Women in Test: Ash Coleman
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 Ash Coleman
Ash Coleman is insightful, ambitious, and animated. A skilled QA engineer, tester, manager, and consultant who led a past life as a chef and now presents internationally on the topic of diversity in software test. In short, Ash is the proverbial inspirational story we want our children to see. Meeting via Hangout, Ash served up her take on diversity in software testing, how to use resilient and inclusive language, and how she uses her experience to help others transform. Along the way I met Bijou, Ash’s feline companion, and felt right at home as she gently pried my eyes open to the real concerns faced by real people in the software testing world.
QualityLogic: Let’s start with your background. For those who aren’t familiar with your work, how did you get into testing?
Ash: Almost 10 years ago I headed to New York City hoping to work my way to the top of New York’s food scene. I quickly found that a person with years of experience in the kitchen elsewhere could spend years bussing tables while waiting for a chance to prove themselves in a NY kitchen. Rather than demoting myself to satisfy the hierarchy of the New York food scene, I decided to forge another career path.
Ultimately, I started working a customer service position for a software company. There, management quickly recognized that my natural curiosity and probing questions would translate perfectly to a test role. In test, I found my experience in the culinary arts to be an excellent platform for my new role.
“Hospitality is 100% about human satisfaction. This is true of test, as well.”
Since that serendipitous day, Ash has become a skilled QA engineer and has founded the consulting firm, QualityINClusive, dedicated to organizational and individual transformation through diversity coaching for hire.
QualityLogic: Tell us more about QualityINClusive. What led you to start consulting?
Ash: When confronted with complacency around the issue of diversity, I will often ask “Why?” As in, why isn’t diversity important? This one simple question often results in an “ah-ha” moment. Asking people to articulate a response to their devaluation of diversity is an eye-opener. They start examining their unconscious bias.
Of course, getting an honest answer requires people, especially people with power in an organization, “to understand and be comfortable with inclusive and resilient language”. According to Ash, this means that we ideate our biases in response to the type of language used. We infer who is included, and who is excluded, from any given situation through the language used to describe it.
This idea, that the language we use matters, is especially important in software testing. For example, it’s not uncommon to see tech recruiting posts that advertise pub and party nights as a ‘perk’ of employment.
This innocuous sounding statement sets the stage for some prospective applicants to feel excluded. Perhaps they’re gluten-intolerant, prefer wine, have a family to go home to, are in recovery, or have chosen not to imbibe for one of many other reasons.
Crafting language that describes your company’s persona as a ‘pub culture’ excludes those for whom the ‘pub culture’ paradigm doesn’t fit. Further, use of such language creates a space where those humans who don’t see themselves as a ‘fit’ are likely to eliminate themselves from consideration in the first place. This may well cause your company to miss out on highly qualified and valuable employees.
The abstract from Ash’s Agile2017 workshop, “The Things We Don’t Say, How Biased Language Crafts Culture” lays it out like this:
“While we claim to support the evolution of resilient autonomous teams, a desire to define the culture in explicit marketable terms can create a barrier to entry. Are you really creating culture and fostering an environment for agility, or are you creating exclusive spaces? A lot can be derived from the specific words you use to describe your team, culture and collaboration schemes.”
Next, Ash brought up the retention rate of underrepresented people in test. She pointed to Tech Leavers , a 2017 first of its kind study, that found workplace culture drives turnover, and significantly affects the retention of underrepresented groups—while costing the tech industry more than $16 billion each year.
While this may feel like an obvious statement (although the dollar impact is staggering), what isn’t so obvious is what that number means for the people whose lives are impacted by organizational culture. Company profits are one thing. Personal well-being is entirely another. Here’s a short-list of Tech Leavers results you might be surprised by:
- LGBT employees were the most likely to be bullied (20%) and experience public humiliation (24%) and 64% said it contributed to their decision to leave.
- People from underrepresented groups, such as African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, were most likely to leave due to unfairness (40%).
- People of color were significantly more likely to cite unfairness as a reason for leaving than white and Asian women (36% versus 28%).
- Nearly one-quarter of persons of color experienced stereotyping, twice the rate of white and Asian persons.
- Nearly one-third of persons of color were passed over for promotion, more than any other group.
You may be wondering, as I did, how these statistics caused a $16 billion loss in tech industries as cited by Tech Leavers. Ash pointed me to the book Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations. Accelerate cites research showing that “teams with more diversity with regard to gender or underrepresented minorities are smarter (Rock and Grant 2016), achieve better team performance (Deloitte 2013), and achieve better business outcomes (Hunt et al. 2015).”
Echoing Ash’s call for inclusion as the foundation for diversity, Accelerate’s authors state “It is also important to note that diversity is not enough. Teams and organizations must also be inclusive. An inclusive organization is one where “all organizational members feel welcome and valued for who they are and what they ’bring to the table.’ All stakeholders share a high sense of belonging and fulfilled mutual purpose” (Smith and Lindsay 2014) 
The intersection of these two topics, the way language shapes culture and the abysmal retention rate for those outside the homogeneous norm in test, is the genesis of QualityINClusive.
QualityLogic: Your keynote at Agile Testing Days with Keith Klain was titled “Culture Is More Than A Mindset.” What does it mean for culture to be more than a mindset?
