Competent People and Conference Keynotes

My colleague and friend Anne-Marie Charrett has a thing about women. A) She is one. B) She feels that not enough of them are speaking at testing conferences. (See also Fiona Charles’ post on this subject.) I support Anne-Marie’s cause partly because I support the woman herself and it would make her happy. This is how humanity works: we are tribal creatures. Don’t deny it, you will just sound silly.

There is another reason I support their cause, though. It’s related to the fact that we people are not only tribal creatures. We are also creatures of myth, story, and principle. Each of us lives inside a story, and we want that story to “win,” whatever that may mean to us. Apart from tribal struggles, there is a larger meta-tribal struggle over what constitutes the “correct” or “good” or “moral” story.

In other words, it isn’t only whom we like that motivates us, but also what seems right. I’m not religious, so I won’t bother to talk about that aspect of things. But in the West, the professional status of women is a big part of the story of good and proper society; about what seems right.

The story I’m living, these days, is about competence. And I think most people speaking at testing conferences are not competent enough. A lot of what’s talked about at testing conferences is the muttering of idiots. By idiot, I mean functionally stupid people: people who choose not to use their minds to find excellent solutions to important problems, but instead speak ritualistically and uncritically about monsters and angels and mathematically invalid metrics and fraudulent standards and other useless or sinister tools that are designed to amaze and confuse the ignorant.

I want to see at least 50% of people speaking at conferences to be competent. That’s my goal. I think it is achievable, but it will take a lot of work. We are up against an entrenched and powerful interest: the promoters-of-ineptness (few of whom realize the damage they do) who run the world and impose themselves on our craft.

Why are there so many idiots and why do they run the world? The roots and dynamics of idiocracy are deep. It’s a good question but I don’t want to go into it here and now.

What I want to say is that Anne-Marie and Fiona, along with some others, can help me, and I can help them. I want to encourage new voices to take a place in the Great Conversation of testing because I do believe there is an under-tapped pool of talent among the women of testing. I am absolutely opposed to quotas or anything that simply forces smaller people with higher voices onto the stage for the sake of it. Instead let’s find and develop talent that leads us into a better future. This is what SpeakEasy is all about.

Maybe, if we can get more women speaking and writing in the craft, we will be able to imagine a world where more than 50% of keynote speakers are not spouting empty quotes from great thinkers and generic hearsay about projects and incoherent terminology and false dichotomies and ungrounded opinions and unworkable heuristics presented in the form of “best practices.”

I am not a feminist. I’m not going to be one. This is why I have work to do. I am not naturally biased in favor of considering women, and even if I were, can I be so sure that I’m not biased in favor of the attractive ones? Or against them? Research suggests no one can be complacent about overcoming our biology and gender identity. So, it’s a struggle. Any honest man will tell you that. And, I must engage that struggle while maintaining my implacable hostility to charlatans and quacks. The story I am living tells me this is what I must do. Also, Anne-Marie has asked for my help.

Here’s my call to action: To bring new beautiful minds forth to stand against mediocrity, we need to make the world a better, friendlier place especially for the women among us. I’m asking all you other non-feminists out there to consider working with me on this.

15 thoughts on “Competent People and Conference Keynotes

  1. A feminist is someone who believes women and men should have equal rights. You don’t believe this?

    [James’ Reply: I believe I don’t care about that. I don’t think you should care about rights, either. Misery in the world is not caused by lack of rights. It’s caused mostly by powerful people crushing the weak. “Rights” don’t fix that.

    What I care about is alleviating human misery, wherever I find it, to the degree I am able to do so. I believe in setting people free, and I wrote a book about that (Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar). I hope that makes me your ally, in some sense. But no, I’m not a feminist.

    You could call me a pluralist. I believe in living peacefully in the world that includes many people who don’t agree with me. I want to live in a world where people respect agreements. I want to live in a world of laws. I want to live in a world where any tribe, such as women (or men, or left-handed people, or high school dropouts or atheists) can lobby for laws that please them. I want this to be done in a humane and flexible way.

    I have the heart of a patriarch, that’s true. But that makes me better able to help you: I know how to talk to a man so that he feels respected. It’s very important that we make a world where men respect themselves, and believe that their lives are meaningful and that they are powerful. This is more important, maybe, then you might think it is. Because the root of most of the savagery (including raping, pillaging, killing and all that) in the world is young men for whom the pursuit of power is more important than the lives of the people (men and women, both) whom they intimidate or destroy. If women are to get anything like rights that you want them to have, they will need to be surrounded and supported by phalanxes of men who are psychologically healthy. This does not come from showering men with scorn.

