What Can Politics Teach Us About Testing?

In the United States we are currently going through one of our normal rounds of political craziness as we move towards a new election. This is not a political blog and I don’t want to add to the crazy. Thus this post will not discuss current political viewpoints, whether for or against, and will have nothing to do with current candidates. Rather this post will discuss one specific aspect of politics that has a historical context that relates to how our testing industry has evolved and continues to evolve.

Throughout the years, there has been periodic talk about schools of testing and how these schools are here to stay. There’s even been debate about these ideas. I actually agree with pretty much all of that. These are schools of thought but, of course, they become schools of practice. And practice leads to practitioners. And, generally speaking, a group of practitioners starts to form a class of people.

So I think it’s good for our industry to periodically question what kind of classes we are bringing to our discipline. Instead of talking about that directly, however, let’s consider another venue — politics — where we might have a cautionary tale.

As It Was

For most of the nineteenth century, United States presidents largely accepted the constitutional viewpoint of Congress as the first branch of government and the seat of policy making. The President, in this context, was basically acting as an administrative officer. Only in the most extreme of circumstances was it even considered remotely possible that a President should use their status to augment the powers of their office.

If you are American and, particularly if you have studied any American history, think about many of the nineteenth century presidents. Assuming you can even name them, can you name anything that they did? Or can you name what was going on during their tenure that they had to deal with as the President?

You would be more than forgiven for struggling to come up with much, without having to do quite a bit of research. I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson so let’s also consider another interesting fact.

During the time I’m talking about, the White House didn’t even have a press office. There was literally zero accommodation for reporters. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the so-called “public presidency” came about with Theodore Roosevelt.

The Change Begins

There’s a lot of context we won’t go into but essentially we ended up with a situation where the President started to make courting the public a key tenet of the job.

Roosevelt, in particular, was quite anxious to give the office of the President more power. This power meant there was more of a chance to shape the image of the government for the population. This also meant there was the chance for greater control of the messaging and what is often termed the “optics” — a way overused phrase that means how things look to people. This was the precursor to what we currently refer to as “spin” in the political context.

Along with all of this, there was also the notion of getting ambitious agendas through Congress and the Senate. It was seen that the best way to do this was to put pressure on both groups by appealing to the very people who voted them in. In other words, direct the messaging to the mass public and present optics that were more or less flattering depending on how much or little the representatives supported the agenda.

The main point I’m leading towards here is that this led to a very activist form of government.

The Rise of the Political Class

This meant that Presidents had to craft strategies to mobilize the public on behalf of their goals. It didn’t take long for those in power to realize that the President couldn’t do this alone. So they needed aides. Eventually lots and lots of aides. This, of course, also meant that rivals and critics had to do the same thing. Both groups had to build up a veritable “army” of people and there were discussions about the appropriate “ratio” of, say, internal aide to political activist.

So where did that leave us?

It left us with the idea that the emergence of a strong presidency in the twentieth century brought with it an increasing need for presidents (as well as their rivals and critics) to master the arts of public persuasion, in order to promote their policies, their party and themselves. Those aides that had to support all this began to play bigger and bigger roles as the role of government got bigger and bigger and agendas became more complex. There was definitely a feedback loop here wherein the more people involved, the more complexity was added — so that more people were needed. Eventually a rich and diverse vocabulary — a ubiquitous political language, if you will — needed to be created to support all of this.

This led to a professional class of political architects and engineers who created and refined the tools and techniques, as well as the institutions and practices, that presidents have relied on to influence public opinion and ultimately sway elections. There was an element of “leading the people” to this but there was also an element of “misleading the people.” And the act of misleading was not always intentional. That ubiquitous language could sometimes obfuscate as much as it could clarify.

Eventually, this professional class grew to interact with one another across administrations and generations, sharing certain basic qualities. These innovators — and whatever else you think of them, they were innovators — embodied a professional type that came to dominate politics in the twentieth century and has taken on almost epic proportions in the twenty-first century.

This Relates to Us How?

Well, I would ask you to consider the rise of the various professional classes in our own discipline. What have you seen? It’s easy for that kind of question, and the discussion that follows, to become highly … political.

In the political arena, various political entrepreneurs came to the point where they would work to sow division in the electorate. This was done to anger and motivate people and then capitalize on opportunities that create power or profit. Each group, of course, sees the other doing likewise, and this becomes its own justification for action. Basically it amounts to: “We have to do this because others are doing this.”

In a political context, this means the overall governance system becomes corrupt to greater and lesser degrees. This corruption tends to be self-sustaining and creates divisions that ultimately corrode the larger society in which the governance takes place.

I would not argue that the development and testing industry is that bad but you certainly get into some interesting turf wars. You certainly seem to have people out there that are needlessly contrarian, acting as a public gadfly seemingly just for the sake of doing so rather than for some motivating influence. You have plenty of people, unknowingly or not, who continue to introduce divisions, whether that be between developers and testers, or between “technical testers” and the business, and so on.

What Classes Have You Been In?

I would rather people leave this post thinking about what they’ve observed as opposed to just hearing about what I’ve observed. So I won’t go too much into my own thoughts about the classes.

Those who have read some of my posts certainly know that I believe there is a “technocrat” class. If there is one class that is doing the most damage right now (even in the service of good), I would say it’s this one. There are also the “semanticists,” who do both good and bad as they argue for or against distinctions — sometimes to the point of distraction. We have what I would call the “accommodationists”, “too-eager adoptionists”, and the “ruthlessly formulaic.”

I can say that I have fallen into each of those classes, as well as others, as my career has evolved. I’m at a point in my career where I’m trying to examine what that means and why I was so ready to just jump between classes. Rather than focus on schools of testing, which I feel can be limited, I’d rather our industry talk more about — and examine more carefully — the classes of practice, and the thinking that drives them. This is important because I believe these classes are a bit more nuanced than the school approach, since the classes can often cut across school lines.

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About Jeff Nyman

Anything I put here is an approximation of the truth. You’re getting a particular view of myself … and it’s the view I’m choosing to present to you. If you’ve never met me before in person, please realize I’m not the same in person as I am in writing. That’s because I can only put part of myself down into words.

If you have met me before in person then I’d ask you to consider that the view you’ve formed that way and the view you come to by reading what I say here may, in fact, both be true. I’d advise that you not automatically discard either viewpoint when they conflict or accept either as truth when they agree.

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