This post is an expansion on the speaker notes for my recent talk at South West Test. If you are a tester or interact with testers anywhere in Bristol or the nearby environs, do yourself a favour and make the time to attend one of their packed out events.

Danny Dainton, the organiser has a knack for getting some very talented speakers to give their time and talk on behalf of their fellow testers.

If you are considering having a go at the speaking “thing” or want to rehearse a speech at a local level before taking it to a bigger stage, let Danny know. It makes an event organiser’s life so much easier if you approach them with your proposition. He is happy to let anyone talk - even me!.

What’s a trusted adviser?

A trusted adviser is someone who constantly gives you advice in your best interest. This applies to the point where they will even give you advice that goes against their own best interests. Their own limitations, convenience, profit, comfort or bias should never play a part in any of the advice given.

The concept of a trusted adviser comes from the law, the red-robed land of odd wigs, m’ladys, matters and writs. After all, you need to be able to believe the guidance of the person who is helping you buy your new moneypit or holding your will, right?

What is a trusted adviser

How to become one

I will go through these in detail in the following sections.

  • Put the greater good first

  • Be focused - understand your intentions and competence

  • Give credible advice

  • Communicate effectively

  • Be social

  • Show others how to do it

  • As Oscar Wilde said “Be yourself everyone else is taken”

On the last point - it is important to say that this is not a forced change in personality or nature. It is an adjustment in mindset which will impact how you approach engagement with people you give professional advice to. It is taking the personal and the ego out of the equation. Replacing them instead with the greater good of the team and the project. (‘k?!)

How to be a trusted adviser

How NOT to be one

I have seen companies and “experts” misuse the concept to build trust in order to sell stuff without consideration if it is needed by the person paying for it which I intensely dislike. Manipulating yourself into this position for professional gain is a very bad thing to do.

If an adviser is not guiding a person with their best interests driving the advice given, there will be an ethical conflict in any situation where the person’s best interests are not the same as their adviser’s personal gain. Seeking to exploit this is a very bad thing to do.

Do not do the bad things, they only encourage more bad things.

Trust and advice / Advice and trust

The respected professor of computer science Gerry Weinberg, who passed away earlier this year, talked about the concept of trust beautifully in his 1986 book ‘Secrets of Consulting’. In it, he wrote extensively about how to give and accept advice successfully. This is the quote that sums up his whole message:

“Trust has two parts: trust in intention and trust in competence”

Intention

Any adviser must come from a place of knowledge with any advice offered. The reward in this is that it builds and sustains long term working partnerships built on mutual trust.

It is ok to say when you don’t know something as an adviser and take the time to research or talk through solutions with other team mates. What an adviser must never do is fill the silence with unverified solutions to challenges. Giving an answer for the sake of giving an answer helps no-one.

Advice should not about the best interests of the person giving it, it should always be about what is right for the recipient. Not that that stops people from offering up their advice like it was manna from Heaven. As a recent and well-publicised example - you may have an enviable engineering record in producing beautiful cars but that does not always translate well into an understanding of submarines and caves. (/narrows eyes and shakes head)

Competence

Competence flows from intention. If your intention is to act in the interest of your team and project, you will be competent with how you formulate your advice and you will take the time to ensure it is right for any given situation.

In order to deliver a competent message, you must ensure it is:

  • Based on research Please keep your ill-informed, based-on-nothing “gut feelings” and “killer instincts” to yourself. These play no part in business unless you are a zombie. If you are a zombie, good for you!. Don’t let anyone diminish your light but please stay away from IT delivery projects. Maybe contact the Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell for a job if you are happy for your post-life truth to take that direction.

  • Understood Every piece of advice has a lifespan. It may be unwanted at the point where it is given, remembered later on and then given more attention and even welcomed. Even if you think the advice you must give will go down like a bucket of toenails, you have a duty to make sure it is understood so it can be given the credence it deserves when people are ready to listen.

  • Honest The ‘making shit up’ school of uniformed, cretinous advice just has to die in a flaming pit of hell. Yes I said shit. Clutch your pearls and prepare to write to the paper as ‘outraged of Tumbridge Wells’. I may even say it again.

  • Accurate Back your advice up with whatever it needs to make the case. Data, figures, surveys, precedence and witnesses providing empirical proof will all help improve the accuracy of any evidence you present to show your audience that your advice is correct.

  • Precise Bad imprecise message = I haven’t time to do all the testing and reporting needed. Good precise message = Spending 2 hours handcrafting a test report is 120 whole minutes away from testing. I would have more time to dedicate to finishing testing if I spend less reporting. Can we just pump this stuff automatically into a Jira dashboard?. (ALSO, PLEASE STOP HANDCRAFTING AUTOMATABLE REPORTS - This may come from a recent painful experience.)

How does this apply to testers?

The role of a tester is to provide information. This can take many forms, it can be raw data, conclusions, predictions, recommendations or advice.

