August 13, 2015

The Whiplash approach to motivating testers


Last night I watched the triple-Oscar-winning film Whiplash, and oh boy - what a film. It's the most visceral piece of musical cinematography since zombies got into the Winchester. Spoiler-free, testing-related discussion ahead...

The film depicts the relationship between famous jazz conductor Terence Fletcher and aspiring drummer Andrew Neiman, with Fletcher's teaching style frequently veering between eccentric and abusive. In the particularly memorable scene below, Fletcher outlines the rationale behind his extreme teaching methods - it's worth a watch, regardless of whether you've seen the film:

Throughout the film (and especially in this scene) I found myself drawing parallels between Fletcher's jazz teaching methods and the "full-on" approach of many prominent figures in the world of testing. Although I don't wish to draw attention to any one individual, I'd like to thank Maaret Pyhäjärvi - "Kindness-driven testing" (and the follow-up Twitter comments to her article) and Katrina Clokie - "Formality in open season" for their recent posts in this area.

Let's scrutinise a few of Fletcher's key arguments:

"I was there to push people beyond what's expected of them"

This has fairly laudable undertones, although his comments towards the end of the scene suggest that he's more interested in becoming known for discovering a worthy protégé than actually helping that protégé to blossom. "Pushing", however, is a delicate art. There's the old adage "you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar", and even if that's not true, I believe that empowering people to have agency in their own career is a better approach than pushing and pushing to see who breaks.

"He practices and he practices with one goal in mind: never to be laughed at again"

This story says much more about Charlie Parker's sticktoitiveness than it does about appropriate motivational techniques. Not everybody is going to be a Charlie Parker - and that's okay. Pushing people away from their chosen careers through intimidation and humiliation can never be justified, even if it does deliver us one true genius. Indeed, Fletcher dismisses criticisms of discouragement by saying "The next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged".

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'."

Again, we're going to have to disagree on this one, Terence. Accomplishment and recognition, particularly in the face of extreme challenges, are an important element of progression. It's absolutely possible to pair these with criticism - preferably constructive - and there's much to be said for the phrase "Don't settle". But it's important that people feel a sense of purpose and belonging, and nothing helps with that more than "good job".

I actually tried... And that's more than most people ever do. And I will never apologise for how I tried.

Taken outside the context of the rest of the film - not only what comes before it, but also afterwards! - this almost sounds human. Yet while few who watch Whiplash will claim that Terence didn't try, there are definite questions about whether the ends justify the means.

I hope this gives you some pause to think about how we communicate with each other. I'd love to hear from any pro-Terence testers out there! If you've not yet seen the film, then I highly recommend it - it's engrossing viewing.

Finally, you might be interested to know that next month's inaugural SWEWT meetup in Bristol happens to be themed around "Emotions in Testing", and there are some slots still available for speakers. So if this post has stirred any strong feelings, why not drop the team a line, and join us for a day of discussion?

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