Saturday, 8 June 2019

On neurodiversity in testing community

Disclaimer: this is quite a personal post for me, albeit on testing. It is quite possible that it will make some people uncomfortable, and while I hope it does not damage my career, I am aware that it might. I am compelled to write it anyway. The thing is I am allergic to any kinds of closets. I spent a good time of my twenties living in a closet about my sexuality in homophobic Russia, and those who've been through a similar experience know how toxic it is. Once I got out I promised myself to never do that to myself again.

This is a very weird preface to a blog post about software testing, but I promise it will make sense if you hang in with me.

I have been active in the testing community on and off, and those amongst you who know me at all probably do so from my participation in testing meetups and conferences in New Zealand in 2013-2015. After that for a combination of reasons (getting farther away from functional testing after switching to performance testing, as well as going on maternity leave and turning off twitter to avoid all the political stuff that was giving me strong anxiety) I took a long break from the testing community. Mind you, it wasn't because I didn't like the people in it, quite the opposite, the future seemed bright, awesome things were happening on the conferences and meetups, and I enjoyed the atmosphere very much. The last thing that was a biggy for me was a WeTest conference, where Aaron Hodder talked about his struggles with social anxiety and about making life easier for neurodiverse people because of how valuable that diversity is for the society in general and for testing job specifically. The audience was receptive, I certainly enjoyed the talk very much myself because I could relate to it a lot, and I thought how wonderful it was that we are talking about these things out loud.

Forward to 2019 when I came back to twitter and quite suddenly discovered that the testing community is hating on James Bach for a reason unknown to me. People wouldn't even say "exploratory testing" much anymore, I remember reading a twit along the lines of "don't throw the baby out with the water" meaning don't throw away the idea of exploratory testing with James Bach. To say I was puzzled would be an understatement, why would exploratory testing even need defending in this manner, who would want to throw it away? I tried carefully asking questions about what happened, but the best I got was screenshots of some innocent looking slides and mentions of bullying. While I usually side with the victim by default, in this case it just didn't make any sense to me. Blunt and honest is one thing, intentionally mean and a bully - is another thing altogether, and it did not match the profile so to say. I was not to this day able to get any specifics on the bullying part, so I am left thinking that the slides and James' usual bluntness were misread. Which at the time I thought was quite silly and mind boggling to me how a community of people who are supposed to be big on critical thinking and objectivity could come to far fetched conclusions and just declare someone a bully without a good reason. It also made me very sad, because I myself have been in situations where my words were wildly misinterpreted as attacks, or as having hidden agenda.

Now, the purpose of this post is not to defend James Bach, as I am sure he is perfectly capable of that himself, and moreover I am way too late to that particular fight.
The purpose of this post is to be a reminder that there are all kinds of people in the testing community, with different communication approaches and different struggles. And it is simply not fair, nor is it realistic, to expect everyone to be perfectly sensitive and able to craft their phrasing to a non-offensive perfection. There will be miscommunications, such as what I understand happened with the slides James is still vilified for, and feelings will be hurt as long as we take every disagreement as a personal attack.

I know it can be very hard not to take it as a personal attack when someone talks to you less nicely than you would've preferred, especially if that someone has an authority in your eyes. But I think we could all benefit from pausing before making conclusions and asking an honest clarifying question at least once, and then maybe trusting that the answer is not a lie.

Now back to the disclaimer. I am now, at the age of 33, discovering that I am quite possibly autistic. Still waiting for a confirmation from a second specialist, but that would certainly explain a lot. And whether I am one or not, there are definitely a lot of autistic people amongst us in testing community (and in the population in general, for that matter). There are also, as Aaron said years ago, a lot of adults with various other types of brain wiring. The point is, we are a very diverse bunch. And I can't talk for everyone, but I can say for myself that I am making a lot of adjustments to be successful in this world. I have been doing it for so long (at least since what you'd call middle school), that I didn't even question it until coming face to face with a possibility that I am autistic, but it does not mean that they come easy and that I am not paying the price in elevated levels of anxiety, exhaustion and depression. The point is I am trying very hard to conform to what is expected of a software testing professional, which includes tolerating open spaces with their constant sensory overload and participating to the best of my abilities in non-essential social interactions to keep a team running smoothly. I smile and nod at jokes I don't understand, I keep my own remarks to myself where they are not strictly work-related, and I wrap whatever I have to say into layers of learned niceties instead of just stating facts as I would for myself. I also meditate, hide away on empty floors, stim in barely-visible ways, pretend to be super busy to discourage chit chat when I cannot handle communication and find myself quiet corners on conferences to take breathers. Still, sometimes I have panic attacks on a train home. All in all, it is extra work on top of actually, you know, doing my work, and I am not complaining, I am lucky to work in the area I love and am good at.

But it would certainly be nice if the community in return was making some adjustments for people like me. For example, not misinterpreting our words (or lack of thereof in case of non-participation in social rituals) as coldhearted attacks and insisting we are lying when we try to explain our intentions were far from it. Give your fellow human the benefit of the doubt, maybe? We are worth it.

P.S.: To be absolutely clear, I am not trying to say that James Bach is autistic, I am merely using the snowball of misunderstanding around his slides as an example of people jumping to conclusions.
P.S.S.: Also linking to Aaron's excellent list of resources that I found while trying to reference his excellent talk of years ago in some way: Inclusive Collaboration Resources