Two styles of leadership in spreading context-driven testing (TITANconf)

The last weekend of August I spent with some great people - Kristoffer Ankarberg (@KrisAnkarberg), Kristoffer Nordström (@kristoffer_nord), Anna Brunell (@Anna_Brunell), Fredrik Thuresson (@Thure98), Maria Kedemo (@mariakedemo), Henrik Andersson (@henkeandersson), Maria Månsson, Amy Philips (@ItJustBroke), Richard Bradshaw (@FriendlyTester), Duncan Nisbet (@DuncNisbet), Alexandru Rotaru (@altomalex), Oana Casapu, Simon Schrijver (@SimonSaysNoMore), Zeger Van Hese (@TestSideStory), Helena Jeret-Mäe (@HelenaJ_M), Aleksis Tulonen (@al3ksis), Anders Dinsen (@andersdinsen) - at the awesome TITAN peer conference in Karlskrona, Sweden.

During the conference we discussed leadership and testing and on Sunday morning I got the opportunity to tell my story1. (I do wish I had captured more of the discussion afterwards to include in this blog post.)

The first style

When thinking about my own leadership in testing, one of the first things that come to mind are my attempts to influence my colleagues at work (testers, developers, project managers) to become more context-driven in their attitude towards testing.

Personally, I discovered context-driven testing at a time I was wondering if I wanted to be in testing at all. I had been working as a tester for about two years and a certain fatigue had set in: “Is this what I want to do the rest of my life?” One of things I did to find an answer, was to learn more about testing. So I searched the internet, discovered context-driven testing and after reading both James Bach’s and Michael Bolton’s blogs from the oldest post to the most current one, I was totally into software testing. To me context-driven testing was a huge discovery: through it I found my passion for software testing.

After that I wanted to share that passion. I talked to people and gave them pointers to blogs, books, conferences. I explained concepts, etc. And that is the first style of leadership I employed: reaching out. And although I have good enough manners not to be too pushy2, part of my intention really was to make other people ‘see the light’, to convert them to context-driven testing. It shouldn’t come as a big surpise that my successes have been slim to none. Although I did influence some people, the bottom line is that in the end the scoreboard says “Conversions: 0”.

An Oriental excursion

Whenever I realised that my efforts didn’t seem to lead anywhere, I felt disappointed and just gave up for a while. As bad as that may sound, it has lead me to discover a second style3. Instead of reaching out, it keeps to itself and there isn’t really anything as ‘success’ like in the first style. To be honest, at first I wasn’t sure if I had just found fancier words for ‘giving up’, but when I saw an analogy with how koryu present themselves to the outside, I realized it’s more than a rebranded towel thrown in the ring.

Koryu is the name for the old martial arts of Japan, with ‘old’ meaning that they originated sometime between 1400 and 18684. Where modern martial arts are very much about what you can get out of them (physical fitness, confidence-building, self defence, …), the attitude of koryu is quite different5. Dave Lowry did a great job describing this attitude in his article “So You Want To Join The Ryu?“. (‘Ryu’ means ‘school’.) The first sentence of that article reads: “I don’t care about you.” After which he explains that what he does care about is the ryu. So it’s very much a case of “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.”

Does this mean it’s incredibly hard to join a ryu? Well, not exactly. It’s just that you’ll have to make an effort. First of all in finding one: few if any actively look for new members. Next there may be some prerequisites. A fairly obvious one is having read about koryu, so you know what you’re getting into. Finally there’s your attitude: sincerity, politeness and patience will get you a long way. So basically, all that is expected of you, is to show good manners and put in some work. The reasons why koryu have adopted this attitude are many, so I will focus on just one that’s relevant to this blog post. A ryu is a family, a tight-knit community, passing on an heirloom, a body of knowledge and skills, from generation to generation. Both of these explain why it’s difficult for an outsider to just jump in and participate. You don’t just join a family and you don’t just get to lay your hands on an heirloom that has been passed on for several hundreds of years.

The second style

Where a ryu is both a family and an heirloom, context-driven testing is three things: a paradigm (or school of thought), a community and an approach. Put this way, the analogy is fairly obvious: both are communities focused around a body of knowledge and skills. Of course there are also differences. The most obvious one was pointed out by Duncan: we as context-driven testers do share our ‘heirloom’ openly with the world through blogs, at conferences, in discussions. (We also defend it fiercely when it comes under attack - sometimes too fiercely according to some.) However, I do think the analogy is strong enough to ask: what would a koryu-like style of leadership in spreading context-driven testing look like?

The basis of this style is doing your thing. You practice context-driven testing: you apply it and you work to get better at it6. Then, you leave crumbs. This can be anything: referring to a book or conference, sharing a blog post, mentioning a certain concept - as long as it’s something the other person can follow up on, if he or she is interested. Because that’s the main point: you don’t try to reach out to someone, you just show there’s something there. And whether or not the other person does something with that crumb, doesn’t matter to you. It’s all up to them. Finally, if someone does pick up a crumb, if someone shows curiosity and puts effort in finding out more, you reward them. You give them a bigger crumb. You engage more. And perhaps curiosity wanes after that and perhaps the cycle repeats itself. If so, every time you engage a little more, you invest a little more. But the point is that instead of you reaching out, it’s the other person pulling him or herself in. You’re just there to give directions in case someone is looking for them.

In closing

Of course, reality is a little more messy than what I presented here. I’ve influenced people in different ways outside of work, for instance through this blog or by speaking at conferences. I still find myself switching back and forth between the two styles. And I need more practice in not caring. But I do think the second style suits me better than the first. It saves me from disappointments and it gives other people more freedom to find their own path.

This post was originally published here.

  1. The slides can be found here

  2. Do let me know if I’m mistaken here. 

  3. This style has some similarities to the honey-badger style, mentioned by Henrik Andersson, which he and Ilari Henrik Aegerter identified. 

  4. That’s not very descriptive, but fully explaining would take a full blog post at minimum. 

  5. There are quite a few different ryu or schools, each with their own character. So please take note that all my generalizations are by definition wrong, because generalizations. 

  6. I didn’t mention this explicitly in my presentation, but someone (forgot who, sorry) commented that part four should be ‘practice’. To me, it’s part of doing your thing.