Tuesday, 16 April 2013

5 Questions With James Christie

Next up to be grilled is James Christie - auditor, tester, blogger and football match reporter.
Congratulations to James for being accepted to EuroStar Conference 2013

1) Your background has time in auditing and fund management - how did you get into testing and did you learn anything from these non-IT roles that was later useful in testing?

When I left university after studying economics and accountancy I went to work for one of the Big 4 firms of chartered accountants as a trainee accountant. I hated it. It wasn't really that the work was boring. I didn't feel comfortable with the culture. The office where I was working was a particularly good example of rampant bad practice, and I learned a lot about how not to audit! I left and took a job as a trainee investment analyst in the investment division of a life assurance company. It was a great opportunity but it didn't pan out well. 

My mentor was a figure who has been very prominent in the news recently in the UK. It was none other than (Sir) James Crosby. I learned a lot from him that has been valuable, but not all the lessons were what he wanted me to learn. The biggest lesson was how not to mentor people! If you're coaching someone you have to be interested in them and their problems. His style was to assign a piece of work without guidance or discussion about how it could be done, then pick it apart afterwards. I've just had a look through the diary I kept at the time and remember my frustration at how he would only provide me with relevant information after I'd already screwed up.

He did teach me a very useful lesson about decision taking. He told me that there were usually no more than about three factors that influenced a decision. Once you'd analysed the big, important issues you almost always had enough information to take a decision. Burrowing away into the detail of the minor issues seldom changes the decision, but the delay the extra work causes can be damaging. 

That was a good lesson, but it has to be qualified by a certain amount of humility, an awareness of the possibility that one might wrong. The ability to take quick decisions can be valuable, but if it is combined with arrogance, an inner certainty that one is always right, then it can become very damaging. We've seen that in what happened at HBOS, and there were signs of it earlier in Crosby's career. I saw him reject good, well researched advice that didn't match his preconceptions. The consequences were very expensive, but Crosby had the ability to shrug it all off and move on, without feeling the need to dwell on the mistake, or even apparently to learn from it.

What really troubled me, however, was his attitude to business ethics. He said that these were no more than an attempt to make the shareholders pay for our personal, political views. All that mattered was making money for the shareholders. I thought that was irresponsible and inviting trouble, but it was the culture in that company. I once had to field a very embarrassing phone call from a journalist trying to dig behind a rumour that we'd co-operated enthusiastically in a dawn raid on a company being taken over. The rumour was entirely true. What we did is now illegal. In those days it was merely disapproved of by the authorities; it was still highly embarrassing that the press got hold of the story.

Anyway, the foreign currency bookkeeping was an embarrassing shambles and my accounting knowledge meant I was the obvious candidate to sort it out before the auditors caught up. The company wanted me to concentrate on accountancy full time, but the reason I'd joined them was that I no longer wanted to be an accountant. I'd become fascinated by the new online applications we were using, and also by managing our bank accounts in New York online. "How does all this stuff work?", I wondered.

There was one terminal by the entrance to the investment department that was used only for current news stories. I discovered that there was no effective access control and I could slip my own story into the news feed. Crosby was a passionate supporter of Yorkshire Cricket Club, whose star batsman, Geoff Boycott, was in dispute with the club about a new contract. Crosby always stopped to check the news on his return from lunch. One day, just before he was due back, I planted a story that Boycott had left Yorkshire and agreed a new contract with arch rivals Lancashire. The stunt worked beautifully. My victim duly leapt into the air and rushed to the phone to pass on the news. The story was half way round the City of London before anyone twigged it was a hoax. My colleagues thought it was a great joke, but I'm not sure it helped my career prospects!

All this experience meant I was constantly thinking, "what's going on here?", "why are things in such a mess?", "is this right?", "could we be doing it better?". So it was an invaluable grounding for IT in general and testing in particular.

I applied successfully for a government training programme in computer programming and quickly arrived in the IT division of a major insurance company. I loved it. I think my business background got me more interesting roles in development, involving lots of analysis and design as well as coding.

After a couple of years Group Internal Audit asked me to join them, but I turned it down because of my previous experiences in external audit. I had little respect for audit or auditors. A few years later I was asked again, for a more senior role in computer audit, and this time they sold the idea to me. I realised that the sort of work I'd be doing had no relation to the "tick and bash" auditing I'd seen as a trainee accountant.

It was a marvellous learning experience, seeing how IT fitted into the wider business, and seeing all the problems of IT from a business perspective. It was a very professional, enlightened audit department, with some very good, very bright people. I spent six happy years in audit before returning to work in IT development, as a team leader and project manager. When Y2K kicked off I was asked to work as a test manager because my experience in audit and development project management gave me exactly the right frame of mind; questioning, but practical and organised.

