sentence is your conclusion. Your first paragraph is a summary of your story and anything that comes after is as much detail as is required. If you see a room of nodding dogs (I mean agreement, not falling asleep), stop selling.

There’s a danger in the ‘know thy enemy paradox’ for the more experienced tester also, as there seems to be no shortage of stupid trying to pass itself off as smart and taking the time to find out enough to refute the never-ending streams of stupid can leave you less time than you want for learning to be a better tester.

There are a few things that I have found that help. If I’m not gearing up to take them down, I only need to know enough that I can say ‘I disagree, and here’s why’. That’s probably not going to take you long (I’m talking minutes, not hours or longer).If you find yourself spending longer, ask yourself ‘Do I need to be reading this, or am I just getting off on outrage porn?’

If I need to convince someone else, I’ll look for ways to construct a cost/benefit analysis. If you can show you’d get more benefit from a preferred alternative and put that into dollar figures along with a compelling story, then your going to stand a much stronger chance of your voice being heard. If you can, speak to someone with direct experience with the subject in question. If your manager has mistaken beliefs, you may need to spend a bit of time refuting them. Maybe have those in your back pocket in case you need to pull them out.

If you are gearing up for a longer conflict well, that’s probably a topic big enough for a separate post (probably by someone with more battle scars than me).

2 thoughts on “The Know Thy Enemy Paradox

  1. Great post, Ben. I think that idea you’ve expressed here is certainly relevant to most technical roles in IT, certainly not just software testing alone. Possessing strong instincts and technical aptitude can get anyone a long way in the field, but being able to justify yourself, especially to non-technical people, is a valuable skill worth developing. Being able to avoid stepping in The Stupid helps too.

  2. Hi Ben. Good to hear from you, mate.
    Us techies have traditionally not typically been stereotyped as having wonderful interpersonal / social skills. I suspect it’s because there has been such strong role-typing in our industry. Admins, Developers and to some extent testers – all nerds who get to do their job and not have to interact with *shudder* real people.

    I liken it to the Australian cricket team. You could build a strong cricket team with strong role typing. Bowlers bowled, Batsmen batted. The keeper might be able to swing the willow, but that was lucky and you probably wanted an all-rounder or two. Fielding skills were pot luck. Social skills were left to the captain.

    Then (as I look back on it) seemingly out of nowhere, the Aussie team develops this amazing team of multi-talented athletes. Batsmen can roll the arm over. Bowlers regularly notch 50+ runs, the keeper is a star with the bat and all of them have ultra-sharp fielding skills. Social interaction – some are better than others but to a man they can hold their own with the media and the public (you know, unless text messages are involved).

    There’s good, and then there’s great.

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