    If you call me a feminist, you will hurt my ability to help you. Because “feminist” is a political term with a great deal of baggage. It does not simply mean what you say it means.

    So, I’m offering to help you, and I’m offering to persuade other men to help you. Even if what I say doesn’t please you, consider whether attacking me– for instance by challenging me with a simplistic litmus test of ideology– is really in your own best interest.]

  2. It’s possible that Susan’s point stands that according to a very recent debate on the definition of the term “feminist” you are indeed describing yourself as a feminist.

    [James’ Reply: Such a definition is not consistent with history, nor does it explain the behavior of people who typically label themselves feminist. But it is an understandable political gambit.]

    Perhaps not a “feminist” in the context of the mid-1960’s American business culture, but certainly in the 2014 reactions to the word’s evolving use and application.

    [James’ Reply: Like I said, if you label me that you will not be helping me.]

    Of course, it is my quest to ameliorate self-contradiction and hypocrisy at any opportunity, so it might be wise to consider two things. First, my own wife invited me to review this paper ( whereby the authors write: “The challenge facing feminist theorists therefore is to reconceptualize autonomy from a feminist perspective. The term “relational autonomy” is often used to refer to reconceptualizations of the notion of autonomy to contrast feminist accounts with those that presuppose atomistic conceptions of the self.”

    [James’ Reply: I don’t know what that means. The writing is so poor that I find myself not interested in finding out what it means.]

    My observation here is that the simplified concerns of gender equality as a core tenet of feminism flies in the face of the internalized realization of said tenet. Even if you are not a feminist, you may be acting in a way that supports a feminist ideal by not engaging with an attitude that further complicates the struggle that women themselves may have in exercising autonomy and equality in their own minds.

    [James’ Reply: I focus on kindness and empathy. I hope that’s enough. I am a man. I have a man’s nature. I experience the struggles inside of me that men understand. (The struggles we cannot speak of publicly. You know what I mean.) I am largely successful in my struggles– which means that I am willing to help people, professionally, regardless of their gender complex. But I will not deny that the struggle is difficult. I see too many men PRETENDING that they are unbiased. I believe I can see through their masks. Indeed when men get together the masks come a little loose and sometimes fall away completely.]

    Hence, my second point being that you are writing a post on your own blog in support of equality for women as a self-proclaimed non-feminist. Perhaps arguing about whether you are, or are not a feminist also flies in the face of simply supporting women’s equality, which I observe your actions to indeed be supporting.

    [James’ Reply: I don’t want to argue about whether I am or am not. I do want you to accept I am not. First, because I will only deal with people on my own terms. Secondly, because I want you to understand that feminists NEED non-feminists if they are going to get where they desire to go– and I am presenting myself as an example of how that can work. It’s a statement of hope!]

    At least I think I got my idea out there – in some way. Certainly thought you’d like the article!



  3. James, thank you for reminding me of my own my master’s degree talk (back in 2002) full of “generic hearsay about projects and incoherent terminology and false dichotomies and ungrounded opinions and unworkable heuristics” and guess what – I got 10.
    Anyway, what I am thinking about conference speaker functional stupidity: probably this is not the problem of an offer. Maybe that’s the demand. How much conference participants are functionally stupid? How much of them are open to learn something that goes against their boss ideas?
    Finally, when you suggest to “make the world a better, friendlier place” it does sound like a part of keynote speech, doesn’t it? Do you think we have a choice to make an average test manager more open for new ideas, accepting they were wrong for years. I can’t imagine them suggesting their subordinates to do testing the way they don’t know how to manage? I’ve used to be one of them and I remember to reject smart ideas to replace mediocrity.

    [James’ Reply: Humanity is a hard case, Ainars. I accept that. I still think we can make it a little better, at least locally.]

  4. I see a world with rigorous religious beliefs. It is based on awe, ambiguity, redundant processes. It is like the highly religious areas/times where everything is done by “The Book”. Scientific discoveries are feared and judged if they don’t conform to their book. The world is very much akin to the standardized, process-ridden world of testing. New discoveries are stomped to the ground, new ideas are feared – old, dusty tome rules the world. Old world of testing is like the Medieval Europe.

    The new world of testing tries to do what science tries to do nowadays: discover, explain, create and facilitate. We need the people of “new testing world”, the people of Intelligent Testing to take things forward, improve what we have, debunk the myths of testing, innovate and inspire!

