"Some birds aren't meant to be caged, their feathers are just too bright"- Morgan Freeman, Shawshank Redemption. This blog is from one such bird who couldn't be caged by organizations who mandate scripted software testing. Pradeep Soundararajan welcomes you to this blog and wishes you a good time here and even otherwise.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A culture bug that impacts software testers in India

We all know the way we have been brought up has had a huge influence on how we see things. Some of us have benefited and others have not. Most of us have a mixed bag.

A culture bug in India

Each of our countries has a culture that has rubbed off on how we are brought up. Indian culture teaches respect. If someone is elder, no matter how stupid they are, kids are taught to respect them because they are ELDER and they are always correct. There could be a notion that elder means wiser but sadly, that is not true in many cases. If someone is a senior at work, no matter how much they are sinking the boat, we are taught to respect them because they are SENIOR and they are always correct. If the teacher at school did beat us up for not doing home work, we were taught to not be worried about being hit but instead feel guilty for not doing home work because they are TEACHER and they are always correct. At least till the previous generation, women were mostly considered to be electricity-less Roti makers by most men and also were considered less intellectually superior. So, women had to offer a lot of respect to men irrespective of how screwed up the men were. That was the case because they are MEN and they are always correct.

Slowly, over generations, the people who are offered respect have learnt to misuse it. So, there are plenty of organizations who say to their testers, "How dare you speak like that to the CEO?" and "I am your reporting manager and I can screw your career", "If you don't do things to please me, I am going to impact your hike and promotion", "How can you go to my manager and talk about me?"

Those who offer respect also have a tendency to think that they are less superior or less powerful and this makes them act like a slave, not escalate issues, not inform the decision makers the truth and allow someone to screw up the entire company and its culture. It is simple, when the boat sinks, move to another boat. This is why hiring has become a challenge for organizations who want to grow. They got to be careful that people don't see the boat as "yet another boat to sink".

Similar culture bug in other countries

Other countries have their own version of this problem. For instance Malcom Gladwell, who happens to cover great stories, exposed how culture impacts plane crashes. In the book Outliers, Malcom covered The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. If you were to read that piece of brilliance of thinking and writing, you would know Korean Airways had the highest number of crashes in 70's and 80's because their culture was in such a way that the co-pilot did not oppose the captain because he was a SENIOR and by virtue, a senior is always correct. The story gets a twist when the culture is hacked and people are re-trained on how to and not to respect the senior. As of today, Korean airways is one of the safest, at least, as per Wikipedia, there is no report of plane crash in Korean Airways since 2000.

If that happened in Korea, it must have also happened in India. I was trying to see if any plane crash in India had a similar pattern. The most recent plane crash in India was the one that happened in Mangalore where 152 passengers and crew were killed in Air India Express Flight 812 crash. You should read this part and figure out that the co-pilot warned the commander but the Serbian commander didn't heed to the warning because the commander was the SENIOR. Without guess, thousands of air travellers might have been killed by the human bug of culture so far. The West can't be different than east as I believe, the West houses humans as the East do. There could be a different culture bug there than in here.

When is it OKAY to give bad news information that hurts people?

In Moolya, there is this wonderful young tester by name Manju. Her passion to work, dedication and commitment is unquestionable. She is highly trust worthy. Our customer seconds my understanding of Manju and has high respect for her commitment and trusts her. However, there is one aspect of Manju that is a side effect of all the good qualities she has - which is - she does not say anything that hurts anybody.

The nature of the job as a tester, is to find information and present information. Not all information is welcomed.  Some information could violate assumptions or shatter the possibility of a goal being accomplished and this can definitely hurt. It is the information that does hurt, not the human who hurts another. So, stop confusing yourselves that testers find bugs in people or their work.

With Manju, I have been repeatedly trying to hack into her thought process and help her learn that it is absolutely okay to speak in ways that may hurt people if it is helping the larger objective of why she we was hired for that project. 

