[Note: I offered Maaret Pyhäjärvi the right to review this post and suggest edits to it before I published it. She declined.]
A few days ago I was keynoting at the New Testing Conference, in New York City, and I used a slide that has offended some people on Twitter. This blog post is intended to explore that and hopefully improve the chances that if you think I’m a bad guy, you are thinking that for the right reasons and not making a mistake. It’s never fun for me to be a part of something that brings pain to other people. I believe my actions were correct, yet still I am sorry that I caused Maaret hurt, and I will try to think of ways to confer better in the future.
Here’s the theme of this post: Getting up in front of the world to speak your mind is a dangerous process. You will be misunderstood, and that will feel icky. Whether or not you think of yourself as a leader, speaking at a conference IS an act of leadership, and leadership carries certain responsibilities.
I long ago learned to let go of the outcome when I speak in public. I throw the ideas out there, and I do that as an American Aging Overweight Left-Handed Atheist Married Father-And-Father-Figure Rough-Mannered Bearded Male Combative Aggressive Assertive High School Dropout Self-Confident Freedom-Loving Sometimes-Unpleasant-To-People-On-Twitter Intellectual. I know that my ideas will not be considered in a neutral context, but rather in the context of how people feel about all that. I accept that. But, I have been popular and successful as a speaker in the testing world, so maybe, despite all the difficulties, enough of my message and intent gets through, overall.
What I can’t let go of is my responsibility to my audience and the community at large to speak the truth and to do so in a compassionate and reasonable way. Regardless of what anyone else does with our words, I believe we speakers need to think about how our actions help or harm others. I think a lot about this.
Let me clarify. I’m not saying it’s wrong to upset people or to have disagreement. We have several different culture wars (my reviewers said “do you have to say wars?”) going on in the software development and testing worlds right now, and they must continue or be resolved organically in the marketplace of ideas. What I’m saying is that anyone who speaks out publicly must try to be cognizant of what words do and accept the right of others to react.
Although I’m surprised and certainly annoyed by the dark interpretations some people are making of what I did, the burden of such feelings is what I took on when I first put myself forward as a public scold about testing and software engineering, a quarter century ago. My annoyance about being darkly interpreted is not your problem. Your problem, assuming you are reading this and are interested in the state of the testing craft, is to feel what you feel and think what you think, then react as best fits your conscience. Then I listen and try to debug the situation, including helping you debug yourself while I debug myself. This process drives the evolution of our communities. Jay Philips, Ash Coleman, Mike Talks, Ilari Henrik Aegerter, Keith Klain, Anna Royzman, Anne-Marie Charrett, David Greenlees, Aaron Hodder, Michael Bolton, and my own wife all approached me with reactions that helped me write this post. Some others approached me with reactions that weren’t as helpful, and that’s okay, too.
Leadership and The Right of Responding to Leaders
In my code of conduct, I don’t get to say “I’m not a leader.” I can say no one works for me and no one has elected me, but there is more to leadership than that. People with strong voices and ideas gain a certain amount of influence simply by virtue of being interesting. I made myself interesting, and some people want to hear what I have to say. But that comes with an implied condition that I behave reasonably. The community, over time negotiates what “reasonable” means. I am both a participant and a subject of those negotiations. I recommend that we hold each other accountable for our public, professional words. I accept accountability for mine. I insist that this is true for everyone else. Please join me in that insistence.
People who speak at conferences are tacitly asserting that they are thought leaders– that they deserve to influence the community. If that influence comes with a rule that “you can’t talk about me without my permission” it would have a chilling effect on progress. You can keep to yourself, of course; but if you exercise your power of speech in a public forum you cannot cry foul when someone responds to you. Please join me in my affirmation that we all have the right of response when a speaker takes the microphone to keynote at a conference.
Some people have pointed out that it’s not okay to talk back to performers in a comedy show or Broadway play. Okay. So is that what a conference is to you? I guess I believe that conferences should not be for show. Conferences are places for conferring. However, I can accept that some parts of a conference might be run like infomercials or circus acts. There could be a place for that.
Here is the slide I used the other day:
Before I explain this slide, try to think what it might mean. What might its purposes be? That’s going to be difficult, without more information about the conference and the talks that happened there. Here are some things I imagine may be going through your mind:
There is someone whose name is Maaret who James thinks he’s different from.