    You mention idiots who run the world. The people who lead the idiots might be clever, but they fear that their followers grow more intelligent. Their spells don’t work on bright minds. That is why the intelligent people get shamed publicly by idiots, their discoveries ridiculed, innovations overlooked. The idiots’ downfall is to have the intelligent people stand against them. We should educate them, show them the way out of the shadow onto the fields of sunshine and proper testing.

    I realize that I use the same arguments the idiots use. “Show them away from the shadow” and whatnot. Sometimes people just require shaking and guidance towards the vast pool of knowledge. Then they can use their own intelligence to create their own view of the world. I can’t think for them. I can help them think and understand.

    I have no reason to believe that males have something more to give than females. I shall try my best to bring out the best in people. Both male and female. I will support the cause, in my own little way, by not discriminating testers by gender. My goal is to make everyone a better tester. Some of them might get the spark of intelligent testing and I shall help them build that spark into a bond fire.

    [James’ Reply: Good points. Thank you.

    I am more comfortable hearing from men than women. And among men I am more comfortable hearing from sharp, assertive men than from men who are more passive. I know that about myself. I forgive myself for that. But this is why I suspect I have not heard enough from women (or passive men). Sometimes we have to move away from what we are comfortable with in order to find something important. As testers, we know this.]

  5. Here’s the help I can give
    1) I founded QA or the Highway and am its president. We put on a1-day conference in Columbus, Ohio. I’m a firm believer in getting folks to share more than they do, as a result, we intentionally allocate sessions for women and new speakers. We will continue to do so. We accept the risk that they may not be original, competent, or good. But we give them the chance – and work with any speaker needing assistance. Our conference has an opening and closing keynote. I’d like see one or both be given by competent speakers who are women. Just have them contact me [I prefer to have my email address sent to them privately]. Our next conference will be Tuesday Feb 16, 2016.
    2) any woman wanting to get into speaking, or progress towards keynote speaking, I’m willing to volunteer some time to share my experiences and insights.

  6. First let me say I am a woman. Secondly I speak at testing conferences like Stareast and Startwest, local stuff like TISQA, Agile Development east, and CukeUPNYC. HOWEVER, it was not easy to get into those conferences. I can say for each one I had to have my mentor(Bob Galen) do an introduction OR do a workshop or shared speech with Bob to finally get accepted to do my own. I had applied to several of these conferences for years but with no luck, not until Bob lent his hand out. My point is, it’s political like most things are and to know someone at top you have to build relationships to get there. Most women I know don’t have a mentor or take time to build relationships networking b/c they have to much to do when they get home, while their husbands are out networking. So while I completely support your cause, please continue to mentor women, help introduce them to the decision makers and maybe just maybe we might get 50% better speakers…b/c I completely agree with your point.

    PS Mark T..who really cares if your a feminist or not…:)


  7. Can you elaborate on your views on risk based testing? Leadership at my company has started pushing this in training sessions so I found it interesting that you linked to an article about it while talking about mathematically invalid metrics.

    [James’ Reply: Mathematical calculations of software risk are pretty much bullshit. I use heuristic risk-based testing. There is an article about that on my site.]

  8. I get frustrated when I read articles like this. It sounds all nice and simplistic when I read the articles. “Where are the women speakers?” I’ve been doing QA for most of the last 18 years (granted I spent the first 11 doing QA in a chemical-based labs, not CS). I spend most days hoping I don’t say something in a meeting that’s going to get me the “oh she means well,” or “It’s nice that you try, but…” comments, or at least the subtle versions.
    Why do you think I’d believe that a) I’m competent enough to step up on that stage where polysyllabic jargon is thrown around as though the speaker is attempting to prove they’ve studied the Ubiquitous 400, linguistics, and everything Dan North every wrote anywhere including his napkin in the lobby, or b) that I want to place myself as the low hanging fruit to be beaten on?
    I can find 203 records with 1 variable value incorrectly stored in a million record relational database whether I’m using a SQL query or the UI. But, if you want me to tell you what that’s called, forget it. Does that make me an idiot?

    [James’ Reply: It does not make you an idiot.]

    Do I want to have my voice heard in the overall discussions in this field? Sure. Will I be heard even if I scream from the rafters? Not a chance. I hold no delusions about that. Most of the women in this field have been made to feel like the idiots you’re so quick to shun. Why would we think we should be the ones getting up there to speak?

    [James’ Reply: You are speaking up, now. I am listening.

