Wednesday, March 7, 2012

2 Cents on Ethics

I really had no plan to chime in on the blog conversation between Michael Bolton and Cem Kaner, but after the amount of time I've spent today having email discussions with folks who (apparently) were interested in my 2 cents, I've decided to go ahead and share. I feel it important to point out that as I have spoken to neither of them regarding this conversation, I most certainly don't want to give the impression that I am speaking for either of them.

(As a side note, I'm seriously beginning to wonder if I shouldn't just add a "Notes and Disclaimers" box to my blog... then again, that would be about the same as prefacing all my notes and disclaimers with "Allow me to provide some context" -- which would seem rather redundant coming from me. {grin})

Anyway, it would seem that it all started with Michael's post Why Pass vs. Fail Rates Are Unethical (Test Reporting Part 1) that, if not inspired, certainly contributed to Cem's post Contexts differ: Recognizing the difference between wrong and Wrong which, unsurprisingly, triggered the following post by Michael I Might Be Wrong (But Not For Me)

Ok, all caught up? Good. Lemme share what I think might be happening here and while I'm at it share my model for approaching ethics-related situations in business environments (testing or otherwise).

The first thing I notice is that Michael is specifically talking about his personal ethics (though that's not explicitly stated until the second of his posts linked above) while Cem's post feels to me like he is talking about ethics "in the eyes of the law," at least in some places. Whether I'm right about this or not is actually not at all relevant because there's no way anyone could convince me to get in the middle of (or referee, for that matter) an ethical debate between these two men... and the better you know them, the more you can confirm that my unwillingness to step in the middle says little more than that I clearly have at least some small, instinctual, notion of self-preservation buried in my lizard brain somewhere.

What is relevant to me, is that regardless of *what* specific notions of the term "unethical" each are using, this series of posts make me feel like there is a disconnect... like I'm not entirely convinced they are disagreeing about anything other than the contextual reference they are applying to the term "unethical". Now, for all I know, they have previously established a common contextual reference between them, but if that is the case, I'm not picking that up from the blog discourse. And that is the "teachable moment" as my father would often announce before launching into an impromptu lesson inspired by an experience we'd just shared.

It' not just situations that have context. Words have context too. So do many other aspects of communication such as tone, volume, body position, eye contact, and countless other things (that I'm not always so good at keeping congruent with my intended message -- which is one reason I took to writing about things that are important to me to communicate accurately about). Even when the people directly involved in a conversation have an established contextual baseline for words and/or communication in general, those indirectly involved can still walk away believing they understand what was being discussed, only to find themselves feeling confused later.

From that perspective alone, I'm interested to see how this plays out. As for whether or not I think pass/fail ratios are ethical - I'll simply say this: I was a performance tester first... I don't operate in pass/fail (even when I've done other kinds of testing), so having never been asked to provide that particular metric, I will only say that it's certainly not a metric I can imagine myself asking for!

I also promised to share my thought process when faced with business situations that make my ethical spidey senses tingle...

When faced with an ethical dilemma that is within my scope of control or authority to make a decision about, I simply choose the path I believe is most useful/valuable/appropriate from whatever paths remain after I eliminate those I deem to be inconsistent with my ethics and/or the ethics of others who are likely to be impacted by my decision or action. Sometimes I choose poorly, but I do not knowingly choose things inconsistent with my ethics. Pretty simple, yeah?

When faced with a situation "of ethical question-ability" in a professional or business context that is not within my scope of control or authority make the "key" decision about, I think in terms of the following 4 potential courses of action:
  1. Do nothing... for now. (i.e. I feel I need, and can get, more information before taking action) 
  2. Raise the flag and champion something better (i.e. I'm not pleased with the ethical direction things are taking, recognize the actual decision is not mine to make, and I believe I have a chance to make things "ethically better" in the long term if I'm persistent and respectful) 
  3. Raise the flag and make a stand (until I get things changed, get fired or quit -- where fired or quit doesn't improve the ethics of the situation, it just removes me from the situation)
  4. Quit (again, removing me from an uncomfortable situation but not actually making the situation any "better") 
My default choice, given exactly nothing other than my ethical spidey senses tingling, is 2. Honestly, I'm not very good at 1 and I've been bitten enough times by 3 or 4 in the sense that I later came upon information that changed my understanding of the context so dramatically that I could do nothing other than acknowledge that I was wrong in my belief that something "Wrong" was happening. Besides, I *like* being a change agent.

This is also why I recommend that people choose their employers and clients wisely. The owners ultimately decide what is and is not acceptable for their organization (they don't get to decide what is legal, but they do get to decide whether they choose to abide the law and how much effort to invest in not getting caught if they choose not to) and they pay employees to support them. Period. Folks who cannot live with that reality need to (at least) get themselves into a position where they get to make the decisions... which, by the way, is a rather large contributing factor to me deciding to start my own company even though I've never been particularly interested in owning or running a business. There are simply some things that cross my ethical line of acceptability that are (seemingly) legal and acceptable ways to do business and the only way I knew to both live with myself and make a living was to put myself in a position where I got to make the call.

It's worked out well enough for me so far. I have no trouble at all living with myself and while I could certainly enjoy making a better living, I'm getting by. Now, if only I could afford a full-time book-keeper and executive assistant... {smirk}
Scott Barber
Chief Technologist, PerfTestPlus, Inc.
Director, Computer Measurement Group

Co-Author, Performance Testing Guidance for Web Applications
Author, Web Load Testing for Dummies
Contributing Author, Beautiful Testing, and How To Reduce the Cost of Testing

"If you can see it in your mind...
     you will find it in your life."

1 comment:

DiscoveredTester said...

Great Post Scott. I think which of 1 through 4 you choose may also depend on your context. If you are fresh to a team and still learning how they do things, you might sit back and opt to wait and see. That is risky though, because it could seem that you are complicit with something you may view as wrong,and I usually er on the sigh of raising the flag. Maybe I don't immediately say it's unethical, but maybe I'll probe for the reason as to 'why' they want this information, why is it important, and how it will be used. The answers may inform whether it really is an ethical, or contractual obligation, or just something that simply is. Ethical situations often are highly dependent on your corporate, team or individual context I think.

Anyhow... When I viewed the front page of your blog, I thought it odd this post didn't have the date on it. Not sure if that's because there was more than one post on that given day or not, figured I'd ask.