He doesn’t trust nice people. Nice people are false. Is Maaret nice and therefore he doesn’t trust her, or does Maaret trust nice people and therefore James worries that she’s putting herself at risk?
Is James saying that niceness is always false? That’s seems wrong. I have been nice to people whom I genuinely adore.
Is he saying that it is sometimes false? I have smiled and shook hands with people I don’t respect, so, yes, niceness can be false. But not necessarily. Why didn’t he put qualifying language there?
He likes debate and he thinks that Maaret doesn’t? Maybe she just doesn’t like bad debate. Did she actually say she doesn’t like debate?
What if I don’t like debate, does that mean I’m not part of this community?
He thinks excellence requires attention and energy and she doesn’t?
Why is James picking on Maaret?
Look, if all I saw was this slide, I might be upset, too. So, whatever your impression is, I will explain the slide.
Like I said I was speaking at a conference in NYC. Also keynoting was Maaret Pyhäjärvi. We were both speaking about the testing role. I have some strong disagreements with Maaret about the social situation of testers. But as I watched her talk, I was a little surprised at how I agreed with the text and basic concepts of most of Maaret’s actual slides, and a lot of what she said. (I was surprised because Maaret and I have a history. We have clashed in person and on Twitter.) I was a bit worried that some of what I was going to say would seem like a rehash of what she just did, and I didn’t want to seem like I was papering over the serious differences between us. That’s why I decided to add a contrast slide to make sure our differences weren’t lost in the noise. This means a slide that highlights differences, instead of points of connection. There were already too many points of connection.
The slide was designed specifically:
for people to see who were in a specific room at a specific time.
for people who had just seen a talk by Maaret which established the basis of the contrast I was making.
about differences between two people who are both in the spotlight of public discourse.
to express views related to technical culture, not general social culture.
to highlight the difference between two talks for people who were about to see the second talk that might seem similar to the first talk.
for a situation where both I and Maaret were present in the room during the only time that this slide would ever be seen (unless someone tweeted it to people who would certainly not understand the context).
as talking points to accompany my live explanation (which is on video and I assume will be public, someday).
for a situation where I had invited anyone in the audience, including Maaret, to ask me questions or make challenges.
These people had just seen Maaret’s talk and were about to see mine. In the room, I explained the slide and took questions about it. Maaret herself spoke up about it, for which I publicly thanked her for doing so. It wasn’t something I was posting with no explanation or context. Nor was it part of the normal slides of my keynote.
Now I will address some specific issues that came up on Twitter:
1. On Naming Maaret
Maaret has expressed the belief that no one should name another person in their talk without getting their permission first. I vigorously oppose that notion. It’s completely contrary to the workings of a healthy society. If that principle is acceptable, then you must agree that there should be no free press. Instead, I would say if you stand up and speak in the guise of an expert, then you must be personally accountable for what you say . You are fair game to be named and critiqued. And the weird thing is that Maaret herself, regardless of what she claims to believe, behaves according to my principle of freedom to call people out. She, herself, tweeted my slide and talked about me on Twitter without my permission. Of course, I think that is perfectly acceptable behavior , so I’m not complaining. But it does seem to illustrate that community discourse is more complicated than “be nice” or “never cause someone else trouble with your speech” or “don’t talk about people publicly unless they gave you permission.”
2. On Being Nice
Maaret had a slide in her talk about how we can be kind to each other even though we disagree. I remember her saying the word “nice” but she may have said “kind” and I translated that into “nice” because I believed that’s what she meant. I react to that because, as a person who believes in the importance of integrity and debate over getting along for the sake of appearances, I observe that exhortations to “be nice” or even to “be kind” are often used when people want to quash disturbing ideas and quash the people who offer them. “Be nice” is often code for “stop arguing.” If I stop arguing, much of my voice goes away. I’m not okay with that. No one who believes there is trouble in the world should be okay with that. Each of us gets to have a voice.
I make protests about things that matter to me, you make protests about things that matter to you.