    There’s a part of me that feels glad when someone is successfully intimidated or otherwise discouraged from competing with me and my friends in the public eye. There’s another part, which is a little more powerful, that feels ashamed when that happens.

    You don’t have to speak at conferences. But if you want to, there are some people who are hoping you will let them help you get out there.]

  9. First let me apologize for the intensely emotional reaction in my previous comment. I am sorry. It was not intended to be aggressive.

    [James’ Reply: I didn’t perceive it as aggressive. I got the sense you were feeling discouraged. That is understandable.]

    Second, I want to say that there have been a lot of discussions publicly and professionally about women in CS and in STEM careers. I’ve suddenly found people asking me about my career. I have continued to go into work day after day. I’ve put my nose to the grind stone when I’ve been less than popular. That is all. I am not anything special for having survived in a male-dominated field (though I am apparently annoyed by people quoting Dan North’s napkins, lol).
    All I can say is that there is no magic wand to wave which will “fix” a product that is out of balance – and the same goes for an occupational field. In my experience, it takes a couple major changes, followed by small, subtle tweaks to bring it back into spec. I imagine the same would be true in changing the speakers at a conference – whether by gender, level of competence, or any other trait. However, I do want to say thank you for helping that first major change happen.

    [James’ Reply: Good point.]

    Since you are listening:

    I would also appreciate seeing more speakers who said something I felt was noteworthy. I have not attended conferences in the past because all I’ve ever seen them produce were the trendy buzzwords of the moment (typically a regurgitation of previous popularized approaches). If I have to hear another presenter talk about how they’ve found a way to quantify QA or efficiencies–

    [James’ Reply: I agree. I recommend CAST or the Let’s Test conferences. There are not so many of those kinds of talks.

    However, I must say that I go to a lot of conferences– but rarely go to the presentations. I go to conferences to confer with people, not to be talked at.]

  10. I’m not interested in getting into a debate about radical political ideologies. There are other forums for that.

    I just have a few questions about two of the assertions made. Maybe you can help me:

    1. What is “competency”, how would one identify it in this particular field, and how have you determined that less than 50% of conference speakers meet that standard? If it is simply the number of speakers who practice functional stupidity, then is it a horizontal analysis of presentation content? Or self-reporting surveys? Or some other mechanism?

    [James’ Reply: Competency is the state of being qualified to perform certain work. In other words, the ability to perform well at some specific task. Competency in testing involves both skills and knowledge. It’s often difficult to tease apart the various bits of knowledge and skill that confer competence, partly because it’s hard to see the mechanics of skill at work, and partly because there is more than one way to perform most tasks.

    I identify competency based on my full career of being a tester, test manager, test consultant, and training people to be such. I study testing, tinker with different ways of teaching it and explaining it. Through the years I have developed my own competence, and with the help of my community have established a rough standard of what it means to behave reasonably as a tester. The main way I analyze competence quickly is to identify disqualifiers. For instance, if a speaker calls his favorite heuristic a “best practice,” that’s evidence of incompetent methodology. If someone uses the concept of an average without a care for variance, that is incompetent use of statistics. If someone can’t abide critical questions being raised by people in the audience, that is incompetence as a practicing contributor to the craft.]

    2. If a majority people are “incompetent” (i.e., that they practice functional stupidity as a means to self-preservation in the workplace), then what leads you to believe that expanding the pool of speakers would necessarily change the proportion of smart speakers to “stupid” ones? In other words, what evidence suggests that the shape of the pie wedges wouldn’t just stay the same, as the size of the pie expanded?

    [James’ Reply: Incompetence itself is not a thing to be overly concerned about. Every competent tester began as an incompetent one. We can grow out of it. Functional stupidity is something else– it is the determination to deny the value of competence. It is a celebration of incompetence.

    Increasing the size of the pool does not increase the proportion of people IN THE POOL who are competent. It increases the absolute number of competent people (and proto-competent people) that come to the attention of other competent people. This is what universities do. They act as concentrators– bringing people from far and wide into close proximity for better learning and collaboration. Furthermore, we need to obtain critical mass as a community, so that it begins to pull in even more people by its own gravity.]

  11. Defining competency in testing by its “silhouette” against incompetency, is an interesting idea. But the disqualifiers that draw that outline still seem arbitrary to me.

