Freedom to use words rant

(Rosie) #1

So, I have a rant, not aimed at anyone in particular.

And I guess you could call it being the ‘word police’. There are certain words I’d like to use without being told that I’m using the wrong word, or using the word in the wrong context, or using a word that in theory means something else.

A good example is the word ‘break’. Sometimes I like to say testers break stuff. Often it is with humour. Virtually everytime I use it, or when I see others use it, then a tester pops up correcting the use of the word break and how testers don’t break things.

The same applies to other words. QA/quality is another example. Or testing/checking.

It’s all good discussing these things, but it feels like it has gone over the top. To the extent that I know many people are reluctant to contribute to discussions in fear of using the wrong words and being corrected/humiliated.

How To Stop Using "Just"
(Kim) #2

I have definitely felt guilty for using the word QA to describe testing or letting others use it. At the moment I am happy to see my team describe testing or even attempt to talk about it. When I am unsure if we are using the words in a different way to each other I try to ask what they may mean by “checking” or “qa-ing”.

I do use breaking something with humour. But then at the same time there have been moments in the past where something worked as expected but could be broken by sending it an incorrect message or API request resulting in the whole system falling over. You could argue that I was breaking it, in that situation, at least I think so.

Also to touch on the fear of being humiliated. I think it is OK to be reminded that others may misunderstand certain words or that they are loaded with connotations or context, but it should be in the right way. If you are discussing a completely unrelated topic and are then policed on your choice of words I feel this is counter productive. I would love to further discussion with the means we have. Having grown up in Germany and moving to England I know the feeling of being scared to say something wrong but we don’t learn or get better at expressing ourselves if we aren’t given the open and inclusive space to do so.
Sorry for the slight ramble. :slight_smile:

(Chris) #3

If I know that testing can’t be automated and you know that testing can’t be automated, and we both know why it’s important when we make decisions about automation then I genuinely don’t really mind. If you mention automation and it’s got nothing to do with checking then I’m not bothered. I do think there’s a responsibility to use somewhat accurate and careful language, when the audience isn’t fully known, in order to properly represent the idea in the mind of those that don’t study these things in depth, and a responsibility not to be too much of a dick about it when it doesn’t actually matter.

It’s possible to pick anything anyone says apart by treating the heuristic, metaphorical nature of language as a set of rules and finding counterexamples. I think that people who do that are excited to share what they know, especially if they’ve just learned it and want to solidify it in their mind, and share it in a way that’s both correct and annoying. I know for a fact that I’ve done that before, more than once. That doesn’t solve the problem but it might be good to test the waters of the other perspective.

As for being afraid of being part of a discussion I see that as a mixing of three team of people that I’ll stereotype as the Communitarian, the Scientist and the Evil Politician.

The Communitarian wants to engage, learn, teach, share, all in a safe environment without fear of feeling stupid or bullied or making anyone else feel that way. They have a lot of important information to share, especially about the vital social science side of testing. Sometimes they’re permissive of bad or wrong ideas to encourage other ideas or further engagement. They sometimes see human happiness as more important than a good solution to a problem. Sometimes they want to express themselves without it being an analytical discussions - without being told they are wrong, like wanting to show a friend their favourite band without being told that not only are the band rubbish but they’re wrong to like them. They sometimes see the Scientist as a Politician, using pedantry and/or complicated language to create a secret club to exclude them or bully them into silence or just make themselves look smarter.

The Scientist likes evidence and hard logic to be more central in discussions, they know the anti-fragile nature of science and problem solving and are generally okay with vigorous discussion (argument) because they put the solution of the problem above personal feelings. They like accuracy in wording both for clearer communication and thinking and to examine the complex meaning and thinking behind the words. Sometimes they value being correct, or getting to the correct solution, above being empathetic or permissive when both can’t be achieved at once. Sometimes they use complex terms without thinking about whether the other person understands them, assuming they’ll be prompted for clarification. They like to argue over ideas to build an understanding of them. They sometimes see the Communitarian as a Politician, using a “let’s be nice” facade to hide bad thinking and ideas, or trying to gain a reputation for saying something “good-sounding” without being willing to defend it (or attacking the questioners for questioning it)

The Evil Politician likes to look good, feel good about being right and feel that others look on them as smart and knowledgeable. Sometimes they use words to confuse in order to achieve these ends or to control a topic of conversation. Sometimes they use emotional arguments instead of defending or discussing an idea. They exist to build a reputation and have no real interest in the feelings of others or the quality of ideas provided they have an audience who think they’re totally awesome. They sometimes believe they should be able to say whatever they want, in a public space designed for discussion, without criticism and will respond with feigned anger or crocodile tears to manipulate public perception.