I think we need a way of working together that encourages debate while fostering compassion for each other. I use the word compassion because I want to get away from ritualized command phrases like “be nice.” Compassion is a feeling that you cultivate, rather than a behavior that you conform to or simulate. Compassion is an antithesis of “Rules of Order” and other lists of commandments about courtesy. Compassion is real. Throughout my entire body of work you will find that I promote real craftsmanship over just following instructions. My concern about “niceness” is the same kind of thing.
Look at what I wrote: I said “I don’t trust nice people.” That’s a statement about my feelings and it is generally true, all things being equal. I said “I’m not nice.” Yet, I often behave in pleasant ways, so what did I mean? I meant I seek to behave authentically and compassionately, which looks like “nice” or “kind”, rather than to imagine what behavior would trick people into thinking I am “nice” when indeed I don’t like them. I’m saying people over process , folks.
I was actually not claiming that Maaret is untrustworthy because she is nice, and my words don’t say that. Rather, I was complaining about the implications of following Maaret’s dictum. I was offering an alternative: be authentic and compassionate, then “niceness” and acts of kindness will follow organically. Yes, I do have a worry that Maaret might say something nice to me and I’ll have to wonder “what does that mean? is she serious or just pretending?” Since I don’t want people to worry about whether I am being real, I just tell them “I’m not nice.” If I behave nicely it’s either because I feel genuine good will toward you or because I’m falling down on my responsibility to be honest with you. That second thing happens, but it’s a lapse. (I do try to stay out of rooms with people I don’t respect so that I am not forced to give them opinions they aren’t willing or able to process.)
I now see that my sentence “I want to be authentic and compassionate” could be seen as an independent statement connected to “how I differ from Maaret,” implying that I, unlike her, am authentic and compassionate. That was an errant construction and does not express my intent. The orange text on that line indicated my proposed policy, in the hope that I could persuade her to see it my way. It was not an attack on her. I apologize for that confusion.
3. Debate vs. Dialogue
Maaret had earlier said she doesn’t want debate, but rather dialogue. I have heard this from other Agilists and I find it disturbing. I believe this is code for “I want the freedom to push my ideas on other people without the burden of explaining or defending those ideas.” That’s appropriate for a brainstorming session, but at some point, the brainstorming is done and the judging begins. I believe debate is absolutely required for a healthy professional community. I’m guided in this by dialectical philosophy, the history of scientific progress, the history of civil rights (in fact, all of politics), and the modern adversarial justice system. Look around you. The world is full of heartfelt disagreement. Let’s deal with it. I helped create the culture of small invitational peer conferences in our industry which foster debate. We need those more than ever.
But if you don’t want to deal with it, that’s okay. All that means is that you accept that there is a wall between your friends and those other people whom you refuse to debate with. I will accept the walls if necessary but I would rather resolve the walls. That’s why I open myself and my ideas for debate in public forums.
Debate is not a process of sticking figurative needles into other people. Debate is the exchange of views with the goal of resolving our differences while being accountable for our words and actions. Debate is a learning process. I have occasionally heard from people I think are doing harm to the craft that they believe I debate for the purposes of hurting people instead of trying to find resolution. This is deeply insulting to me, and to anyone who takes his vocation seriously. What’s more, considering that these same people express the view that it’s important to be “nice,” it’s not even nice. Thus, they reveal themselves to be unable to follow their own values. I worry that “Dialogue not debate” is a slogan for just another power group trying to suppress its rivals. Beware the Niceness Gang.
I understand that debating with colleagues may not be fun. But I’m not doing it for fun. I’m doing it because it is my responsibility to build a respectable craft. All testing professionals share this responsibility. Debate serves another purpose, too, managing the boundaries between rival value systems. Through debate we may discover that we occupy completely different paradigms; schools of thought. Debate can’t bridge gaps between entirely different world views, and yet I have a right to my world view just as you have a right to yours.
Jay Philips said on Twitter:
@jamesmarcusbach pointless 2debate w/ U because in your mind you’re right. Slide &points shouldn’t have happened @JokinAspiazu @ericproegler
— Jay Philips (@jayphilips) September 30, 2016
I admire Jay. I called her and we had a satisfying conversation. I filled her in on the context and she advised me to write this post.
One thing that came up is something very important about debate: the status of ideas is not the only thing that gets modified when you debate someone; what also happens is an evolution of feelings.
