Monday, September 21, 2015

Women (like me) in Testing

Long time ago, I was sitting with my university presentation skills teacher discussing feedback I needed to give on a presentation of mine she just forced me to watch on video as part of the course. The experience was painful, but life changing. That discussion made me start my journey to become a public speaker.

There was another bit that she said that I brushed off and only thought about again recently. She told me I’m a feminist. I laughed and kindly declined the label. I did not need to stand up for women’s rights; there were no issues I had experienced. If I did not experience them, perhaps others did not either. I held this belief a long time.

Last autumn I met a lady, who woke me up to think about this again. She was a programmer, younger than me but with plenty of experience and she said exactly what I had said two decades ago: she’s not a feminist. There’s no need to work particularly on women in tech. I realized that as time had passed, I had started to accept other people’s genuine experiences that were different than mine. And I had run into some myself.

The discussion made me realize I had grown used to the idea of being a feminist. A woman who thinks equality is important. It’s about caring to do something about equality. I realize all feminists are not the same, and I don’t care so much about the label that I’d like to go into long discussions about it.

Since then, I’ve been picking up on cues of what I’m experiencing. I find the courage to share these ideas, since nowadays there’s an amazing group of women in testing and through getting to know this large group of wonderful testing professionals, I find that sharing my lessons might be of value to others. So let me share a few stories on the theme of being a woman like me.

I work too hard to be excellent

I’m the oldest of 6 children in my family. Two of us have ended up working with software. For years and years, my siblings that were not in this industry laughed at the geeky hobbies and work, making remarks of unsocial aspects of staring at the screen all day. The two of us that share the passion of the industry, infiltrate the realities of our work on many family meetings. It’s not uncommon for me and my brother to get into a heated argument of “can all testing be automated” in Christmas table. And the others endure our geeky ways, when we go into details of cool bugs and difficult things we’ve had the pleasure to work with.

As the difference in our geeky ways was established already a long time ago, I haven’t really talked about it so much with my non-software siblings. A week ago I did, and I learned something I consider profound.

My non-software sister has recently studying programming as an option of future work. She’s had a great coach working through some basic materials, and making nice progress on seeing how all this programming stuff isn’t that impossible after all. With changes in her current work, she needed to take time off from learning programming, so she came to talk to me about some joint learning efforts we had been thinking. We talked about teaching kids (girls in particular) programming and the world of computers, and I was asking for her advice on how to make progress on that. And her advice was surprising, but very honest.

“You’re a bad role model”, she explained. “Looking at what you do to succeed in the industry gives the impression that you have to work twice as hard, and be extraordinary, and driven”, she continued. “You need role models who are just normal, average. Like some of the guys you work with”.

With her telling me this, a lesson sank in. I live with a double standard. I expect more of myself than of others. And my gender just might have something to do with it.

I’m afraid of gender issues

My story with my teacher long ago shows I did not consider myself a feminist. I stayed with my beliefs of feminism being unnecessary for a long time, dismissing conflicting evidence. I did not want to believe gender could be relevant. It’s all hard work, right? It’s what you do what matters?
I’ve been treated very equally at work. The negative parts about how I get treated I’ve always attributed to being a tester. I remember one manager giving me feedback on being too abrasive, and that I needed to pad my messaging about issues and bugs better. That is a typical thing to hear as a tester, after all we tell developers regularly that their babies are ugly. I learned to communicate better, and took the feedback as typical tester feedback.

On two occasions, I’ve had a developer come and reveal to me after finding some particularly nasty bugs that they knew of those and left them in intentionally to try out if I would find them. Doing things like that is just stupid, even irresponsible, after all I do not find all of the bugs and tricking me isn’t really the thing collaboration is about. But again, I take that as the stupid things people do to testers.

As a tester, I’m really good at what I do. And I love my work, the joy of hunt for the bugs that so often are things no one would code in intentionally.

Recently with more programming tasks, the style of comments has started to change. People around me slip out sexist remarks and recognize my reaction: extreme discomfort. It creates two counter-reactions: I step away back into my comfort zone and wish I would never enter the world where people are treated differently based on their gender; and it makes me find my fighting spirit, telling myself I’ll show them all.

Where testing energizes me, the fear of being treated differently (with special attention, or belittling what I can or want to do or what I have done) drains me. Testing is safe. Programming is not. And when these issues arise, I’ve learned that managers will have hard time dealing with them. The best they seem to be able to do is to silence them, but they remain in people’s minds even if they learn to keep it to themselves.

I’ve come to realize that choosing testing comes partly from being safe of that difference I cannot change: my gender. Not that I would want to change it even. I love being me.

Realizations of some of the differences

I’m not a fan of generalizations, and don’t want to make one here on women. But I wanted to share some insights on gender differences I’ve picked up recently that resonate with me.

On a talk by Coraline Ada Ehmke on “He does not work here anymore”, she shares an idea on how women and men communicate differently. She describes this in a geeky way that resonated well with me. While men’s style resembles a straightforward request-reply protocol (“I ask, you respond to what I asked”), women tend to communicate with metadata in addition to the request-reply. The metadata encodes information about what kind of a response would be appropriate right now. If you miss that, the communication fails. I recognize that in so many cases of miscommunications, both at home and at the office.

Another difference that I started noticing is in how we deal with rejection and getting a no. I realized this from a personal point of view first, in the dating scene. Men might have to grow to become used to getting no and still asking for things. Like a friend pointed out, without asking and probing for relationship statuses, it would be hard to find that someone special. And we do spend a lot of time in the professional circles. Women might get used to, especially when working in tech, not having to ask even when they might want to. I started recognizing how much work I’m willing to do work around things where the answer, when asked directly, could be a No. For me at least, a bit more of training on being told No and still asking for things would do a lot of good. I suspect there might be a gender tendency here. Perhaps that tendency shows in why women don’t end up keynoting, because in the field of testing, “lack of merit” does not really explain the inequality there. I’ve learned that a lot of men that keynote ask to do so. They’re told no a lot of times. Quoting the “Talk like TED” book, “Every ‘no’ means you’re one step closer to yes”. A new friend in twitter is almost as wise:
Great advice, but sometimes unbelievably hard to follow. At least for me.

To end this with

My fear with posting this blog post is that the trend of labeling me on my gender just increases. My earlier commentaries on not finding keynoting women already make me sad, when meeting people in conferences that now only recognize that bit about me. I post this with the hopes of some of this somehow resonating, to share my stories. Posting this I consider a step on a personal journey of growth, learning to trust that I different sides of me can exist.

Writing about my experiences does not mean it’s my duty to drop all other work to engage in a debate about true nature of e.g. feminism. But I’m happy to have civilized discussions that aim for better understanding in the scope of what I’m experiencing and thinking.