In my most recent conversation with Manju, I gave her an analogy, "I am the captain of a ship you and I are travelling. If someone is hammering the ship to make a hole so that water comes in and the ship sinks, would you inform me about it?" and without giving her time to answer, I continued, "You should! Otherwise we all sink. If you do escalate things to me, I may throw the person out of the boat but that is because I am the captain and I want travelers like you to feel safe on this boat. It is a captain's duty to do so and it is your duty to keep the captain informed about it". I pray she gets it and I shall hack in every time into her 20 years of education that says, "Don't say things that may hurt people". I have suggested her to read Malcom Gladwell's coverage on airplane crashes and the culture bug. I am sure she would understand that saving thousands of people is more important than hurting the captain with bad news.

There is so much of value she has added to the project that she is now leading the delivery for the project and this came to her because of her good work. It would be more valuable if she were to be telling things the way they are without being worried if it would hurt somebody or not because, at times not telling such things will sink the boat she is in, irrespective of how much she cares for the safety of the boat.

The Indian Military and how they don't confuse the reverent culture

I was talking to Paul Carvalho over Skype yesterday and he was narrating a story about how he established his position as a test consultant a couple of years back. He had to oppose certain decisions taken prior to his appointment. He had to help his company recognize that they actually hired him to solve the problem. I told Paul that I would wish to hack into the culture of some Moolya testers and help them do what he appears to be doing. He came up with this beautiful thing asking, "Maybe you may want to explore how better you can use your own culture to teach them than bringing in examples from other cultures"

James Bach spoke about how Indian testers can benefit from their own culture in his talk at Test-Ed 2012. He also delivered great reminders to Indian testers on how they seem to have forgotten the wealth of information that exists about testing in India from its history and mythology. He referred to the Indian culture as a reverent culture and said there is power in it.

While we should learn a lot of good thinking skills from Indian culture and history we should not misunderstand reverence to offering respect at the cost of the purpose. Paul's question triggered a thought process in me that he found it profound. Here is how it goes:

I said to Paul that I am not bringing examples from other culture to Moolya testers to change their culture but to help them remind how the Indian Military forces work despite our reverent culture. Their job is to be prepared, remove obstacles and keep progressing.

This learning comes from a conversation I had with my cousin brother who serves the army as a Colonel who fought the Kargil War in 1999.  In 2002, then a Major and Joint Commanding Officer at the Jawan Training center in Secunderabad, I had an opportunity to visit him and see the rigor that our Jawans go through to get trained to fight war. The documented rule in the military says, "If a SENIOR is a coward or creates panic at war zone, runs away at the hands of enemy and fails to fight the enemy, he can be killed by any officer who notices this, irrespective of their rank". If they fail to kill such a person, the panic or cowardliness could spread and we shall end up losing the war. Acting upon information is leadership. You don't need a designation as a Leader to be a leader.

The non obvious thing about software business

In the software field, it is less obvious that many families are dependent on the work we do. For instance, Manju works for our customer who is a start-up and boot strapped. The founders are pumping in all of their money to get their business going. They have families and need to earn bread for their family. They also need to pay their employees and vendors on time. They are more or less in a war like situation. They need to know the obstacles before they have to encounter it. They can't see obstacles and they have to rely on their people to do so. The more their people understand this, the better it is for them. If they happen to lose business, that would spiral on their employees and vendors like Moolya.

Well, it is not always that somebody was intentionally hammering to sink the boat. Software is so complex that at times people may remove a nut to fix something else and that may have caused water to leak in. If it is escalated early, the captains have time to fix it. Otherwise, they need to work on Plan B of getting everybody out of the boat, safely. That's not what you should make your captains do.

Recognizing & fixing the bug

For someone fresh out of college and in the first job, how much would they be able to recognize that a leak in the dam can cause the entire dam to break? With a boat, it is obvious, maybe. In business, it is not obvious. Even to those who are running the business. The young folks need to be trained – to recognize leaks and to escalate or fix it.