Applying the concept of a trusted adviser to a tester means that we must:

• Give advice that is in the best interest of the project or programme we are on

• Share appropriate learning where we see a need. Sometimes before other people realise it is needed.

• Admit the limitations of our knowledge

• Ask for time to research to be able to provide the right answers

All of this means taking the time to understand the needs and wants of the person asking for information from you keeping in mind that needs and wants are not always the same thing.

Why be a trusted adviser

Wahhhh… This seems HARD!

It is, it takes practice. Being a trusted adviser is a muscle – it requires exercise to flex it properly. Getting into the habit of asking yourself, “what is my intention here and what is my competence in this matter” before any advice is given will help.

Be warned though, those instincts are going to scream blue murder when you try to take them for a run. It also may mean that you talk a lot less. That will not be a bad thing if you are in the habit of giving idiotic, ill-considered advice.

The upside to earning the reputation of being a trusted adviser means that people will start to seek you out for your expertise and listen to you. That is half the heavy lifting done for you in situations where you have to be the bad news bear and tell people things that they do not want to hear.

What happens when testers are not heard?

We testers are a well-intentioned lot. We want to play our part in making a good product, we want to make positive contributions to our team, we want to improve our craft and our profession.

When we are not listened to, some undesirable things happen. I know this because I did a survey and asked testers to tell me what happened when they felt they were not being listened to. 139 people have responded to date.

Question for all - Have you ever been in a position in work of having to deliver bad news? If so, I am interested in how that experience was for you. This is to provide stats for a piece I am writing on how bad news is received. In the large, this is about data and information in the workplace with a view how well/badly bad news YOU have shared was received. It’s 8 questions and should take 3-4 mins. The results are completely anonymous and I will be sharing the outcome publicly.

Would you like to add your voice too? Click on this link to open survey

Survey results

These results are not good and I suspect they would be the same across all the disciplines contributing to the software development lifecycle. Please do not take this remark as researched advice, merely an indicator that it would be an interesting area to explore.

Back to testers – here is what happens when we are not listened to - We do not do our best work, we are dispirited, we withdraw, we get sick and we leave. We cost companies money.

Not listening to the people you have employed to provide you with information is a very troublesome habit and something that may need to be addressed from the top down within a company’s culture.

It is a problem which is impossible for an individual tester to fix. All they can do is flag that it is happening. What a tester can work on is developing their trusted adviser skills which will mean they are heard more and more to help the company as it tries to improve.

Trusted adviser to who?

There are a lot of people that a tester may interact with on a daily basis. To help yourself embody this role you need to understand the following:

• Who are you an adviser to

• Think about each of these people in turn and how you can align yourself to the best interest of your project with more mindful communications to each of them

• Think of them as individuals and as groups. Some comms are better as chats in the hall whilst others require the group molotov email approach to all the ‘heads of’

Trusted adviser to who

Your army - A trusted adviser’s trusted advisors

Even if you are the sole tester on a project, you are never truly alone. You just need to think about who to leverage around you as sounding boards for any advice that you want to share. You already have your army around you. You may just have to think about who they are in order to appreciate the benefit they bring to your working life.

They can support you, give you feedback and buoy you up when you are challenged by the role of being a trusted adviser. They are YOUR trusted advisors. You cannot be one without an army around you. This is not a role you can play in a vacuum.

My trusted adviser is someone who is just learning about how testing works but they are really good on real life advice on how to tackle challenging people situations. I am so glad to have someone like this to turn to. I also have a patch worn in the carpet tile beside their desk.

Who are your army

The “influencer” and how they can help trusted advisors

Every group call or face to face meeting has an “influencer” – this is someone in a position of respect and reach – the “getting things done” person. You’ve seen them. People stop talking when they speak to pay full attention to them. They seem to drive work and remove obstacles almost by magic.

When you are new to a company or programme, try to work out who this person is and align yourself to them as much as possible. Talk to them, listen to what their concerns are, align yourself where you both have common goals. Challenge and question them too. Don’t take all their utterances as gold, they will have enough brown nosers doing this and are probably quite fed up of it. Use your cognitive empathy to understand what is important to them and when the time is right, you can start to advise them too using the questions for intent and competence before you start.

Advising the influencers

Cognitive empathy for the trusted adviser

Cognitive empathy is a superpower for the trusted adviser and everyone around them. It is the ability to believe and understand the perspective of another person even though the experience they are describing is one that is alien to you.

Empathy is understanding and appreciating how happy that your colleague is now they have found the perfect dress shirt even though you have no idea what a dress shirt is or why it would make someone happy. It is believing someone when they say they are discriminated against because of their skin colour, accent, religion, gender or who they share their bed with.

It costs you nothing to simply believe someone giving their perspective. Not believing someone who is going through a negative experience can put them under an additional emotional burden that they may not be able to cope with. Quite frankly, why would you want to do that to someone?

Cognitive empathy as a team’s superpower

The best teams are ones who know that they are all striving for the good of each other and their product. They way they interact is considered and positive which means it is easier for everyone to get on with each other. With this alignment comes easier conversations around challenges.