Both the Scientist and the Communitarian care about testing and about other people. The Evil Politician cares little for either.

I think it would be childish to think that one person fits into any of these categories. I think it’s healthy, and useful, to acknowledge that there’s some amount (of some parts) of these three people in all of us and they come out at different times. I also think it’s important to acknowledge the same of others.

Sometimes it’d be nice to know whether a conversation is more of a “anything goes in this safe space of love” Communitarian one or a “let’s quest for the truth through Socratic questioning and let’s use all capital letters” Scientist one to establish a level of consent for these things - our anger often comes from a sense that our boundaries have been violated. I have in the past often assumed the Scientist space in Communitarian zones and it didn’t go well for anyone. Either way I think we should try to control the Evil Politicians in all of us, and maybe try to see past the Evil Politicians in others, if we genuinely care about both the craft of testing and each other. Personally I just hope that I find that sort of patience.

(james) #4

You can use any words you want, as long as you understand the consequences of that. One of the consequences of speaking and writing in confusing and incoherent ways is that some people, who value clarity and coherence, will not think as highly of you.

So if you are really asking for permission to be considered smart when you don’t take the trouble to behave smartly, my answer is no-- that’s not how these things work.

The struggle over language reflects real struggle over what we as a community think testing is. I for one have been in this industry 30 years, and I’m sick of it being stuck in childhood. It’s one thing for people to speak in primitive ways when they are just visiting or entering the craft. It’s quite another for someone as experienced as you are to yearn for a simpler time.

In other words, I want the freedom to express what I have learned about testing without being sniped at by people who want to stay stuck. I understand that you don’t feel that you are stuck. This is just a dispute between us that we have to live with.

– James Bach
(I don’t break software. I break illusions about software. And I don’t confuse testing with fact checking.)

(Rosie) #5

Referencing some tweet responses because they get lost so easily. Worth following the threads.

(Alex Langshall) #6

Language nerd and English major here. One of the things I loved about studying language and linguistics was the descriptive approach (looking at how things are actually said and used) versus the prescriptive approach (attempting to set rules for usage).

If I can talk with a developer, and they ask me to do my best to break what they’ve written, I have a good understanding of what they are asking me to do. If a developer blames me for breaking everything, it’s either a developer I know who has a sense of humor (and has heard the “tester’s don’t break things, it was broken when I got here” spiel a hundred times before), or I use it as an opportunity to gently educate.

My developers don’t care about testing vs. checking, or QA/Tester, or any other amount of language nitpickery. We work together towards a set of common language that we can communicate in, which is always going to be imperfect. I only have interest in being prescriptive in my language in the workplace when I feel like my ideas are being misunderstood.

In the testing community, I certainly feel that reluctance to contribute that Rosie mentions. In my mind, language changes to fit the needs of its users. When we get the meaning but squabble over terms, it generates a sense of exclusion. If I’m not in the “in crowd” because I’m not using the “in language” I am not likely to engage in any discourse.

(Maaret) #7

The expression “will not think as highly of you” bothers me. It encourages people who look up to you to not think highly of people who use words, and creates a block for people to speak up, share and write about stuff. Not thinking highly of someone and stating that makes contributing in the online community a negative experience. Surely there’s some amazing testing content to discuss over a war on words. I for one believe in more words rather than wishing there would ever be a common definition.

And while I mostly break illusion, I also break software. In particular when I go and test in production - usually someone else’s production.

(Chris) #8

Edit: tl;dr: Saying that rigour reduces conversation itself reduces another kind of conversation.

(Maaret Pyhäjärvi) #9

Thanks for sharing. I appreciated the expression of being conflicted.


(Anne-Marie Charrett) #10

I like what Alex Langshall wrote above, in particular: " language changes to fit the needs of its users."