It is not easy. 20+ years someone has lived a life in a specific way and for me to win their trust to hack their culture looks like a thing beyond human capability. Interestingly, I just can't tell people like Manju to speak up and assume my job is over. I have to create an environment where people who speak up are protected, people who speak up are respected, and people who speak up understand the purpose.

Informing the purpose, reminding them, demonstrating their stake and helping them understand the purpose is my way of how this culture bug can be fixed. You can't be a doctor and say, "I hate seeing blood". You can't be a tester and say, "What if this hurts somebody?” Note that, please, I beg you to be careful - testing does not mean to find bugs in people nor their work. It is about finding and presenting information. The information can offend some people because they may have had an assumption that is violated with it or were in fantasy and you brought them to reality. That is why they hired you. Even if they don’t recognize, you have to.

While getting this reviewed, Paul Carvalho, reminded me of Virginia Satir interaction model that he learned from Jerry Weinberg. Then I happen to read this beautiful piece from Dale Emery about his experience with Virginia Satir Interaction Model and I know the training is both sides - to those who want to bring issues to notice and to those who are going to respond to it.  

My heartfelt thanks to Manju who permitted me to use her name, my observations about her and recognizing what I said is true about her. Thanks to Parimala Hariprasad and Paul Carvalho to help me see blind spots in my thought and writing. Many thanks to my cousin Padmashree who is of K12 and took time to read this and tell what passages are simple and what are not. I have acted upon the information she provided. To bring this post to you, I have had to work, for more than 36 hours (over a period of one week) and what a moment for me to know you are reading it. Thank you! 


Jyothi R said...

Hi Pradeep.
Thanks for sharing this.

I am Manju myself and know of several others around me that do not speak up for the fear of being fired/demoted for providing constructive feedback in a way that helps the collective objective of a project.

It is noticed that when some bad news about the product is conveyed (very smoothly too) it hits the person more than the process followed or the product itself.

At times I have run away and have reserved myself to be quiet(not for long though). As I did not find whom to convey the information to.

Over a period of time, I learnt that by constructively speaking to the right person at a right time helps.

A follow up is a must, delivering the information is not sufficient.

This happened to me at work, when I raised a concern I was hit with demotion more than once. This did cause me to restrain from acting or reacting.

There are instances when I could see the sinking ship and have silently sobbed.

Around me I see many like me, that say 'What can I do'. I tell them collectively we can do this.
The fear, I see in getting people involved is due to the person 's own thinking that this will not work.

Moreover one needs more than 1 person, a support system that can get together and fix this sinking ship.
Have felt like giving it up, but I could not. As i wake up and think of fixing it again.

Constructively I am introducing myself to a no inhibition zone by adding value where ever there is scope, hopefully this in some ways contributes to a better working space for self and many more around.

I liked this - 'Acting upon information is leadership. You don't need a designation as a Leader to be a leader'.

Thank you.


Pradeep Soundararajan said...


Thanks for sharing your story. I wish to work with people like you as you seem to care for the ship.

This happened to me at work, when I raised a concern I was hit with demotion more than once. This did cause me to restrain from acting or reacting.

Whenever this happened to me, I recognized that no matter what I do, the captain will sink the ship himself and he is looking for the deepest part of the ocean to do so. I just moved on. You too should.

Adam Goucher said...

So the Organizational Behaviour term for your 'bug' is called 'Power Distance' as coined by Geert Hofstede. Here is what he has to say about India in this regard.


And for comparison sake, lets throw Canada up as well


Of course, this the 5-D Model that Hofstede uses is a summary heuristic and not necessarily applicable for all members of a culture and a country is made of multiple cultures, etc., etc. (see the last paragraph on the Canada one for instance). But I find it useful to keep in the back of my mind.

MSA Ansari said...