People will be confidant about raising issues because it is not a stressful process. Imagine a workplace where everyone is free to call out when something sucks. Imagine resolution being the absolute focus not the if the person who raised it has a right to be believed or not. THIS> IS> EMPATHY> AND> THIS> IS> A> GOOD> THING.

If you do good things, there will be more good things. Do the good things. Ok?

All this makes your company a fab place to work

All the cognitive goodness

When you are aligned with people, you will want to see them progress and will take part in engaging and upskilling them. This means you will have better teams making better products because they are produced in an open spirit of empathy encompassing all the behaviours I talked about above.

Can you imagine what products NOT made in a spirit of empathy are like? Unfortunately, we don’t have to imagine, those products are out there. They are fugly and scary. This is what they look like: How white engineers built racist code – and why it’s dangerous for black people

We demand better laws when we exercise our empathy muscle because we believe the stories of the people whose experiences are negative. A huge wash of empathy swept the world after the drag queen Panti Bliss shared the experiences of his alter ego Rory o’Neill on what it was like to be a gay man in modern Ireland.

His rousing and passionate noble call speech helped to secure a landslide victory when the vote to legalise same sex marriage was held. 1,201,607 people exercised their empathy muscle and voted in favour of a better society. Thousands and thousands of those voters travelled back to Ireland from where they were living abroad to vote. Thousands more who could not travel sponsored others who could not afford the journey.

I am telling you, this empathy stuff can change the world!

Comms as a tool of the trusted adviser

  • Listen. You know how irritating it is talking to someone who is just waiting to interject? Don’t be that person!
  • Question. Not for the sake of it but do it to increase your understanding and show engagement.
  • Read carefully. Don’t be the person who comes to the meeting asking “What’s the agenda” only to be told “it was written in the invite”
  • Explain. Make sure that people are starting out with the same understanding as you otherwise lots of confusion can ensue.
  • Make notes. It’s great coming to a consensus but if two people think 2 versions of the truth for one meeting, someone needs to have been making notes. Time will diminish detail so if it will be a while before any actions are taken, having notes to refer back to are a must.
  • Be considerate. Not everyone you communicate with will be as technical or experienced as you. Besides, if you can’t explain it, do you REALLY understand it?
  • Journeys. Explanations are journeys. If you are explaining an idea that is new to someone, tell them the benefits and how you came to the conclusion this was the best solution. They can’t read your mind and that may very well be a good thing especially before the first coffee of the day.
  • Context. Do not forget this. The jokes channel on internal slack is one thing – confluence pages shared amongst several remote teams (who may not get how hilarious you are) are another.
  • Spullering / gramerley. I once replied to a very important email from a very important man who has several other important people reassure him of his own importance several times a day with the following:

Re: Very important task

“I will get it done toady”

Gulp…

Good comms

Comm here and say that again!

Something went wrong? Don’t worry about it too much if you can possibly help it. Let the dust settle. Even the most experienced testers have cringingly bad calls and meetings. I’ve sat daydreaming through long pointless meetings and then jumped like a shot horse when asked a direct question.

Lost your cool? Welcome to the club. There are 10000s of us and we meet every Tuesday at 4. Myrtle collects the subscriptions and Ed makes the coffee. Please don’t bring any live animals with you.

You have two options if this happens. You can beat yourself over the head in a spiral of regret and shame or take a deep breath and plan how to make amends. Everyone says stuff they regret, some people make an artform of it.

Increased mindfulness in your comms (intention, competence) will make this less of a frequency. You are not being a good adviser if all you want to contribute to a discussion is “I AM ANGRY”. If you can be honest and admit your intention is to make someone aware of your feelings rather than advise them appropriately, stay away from email and meetings until the red mist has passed.

If you really are worried, call on your army and talk through your potential follow-up options. In either case, remember to make your intent clear to yourself first.

Here comes trouble

Being social as a tool of the trusted adviser

This does not mean marching to the pub every time someone in the team gets a tooth out. (Although this is nice to do too). In this instance I am talking about the sharing kind of social, the interactions kind of social.

Are you excited to have worked something out or got something working? Let others know. Demo the life out of your creation… except if it is Frankenstein’s monster. We’ve tried that. Not a success story. Great short-term demo, terrible long-term performance.

Write your learning down to be preserved publicly or internally and show it to others.

Host a learning session – (techie brekkies, learny lunchies, teachy teatimes) - encourage others to do the same.

Be social

That’s it. That’s being a trusted adviser with the power of forethought, research, honesty, comms, empathy and socialness. It’s a complex subject and one that takes hours and very deliberate practice to master. I wish you well on the road. Drink plenty of water and wear comfortable shoes.

I will leave you with the best advice I ever had. It comes from my lovely Father:

“Take anything everyone gives you with a pinch of salt”

Great man. You should never ask him for a cup of tea though.

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