Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Positive Negativity

One of the risks of being a tester or QA engineer is that you can come off as a Chicken Little if you're not careful. Part of your job is notifying others of risks, and of telling them about things that are going wrong, that have gone wrong, or that may go wrong. It's all a bit negative, really.

Testing isn't actually a negative profession, though. On the contrary, quite often the system does what you'll expect, and you're finding information that reduces risk. You're proving that the intent of the code matches the desired user experience. You're saving field and customer embarrassment when you do find bugs. These are all positive and good things.

Your tone is what will ultimately dictate how testers come across, and whether you're perceived as a fearful negative type or not. It's not as much about what you say as how you say it. Let's assume you want a positive tone (since after all, you want people to keep you around, and that's more likely to happen if they don't think of you as Dr. Doom And Gloom). There are ways you can say things that will help this. A few tricks are all it takes:
  • Start with the positive. What you say first sets the tone for the conversation. So start with something positive. For example, if it's a status update, start with the tests you did that worked, or showed better than expected results.
  • End with the positive. What you say last will shape what people remember about the conversation and particularly your attitude. So end with optimism. For example, if it's a status update, end with a test you will run rather than a risk you perceive.
  • Be concise and factual about the potentially negative. Present risks, bugs, and other "negative" things without hyperbole and without excessive rhetoric. For the most part, people you're talking with are going to be able to understand the consequences. For example, you might say, "we found this bug. It's a data loss bug, that could affect large customers X, Y and Z." You don't need to go further than that; it's pretty obvious that it should be fixed at that point. Adding rhetoric like, "and we could lose the customer over it" doesn't help any one's understanding of the issue, and only makes you look negative or scared.
  • Just the facts, ma'am. Don't say, "I'm worried that blah." Say, "Under X circumstances, blah may occur." The point is to be the bringer of information, not of fear.
Risk-oriented, possibilities, worry, and negative findings are all part of our business. That doesn't have to mean that we are worriers overly focused on the negative, or that we need to be perceived as such. We can't always control the information we have to present, but we can control how we present it. The calmer and more positive we appear, the less likely we'll be dismissed when something really is wrong. And that's what we want. So present the negative, but do it in a positive, effective way.

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