That tester’s incompetent….hide them

Last year I attended an excellent agile testing conference but came away frustrated at one of the keynote presentations.

One segment of the talk mentioned the often painful transition to agile. The presenter made reference to a British TV show character who is quite nice, but quite dim. In other words, an amiable kind of person but incompetent. Commonly known as an idiot.

The presenter then suggested that in an agile environment there is no room for an incompetent tester. Agreed, but surely the same is true for any environment? IS there a room for an incompetent tester in waterfall?

But what really got my goat was when the presenter suggested that we simply hide this person away from management.

Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/gunnisal/

The first reaction by most people seemed to be that this was a complete farce. This person is a part of the team and hence contributing to the bottom line. Paying a salary for someone who remains hidden? Really? Why would you hide someone away from management? The reasons given were that it was humane when transitioning to agile; to hide them away rather than expose them, then get rid of them. For real?

This spurned some furious discussions afterwards where I was intrigued to hear that many of the attendees thought the incompetent tester should be sacked. After all they are contributing to the bottom line. Get rid of them. And that’s often a sentiment held with many in the agile community. Incompetent testers (any team members too!) can ruin an entire agile project. No room for the weak. Get rid of them. Maybe this is why many testers are worried and negative about moving to agile?

But even this missed the point entirely for me. I found myself asking the question “Is this tester really incompetent or are we just not trying hard enough to integrate them?”

Are we asking the wrong questions, taking the wrong actions, avoiding the hard work, wanting instant results like we are often led to believe is the norm? Sure, on the surface you may think this tester IS incompetent but is this a result of their skills or their environment and lack of motivation?

Maybe this incompetent tester isn’t being given the tasks and challenges that make them enthused. Have we spent time finding out what makes them tick? Have we sat down and tried to get to know them? To understand them? To challenge them? To motivate them? Have we asked them what they think? Have we even trained them or coached them in what agile is?

Have we invested in them with time and energy? Encouraged them to attend inspiring testing conferences? Training Sessions? Local user groups? Pointed them at online communities like The Software Testing Club?

Have we done enough to really come to the conclusion that they are an idiot? Have we explored all the avenues?

If we have, then maybe that’s fair enough. Let them go, but don’t hide them away. However, I would bet a whole £1 that we haven’t invested in this person as much as we could have. And if we don’t do that, then we may never know that this person is a whizz at building automation frameworks, is an absolute star in front of the customer, can articulate complex ideas to non-tech audience or comes alive when performing exploratory testing.

You’ve only got to take a glance around the testing communities to see that some testers are real customer advocates, some love automation, some thrive on efficiency improvements, others love lean and agile, others teach, some berate, some challenge, some build social networks and communities, some are socialisers, some live and breathe quality. Some are funny, others are sad, some are arrogant, some are happy. Some write about testing, some present at conferences and some are super thorough and live for nothing but quality, quality, quality.

It’s this mixed bag of skills, talents and attitudes that make the testing community so interesting. Surely there’s an element of this in your test teams too? Isn’t it just a case of finding out who’s interested in what and giving them work to inspire, challenge and enthuse?

So instead of saying “That tester’s incompetent. Hide them” we should instead be saying “That tester’s got hidden skills, experience and ability. Let’s find out what it is…..and if they are still incompetent at the end of that process then….well, we’ll sort something out” or something like that.

But this is a difficult concept to grasp for many people who see testers as a quantifiable, measurable, certifiable and replaceable person. Hiding them away ignores the fact that testers are complex and diverse. It’s a simple way of ignoring the truth. It’s an easy way of avoiding hard work. It’s an easy way of applying testers to a project as a resource rather than a person. Resources take little maintenance; people have ups and downs, goals and ambitions. Resources act the same each and every week. Testers fluctuate. They need motivation and inspiration.

Leaving the incompetent tester to fall even further behind, hiding them from management and giving them ridiculous job after ridiculous job is not humane. So to suggest that doing so is a humane action by middle management is misguided and painfully difficult for many to comprehend. The humane thing to do would be to invest some time in them, step up and inspire them, get them all fired up and find out what makes them tick. Take responsibility for motivating and inspiring them and their work. Or could it be that I live in a dream world where we all share some responsibility for making our working environments great places to be?

So if someone said to you: “Bob over there is incompetent. Hide him away” …………………………..What would you do?

9 thoughts to “That tester’s incompetent….hide them”

  1. I would challenge that claim by seeking out how I can bring Bob into the team. Which unique contributions does he have that may help me right now? Maybe I find out that Bob is indeed incompetent, but until I haven’t tried to see beyond the certification he showed me during the job interview, I will know nothing.

  2. Hi Bob,I would say that this is a nice read and very true. Mostly hidden talents are not recognized and neither they are given the chance to prove themselves.Their is a movie in India called http://www.taarezameenpar.com/ and its from one of the Finest actors of Indian Cinema. This movies specializes in the issue which you brought and this movie depicts that each person has its own abilities and each one is special. The movie has been directed brilliantly and if you get a chance to see the movie with English Subtitles then i would recommend that this movie is a must see. Most of the times i have experienced same situation in the companies with their attitude towards few people who they consider as Idiots.Those people are never given a chance to prove themselves and neither given a chance for improvement rather they are given the most lousy task of the team something like excel sheet maintenance or other mundane tasks instead of giving them trainings or listening to what they are best at.I am with you on your views.Madhukar

  3. Well said! I’d also add that this applies to software development too. I follow quite a few agile/scrum blogs and this issue of how it ‘deals’ with those who don’t quite ‘fit’ remains unresolved for me. I hope it’s not an implicit admittance that there’s no room for personal development/improvement within agile.