Fantastic post... I was visualizing myself in place of Manju as I am also that kind only.

Many times people think that the testers are just screwing them by telling this is wrong or this should be like this according to requirements,etc. But thats a testers job. We have to do this. We are paid to do this.

Sometimes it happens that this thought also enters the mind of a tester but he/she must overcome it and continue doing what is to be done.

Thanks for this nice article

Dan Caseley said...

I occasionally hit the same worry and spend too much time polishing language in bug reports for fear of upsetting a developer. Thanks for the article - food for thought.

Matthew said...

Quote - "If someone is elder, no matter how stupid they are, kids are taught to respect them because they are ELDER and they are always correct. There could be a notion that elder means wiser but sadly, that is not true in many cases"

Interesting that you write about this. The above sentence works just as same for ‘teachers’ in India. If you are a teacher of ‘any’ kind, there will always be a group of followers who are ready to accept anything you teach. Of course, if you are a ‘guru’, then these followers are ready to fight anyone who dares to question any of the wisdoms uttered by you. I’m sick of these people who are ready to accept anything these teachers say without even thinking about it a bit. India needs people who can think for themselves and not followers of elders or teachers.

On the ‘reluctant to speak up’ issue, if an employee gets penalised for raising issues, then it is the organisation culture that needs to be changed, not the employees’ attitude. Instead of asking employees to read books on culture change, I would educate the line managers on how to treat their subordinates and provide an environment where they can put forward their opinions without fear.

I think you have done a disservice to your employee by naming her in your blog (even though she has given you permission to do so, maybe she was reluctant to say no?). Btw, if I am travelling in a ‘ship’, then I wouldn’t worry about anyone trying to hammer a hole in the ship unless that person happens to be Thor.

Priya said...

James Bach's talk was indeed insightful .. an eye opener. As is your post here with interesting facts about how the culture bug influences us in our professional life.
I've been like Manju too, have been evolving also.. To speak up even when I feel that my words may not be received well or my concerns brushed aside, is very demotivating .. but I persist and speak up when necessary.
Thanks for writing this Pradeep!

Pradeep Soundararajan said...


I think you have done a disservice to your employee by naming her in your blog (even though she has given you permission to do so, maybe she was reluctant to say no?). Btw, if I am travelling in a ‘ship’, then I wouldn’t worry about anyone trying to hammer a hole in the ship unless that person happens to be Thor.

I was about to take you seriously and try explaining something to you but the moment I read about Thor, I thought you are making fun of yourselves and why should I intervene. Be yourself, gives me fun to watch.

Björn Petersson said...

Great story and excellent writing.
I can only relate similar problems after working with an outsourced test team in India.
We spent about a year to get an understanding of each other and what we needed in terms of information etc to get the collaboration to work smoothly, and achieve really good results
As stated in both the story and the comments above each country/culture have their own "bugs" that must be challenged and overcome.

ANURAJ said...

@Pradeep : Awesome. I saw myself there in your blog and that's the only reason am writing to you. There are so many Testing Professionals(I won't call them as 'Testers')who are following a systematic approach in testing. But I always wanted to stay out of the box.

One day one of my colleague finds a bug which was totally out of the box, and it was something which was gonna break the working logic of the application. I was so proud of her and asked her to report it to our manager. But unfortunately she was threatened by him and told her that the role of a tester is to test if it's working properly, not to break the application. I won't agree with that. If we want to ensure that it's working fine, then definitely it needs to be broken. We need an aggressive nature towards the application to break it's flow by all possible means. She was expecting some good words from her manager but unfortunately she was ...Why this happens ???

Testing is also a job, which needs proper care and time. It's not easy as others might see. It's an easy job for those who wants it to make easy, but if you have a real passion for testing, then I will say you, It's not an easy job for you.

I respect you for your concern towards your colleague and I respect you more for this article, as this will help many more Manjus to think in a different way.

Proud to be a tester ....