Start doing something better. Start doing strategy.

I have worked for corporates who (try to) do social media and I have also done my own social media marketing for a side project of mine.  So, I very much enjoyed the content of Ritson’s speech in its own right. But it struck me while watching that the dynamic which Ritson exposes is applicable to other fields.  In this post I want to briefly extrapolate his message.  I will try to keep the discussion general but also draw on examples from a sphere that I know something about: software testing.

  1. Always ask: Cui bono?
That’s Latin for: In whose interest?  Most people take what they read or hear on face value and Ritson provides some great examples of how this can mislead.  In IT, good software testers know to question requirements. Most people don’t.   It has often astonished me how most people are happy to go along with even the vaguest and even nonsensical explanation of what needs to be built.  There are many reasons for this some of which include: laziness, social pressure to conform, physical and political distance from the speaker/writer, desire to avoid cognitive dissonance etc.  In The Real World, these traits make you a sucker.  Don’t be a sucker.

  1. FoMo
The IT industry specifically and Western culture in general is full of neophiles. Everybody wants the latest, shiniest toys and gadgets, the newest javascript frameworks, AI, robotics and all the rest.  There are many reasons behind this but one is certainly FoMo: fear of missing out.  In a professional context, this manifests as the desire to have the latest bit of tech on your resume.  There is, to be fair, anecdotal evidence that this is a good idea.  I have seen people land plush jobs simply for knowing how to use a particular tool.  That approach is very fragile, however.  Tools are always changing, you’ll always need to learn the next shiny new thing and eventually your luck will run out.  And spending all your time playing around with tools means you have less time to work on the real underlying skills that will underpin your performance and win you credibility with the people who know what they are doing.

  1. Artificially Limited Thinking
I did my degree in Linguistics and I recall a nice line from one of my professors: “I want you to become philosophical linguists”.  In the software testing field, we are fortunate to have some great examples of what it means to be philosophical testers.  I’m thinking here mainly of the guys in the Context Driven school such as James Bach and Michael Bolton overseas and Jared Quinert where I am in Melbourne.  The likes of Kent Beck and Martin Fowler fill the same role on the developer side.
Unfortunately, most people just just follow along with whatever is going at the time.  This is artificially limited thinking.  These days, it often translates into simply using the same tool that everybody else uses.  Reading and following the true philosophical thinkers in your field is the best way to avoid this problem. Thinking for yourself helps too.

  1. An obsession with something that has no meaning
 Ritson talks at length about how the “digital” versus “traditional” media divide simply has no meaning in the field of marketing.  This reminded me very strongly of the “automated” versus “manual” distinction in the testing sphere. The job of Automation Tester is analogous to what Ritson describes as the job of Digital Marketer.  It is a hollowed out, dumbed down, tool driven position.  It elevates the trivial matter of knowing how to use a tool while devaluing the real skills which make you a good practitioner.

  1. Put down the dreary tools
 I recently interviewed for a test manager role where the job description stated that the successful applicant would be tasked with coming up with the test strategy.  At the interview, I was surprised to learn that the company had just hired a full time “Automation Tester”.  When I asked the interviewers about this they couldn’t say why the person had been hired.  When I suggested that the hiring of this role implied a specific strategy they seemed surprised.  They were surprised because they are involved in Artificially Limited Thinking.  Having a test automator is just what you do these days. It is “best practice”.

Another example.  I once paired with a tester who was doing “performance testing”.  He wrote a basic JMeter script and ran it against an API with 1 concurrent user, then 2, then 5, then 10 etc.  He was working off a spreadsheet that somebody else had generated.  I asked him who wrote the spreadsheet and he didn’t know.  I asked him why he was doing that.  What problems was he expecting to find.  What risks.  He couldn’t explain.  Later, he shared the test results with the team and put them on the wiki.  This is Artificially Limited Thinking.  Copying what others do and not having a single clue why.

The people in your field who know what they are doing will expect you to be able to think strategically.  That means you have to be able to justify why you are doing something and not something else.  The world is full of trade offs and compromises.  Know what they are.

  1. Hegemonic Forces
Hegemony refers to the dominance of a group in a certain context.  This dominance creates pressure to conform.  To go against this dominance can often involve short term stress.  In Ritson’s world, this makes it a risk to try and break out of the Digital Marketer role.  In the IT world of software testing, this means the risk of not calling yourself an Automation Tester or, even worse,  calling yourself a “manual tester”.  The current hegemony drives this narrative and you will feel the pressure to conform.  You’ll have to learn to deal with this pressure if you want to remain true to yourself.

These six points are all interrelated.  I’ll end by making some connections explicit:-

  • You need to ask Cui bono?  In doing so, you will find out what are the hegemonic forces at play in your context.  Unless you know what those forces are, you can’t deal with them.
  • You need to put down the tools, put aside the latest fads and think deeply and philosophically about your context.  Doing this will help you avoid Artificially Limited Thinking.  It will let you judge the value of practices rather than blindly following them.  It will also let you see meaningless distinctions that are being propagated by certain players in your field.
  • You need to do strategy.  Strategy requires a deep understanding of your context.  Your context involves hegemonic forces.  It involves other people blindly following the latest fad.  It involves the narratives that people uncritically read in the media.  And it involves those things you can actually do that will make a real difference.  You know you’re doing strategy when your making real trade offs and designing for the optimal outcome in your context.