The Women in Test Series
Women in Test is a series focused on women in the software testing world, and the ways they advocate for inclusivity and diversity in the discipline. The software industry has traditionally been a homogeneous field, but as we know, times are changing. Leadership and employees alike have begun to recognize the value of diversity, even as they often struggle to practice it. Speaking to an industry undergoing intense change in its makeup, our series participants share their stories, thoughts and advice as advocates for inclusion and diversity in test.
An Interview with Melissa Eaden
In addition to nine years in testing, Melissa is also a technical writer and EditorBoss at the Ministry of Testing. She’s spent two years as a consultant for Thoughtworks, a software consulting company comprised of “a community of passionate individuals whose purpose is to revolutionize software design, creation and delivery, while advocating for positive social change.” She’s also a blogger, canine enthusiast, and a frequent speaker at test conferences around the world. Melissa is passionate about quality, in more ways than one. And, she’s highly likely to wield her metaphorical sword if you suggest testing is a non-technical role!
QualityLogic: Why is the technical vs. non-technical debate a bad thing?
Melissa: “Think about this, the person who fixes your car used to be called a mechanic. Now, they’re automotive technicians. But does this vocabulary change create more respect, more value, for the profession? It shouldn’t have ever mattered…not everyone can fix a car.” I got her point. Somehow, the use of the word technical confers a higher status. Fixing a car is highly technical, no matter what we call it.
To Mel, the automotive technician is no different than the support employee who, in order to help a customer, probably knows more about the interface than the developers do. Or, the software tester who might not have written the code but is intimately familiar with it.
“Too often, pay is based on ‘technical ability’, yet everyone plays a role in creating and maintaining a successful product.”
Mel speaks from experience here. The first testing job she was offered came with a pay rate lower than she made in support—at the same company! Mel had this to say about the experience: “It was my first testing job. The value of the testing role was considered less than my support position. I had been in support roles for several years at this point. My support manager offered to give me a $2 raise if I didn’t change jobs because I was that good. The HR department said that the testing role wasn’t equivalent and that it was $5 less an hour than an entry level support position. Although I had a degree, and regardless of my experience with support, according to the company, the testing role was not considered a technical role while my support role was. Due to my tenure at the company, I was allowed to keep the pay I started with in my support role when I transitioned to testing.”
QualityLogic: Ok, so you’re talking about more than just a shift in vocabulary? This is a shift in perception?
Melissa: “Artists, Bakers, Chefs…they all have technical skills. We can’t devalue someone’s contribution based on an arbitrary definition of technical.”
The sword was out! Mel told me that by defining some tech positions as technical and others as not, it opens the door to exclusion and inequality.
When a company considers testers non-technical, they are inadvertently making the decision to not train people, and to disable/disconnect them from learning possibilities. I’ve overheard managers, while working with clients as a consultant, say that their testers were not technical and if they wanted to learn automation, they would have already. Never mind that they basically eliminated a chance for them to learn by not offering training in the first place.
In short, Mel said, viewing testing as non-technical or telling a tester they’re non-technical is discrimination, and affects everything from pay rate to self-value. “Do not accept anyone calling you non-technical. Do not accept a narrative someone else has created for you”; the closing line of her 99 Second talk at TestBash Philly 2017.
QualityLogic: What’s one way to advocate for the value of test…and the technical expertise of the tester?
Melissa: Mel prefers to “move pebbles, not mountains” This means taking the small steps that add up to big change. “We need to change the visibility of testing,” Mel told me, “and one way to do that is by being our own advocates.”
Mel put this idea into practice early in her test career. As a ‘visibility’ experiment, she shared her test notes, screenshots and workflow videos to the development team’s storyboard. By submitting a body of proof, her social engineering plan turned the organizational tides. Communicating what she did as a tester helped create value with all the project stakeholders. Mel also found she’d created organizational “test allies”, others who would also act as advocates for test. And so, a few pebbles moved a mountain.
QualityLogic: Why do you think there’s a divide between testers and developers?
Melissa: “Developers think about the solution, testers think about the problem.” This often feels like an us-vs-them approach that becomes more complicated as testers tend to fall into an “empathy trap”. Testers wants everyone to be happy, from the customer to the developers. But, Mel pointed out, testing is inherently destructive.
Communicating test results relies on good communication skills and a shared understanding of value to produce the best results. The best way to bridge the gap is to recognize where blind spots in communication are happening. Software is more than just writing code, it’s a network of interconnected players who need to talk about (and often show) the value of their contributions.
QualityLogic: What advice would you give the C-Suite?
Melissa: Not hesitating a bit, Mel said, “Pay equally, publish the pay rates, and level the playing field.” For a summary of gender inequity in pay rates, Mel points to Catalyst.org, a global nonprofit whose mission is to build workplaces that work for women. This page at Catalyst details pay differences by gender, age, and skin-tone around the globe.
“This [gender pay discrepancy] is a historical fact. Women and minorities are paid less. Women also undervalue themselves and don’t ask for what they are worth on a regular basis. They are less likely to negotiate a higher pay rate or talk about pay needs when it comes to raises and evaluations. Women and minorities are also more harshly judged in evaluations causing them to see less improvement in pay over time. A lot of women have been taught not to stick up for themselves (I believe it’s the same for minorities, but I hesitate to speak from that point of view as I am not a person of color and do not have that perspective). I believe this is changing, but change is slow.”
QualityLogic: What advice would you give to an underrepresented person in test?
Melissa: “Women and minorities tend to undervalue themselves, then, the company takes advantage of this,” Mel said.
Women and minorities are more likely to enter into IT through testing and support roles. If these roles are seen as non-technical, it’s not far-fetched to believe that the moniker of ‘non-technical’ is a subtle discrimination.
“If I’m in a technical realm and I’m considered non-technical, I’m a lesser valued employee/person. Once I’m considered ‘technical’ and able to handle technical situations and problem solving, my experience completely changes. I get more access to tools, tech stacks, developers, ideas, opinions, and working styles. In some instances – my title didn’t change; my own skill set didn’t really change – the culture or the company culture changed around me to allow me to be considered ‘technical’.”
“I was never considered non-technical in my customer support roles. It baffled me that I was considered a non-technical employee in my testing role when many of the same skills I used in customer support were vital to my testing position. That is where I call bullshit every time.”