A is for Apathy (My A to Z of Software Testing, Part 1)

The other day I was watching a fantastic discussion on SBS TV regarding one of the fastest growing epidemics in the western world – Type 2 Diabetes. The discussion centred around claims made by UK-based TV presenter Dr. Michael Mosley, who has recently published a book based upon scientific evidence (provided by another UK based specialist) that we can now reverse the symptoms (and sometimes cure) Type 2 Diabetes. There were many Type 2 Diabetes sufferers in the studio audience and they were all asked if they would follow the dietary regime prescribed in Dr. Mosley’s book (800 calories on food per day for 8 weeks), if it meant that their Type 2 Diabetes would go away. At this point I should highlight that Type 2 Diabetes can cause blindness and limb amputation to name but two rather nasty issues. It can also lead to death at a much earlier age than expected for your socio-economic group. On top of the book/study evidence there were other audience members who had reversed/cured their Type 2 Diabetes just by changing their diet.

The body of evidence for reversing/curing Type 2 Diabetes seemed pretty damn strong to me. The option of changing ones diet (and, remember, in Dr. Mosley’s book for just 8 weeks) also seemed pretty straightforward. So, I was completely gob-smacked when the majority of Type 2 Diabetes sufferers in the audience said they would NOT consider changing their diet to reverse/cure their illness. To me, the thought of going blind, just so that I can continue to eat a MacDonald’s whenever I felt like it, seemed ludicrous in the extreme, but people in the audience (who appeared to be of, at least, average intelligence) seemed more than happy to continue along a path to more pain and suffering. Surely, the evidence was strong enough. Surely, the likely adverse outcomes were scary enough. Surely, just changing your diet for 8 weeks was worth the effort….

To me, this story is akin to hundreds of discussions I’ve had over the years with people who don’t respond to the software testing is good for you body of evidence. If an above-average intelligence human being is comfortable with going blind, just so they can continue to eat their favourite ice-cream three times a week, then what chance do we have of convincing someone with a similar belief system to spend time and money testing software.

I have spent hundreds of hours building Business Cases for software testing initiatives only to be told – “We can’t afford it” or “My business partners won’t agree to delaying the launch of our product”. I have spent even more time demonstrating likely (non just worst case) scenarios for adverse outcomes, if insufficient testing is performed, and still I get the cold shoulder!!

So, what is it that causes rational, intelligent human beings to ignore scientific evidence and obvious personal/business risk and take a punt on Lady Luck? In my experience there are many reasons, but the most common are ego and apathy. Ego rears it’s ugly head on so many levels when it comes to decision making – especially among alpha males – and there usually plenty of those of major software projects. I can usually deal with egos (in fact it’s quite easy to manipulate someone with an oversized ego) but apathy is another story. Apathy has no energy to tap into. Apathy is like a black hole in the solar system. Apathy is usually catching, in that it spreads like a fungus throughout organisations. Apathy is the half-brother to cynicism. Apathy sucks the life-blood out of people.

In my experience there are two options when it comes to dealing with apathy. The first is to just walk away and let some other poor sap waste their time and energy – I’ve certainly done this in extreme situations where my best efforts were wasted/ignored. The second option is to provide real life examples (based upon the context within which the organisation is operating) of what will happen when a specific problem is encountered. The most effective way I have found to do this is to model the business (or part thereof) and create the adverse outcome deliberately and then watch what happens when the penny drops with those present. I’ll share an excellent example of a challenge I was having with a logistics company where I was having trouble getting sign-off for a specific set of test scenarios for their delivery drivers….

