Damian Synadinos of Ineffable Solutions joins us to talk about the importance of strong communication skills when software testers are challenged with explaining their findings—or their value—to others outside of the testing world. Learn why semantics are worth getting “bogged down in” to avoid being misunderstood within your organization.

Can’t listen right now but want to know why software testers especially should continuously sharpen their communication skills? A transcript of this episode is provided below.

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Noel: Damian, I was in your session yesterday and really enjoyed it a lot. We talked a little bit beforehand about how semantics and software testing was kind of a natural fit for my interests based on my background and my work in marketing, trying to find the best words to use and effective words, but also words not to use that are going to give me the opposite of what I’m looking for.

So, we can talk about semantics for testers, specifically; but, at the same time, what is it about being in tech, or in business, or whatever your field is, whatever industry you’re in, where semantics may not be something you wanted to have gotten “bogged down in” or dealt with in the past, but what’s something about semantics that people might not understand that can really help them out in what they’re doing?

Damian: Well, I think one thing that drew me to semantics is the diversity of my experience. I’ve been at a lot of companies over the last 25 years, and I’ve seen a lot of the same issues and problems. Doing some, whatever you want to call it, root cause analysis, digging down, trying to find the underlying reasons for these symptomatic, superficial problems, I encountered the same things over and over. It was the same kind of fundamental things that were causing these symptoms at company after company after company.

One of those fundamental causes was miscommunication. People were not actually communicating when they thought they were. One of my favorite quotes is, “The greatest enemy to communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I think that’s pretty interesting because oftentimes you don’t even recognize that miscommunication is happening.

When I realized that miscommunication was kind of a fundamental cause at a lot of these companies, I sought to become better at communicating, and part of that is understanding language, understanding semantics, and linguistics. My interest and my experience led me to learn a lot more about it in hopes that I can bring some value to people, help them better understand one of the more fundamental core problems so that it will roll up and some of these other superficial problems will be solved as well.

Noel: To talk about testing specifically, we talked a lot about yesterday as far as what people’s impressions of testers are. We talked about whether testers “do or don’t help prevent or detect problems.” That can help people kind of understand what testers do, and testers can certainly drive that.

What are some other ways that testers can communicate what they do better? Whether it’s when they find a bug and how they relay that to the developers, or whether it’s trying to explain the value of their efforts to an executive? What are some things that testers can do to communicate better within their organization?

Damian: I like that question. I think that there’s a lot of different aspects. I’ll name off a few that I think are important. One is around understanding the potential audience, who you’re going to be delivering your information to. Information is the output of testing, of a tester. It helps you know. It doesn’t eliminate uncertainty, but it closes the gap. It gives you information so that others that get that information can make more informed, more educated decisions.

So, you should probably consider who is going to be getting that information, and that may be a very diverse audience. The more you know about that audience, the more you understand their perspective, the more you’re able to empathize with them, the more you’ll be able to present information that’s relevant to them, meaningful to them, and consumable by them in words, terms, language that they understand. Then they will better be able to make more informed, educated decisions. So, understanding your audience is one aspect, I think, that’s important.

Another is … I think you touched on it … not only explaining the results of your actions, but explaining your actions as well, so, what you did and the results of what you did. I think that that’s pretty important when providing information about evaluating a product through experimentation, and questioning, and inferring, and modeling. Telling people all the things that you did: what models you used, the process, and then the results of your process, what your findings were. And presenting it in such a way that, again, it’s consumable, understandable, and meaningful to that audience.

Noel: Yeah. That kind of relates to what I do in marketing, too, sometimes. If I’m trying to reach out to, maybe, someone in IT, I might not need to talk about how much faster code can be deployed, what if they have fears of code already trying to be deployed too fast?. If I’m trying to reach developers, I might not need to talk about how they can work closer alongside IT. It may be those developers are already trying to find ways to not rely on IT so heavily. So, it’s kind of like understanding the audience and what they need—not what you’re most impressed by. Find out what it is that they need help with and explain how you can help in that way.

Damian: Yeah. Again, I agree. I do another workshop, where I specifically call out the difference between wants and needs. Sometimes those are not in alignment. What people want is not necessarily what they need. What they need is not what they want. Then I dig kind of into those words and what they mean: What is the difference between a want and a need, a desire and something that’s necessary to accomplish some goal? and understanding, I think, that you need to really serve people’s wants, not necessarily their needs. Understanding them is paramount to delivering the message that is best for them.

Noel: That’s one thing I really liked about your session yesterday that I kind of made a connection to was, in the very beginning of your session, I think you were describing yourself as experience-based and research-hardened.

I think that testers can do that as well. A lot of them have been in this industry for a long time. Even if they haven’t, they’re gaining experience every day with how they work, and how people perceive their work, and how they respond to their work, whether it’s positive or negative. But, as they are trying to figure out ways to communicate better, they’re getting that research. I think, through conferences like these, where they can find people who either just have general good advice for them or testers who’ve been able to break through this impression of a negative view of testing. Or in some cases, we find, especially at an executive level, sometimes that level hasn’t thought of testing at all.

