Thursday, October 2, 2014

Societal Norms, Software Development and Culture


I don't think that everything we do and consider in regards to test should actually revolve around testing.  That is to say, while testing is a primary consideration, it is just one of many considerations.  For example, making our team as optimal as possible might be a consideration.  Say that testing a particular feature would set back the sales group who are trying to do a demo of the product in the environment you are testing on.  Now not testing might in fact be considered an important activity in your testing career.  This post is simply about factors that while are very important in software development, they are not limited to that subject.

I personally tend to read many different and varied development related blogs, and you will find I write broad posts, posts that are not directly tied with testing, but certainly can be applied to testing.  This is one of those; you have been warned.  I have held this article for many months while I have struggled with the words, which I am still not completely happy with, so I hope you forgive the age of the linked article.  In my reading of the post Games Girls Onions, a post specifically about game development, I found some interesting questions I have asked in my career.  I think I can perhaps boil it down to two questions:

1. How do I deal with individuals?

2. How do I deal with groups of individuals?

This particular person found some of the interactions of her male co-workers to be sub-optimal, but the question is, did they intentional ignore those questions, or were they trying to find the right balance between the group and the individual?  Furthermore, if that balance is wrong, is that a cultural thing or a issue with a particular person?  Last but certainly not least, if some particular external group dislikes what the culture does, is it the individual or the group that needs to change?  Lets try to dive into these questions.

In my personal dealings, I have found that each and every individual is different.  That is not news worthy of course, but it is worth thinking about.  I have dealt with thousands of different people, and each one of them had some subtle variation to them.  However, most high level personality traits could be categorized, and those categories can play a part in how you deal with someone in a new situation.


Consider this example, you know your over-zealous co-worker who cares a great deal about usability.  Even though you don't know for sure, you can guess that like other testers you've dealt with in the past, they too will enjoy working in an area they are passionate about.  Offering to trade your UI piece for their API piece might be a good idea if you don't have any particular passion for UI testing.  This of course assumes your boss is okay with it, which makes this at least a small group choice.  Since you know the last few times you have juggled work around, she was totally good with it, so you don't even bother to ask first and just do it.  Lets pause here and consider.  You choose to do the thing that made your co-worker happy while not bothering your boss, as they are likely busy.  From an individual basis, you made your co worker happy.

You didn't consider the team, as you don't 'report' to the team.  Now in a culture that appreciates employee happiness and efficiency, this might work out fine.  In a culture that rather have consistency and order, this choice may be a problem, even when no one is directly affected.  Your boss might respect your choice of taking initiative, but still might chew you out because the group or culture doesn't embrace that style of work.  Maybe the guy you swapped with is disliked by one of the developers on the UI team (as he is too passionate), so this makes things worse for the team.  But who decides these things?  Human activities are really complicated and to put blame on any individual is likely unfair.


Social norms start to show up in a particular culture to define what is or isn't acceptable so that way a group knows how to react and what is acceptable.  I realize saying this might offend someone, but when you try to break social norms, expect the society to attempt to break you.  In the culture of development, there is an assumption that it was a male dominated activity.  Like it or not, that is presently, in most countries, a social norm and those who break that norm are more likely to feel social pressure.  Is it natural?  Norms are natural in human society, this particular norm is just cultural.  I recently heard in a BBC radio interview that one country (no citation, as I can't find the details) has about a 1:1 ratio of women to men in software development.  To consider a different culture and norm, Victorians expected a particular style of dress to fit into a particular class.  If you didn't fit into that dress, you failed their normative test and you were looked down upon.  Now that norm is broken and so we can now wear Jeans acceptably.  On the other hand, in my culture, I can't wear slippers into work everyday without being looked at strangely (if not fired, depending on which job I look back at).

Back to considering the article, the developer talks about her nice window office -- a thing that is usually reserved for higher level developers.  Maybe that isn't the case at her office, but to me that is automatically a status symbol.  Now she notes that one time, a weird incident happen where a drunk co-worker showed up and talked to her in a way she didn't like for 20 minutes.  She talks about being treated differently, because she is being classified in what is defined as a social norm that she did not agree to.  The problem is, we as a society don't have sophisticated categories in our culture which model real human beings.  It is difficult to know exactly how to handle a female developer who accepts crude jokes, wants to be looked upon as socially confident, but then feels threatened by being alone with a drunken coworker.  It is not that I don't appreciate the dichotomy, how situations can be uncomfortable, nor how the details might be important in giving me a more solid opinion.  In culture, norms tend to be broad heuristics and in order to change the cultural and norms, it takes a long time and requires us to make mistakes along the way.