We wanted to conduct a series of tests relating to the vehicles’ GPS. The client believed that the technology was solid and proven and that no specific testing was required. I then created a situation where the GPS failed at 4pm on a Friday afternoon during a completely separate set of physical tests with the delivery vans. Six drivers were on the road in various parts of London at this time and we were able to crash all of the GPS devices remotely. What happened next was priceless. Only one of the drivers (a woman) followed the training they had received and called base for instructions. The other five drivers (all men!!) tried to navigate their way to their next few deliveries before returning to base. None of these five drivers completed their delivery schedule. All of the drivers were late with the deliveries they had scheduled and when we contacted the (test) customers later all said they would have cancelled or thought seriously about their future buying intentions. They also all said that they would have accepted later deliveries if they had been warned of the problem. This example ended up being a combination of both of the issues I mentioned earlier – ego AND apathy. Ego reared it’s head with the drivers not believing that they needed to ask for help and apathy came from the head of logistics.

In truth, I didn’t expect such a spectacular fail, but from that day on I had no trouble convincing the heads of departments regarding the test scenarios that we planned to initiate.

Dateline: Melbourne, Tuesday March 8, 2016


2 thoughts on “A is for Apathy (My A to Z of Software Testing, Part 1)

  1. 1) There is that experiment with kids, where you show them a ice cream and offer they can have the ice cream now. OR they will get two tomorrow if they forego this one. That is a 100% increase! So you’d think it’s a no-brainer to wait. But alas, tests have shown that next to all humankids will choos the one and not wait.

    I think it has something to do with the abstract. We tend not to get that especially if the real thing is right in front of us. Maybe also something with trust is involved. How can we be sure we can get two in the future? So are we being set-up by our genes and conditioning as a hunter? Is our “neanderthal” heritage getting the better of us?

    2) I also think in a business world the odds are stacked against us. You seem to get in late in the game and now need to challenge the status quo. You need managers to accept a change in budget and/or timeline. Those are often tightly coupled to their success (or not). Quality again is a vague concept which, like you demonstrated, is in need of a direct case for people to grasp in context. So you’re a right royal pain and you expect to be welcomed with open arms. Not likely to happen. I think we need to change our stance to what success looks like in that scenario.

    3) And you’re also fighting what I’d call “bad” testing. “Bad” testing is done all over town. Testing (barely) that has low value because it is done and controlled by people that have a very simplistic idea of what testing is. If you as a manager have seen that I can fully understand why you’d be reluctant to spend money on that. So actually you are not only making the case for testing but also for “good” testing and high-value testing, which is a bit bigger ask!

    x) And then there is the woman thing you mentioned. Sad but we live in a (work) society, where asking for help is interpreted as weakness. If you ask for help (openly) your next promotion is in severe danger of not ever happening. Being stupid and failing is painful but will not impact your career too much if the blunder can be at least partially remedied. I know this from just obeserving myself. I still funtion in that way even though I am aware of it’s idiocy. Just goes to show how we are slaves to our past.

    4) And directly following that is the issue with admitting to need a tester. If I employ a tester that means I accept that I make mistakes. But mistakes are not what I am paid for, just the opposite! I’m a professional (whatever) I don’t make mistakes. My code/management style is PERFECT! Nobody will consciously be thinking that but I think it is there in those big brains somewhere. There is an inherent reluctance to accept this. Exactly the point of those people refusing the diet. It would mean that their Type 2 is a bigger problem than they are willing to admit. That would have necessary action as a consequence.

    Lastly thank you! I am Type 2 and will look this guy & the diet up! I already control my diet but would like to normalise things.

    • Hi Oliver,

      Thank you sincerely for your comments and feedback. I obviously had no idea you were a Type 2 when I wrote this post, so I’m really pleased that it resonated with you on several levels.

      Our “context driven world” is so much more that the technology and the processes. As JB and MB remind us constantly, it is the human factors that impact most upon our work and ultimately make a difference.

      My series on “The A to Z of Software Testing” aims to focus on the stuff that is written about infrequently, if at all and I’m aiming to get folks thinking more and more about the human impacts of the technology we encounter not just during our work but our every day lives – after all, they are becoming more and more difficult to separate anyway.

      Once again, thanks sincerely for taking the time to write and I hope you find the Dr. Mosley stuff useful.


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