I’ve seen educators use and have used word distinctions to great effect. I’ve also found these same distinctions harmful and have lost credibility in using them.

If you’re an educator who is focused on changing how a whole industry thinks about software testing, language distinction (repeatedly expressed) is essential. I don’t see that as word policing, more about trying to get the message out there.

Different for testers who work within teams. I think its important for a tester to understand that education is not the primary goal here. Working together effectively as a team can have greater influence on quality than a tester educating the team on terminology. Enforcing new terminology on people is not always welcomed and a tester has to weigh up the social dynamics of a team before considering the value of new testing terminology. Add to that the fact that many testers are in the minority in teams deciding which battle to chose is important. For many, choosing the language battle is simply not useful and not worth it.

There also exists the quasi-practioner -drawn by ideology but also firmly rooted in the practitioners world. To some degree they are the experimenters, trying out new ideas testing them out in the practitioner’s world. There are invaluable lessons to be learned by listening to these people because they help better understand the value and the difficulty of introducing new language.

I’m not sure if any of that is useful, but hey its a rant right? :wink:

(Shawn) #11

I agree with you entirely. Getting hung up on semantics often causes conversations to be derailed and good concept to be lost.

For those in favor of “clarity” or changing terminology, I would recommend using a different approach than policing and correction. If you honestly don’t understand the conversation, ask a question to clarify. If you do understand what is being discussed and simply feel the need to force your terminology, consider if doing so will enhance the conversation for anyone other than you.

(Matthew) #12

Thanks Rosie. I empathize with you on this one. So much that I started typing, and typing and typing and …

… I think I’ll just make it a blog post and link back to it here later. Give me a week or so. :slight_smile:

(Linda) #13

As a brand new tester, in my first ever story planning meeting with the team,I called our SaaS product a program. Oh the horrors. In front of the group of I was criticized for calling the “app” a “program” and was told to “get the terminology right”.
This one still irritates me to this day.

(Gabe Newcomb) #14

It’s a false dichotomy to imply that the sole alternative to using terms in a way that has been approved by select members of a group is to “speak and write in confusing and incoherent ways”.

If someone is actually being confusing when they talk about automated tests (as opposed to “automated checks”), then sure, let’s clear it up. But I have yet to be confused by someone using that sort of language.

I would argue that telling new folks that they need to change their language when it is NOT confusing is more likely to inhibit the growth of our craft and community. If it’s not a matter of confusion, and it’s not in the context of a discussion over the language of the topic itself (“Let’s talk about whether we should call them automated tests or automated checks”), then it comes off as nit-picking or pedantic to challenge the use of language.

We can always say, “People need to just get a thicker skin and deal with it”, but that doesn’t encourage participation from my perspective.

I can be as anal as the next guy with language, really. But let’s consider what our goals are in this context.

(Chris) #15

It’s easy to go into our imagination and wonder what it would look like to upset someone by being a dick about terminology, and imagine the damage we’re doing.

Let’s assume that we’re the sort of person to seriously question our terminology; to go deeper and thrash out the hidden meaning in our words. Let’s assume that we know the faults of terms like “automation”, but are socially permissive to avoid upsetting people or being seen to suppress a whole idea by taking issue with a part of it (even though we support the strength of the idea by finding its… bugs).

Here’s where I am so frequently reminded of Orwell’s great novel on totalitarianism, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. The party-ruled state was just beginning to introduce “newspeak” - a language based grammatically on English but with a limited vocabulary. English was professed to be too decadent - that much of it was unnecessary - and therefore we can simply reduce the words available to us to express ourselves… but “newspeak” was created (and eventually enforced) not to streamline English but to suppress that expression. Humans think in language, so to limit language is to limit free thought. To change language is to change world-view. In Nineteen Eighty-Four the political party wanted to deliberately limit the expression of the “proles” to reduce dissent and to force the world-view of that party onto the working class. The mechanism still works by accident, though. We can reinforce and spread memes (in the original Richard Dawkins sense of ideas spread in a pseudo-genetic way, the catchier and oft-told ones surviving) about something through the way we choose to speak about it and what we fail to illuminate about the words of others. The news media is always under such intense scrutiny about terms like “alleged” and “terrorist” and “murder” and “so-called Islamic state” because we care intensely what ideas are spread… what ideologies are fed, and which are starved. We use peer review to shred bad ideas in science - the process of ruthlessly attacking people’s ideas… not because we hate people being wrong but because we are in the service of good ideas.