    [James’ Reply: “Arbitrary” means without reason. I have reasons for each thing I mentioned. I can defend each one. I don’t think you mean arbitrary. I think you mean non-comprehensive, or perhaps subjective. Indeed, I wouldn’t propose the examples I gave as a complete form of analysis. I was just giving you some examples. The comprehensiveness of my analysis is not relevant. One stop-ship bug can disqualify a release. I believe I find stop-ship bugs in most speakers I encounter. Yes, it’s somewhat subjective, but most of the subjectivity has to do not with the facts of the matter but my choices about what is important. Different people feel different things matter. So you can decide if you trust my judgment on that. As with everything else, my judgment is open to your review to some degree.]

    Perhaps its just because your list was merely exemplary and not exhaustive. It would be helpful if there were a way to identify some core characteristics in common among all the disqualifiers, because then we might be able to come up with a positive definition related to those characteristics. E.g., from your examples, perhaps:

    * appeals to authority (in the form of buzz words like “best practice”)
    * selection bias or “cherry picking” (in the form of ignoring variance)
    * defensiveness or identifying with one’s own argument

    [James’ Reply: I would break it down differently.

    The use of best practice is only an appeal to authority when an authority is cited. I find, usually, it’s an appeal to helplessness. It’s a proud declaration of the refusal to take responsibility for one’s own choices. It is pretense; fraud.

    Ignoring variance is possibly selection bias, but I think, more to the point, it represents both a basic ignorance about statistics and lack of the mental hygiene that characterizes a serious thinker. Don’t promote mathematics that you have no basis or reason to think you understand! Mathematics is not poetry. You can’t just mush numbers together and call it art. Clothing your preconceived ideas in the authority of mathematical trappings is another kind of fraud.

    Defensiveness is not wrong. I don’t mind that people want to defend their ideas. I don’t mind that they get emotional about it. That is not a competence issue for me. The competence issue is when you stand up, put your ideas out to your peers, and yet expect them not to respond critically. If you are over the age of 10, you cannot expect applause for bad work.]

    Which would all point to a general incompetence in critical reasoning skills. Something I actually find is a problem not just in testing, but in almost all walks of life. If these are exemplary of most of the signals you’ve identified, then it would seem the scope of the problem is far beyond the software industry.

    As for #2, I see what you mean about the pool. The point is to make sure that everyone in the “smart” pie wedge knows each other, can organize efforts, and affect change from that concentrated effort.

    Thanks for the clarifications!


  12. Random Idea(s): Women, Twitch, Test Challenges/Topics, Contest/Feedback, you host, winners get a chance to guest speak. Provides a speaking platform to find potential that can be groomed and eventually elevated into the spot light on a particular subject. Might even be a decent business model in there somewhere.

    Twitch your testing challenges might also be a fantastic idea. Anything like that out there?

    [James’ Reply: I’ve never tried Twitch. Don’t know anything about it. Say more.]

  13. there’s this guy you probably have heard of him, Franz Fanon? Well, in any case, he starts a book with this sentence in the first few graphs,

    “There are too many idiots in this world, and having said that I’ve the burden of proving it.” And like a man of character would, he does go on to write a book to do. A few actually.

    [James’ Reply: I have not heard of him. But, I don’t understand. Are you saying that he has proven there are too many idiots in the world? If so, why are you yapping at me when I am apparently agreeing with him? Why would you cite a reference that seems to undermine your point?

    Do you really disagree with my feelings on this, or are you merely complaining that I didn’t include all the experience and reasoning that leads me to it?]

    James, for all I know you could be an idiot by one of your own functional definitions having evolved over time or a genius fighting for self – serving principles still not living by them.

    [James’ Reply: For all you know? Why don’t you know? You have my blog before you. You see my website. You can google me. You can see my videos on YouTube. I’ve published two books and edited a third. What point are you making other than that you are pretty lazy and uninterested yet strangely enthusiastic about insulting me?

    I believe I am living by my principles. But if you’d like to cite one that you feel I am not living by, I’d like to hear it.

    Whereas my professional life is rather public and reasonably available for your review, your own life seems to be hidden. I tried googling you based on the email you provided and I have found nothing at all. Are you not concerned that I will conclude that you are just some idiot? Give me some sign that there is more to you than bile and whining.

    In case this comment was motivated by a desire to offer me useful advice, let me assure you that I am well aware that many people don’t care at all what I think. I take it on faith that many people find what I say actually irritating. It seems you may be one of those. I assume that those people don’t read my blog, however. Or if they do, not for long. And if they comment, they lose their appetite for that pretty quick.]

    So, more power to you and I merry opinions!

    [James’ Reply: Yes. Merry opinions to all.]

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