Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Insecurity 101 - The Phil Cool Factor

As a kid growing up in England in the 80s, we all were entranced by comedian Phil Cool.  He was a an impressionist with an amazing ability to contort his face into different shapes.  I remember how excitedly we'd talk about the last nights show in the corridors of Abbot Beyne High School in between classes.

Here's a few examples of Phil at his best ...

You might have noticed this blog has a lot of comic tones, and maybe you think I'm making a joke when I say that I do actually take comedy really seriously.  But I love comedy which is clever and unexpected, I despise comedy that is cheap.  So you can imagine how much I was in awe when in 2009 I actually got to meet my comedic legend quite by accident at a Fairport Convention concert.

He was actually part of a folk support act that played before the main band.  Some of his songs were typically comic, but some really very straight.  At then end of the show I bumped into him whilst waiting for a friend.

What happened was a humbling eye opener for me.  Phil Cool, quite literally the coolest comedian on the TV in my childhood - a man so very loud and funny on stage - but in person ... quite a shock.  I got speaking to him, and said I'd really enjoyed his set, and what an interesting (but different) venture.  Although really polite, be seemed quite nervous, and blushing said it was nice to hear that.  The man before me wasn't a loud and bombastic comedian, but a humble, somewhat uncertain human being who struck me as doubtful of his own (immense in my opinion) talents.

Rather than shatter my perceptions of him, I came away fascinated that someone I looked up to was not the stuff of legend, but a flesh-and-blood human being not so different from myself.

You see we all have doubts.  It's a very human thing to have internal fears and insecurities.

During KWST3, talking about the same cloud of doubt, there was a point where Aaron Hodder asked people to put up their hands to say if they ever felt a fraud as a tester ...

Most of the room put theirs up, but I have to admit I didn't put my hand up.  Commentary from Michael Bolton suggested that was because of the Dunning-Kruger effect.  This is the "grad phenomemon" where someone just out of University thinks they know everything, whilst someone with 20 years experience seems to show less superiority because they're more aware of their limitations.  People who put their hand up were experienced testers who knew their limits, whilst those like myself who kept them down were "deluded newbies" who thought we knew it all.

However for myself, despite Michael's criticism, I've been in the industry, and in teaching and research science enough to know I am a tester.  In my time, I've thought enough to get feedback and to ask around both my superiors and my peers, and it turns out that much like Phil Cool, insecurity is a common thing.  We're often hiding it beneath bravado.

I never think of myself as a fraud as a tester, simply because I've had a couple of non-testing careers.  I would not have spent 16+ years in the IT industry if I was plagued by doubts about me belonging here or having worth here.  Simply put, life is too short, and I would have abandoned ship long ago.

But it doesn't come easy.  I've get to know others, and be open, and sometimes talk about how I feel out of my comfort zone with peers that I trust.  My wingman on RAF projects 10 years ago was John Preston, and we still exchange emails talking about problems and challenges we face in IT.  Through both my career and through the internet, I've built up a wide peer network, many of them people I trust to ask big questions.

I've also looked up and followed some industry leaders in IT, and got to know a few.  They can seem to tower over us as Titans, and we can look at our projects and go "I bet Heracles Tester doesn't have these problems".  What has surprised me as I've got to know a few better, is that the Phil Cool effect takes hold - even in IT.  People who seem superhuman figures, powerhouses who can get things done, the more you get to know them up close you realise they are not Testing Titans who have been empowered with mighty and mystical powers from the Gods Of Testing themselves.  They are human beings, vulnerable and at times caught and ensnared in their own emotions.  Just like you or me.

This revelation has not diminished them in my eyes - it moves them from being something iconic (but also people I can't relate to), to being more peer in nature.  But at the same time, they become people I can relate to more, and who inspire me more in daily life.  Because if they do not have to "skip the hard yards" because of their status, if they have to go through the same assault course, then maybe I can too.

I know being a "famous" tester doesn't mean the learning curve of a new project is any easier, it doesn't exempt you from the occasional tussle at work, having to explain your position as a tester or having to do the (occasional) extra hours to get a project launched.

With that knowledge I've gained through networking that there are no magic solutions or attributes, there was no purpose putting my hand up to feeling like a fraud.  It serves no-one to be modest.  And as I said, if I really felt like that, I would have jumped to a new profession by now if I genuinely did.

That said, I do have doubts and even insecurities.  To steal the words of Douglas Adams, I'd like to call them "rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty".  I worry sometimes there are things when planning testing that I don't know, areas I'll not think to test enough, bad assumptions I'll make.  

These doubts are not about me as an individual, but about whether I know or have thought about enough things about what I'm testing.  But then again, isn't the first law of testing that the profession exists because people are fallible and make mistakes (in code or design).  Given that human frailty why would testers be exempt?

The answer to that is just as we do with testing, just as I mentioned about personal insecurity.  We put it out to a network and get feedback.  We put it in front of people we trust (hopefully who you work for), and ask their opinion, critique and questions.  Then the planned testing isn't a one-man-band, but the sum ideas of everyone on the team, some of whom might have different ideas to how things work to you.

Getting people to positively critique to make something better is a superb strategy for fighting neurosis and feeling more confident about what we do.  At the end of the day, giving critique and feedback to produce a positive outcome pretty much sums up what we do as testers.

1 comment:

  1. I love Phil Cool! And that he is shy and vulnerable. I've certainly suffered from that "now everyone will discover I'm a fraud" syndrome. And being fairly well-known in some circles doesn't cut any ice with my own team, that's for sure.

    So how nice to look at this as a plus. We have to rely on others, and that is a good thing. And we do make our own particular contribution. Cool, Phil!