At a recent session of my "How to Become a Better Tester" workshop, one person asked a very insightful question, "How do you rebuild credibility as a tester?" Since I didn't have a trusty PowerPoint slide with 5 bullets and cute clip art on that topic, I had to take a step back and reflect for about seven seconds to formulate an answer. For those of you who train, you know these kinds of questions are both a challenge and an opportunity to reflect and explore. Going through the experience in front of people makes it even more exciting.
Before I could answer the question of rebuilding credibility, I had to discuss what credibility is. This led me to write three articles - this one, the one next month on "How to Destroy Your Credibility as a Tester," and finally "How to Rebuild Your Credibility as a Tester."
The Nature of Credibility
In some ways, credibility is like quality. At first thought, it may be hard to define exactly, but you know it when you see it.
I tend to see credibility as a multi-faceted attribute that includes reliability, knowledge, consistency, reputation, trust, attitude, caring, and attention to detail. We will explore each of these in a minute, but first let's take a real-world example to see the importance of credibility.
Regardless of your political views, I think most people would agree that the ongoing debate about the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq speaks to the point of credibility. When a case is made strongly for something and then the underlying assumptions appear to be incorrect, the main thing that is lost is the credibility of those who made the message.
This real-world case points out some interesting things that may sound familiar to testers. The information in question came from an imperfect process performed over a period of time, the information was largely external in nature, and the administrations of both the U.S. and the U.K. relied heavily on intelligence to make their case for war. This information was obtained over a period of time in which things change. It is possible that the intelligence was correct at one time, but in the final months before the start of the war the weapons were moved. Only time will tell the true story.
Another recent example was that of Jayson Blair and his confession that many of the stories he wrote for the NY times had been fabricated. Also interesting was that he has now written a book about his experiences. A quick query at Amazon.com shows sales rank of 66,469 with an average review of three stars. (Good grief! My little book co-written with William E. Perry is at 34,282.) It seems that people won't buy a book written by someone they don't believe.
The point is that when you lose credibility, you have lost a lot. I tell testers all the time that credibility is their most important attribute. Without credibility, testers have great difficulty in finding a voice in their organization and are their findings are often distrusted.
Principles of Credibility
The title of this article is very intentional in using the word "build." Credibility is not instant, but rather must be built by a proven track record over time. I don't know how much time it takes, since that depends on the people involved, but I know everyone goes through a proving time in every job. That includes testers.
The most striking thing to me is that is may take years to build credibility, but it can be lost in five seconds. To rebuild lost credibility may take much longer than it took to build it in the first place. Credibility is a fragile thing.
In my observation and experience, the following things factor into credibility. If you observe credible people, you will see many, if not all, of the following:
Others must feel comfortable that you know what you are talking about. Knowledge can be demonstrated in many ways, with language and experience being two of the best.
You may have all types of degrees and/or certifications but the real test is real-world application of the knowledge.
All the knowledge in the world is worthless if people don't feel that you value them. If you come across as a "prima donna" or "hot shot", your credibility will suffer.
I like what John Maxwell says. "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
Like caring, your attitude is another factor that must be in place for knowledge. Great knowledge with a bad attitude will make you an unpopular team member.
As a tester, people expect you to convey impartial and meaningful information. If the information becomes overly optimistic or overly pessimistic the information is skewed and unreliable. Process is important to test reporting because it helps define the evaluation criteria and keeps the politics and emotions out of the message.
Personally, if I find something of interest that could be indicative of a defect, I recreate the situation and perform the test again. I do this to make sure that what I am reporting is accurate and reproducible. Once a tester reports inaccurate information, a little credibility is lost. Future test reports may be doubted.
Testers are often trusted to provide specific accurate information about where problems are observed, when they are observed, the context and situation under which the testing was performed among other details. Developers rely on this information to re-create and resolve defects. When accuracy is missing, little can be trusted.
I often tell testers that since they can't test everything and are not responsible for the quality of software, the main way a tester can fail is to fail to report accurately a defect they have observed.
The more people can rely on you to know things and to be a valuable team member, the more credible you will be in their eyes. Like credibility itself, trust is also earned over time.
This means that you "walk the talk." You do things that are consistent with the words you say.
Attention to Detail
Credible people tend to pay attention to details. They know that larger successes depend on the success or failure of smaller things. A credible person will review something several times to make sure their credibility is not diminished by a careless mistake.
Nobody is perfect and we will always make mistakes. The key is to do your best and to learn from your mistakes. It's when you don't care about your mistakes that credibility suffers.
How to Build Credibility as a Tester
Although there is no perfect way to build credibility, here is a roadmap that may help.
Step 1 - Take a personal and team inventory
You need to take an honest look at yourself and the people you work with to see how credible you are currently. Some questions to ask may include:
How often do people seek my advice?
After you have given advice, do people seek second opinions?
Do people show confidence in your opinions?
Do you have a plan for building your skills and knowledge?
How many books on testing have you read in the past year?
Do you speak at testing conferences?
Do you participate in online testing forums?
Do you have a reputation for caring?
Are you a positive person?
How do other people in the organization view your team?
Do people trust the information provided by your team?
Do the people on your team keep their knowledge current?
Step 2 - Identify your strengths and weaknesses
Assess yourself and your team to identify your strengths and weaknesses. You want to focus on your strengths and find ways to compensate for your weaknesses. If you try to improve a weakness, you may get a little better, but at best you will likely be average. It's good enough to know what you are best at doing and let others do what they are best at doing. There is wisdom in knowing when to defer to others to answer questions outside of your strengths.
Step 3 - Build good relationships
People see competency at the relationship level. It is possible to have credibility from a distance, such as being an author or minor testing celebrity. However, to really know how good someone is, you need to spend some time with them.
Step 4 - Demonstrate competency
This happens on a case-by-case basis over a period of time.
Step 5 - Be willing to admit mistakes
If you do mess up, admit it and go on. Don't blame or deny, just be human and humble.
Step 6 - Re-assess and adjust
As time goes on, keep asking questions and making adjustments. Before you know it, you and your team's credibility will rise in the organization.
Credibility is the key to being an effective voice for quality in an organization. It takes a time to build your credibility, but it can be lost in an instant. There are several factors involved in building credibility. Paying attention to these factors and understanding your own strengths and weaknesses can put you on the road to building your credibility in your organization.