  4. Good post Rob. Claims of incompetence should, as Markus said, be challenged and I think this should be done on two levels:First I think we need to question the process that Bob is being involved in. Does Bob have any views on how effective the process is? Can it be improved upon? So often, I find, the appearance of incompetence highlights the fact that the underlying process is flawed. It just takes someone to be observant enough to notice!Secondly it might be that Bob’s skillset is unsuitable for the job he is being asked to do. In which case I would seek to move him onto a job that makes use of his skills. After all, everyone is skilled at something!Just my take…Stephen

  5. @Markus – Thanks for the comment. It is indeed very difficult to gauge skillsets without probing further. The certification is nothing if we don’t understand the picture of the person underneath.@Madhukar – I’ll be sure to search out the film. Everyone does indeed have a talent and skill, mostly which gets glossed over in the never ending search for an easy life as a manager. Thanks for the comments@Phil – It does worry me sometimes that the agile community is ignoring the fact that people can grow and develop…but that it takes time. The agile community is heavily focussed on personal growth but it seems to set an arbituary high level of competence for entry, which in my experience is not justified and often irrelevant. It assumes certain “roles” for people which require certain skillsets. Many don’t understand that the “roles” can be achieved through collaboration between more than one of the team members 🙂 Thanks for the comments@stephen – I like how you turned it around and asked Bob what he thought. I missed that crucial step out of the blog post. Feedback from the team is essential 🙂 Thanks for the commentsRob..

  6. As with most things…..it depends. There are a lot of things to think about. What does Bob think? What has he done or what is he doing or not doing that has somebody thinking he is incompetent? Is this a shared view? Is this a shared view through experience working with him or just hearsay? Maybe he is the CEO’s son and isn’t incompetent he just knows he’ll never get fired so isn’t trying.Is he bored and unchallenged? Was he seconded to the test team for a period and ‘got stuck’ there?Could incompetency be a bonus? There are incompetent users right? Pair him up with someone and test away!If I’m a tester in a heavily Waterfall, test script, separate teams environment and during or after a test script I get an idea and start testing offscript in their eyes I could be seen as incompetent. ‘That tester can’t even follow a script!!’It all comes down to the words we are all familiar with and use often, ‘it depends…’

  7. I remember your last post about this.It stuck, and I have been pondering about it now and then.I quite recently saw a presentation about transitioning to Agile, and there were two testers in the group that had important and special skills, but the Agile way in that situation wasn’t comfortable to them, and they quit.This was said as a fact without any sadness (as far as I could tell.)It doesn’t feel right.I think, as you write, that we need to care more about each other, and try hard to pull out the best of everyone.If you have a group where Agile will make some members perform worse, maybe you should consider not moving?Since it should be the result of the whole group that matters?Or rather you should change/improve your processes in a way so it is good for everybody.

  8. Switch context for a minute: if you were working with a professional jazz band, what would you do with an incompetent player? How about a dance troupe? Or pit crew for a race car?For one thing, such organizations do not employ incompetent people, members have to pass auditions and continue to perform at a very high level in order to be a part of the organization. How did you manage to hire an incompetent person in the first place?For another thing, agile teams tend to value people with expertise in multiple areas, almost always including expertise in some aspect of programming. If someone has expertise in managing handoff documentation and process enforcement, that person should rightly be let go, so they may exercise those skills in a different environment. If you have a show at Carnegie Hall, it is too late if the saxophone player doesn’t know his scales. If you are racing the Daytona 500, it is too late to tell someone on the pit crew to learn how an auto transmission work.

  9. Hi Chris,Thanks for commenting. Good points you make and in last minute situations or crucial software deadline environment then maybe letting them go is the best thing. In my experience I’ve seen people employed for a role that has shifted dramatically but they’ve not had the personal investment (or push to self teach/learn) to keep up so they are lacking, or they’ve simply lost the will to carry on. They are demotivated not de-skilled. They just need the right person to fire them up and get them learning again.I’m with you; if they are incompetent then remove, but shouldn’t we at least do some digging and try and find out whether that veneer we get shown is in fact reality?The crux of the post is not about keeping deadwood. If they are truly incompetent then let them go, but let’s not hide them away and pretend they aren’t there. That’s not right. That’s not right whether agile or waterfall or any other way of working.You mention : “How did you manage to hire an incompetent person in the first place?”Have you been lucky enough to work with highly skilled, “get it right a lot of the time” people? Have you not worked in teams where some testers just aren’t cutting it? There are countless stories of testers not knowing what they are doing yet they remain happily employed for years. They become part of the woodwork so to speak. I like your analogy to Jazz musicians and am always drawn to thinking of Miles Davis’ superb album “kind of blue” which simply wouldn’t have been possible if the whole “band” hadn’t been superb at their own instruments. But it’s more than being superb at playing their instrument, it’s about gelling as a unit and being passionate about what you do.But as a fan of Jazz I’m also painfully aware that there are some seriously bad musicians too or seriously good musicians let down by the rest of the band. I was a blues gig a while back and the drummer didn’t show so they grabbed a friend from the crowd who could play fairly well and he essentially ruined the whole gig. He just didn’t find his rhythm. The team didn’t function as a whole. So yes. It can be too late if you are at the gig and you suddenly find you are lacking ability. The lad across the road from me plays the drums in a 14 piece cuban band and he complains that their bongo player and secondary singer aren’t cutting the quality needed to be in the band. Yet they haven’t got rid of them, instead they’ve scheduled more practice sessions (much to my annoyance) and have brought in a singing coach. So they’ve addressed the issue rather than hide it and if in a few months time there has been no improvement then no doubt they will get rid, but at least they tried.Rob..

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