Ash: The way we craft our language, both what is said and what isn’t said, often creates an exclusionary atmosphere. And, once we recognize the ways in which we’ve used language to create exclusionary spaces, we can find ourselves in a mightily uncomfortable place. In that uncomfortable space it helps to remember that not everything worth doing is easy.
“Language used frivolously, without thought and attention, can disenfranchise a team member or reinforce a stereotype. The ‘ask’ of diversity is to be cognizant of the words you’re using. The things you say cannot be redacted and can be harmful to others. For the busy executive trying to staff their company this takes more time, more energy, all those things no one thinks they have time for. But using resilient and inclusive language pays off.”
Ash believes a better way to use language is to recognize its power to shape culture. “Inclusive language starts with recognizing that the way we speak either creates a divide or bridges a chasm”. This means we understand inclusive language as an awareness of how we shape our surroundings with words. And, we understand resilient language to be the use of words that clearly express “what we stand by, who we are, and what we expect.”
QualityLogic: You mentioned resilient language? What’s that?
Ash: Resilient language is simply language that is steadfast and transparent. Resiliency means using language that expresses what we stand by, who we are, and what we expect and used traditional job postings as an example.
Too often job postings are intentionally vague. They might include a laundry list of nice-to-have but not necessary skills or be worded in a way that offers no solid metric to judge applicant suitability by. These postings then become more a means of screening for those who fit the corporate mold than a way of leveraging applicants’ current and beneficial skill-sets.
Essentially, this kind of language creates the opportunity for personal or organizational bias—instead of knowledge or potential— to be the deciding factor in hiring.
QualityLogic: How do you coach an HR manager or talent recruiter in crafting inclusive job postings?
Ash: Craft the job posting to convey exactly what is expected and include only what’s necessary for the position This strategy benefits both applicant and management.
Resilient language allows an applicant to use job criteria to map out their career path, instead of wondering if they have enough skill (in the case of laundry list job postings) to apply. This also allows management to look at an applicant’s potential and current skill sets, rather than get bogged down in hiring to meet diversity quota or not hiring because the applicant doesn’t fit the ‘company persona’.
QualityLogic: Why are organizations still struggling with this shift towards resilient and inclusive language? Do some companies seem to give ‘lip service’ to diversity?
Ash: Change is hard. Organizational transformation is hard. All involved have to be comfortable with using resilient language, or they’re likely to disengage from the conversation (be it a job posting, and interview, or an underrepresented person asking for a promotion.) As humans, we can find it difficult to engage in new and often uncomfortable spaces. This is where QualityINClusive steps in. We can do this. Change is hard, but the outcome outweighs the difficulty.
By outcome, she’s referring to both bottom line benefits1, and to the individual satisfaction of a career well-lived. Ash makes her theory of transformation coaching resilient with this statement:
“Diversity isn’t about replacing people at the table, it’s about building a bigger table. The goal of diversity isn’t to exclude the previously included, it’s to expand resources through acknowledging the fact that diversity of people = diversity of thought.”
When truly practiced, this concept alone advantages SQA teams to produce superior products.
QualityLogic: How so? How does diversity benefit an organization’s software testing efforts?
Ash: Diversity of employees generates increased empathy in software testing.
Ash asks us to think of this scenario: Imagine you’re testing a financial app. You’re a middle-aged, middle-class white man with a graduate degree in computer science and an undergrad in finance. You’ve never had to worry about your bank balance, let alone how to feed your children. Now, imagine your user is a single mother paying her way through school while working two jobs. Her goal may be to track every penny spent and build her family’s future.
“Whatever your perspective,” Ash said, “it isn’t the same as anyone else’s.”
Ash’s scenario drives home the need to utilize diversity to better serve our customers.
QualityLogic: We’ve been talking about how diversity benefits organizations, how can people empower themselves to promote that diversity?
Ash: My plan with QualityINClusive is to focus on coaching women, and other underrepresented groups in test, to “leverage their package and take a place at the table to create organizational change.
If the statistics from Tech Leavers are any indication, Ash’s work in advocacy and coaching is just the thing needed to shape the testing workplace into “a place for people to thrive.”
Ash’s message to company executives is simple, yet powerful.
“We can do this! It may be hard to venture through the discomfort of the unknown, but the outcome outweighs the difficulty.”
QualityLogic: If you could say one thing to C-suite execs, what would it be?
Ash: “It’s still not a pipeline issue!”
Frankly, this is my favorite Ash Coleman quote, and a powerful push-back to organizations who claim they lack diversity because it’s hard to find.
“There are plenty of diverse people to include, it’s their [the organization’s] mindset that’s impeding an inclusive culture. There is no pipeline here, it’s really just a matter of perspective.”
 Kapor Center. (2018). Tech Leavers. [online] Available at: https://www.kaporcenter.org/tech-leavers/
 N. Forgson PhD, J. Humble, G. Kim. (2018). Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations. IT Revolution Press; 1st edition
1 Studies analyzing the impact of diversity on the bottom line tend to focus on binary gender. There’s plenty of research linking the presence of women in leadership positions to higher financial performance (McGregor 2014), stock market performance (Covert July 2014), and hedge fund returns (Covert January 2014). Furthermore, a study conducted by Anita Woolley and Thomas W. Malone measured group intelligence and found that teams with more women tended to fall above average on the collective intelligence scale (Woolley and Malone 2011)