I forget what classic movie or book it is from, but there’s the line, “What do you think of me?” and the person’s response is, “I don’t think of you at all.” Sometimes I think testers might believe there’s more of a negative impression of them than there really is. That’s not to say that not being thought of at all is any more comforting, but they can certainly learn through things like semantics at how to change that perception or even create one that’s never been there.

Damian: Boy. Okay. Got a lot of thoughts on this one. The first thing that popped into my head is when you said … I’m not sure what movie you were referring to … “What do you think of me?” and the response is, “I don’t think of you at all.” It reminds me of one of my favorite Far Side cartoons.

It’s a split panel, where two kids are lying in bed at night, and the boy is thinking, “I wonder if she likes me. Do you think she likes me? Boy, is she thinking of me? I wonder what she thinks of me. Did she notice me today?” Then the bottom panel’s the girl, and she’s thinking at night, “I really like doughnuts.” “Same planet, different worlds,” I think, is the caption. So, that’s one thing that popped into my head.

Another is, regarding “experience-based, research-hardened.” My favorite type of talk to deliver and to attend are experience reports. I think that we’re all the same in some ways, everyone everywhere, and that we’re all different in many ways, and understanding that is key to helping understand your own context, others’ context, and understanding that sometimes what’s useful for one is not useful for another.

I have a lot of trouble with the term “experts,” whether it’s labeled on me or labeled on someone else. What the heck is an expert?

Noel: Ha, it’s a “thought leader!”

Damian: A thought leader. Exactly. I often start many of my talks and workshops by explaining that these are things that I have experienced, I’ve researched, I’ve learned, and worked for me in my context, which … I have a lot of diverse experience, so I have a lot of different contexts that I’ve experimented with, which means it might apply to a lot of different contexts, but it doesn’t apply to all. For some people it may not be useful; for others, it may be widely useful.

That’s the type of talk I like to give, and the talk I like to hear. It also, I think, has a sense of humility, and that plays into the idea of testers, and their self-image, and their identity: “What do others think of me?” I think it’s more important to understand what you think of yourself and form your own identity. The humility actually, oddly, I think helps build confidence in yourself.

Noel: Yeah. One thing I’m seeing a lot more at shows like these is that while it’s good to get up and hear some sort of wildly successful story, but it’s not always that valuable. I’ve heard Spotify, and Facebook, and Google, and Uber get called out all the time for sharing these “How we deploy 500 times a day” and all these kind of things that 99% of the population will never reach. They can aspire to it. They can try to reach it. They’re probably just not going to get there.

But there are a lot more sessions where people are getting up and talking about their failures, because, to be honest, most people come to conferences because they’ve either had failures, or they’re trying to avoid them. They’re not coming because they’re already so successful and they want to be with their successful peers. You see a lot more sessions now that deal with, like, “How we destroyed our last release” or “How we nearly went bankrupt,” or just like some sort of tale where someone’s willing to get up and not just bask in the applause of their immense success; they’re willing to get up and talk about a failure. I’ve seen way more heads nod and way more understanding of the failure than understanding the success sometimes.

Damian: I totally agree. I have a background in improvisation. I have 10 years of improv experience and I’m also kind of a lifelong student of comedy. I love comedy, and understanding the craft, and analyzing jokes until they’re no longer funny. Self-deprecating humor is very often an effective way of making people laugh. Because what the comedian says on stage was painful to them, or may be very relevant and meaningful to folks in the audience that didn’t have the courage, perhaps, to say those things, but it means something to them. So, that’s one way.

Just to your point is sometimes a conference talk that’s talking about a disaster, or a mistake, or a failure, again, resonates with the audience, because people can relate. “That happened to me. It’s hard for me to talk about it myself, but I really appreciate somebody standing in front of the room,” and then learning from those failures.

One of the things in improv is there are no mistakes in improv, only opportunities, and that’s a recent idea applied to improv that comes from very old ideas. Understanding that failure is not something to be feared; failure is something that’s kind of uncomfortable and feels bad, but there’s always something to learn from it. There’s always value.

I like to say, “If you’re able to find something that has contextless no value,” then I’ll say, “That’s great. I value that as an example of something with no value.’”

I think the future of testing is returning to better understand these core values, these principles, these techniques that are being lost with the new hotness. Part of that is communication. Part of that is learning deep appreciation for your craft. I think that those two things together are damaging testing today.

The first is that testers are oftentimes swept up in the new, hot tool, the new, hot language, the new methodology that’s come out and all the buzzwords, and they forget core, fundamental things like relativism, and subjectivity, and understanding the ideas of causality, and pattern matching, and modeling, things that are very important to being a tester. It’s kind of a superficial knowledge. So, I think that one, they need to get back to understanding those core, fundamental values.

The other, another core, fundamental idea, is communication and getting better at communicating. Understanding linguistics, semantics, the power of words, that words matter would then allow them to better explain what they do and why it’s valuable to others. I think that there’s a lack of these fundamental skills and abilities and knowledge, and that is damaging testing in those ways. They’re not able to explain what they do, and the things that they do aren’t particularly deep.

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