Women in Test: Fiona Charles
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 Fiona Charles
Fiona Charles has seen it all. With 40 years in software development, Fiona’s had a front row seat to the evolution of the digital age and the associated ideologies and methodologies. Fiona now heads Quality Intelligence, an independent consulting company offering her expertise in software testing and quality management. Helping companies align their quality strategies with their business challenges is Fiona’s current focus, but her introduction to the tech world began as a technical writer in her university’s library automation company.
Her introduction to the world of tech came during her years at the University of Toronto. While she was a student there she was hired to work for a summer as the pioneer technical writer at UTLAS, the University of Toronto Library Automation Systems. UTLAS had never employed a technical writer before, so Fiona’s challenge was to learn how to be a technical writer and invent her job. Her first day at work she was shown to her desk. When her boss showed up, he said, “I hope you’ve brought your library card so you can go to the Computer Science Library and figure out how to do this job.” (She didn’t find anything useful there.) He also handed her a book by computer scientist Jerry Weinberg, The Psychology of Computer Programming, saying “You might want to read this if you want to understand the people you’ll be working with.” Weinberg’s work as author and teacher of the psychology and anthropology of computer software development was groundbreaking when it was published in 1971, and is considered foundational to Human Computer Interaction (HCI) theory today.
The book and that first job were the genesis of Fiona’s lifelong approach to software development, testing and consulting,
“Software development is all about people.”
QualityLogic: What were the early years of tech like for software developers? Was testing a defined role?
Fiona: When I started testing, I didn’t meet any other testers. I was fortunate to work closely with programmers who mentored me; they taught me how to test.
QualityLogic: You’ve been involved in the evolution of the software industry. Can you speak to any differences in the treatment of women in the field over the years?
Fiona: When I started at UTLAS in 1978, we didn’t have gender balance exactly, but a large number of the programmers and senior technical staff were women. Nobody there questioned that or thought it was odd. There was certainly sexism in operation, but the tech culture I experienced was nothing like an explicit bro culture, and I think the people I worked with would have been revolted by the idea.
The gender mix at UTLAS was common in software development then. That began changing in the 1980’s towards a male-dominated model. (Many people have speculated on the reasons for this, but that’s not really important to this discussion.)
“The past is the past. We now have a software industry that is heavily male-dominated, and in some subcultures, toxic for women in technical roles. To me, the interesting and important question is what can we do to make the present and future better?”
QualityLogic: I love that you’re focused on positive change. Let’s talk about ways to ‘make the present and future better’.
Fiona: If we want to increase gender diversity in software development—and I happen to believe that would be good for the world generally, as well as specifically for women’s aspirations—then we need to help women get into positions of prominence so other women can see that it’s possible for them too. That applies to management roles, and also to conference platforms, blogs, articles, books: everywhere authoritative voices are heard.
Since conference speakers represent thought-leaders in our industry, focusing on change in this area is one way to re-engage women in tech, including testing. Think about this, if you go to a conference and all the authoritative figures are male, then what does that say to a young female audience member, about perceptions of her value and her potential contribution to the industry?
“I think it’s essential for women to see other women being full participants at conferences, and that means delivering keynotes, conducting workshops and tutorials and delivering track talks.”
QualityLogic: You and Anne-Marie Charrett co-founded Speak Easy, a technical conference diversity initiative. I understand you’ve passed the torch to new leadership, but could you tell us a bit about how the program works?
Fiona: Speak Easy operates through forming alliances with conferences and pairing new speakers with mentors to help them succeed with their talks. It focuses on new voices from the testing community to bridge the gender gap represented at conferences, in particular with the number of women speakers. This idea of pairing mentors with young women in test isn’t only about seeing more diversity on conference stages, but can also help with other areas like writing proposals, or articulating value and making presentations at work.
QualityLogic: You focus on diversity in conference speakers as a way to create diversity in the industry yet there seems to be a large amount of diversity in other platforms, like female software developers and testers on Twitter. Why do you think there’s a disparity in representation between the two?
Fiona: I’m not sure there really is greater genuine diversity on Twitter, though there may be comparable numbers of men and women with accounts. Twitter is a poor medium for the exchange of ideas. It’s built for clever one-liners, not for conversation. That makes it inherently competitive, rather than collaborative. That can put women off, because female communication tends to be more collaborative than competitive, and you’ll see often women duck out of an exchange when they see it becoming competitive because that’s really not how most of us work.
“The most productive way to generate ideas is through conversations, and where else do you get a large group of individuals together who to converse about a specific topic than at conferences? Conferences done right genuinely encourage people learning from one another.”
QualityLogic: Why did you choose to go into consulting? What’s the draw?
Fiona: The biggest draw is that it’s a people-focused job. And I love to create order out of chaos! That’s one reason I love testing, too.
QualityLogic: You told me about attending Jerry Weinberg’s residential course focused on problem solving in leadership. Can you expand on the ways this helped you with consulting?
Fiona: That would take a book! The class was PSL, Jerry Weinberg’s Problem Solving Leadership workshop, which I attended in 2001. Many people have found PSL to be life-changing. For me, it was an expansion of a journey I’d been on for a long time. The things I learned there have had impacts on everything I have done since, in life as well as in my work. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what those were, but PSL certainly liberated me to be more myself at work and it taught me a heightened awareness and understanding of my own and other people’s behaviors. There were more specific learnings, too, like models and techniques for approaching and solving problems. All of those definable and indefinable learnings have been assets in my consulting work, and in fact I’m still learning from them.
QualityLogic:What advice would you give someone wanting to become a consultant like yourself?
Fiona: “To be an effective consultant you have to have something to consult about. There must be a body of experience to draw from. You also have to be personally comfortable living and working in conditions of uncertainty, while understanding that most clients and other people you work with are probably not.”
Fiona was careful to point out that consulting isn’t simply deploying “a big box of processes”. That type of rigid thinking rarely works. Rather, she said, “I don’t consult to a foregone conclusion. I don’t arrive with a box of processes tucked under my arm—I come with questions. I don’t believe in “best practices” or one right answer. I usually want to start by knowing how much software risk a company’s carrying and how they’re dealing with it. That can help expose the underlying dysfunctions and then we can start looking at ways to address those.”
Fiona’s a pragmatist. She boiled down her consulting ideology to this,
“Stop being hung up on the religion of processes. Focus on what will work.”