June 6, 2015

What's wrong with 9-to-5 testers?

This is a written redux of a 5-minute Lightning Talk that I gave to a group of about 50 testers, at Nordic Testing Days 2015. It was ad-libbed from only a handful of notes, with a further five minutes of Q&A afterwards; I've merged the content of those questions into this article, where I remember them.

I picked the title of this talk deliberately, as it can be taken in at least two very different ways. I keep hearing it being used in a derogatory manner ("What's up with them?"), but I suggest that we should be asking the question in a more rhetorical fashion: Is there anything wrong with being a 9-5 tester?

I was inspired to give this talk when I heard a reference to "9-to-5 testers" in the questions at the end of my Nordic Testing Days presentation. It's a phrase I'm hearing a lot recently; the last three Lean Coffee groups which I've participated in have all directly discussed this.

Lean Coffee photo
In this insanely low-res photo from TestBash 2015, you can just about see that the leading topic - with 6 votes from a group of 7 people - is "Is there a way to inspire 9-5 testers?"

Nobody has readily come up with a definition of what they mean by a "9-to-5 tester", but my impression (from the contexts I've heard it) is that it's referring to the type of tester who puts in the required hours at work, but does little to advance their career outside of the workplace.

When people talk about these "9-to-5 testers" in a conference environment, to others who are at a conference, in effect they're saying "Why can't these people be more like us? Why won't they come to these events?"

Importantly, I don't hear people saying that these are bad testers, or that they are lacking in any particular skill. Maybe they are; in which case, make that the question. "What can I do about bad testers?" (and more specific observations) is a completely different question. But I'm not hearing this, so I don't believe that these are bad testers who are being talked about.

Speaking up for introverts

There could be a number of reasons for not wanting to participate in out-of-work activities. Family time is important, and people have a vast array of hobbies and volunteer activities outside of the world of testing. Heck, there's absolutely nothing wrong with just wanting to kick-back and watch a game of football after a long week of working. But more than that, for a significant percentage of the population, conferences and event can be seriously difficult for their introverted tendencies.

I'm currently reading "Quiet" by Susan Cain, a book which explores the stigma and challenges that introverts face on a daily basis. It's a book which speaks to my own internal struggles as an introvert, and has had a bigger impact on me than any book I've read for many years.

I am notoriously bad for cancelling plans just so that I can get home instead. It's a situation which has only gotten worse since I discovered that the Sunk Cost Fallacy gives me an excuse to bail even if I've already paid up-front for an event. I do this a lot, and by a law of percentages this means that my closest friends are the ones who suffer this most often.

It's important to note (as Carsten Feilberg pointed out during my post-talk Q&A, and as Susan's book discusses in its introduction) that there's a difference between introversion and shyness, though the media often portrays them as one and the same. Introverts don't necessarily struggle in social situations in the same way as shy people do, but they are prone to becoming over-stimulated and having a burning desire to escape from such situations.

I'm working hard to overcome these tendencies, and giving two talks in one day at Nordic Testing Days has been a useful experience (although it's left me very drained). I've loved every minute of the event, but undoubtedly I'll be earlier to bed than most, as I struggle to maintain this level for too long. (See my plea to conference organisers from the end of last year: Does it always have to be about the drink?)

Change? Why?

So, some people don't want to attend events, and for many who want to attend, it's a mentally and physically draining experience. In my mind, asking how we can "change" such testers is fundamentally the wrong question. Instead, we might look at how we can make our test community more accessible to them, in a format that they feel more comfortable with.

I can't offer any one-size-fits-all solutions for this, though I'd love to hear what others think we could do. I think that the key is to offer the ability for testers to participate in their own time, at their own pace, from a place where they feel secure in themselves. Here are a few possible ways that I can think of:

Adam Howard summarised this in his NTD2015 talk, when he stated that you can help testers to feel empowered by giving them agency over their situation. Don't force them into an environment where they feel uncomfortable; instead, listen to them to discover what drives them, what their goals and ambitions might be, and how they (not you) might like to go about achieving this.

I once worked with a tester who was a victim of this. He had a lot of domain knowledge on some of our products, and (as far as I could tell) was happy with what he was doing. He was, by any definition you could offer, a "9-to-5 tester", and there was some pressure (from peers - myself included - and managers) for him to push himself further: work in new domains, and travel to training events and conferences. Pushing him into these uncomfortable situations meant that he soon decided to quit, leaving us with a gap in our team and a massive hole in areas where he was particularly skilled.

Above all, it's not our place to decide whether or not other testers are happy. We certainly shouldn't make blanket assumptions that we know of ways to make them happier, or treat them as a second-class citizen if they choose not to move in the same circles as we do. However we owe it to our colleagues to understand whether they are happy - talk to them! - and seek to address any needs which they actually have.

Addendum: Dolly Parton on workplace needs

Naturally, when giving this talk, people's minds turned towards the Dolly Parton song, 9 to 5:

The song is well known for being an anthem of the downtrodden working masses, and on the surface you might think that it refers to somebody who doesn't enjoy (or isn't invested in) their job. However, look more closely at the lyrics:

Noticeably, none of Dolly's lyrics mention any specific problems with the job itself. All of the problems that she describes involve her being undervalued as an employee, not being listened to, and her needs not being met. Few of Dolly's problems would be solved by sending her to a conference, or bemoaning her lack of presence at a conference.

How do we "inspire" these people? Listen to them!

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