2) You've had a long and varied career and you're active on Twitter and blogs - what keeps your enthusiasm going?

The alternative to being enthusiastic is being bored, so it's a no brainer. Being self-employed is really the secret, in my case. I found it very frustrating as an employee having to do poor quality work because that was what the processes, or standards or the contract required. Now I can argue my case freely. When I was working as an information security manager I was once told to keep my personal opinions to myself when I argued that what we were doing was both unprofessional and making us uncompetitive. No-one can shut me up now. I can concentrate on what I find interesting. 

I was a good corporate man in that I could understand how organisations work, what made them tick, and I could do a good job. But I did have the reputation for being an iconoclast, a bit of a rebel. Eventually there comes a point where you get tired of pointing out that things could and should be better, then being ignored. Now I don't have that frustration. 

I need to keep learning to stop being bored. The backlog of stuff I want to learn always seems to get longer. That's slightly depressing at times, but mostly it's exciting. If I ever get bored with testing I'll concentrate on football writing. I write the match reports for the Dundee FC website and match programme. They're a Scottish professional football (soccer) club. I love doing it.

3) "An additional area of interest is testing's relationship with audit and governance. I find this a fascinating area." - Really? Why so, isn't it deadly dull and a road to Yawnsville?

Yawnsville? That reaction intrigues me. It's like people saying politics is boring, and then complaining about the schools, the crime rate, and the economy; all the things that politics affects. 

Governance has a huge impact on the way that testers work, and for thousands of testers it means they have tedious, stressful jobs. Governance that is applied intelligently can liberate testers to do exciting, rewarding work. The way that we tackle governance and accountability can make the difference between being happy doing a great job, and being miserable doing lousy testing. How can that be a boring issue?

A large part of the problem is that testers and developers are scared of auditors. Good auditors can be an ally. Bad auditors should be confronted positively. Testers need the knowledge and confidence to tell the different between good and bad auditing. They need to know how they can demonstrate that the approach and techniques advocated by the Context-Driven School can be compatible with accountability and good governance. That's really my main area of interest at the minute. I don't think there are many people with experience of both testing and auditing, so I think I've got something worth saying.

I'm going to be giving a half day tutorial on this subject at EuroSTAR 2013 in Gothenburg, so I hope that there are a few people who don't think the subject is 

4) Your consultancy service emphasizes usability issues - is this something testers should be more aware of and what can they do to learn more about it?

Hmm. I'm starting to think I should remove that bit from my website. I think things have changed over the last few years. Isn't saying that testing should really pay close attention to usability a bit like advising a driver not to try and drive if the brakes aren't working? It's just so obvious and basic. The companies that are going to change have learned the lesson. Those who don't get it probably don't get a whole of other important things either.

Testers do need to follow what's going on in the User Experience profession. We can pick up techniques, and also it helps us to think about potential problems. If there are no dedicated UX people on a project, which is probably usually the case, then I think testers should try and rise to the challenge.

Two books that I found very useful as a starting point to get me thinking seriously about usability were "Don't make me think: a common sense approach to web usability" by Steve Krug and "The inmates are running the asylum: why high-tech products drive us crazy and how to restore the sanity" by Alan Cooper. They're both a bit dated, but they're good reads, especially Cooper's, which is a very entertaining rant.

Two people currently working at the intersection of User Experience and software development are Jared Spool and Jeff Patton. Their work is worth checking out.

5) What books are you reading at the moment and why?

As usual I have two books on the go. I'm reading "The places in between" by Rory Stewart. 

It's about his walk across Afghanistan in 2002, living with and getting to know local people. Stewart is a remarkable character. He's an MP now, which frankly is a waste of his talents, though I suppose it's useful that someone in the House of Commons really knows Afghanistan. I didn't buy the book. It was a present for my wife, but then she does know me very well.

The other book is "The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action" by Donald Schön. 

I've been meaning to read it for some time. Schön argues that creative professionals, such as software designers or architects, have an iterative approach to developing ideas. Much of their knowledge is tacit. They can't write down all of their knowledge as a neatly defined process. To gain access to what they know they have to perform the creative act so they can learn, reflect on what they've learned and then apply the new knowledge. 
Schön's work reinforces the point that much traditional document-driven software development and testing went against the grain of how creative people work. Traditional methods ignored, and even suppressed, the natural creative process. In truth, good developers and testers were working in that iterative, reflective manner anyway in order to achieve anything worthwhile. Any success was largely in spite of the traditional methods, rather than because of them.

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