Communicating Testing through Stories: An Interview with Isabel Evans

[interview]
Summary:

In this interview, independent quality and testing consultant Isabel Evans explains how to tell testing stories. She details the power of telling stories within software and shows how being able to effectively listen is just as important to communication as talking.

Josiah Renaudin: Hello, and welcome back to anther TechWell interview. Today I’m joined by Isabel Evans, an independent quality and testing consultant and keynote speaker at our upcoming STAREAST conference. Isabel, thank you for joining us today. First, before we dig into your keynote, could you tell us a bit about your experience in the industry?

Isabel Evans: I have been in IT for a long time ... I last programmed in earnest in the 1970s. I came into testing in the 1980s and since then have been working in testing, quality improvement, and related areas. I've continued to work as a practitioner whenever I can, and also have had management, mentoring, coaching, and consultancy roles.

Josiah Renaudin: Why do you think software practitioners often see their messages garbled or unheard by management?

Isabel Evans: Yes, that does happen, doesn't it? And vice versa—managers' messages are garbled and unheard by software practitioners.

There are several reasons.

One is that the meanings of words change between IT usage and the rest of the world: Even the word communication. I remember once I had been asked to look at the way people on a particular IT project related to each other. As part of this (taking the direct approach), I went to the different teams on the project and asked "Do you think there are communication problems on this project?” Many people outside the technical IT team said they thought there were misunderstandings and failures to communicate. When I asked the technical IT team, they said, "No, the network has been 99 percent available."

People's personalities affect their preferred communication styles and media. Some people prefer diagrams to text. Some people prefer text or cannot access diagrams. Some people like explanations and are happy to read long documents—I'm among them. Others don't have time, or patience, and need a message on a page, or even three bullet points. Many IT people feel the need to explain what they are doing in detail to people who just need a headline.

Josiah Renaudin: Has effective communication within a team become even more critical with the pervasiveness of agile?

Isabel Evans: It has become more obviously necessary. One of the benefits of agile approaches is that they mean any flaws become harder to hide and they manifest as problems more quickly than they would in a long, traditional project. That includes communication problems; they become so obvious. Effective communication is always critical.

Josiah Renaudin: You mention in your abstract for your keynote that everyone has a built-in receptiveness to narratives. Why do you think that is?

Isabel Evans: It is deep in our psychological makeup as animals—we want sequences of events to have meaning. We see stories even when they are not there. Experiments done with pigeons show even a bird will try to make a meaning narrative out of its environment. I show some of this (not the pigeons) in my keynote.

Josiah Renaudin: Is this story-telling just as effective, in your mind, through written means as it is oral? If you’re trying to tell a testing story, is there a “best” way to do so?

Isabel Evans: Oral, written, pictures, music, mime, and dance ... whatever catches your audience and puts the message over. The best way is what works at that time. You need to enjoy that method yourself, and your audience needs to enjoy it. Sometimes a serious learned paper is best, sometimes a cartoon, and sometimes a spoken story. Often a mix. Look at Rob Sabourin's wonderful book I Am a Bug.

Josiah Renaudin: I like how you bring up that we should use the analogies of novels, short stories, picture books, poems, and songs to tell testing stories. Can you give an example of a few of these? Maybe a time you used elements of a poem to get your testing point across?

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