Yes I think “I’m right.” I acted according to principles I think are eternal and essential to intellectual progress in society. I’m happy with those principles. But I also have compassion for the feelings of others, and those feelings may hold sway even though I may be technically right. For instance, Maaret tweeted my slide without my permission. That is copyright violation. She’s objectively “wrong” to have done that. But that is irrelevant. I accept that she felt strongly about doing that, so I choose to waive my rights. I feel that people who tweet my slides, in general, are doing a service for the community. So while I appreciate copyright law, I usually feel okay about my stuff getting tweeted.
I hope that Jay got the sense that I care about her feelings. If Maaret were willing to engage with me she would find that I care about her feelings, too. This does not mean she gets whatever she wants, but it’s a factor that influences my behavior. I did offer her the chance to help me edit this post, but again, she refused.
4. Focus and Energy
Maaret said that eliminating the testing role is a good thing. I worry it will lead to the collapse of craftsmanship. She has a slide that says “from tester to team member” which is a sentiment she has expressed on Twitter that led me to say that I no longer consider her a tester. She confirmed to me that I hurt her feelings by saying that, and indeed I felt bad saying it, except that it is an extremely relevant point. What does it mean to be a tester? This is important to debate. Maaret has confirmed publicly (when I asked a question about this during her talk) that she didn’t mean to denigrate testing by dismissing the value of a testing role on projects. But I don’t agree that we can have it both ways. The testing role, I believe, is a necessary prerequisite for maintaining a healthy testing craft. My key concern is the dilution of focus and energy that would otherwise go to improving the testing craft. This is lost when the role is lost.
This is not an attack on Maaret’s morality. I am worried she is promoting too much generalism for the good of the craft, and she is worried I am promoting too much specialism. This is a matter of professional judgment and perspective. It cannot be settled, I think, but it must be aired.
The Slide Should Not Have Been Tweeted But It’s Okay That It Was
I don’t know what Maaret was trying to accomplish by tweeting my slide out of context. Suffice it to say what is right there on my slide: I believe in authenticity and compassion. If she was acting out of authenticity and compassion then more power to her. But the slide cannot be understood in isolation. People who don’t know me, or who have any axe to grind about what I do, are going to cry “what a cruel man!” My friends contacted me to find out more information.
I want you to know that the slide was one part of a bigger picture that depicts my principled objection to several matters involving another thought leader. That bigger picture is: two talks, one room, all people present for it, a lot of oratory by me explaining the slide, as well as back and forth discussion with the audience. Yes, there were people in the room who didn’t like hearing what I had to say, but “don’t offend anyone, ever” is not a rule I can live by, and neither can you. After all, I’m offended by most of the talks I attend.
Although the slide should not have been tweeted, I accept that it was, and that doing so was within the bounds of acceptable behavior. As I announced at the beginning of my talk, I don’t need anyone to make a safe space for me. Just follow your conscience.
What About My Conscience?
My conscience is clean. I acted out of true conviction to discuss important matters. I used a style familiar to anyone who has ever seen a public debate, or read an opinion piece in the New York Times. I didn’t set out to hurt Maaret’s feelings and I don’t want her feelings to be hurt. I want her to engage in the debate about the future of the craft and be accountable for her ideas. I don’t agree that I was presuming too much in doing so.
Maaret tells me that my slide was “stupid and hurtful.” I believe she and I do not share certain fundamental values about conferring. I will no longer be conferring with her, until and unless those differences are resolved.
Compassion is important to me. I will continue to examine whether I am feeling and showing the compassion for my fellow humans that they are due. These conversations and debates I have with colleagues help me do that.
I agree that making a safe space for students is important. But industry consultants and pundits should be able to cope with the full spectrum, authentic, principled reactions by their peers. Leaders are held to a higher standard, and must be ready and willing to defend their ideas in public forums.
The reaction on Twitter gave me good information about a possible trend toward fragility in the Twitter-facing part of the testing world. There seems to be a significant group of people who prize safety over confrontation. In the next conference I help arrange, I will set more explicit ground rules, rather than assuming people share something close to my own sense of what is reasonable to do and expect.
I will also start thinking, for each slide in my presentation: “What if this gets tweeted out of context?”
(Oh, and to those who compared me to Donald Trump… Can you even imagine him writing a post like this in response to criticism? BELIEVE ME, he wouldn’t.)