Being a Fraud

In fact, right now, we have a very cold, unfeeling society.  Consider Kevin Fishburne's comment in that post,
From the mortgage industry to pizza joints it's been my experience that regardless of how good or bad your relationships appear at work once you walk out that door they're over. I liken being at work to acting in a play; you're not being you, but what you think you need to be at the time.
 I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions where great lifelong friendships are formed on the job but it hasn't happened to me, sometimes much to my surprise. Not sure if this is just me or an actual phenomenon, but if the latter it may have some bearing on why people act differently at work then they would elsewhere....
The idea that we all follow social norms, faking our way through the work experience appears to not be particularly a-typical.  The fact that the author feels the need to complain about these issues shows she is fighting at least one social norm.  As a tester, it is not unreasonable for us too to want to test our current social situations and attempt to improve them.  One item that I agree with the author on, but am not sure is a 'bug' is the feeling that you are a fraud.  To take a few quotes from the movie Art & Copy,
The frightening and most difficult thing about being what somebody calls a creative person is that you have absolutely no idea where any of your thoughts come from, really. And especially, you don't have any idea about where they're going to come from tomorrow. - Hal Riney

I think most of the creative people are so damn insecure that they want to think they know everything, but they know deep in their hearts they're just in deep trouble from the minute they get up in the morning. So if you can tell them "that's what you're supposed to be", that's kind of liberating. - Dan Wieden

When we are often not even genuine with ourselves, how can we be honest with others?  Dunbar's number (and others) suggests we can't care about more than about 300 people, with the number more likely 150 people.  This isn't just other people, this is you too.  This isn't just you, this is other people as well.  Keep that in mind.  Since our capacity to care about humanity is so low, our ability to repair or change an entire culture is extremely limited.  Thus our social norms are not and can't be designed by any particular person for the masses.  On the other hand, I can only keep track of so many people's personal preferences.  When a culture says something like, "Dirty jokes are okay at work" and the broader culture says "Dirty jokes are never okay when a woman is around," what do you do?  Perhaps your mind checks to see if you know the woman and decide based upon that?  Perhaps you test them with a joke?  What happens if that one joke gets you called in front of HR? I recall one man being written up for calling a group of testers 'test monkeys' (he too was a 'test monkey' in his own opinion), but that insulted one man's sensibilities.  You can't please everyone.

We Are All Unique

The alternative is to say we are all unique.  This idea of course runs counter to Dunbar's number that I can't handle everyone and have to limit myself to a certain set of people whom I use categories for.  Even if we are all unique I can't know how to start with each unique personality.  I start to develop rules, like "this group seems to often act like X" and apply that, but it takes time.  I can't start fresh, not knowing anything.

For example: Does silence means yes or no?

If you answered the question you are wrong.  If you remained silent you might too have been wrong (unless silence means I don't know).  As an example of yes, consider the political process in the EU.  Wiki itself notes that silence doesn't always mean consent.  In one of my Psychology text books back in college, I recall read that in the middle east, a pilot attempted an unscheduled landing and asked for permission to land.  He got no response back and assumed that meant yes.  He got into some rather big trouble when he tried to land and they shot at him, because silence meant no.

If you attempt no assumptions ever, you have to relearn everything every time, and with reading other's writing, you can't even know if the person you are learning is the same each time, as a persona does not equal a person (as Ben Franklin demonstrated).

At least in one example in the article, the author mentions how swearing is fine by her.  One of the commenter noted that she did not feel the same way.  If you can have people upset both ways, you bet there is a third way.  Hell, even asking, which feels a little odd, might upset someone who assumes that the matter is already culturally settled.  Note how I wrote hell just now.  I wonder if I upset any readers or caused them to pause.

Impossibility to Adapt

If you can't adapt because everyone's situation is too dynamic and everything depends, what do you do?  Since we can't adapt and culture is impossible to change by one person, we must suffer, with those who fight to change the situation slowly, making sacrifices for what they believe in.  I don't mean to sound harsh, but the only ways to change a culture is to work really hard at it and often suffer slings and arrows.  Sometimes waiting for others to move on or die off helps, but that takes years.  Alternatively, one can leave or build their own culture.  Basically, no matter which option you take, expect that it will take a lot of work!

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