In words like “automation” this happens by an accident - a cruel twist of testing’s dark history. Doctors have abandoned old Galenic words like “humours” and we stuck with “automation”. There’s good reasons behind that, probably the QWERTY keyboard problem and a big sack of money with “test tool” written on it are somewhere in there. A good “automater” knows that they are doing tool-assisted testing (or aiding it) - but there are a myriad of business people who are trying to do what’s best for their business under the world-view limited, twisted and controlled by a term like “automated testing”. Why not call poison “food” if we all know it’s poison? Because someone will get confused and eat it, and I cannot find any way to blame them. The idea that testing can be automated plays its part in the lack of respect we give to testers and testing, dehumanising what we do and cheapening the craft. It gets people - good people who aren’t in love with writing dull and repetitive code - fired, and seriously restricts their hiring opportunities. It drags years of painful, extensive effort to improve the industry backwards. It plays its part in very real-world consequences, and those consequences stretch further than an awkward conversation or hurt feelings - further than my lifetime, off into the future as we stumble awkwardly towards less ignorance. I don’t want a system to flourish that fights too hard in the other direction.

So I think we should have all that in mind when we evaluate our goals in that context.

I think to make any honest steps towards solving this problem we should concentrate on better ways to safely challenge bad ideas - when, where and how to do it instead of suspiciously refusing to do it. Where to change a word and where to tease out new tacit meaning of the old one. When to give someone the floor, and when to initiate a Q and A. How to phrase a challenge as a helpful clarification instead of an attack. With whom this works and with whom it does not. And when our Evil Politicians come out, even when they’re wearing their masks. What we must never, ever do is adopt the stance that damaging ideas are okay, or are automatically insignificant in comparison to some people’s feelings. If I were forced to choose I’d rather encourage progressive craftspeople who really dig into the inner workings of language and philosophy into the industry than people who need to be always right to be happy or who are consistently obtuse in defence of contentment, hiding ignorance instead of acknowledging it. Luckily I totally don’t have to choose, nor do I have to assume anyone is only one of these things, although, knowing all of this, I do have to take responsibility for what damage I do - to individual people, to groups of people, and to the entire industry. This weighs heavy on my thoughts - more than most, probably. It took me out of the community for a while.

Good news, though, we’re testers. We are (if we’re any good) critical thinking professional skeptics who have to deliver bad news with tact and, with that bad news in our hands, prove ourselves to be fighting on the side of the recipient. So if anyone can do it I think we can.

Edit: Call poison food, not call food poison.

(Gabe Newcomb) #16

Very nice points. I was focusing too narrowly on this particular context of tester - tester communication, and not thinking about the harm done in other contexts, where people outside our profession hear things like ‘automated testing’ and actually believe it means, well, automated testing.

(Kate) #17

This is one of those posts where not being able to “like” more than once really hurts. I’d like it to the skies if I could!

(Matthew) #18

I wrote my blog post on this:

(Stefan) #19

I do have a problem with the terminology. Because it affects me in my daily work/career development/sanity after all; and I see it in all the members of the local software and testing environment.

It got to the point that you’re weird, or you don’t understand testing if you think other than:
testing = checking requirements through written test-cases in a test management tool
tested/qaed = tester gives the go that the product is ready for deployment.
functional testing = manual testing
automation/ed testing = automate the test-cases(as much as possible).
there are only a few test types = agile, mobile, performance, security, web, manual, automated
And the list can go on and on…

I’m verifying my sanity from time to time by reading or listening to some people with the same values as me.
But maybe we are the crazy ones?

(Robert) #20

Your Nineteen Eighty-Four reference could be extended further into the Worf-Sapir Hypothesis, which basically says that the nature of the language you speak determines your worldview. This was most recently explored in the film Arrival (and the short story it was based on, Ted Chiang’s The Story of your Life), but that’s probably a discussion for a whole new thread.