Debates, Rent-Seeking, Personal Attacks, and Apologies

Yesterday, XBOSoft hosted a webinar entitled “The ISO 29119 Software Testing Standard – Friend or Foe?”. Philip Lew hosted a debate, somewhat formally constructed. The panelists were Jon Duncan Hagar, Rex Black, Jean Ann Harrison, and Griffin Jones.

As a close follower of this discussion, I’d say that not a lot of new ground was tread, but the significant issues were discussed, and it was the right size twitter event to participate in. Claire Moss provided detailed play-by-play. Iain McCowatt had some pointed comments. Lalitkumar Bhamare, Perze Ababa, Tim WesternKate Falanaga, and @dsynadinos also contributed. The hashtag was #ISO29119, but some tweets are under #ISO29119Debate. I don’t intend to describe the whole event, but to talk about something specific.

One of the specific things that ignited discussion was the term “rent-seeking“. When Griffin mentioned the term during the debate, it definitely got a strong reaction. Even Phil as the moderator objected. Here is the resulting discussion:

Rex’s response today led to me writing this blog post, because I need more space than Twitter to properly respond.

About Rent-Seeking

I first heard this term in James Christie’s talk at CAST 2015. James borrowed this term from his degree in economics, using it in his talk about standards, certification, and regulation. His hypothesis was that the term “economic rent” was useful in discussing some our community’s concerns, by providing language for discussing how some of the actors/vendors in the testing market can exert control on how business is done in that market. I recommend watching his talk, because he certainly says it better.

The term “rent-seeking” resonates for me, in both professional and political contexts. Like many really delicious words, it is rich in meaning. It describes a complex process that takes place in many industries, in many countries, in many contexts. There are degrees; pointing to a financial benefit from an activity doesn’t mean that it is inherently unethical. It does mean that the interests of people who profit from these arrangements are judged differently.

Some vendors have used standards for financial gain. This should not really be in question.

The definition on the mobile Wikipedia site – the one Rex referenced – is even harsher in making an ethical and value judgment. It says “rent-seeking is expending resources on political activity to increase one’s share of existing wealth without creating wealth.”

All this makes Rent-Seeking a loaded term to use in a discussion. That doesn’t mean it is inaccurate or not useful. Still, I should find a less pejorative term here that describes how a market changes with requirements for entry are added.

The Personal and the Political

I respect and admire Rex Black, who has had a long and successful career in software testing and training. He has worked hard and achieved a lot. He’s smart and funny, and I’ve enjoyed our brief in-person interactions. I think that Rex can point to hundreds (thousands?) of people he’s trained in software testing, and say that he’s has helped many people’s careers. Rex has put a great deal of time and effort into ISTQB, ASTQB, and other testing organizations, and can say that he has given a lot back to testing. He’s spoken and consulted all over the place. It’s more than a little presumptuous for me to call him a colleague, given his accomplishments.

That being said, Rex and I have fundamental disagreements on some issues in software testing. He’s taken a lot of fire from all over the CDT community. I once joked about him trolling CDT, and he suggested the opposite is true. I think that is exactly correct: as the personification of Big Quality to many people in our community, he’s taken some pretty rough criticism, and some of it has been personal.

I am friends with and respect some of the people that Rex has blocked on Twitter, but I can also understand why he’s blocked them. Many professional disagreements end up as personal ones; you don’t have to look too far in our community to see formerly close friends/mentors/partners/collaborators who won’t speak with each other today. In some of these cases, I think the person choosing to disengage has made the right choice. I don’t think any of these people are terrible, just that we’re still basically monkeys that wear clothes and sometimes throw shit at each other.

I won’t adjudicate Twitter behavior – but no one comes out ahead when someone feels attacked. We have professional issues about the current and future states of software testing to debate, and it is unfortunate that we find ourselves here: many people disagreeing with Rex, and him expected to debate dozens of people by himself. I don’t know who to nominate to help him, but I empathize that it must be exhausting. I feel that his willingness to articulate another point of view and engage in debate makes him a resource for our community that we should value.

I think it’s problematic to tell people what they ought to be or are allowed to be offended by. It’s hard not to internalize criticism of work that’s important to you, so that criticism should be done with care. You should be very, very careful about assigning motives to someone, and be even more careful in questioning their ethics. You can make a contribution by being slow to take offense, and patient and forgiving with those who make mistakes, but you also need to take care of yourself.

My Role, and My Apology

I’ve made some pointed comments in debating Rex, trying to walk the line of criticizing specific things without being personal. He has objected to some of the things I’ve said that have been too harsh. When I have agreed, I have apologized. He has accepted these apologies, and has not blocked me. I greatly respect and appreciate that.

Yesterday, I made the implication that Rex offering ISTQB certification classes after helping define the ISTQB standards was a form of Rent-Seeking. I put a sharp edge on it, and threw it out in a tweet with about 5 seconds of thought. I was wrong, and I am sorry I said it.

The reason I was wrong was because the point could have been made without implying that Rex was trying to rig a market, or that he intends to shut down competition, was seeking to purchase favorable regulation like a giant agribusiness, or was otherwise behaving unethically. The “unethical” charge that should not be made casually – and in this case, it’s just not supportable. I should have been more respectful, and been more precise in my criticism.

What I Should Have Said

I believe that all ISO standards are proposed as a standard for governance, whether that is corporate or legally (If it was in person, I might have added a sly comment referencing conservative political philosophy being opposed to needless regulation). I think that these governance standards add overhead and barrier to entry for testing companies, particularly small ones, because they require study and compliance overhead. When a standard is proposed, its very nature is that it wants to become as widely observed as possible.

The claims that ISO29119 makes about correctness and applicability are very broad, and from what I’ve read so far, it does not include qualifications on when, where, or how it should NOT be applied. When the lead author was asked about this, he said you can forego the standard “If you work in your garage (and are) not working with any clients.” I disagree with this, to say the least.

Certifications make similar claims in applicability, and have similar effects in creating barrier for entry for individuals to the profession of testing. When companies require a certification for hiring – that is the goal for every certification, to become the standard measure of competence, right? – they are making it harder for testers to get and change jobs without investing time and study into achieving these certifications. I think that by participating in writing these certifications, and then training people for the certification tests, there is a financial benefit realized while simultaneously imposing a cost for entry, reducing the efficiency of that market.

That is the extent of what I meant to say, and it’s damn close to the definition of Rent-Seeking. It’s still wrong to attack someone’s motives and ethics, and it’s toxic when you are trying to debate important issues.

Again, I am sorry.