On Calling People Out

Hello again! It’s been way too long. I’ve been very busy at The AST, which has been taking every spare moment I have (and some I don’t). I’m revving up for WOPR25, and have been hard at work at my day job.

My blogging career has suffered greatly. So, what’s brought me back (to fighting with Twitter embed code)? Events at a Testing Conference this week.

screenshot-2050

TL;DR

I wasn’t there. What’s been seen on Twitter is supplemented with some accounts from people who were there. I don’t claim to have full knowledge of what occurred, what was said, or the history.

I still know enough. I don’t need to know any more than I do to state unequivocally that this is not OK. I am writing here to state that loudly and clearly.

I am absolutely writing about James Bach, as clearly as I can. I admire his work and his accomplishments. I feel differently about his conduct as a leader in our community, and I am calling him out for that.

This problem is bigger than Tuesday and Maaret. Other women have had similar experiences. It’s time for our community to decide what we will tolerate and what we won’t. Will we look out for each other? Or continue to look the other way?

The world is awakening, or at least being woke. We must do better.

Principles and Framing

There are a couple of things that need unpacking before we continue.

First, I am a member of the AST Board of Directors. I am not writing in this capacity today – I am speaking only for myself, as someone involved in the Context-Driven community. I will still carry these opinions as part of a group that makes decisions about conducting the AST’s business.

Secondly, I wasn’t present. My information is second-hand, except for the majority of it that occurred on Twitter where everyone can see. I think I’ll still be fine, given what I want to talk about.

Third, I know Maaret a little. I greatly respect her, I like her and her husband, and am pleased to share the Introvert’s Nod when we see each other. I have not spoken to her about this. I won’t speak for her, just myself.

Fourth, I know James a little better. I admire and respect his work, his intellect, and his accomplishments. He is truly a giant in our field, and has done a great deal for the practice and profession of testing. I also know he can be an asshole sometimes, and gets plenty of practice.

Despite seeing this over the years, and despite sympathizing with people he’s crushed, I’ve hired him for workshops. I’ve even publicly defended him as worth it on the whole, within the last 60 days. I have made business decisions, and I have some regrets. I write today about what I am thinking today. I want to believe he is a good person, and people that I respect insist that he is.

Fifth, this is not the first time that James has been publicly confrontational towards Maaret. I won’t rehash here, but suffice it to say, James has pressed her in similar ways before. While the behavior and results are consistent, the existence of this history casts Tuesday’s events in a different light.

Sixth, I love debate. Statements that can’t withstand scrutiny or debate aren’t worthy of acceptance. It is good to deconstruct, fact check, turn over, pressure test, and evaluate statements, in proportion to the utility they claim to possess. Sometimes, statements are casual, and not worth deep examination. Sometimes they are offered very seriously, and should be vetted thoroughly. Like most testers, I enjoy this process.

Finally and most importantly, I refuse to engage with this as some referee who needs to “see both sides”. Very few things actually work that way – some fake balance or false equivalence doesn’t bring us closer to truth. It more often props up something that’s just wrong. There is global warming, and humans have significantly contributed to it. You should vaccinate your kids. The toilet paper should go over the top, not down the back. Hillary won the debate. Budweiser sucks. James was wrong to do what he did.

What Happened?

The story as I have it goes something like this: Maaret gives a keynote address at the conference. A few minutes into her keynote, James interrupts her to correct some point of phrasing.

screenshot-2051

This is at least just rude in any circumstances. When the full context is considered – the inescapable, somewhat subjective (but only somewhat) combination of who said it, to whom, why, where, and how – it looks worse. An older man took it on himself to talk over a woman delivering a keynote address.  This is a woman he has previously felt he needed to publicly correct then, too. Much of the audience is nodding along right now, particularly women who’ve been treated this way.

I have no information about what the particular subject was, how that exchange went, or much else in the way of detail other than at the end of Maaret’s talk, there was the opportunity for questions, and James asked none.

What I do know is that at the start of *his* talk, with Maaret in the room, James started with The Slide. Apparently, Maaret objected in real time, and started responding. Which seems to be what James wanted.

As I’ve heard the story, after 10 or 15 minutes, the other people in the room wanted to hear the advertised talk, and asked for that. I hear that eventually occurred, and the rest of the incident happened on Twitter, where it is easily followed.

There are a number of problems here. Let’s take a look:

Naming Maaret: Did Maaret consent to being part of James’ talk? Not as far as I can tell. Why would you start your talk by calling out a specific person? James seems to feel not only that he is justified in doing so, but he is proud of it.

I disagree. Making a discussion of our craft about specific individuals does not make the world better. It means we ask people to choose sides. We make it personal, in every sense.

James could have made whatever reactionary points from an earlier talk he wanted to make without making it personal. He chose to make it personal. This is the single worst thing he did, from my perspective. Personally, I’d have gone with the talk I prepared. Doing otherwise seems a little cavalier with other people’s time and attention.

Coming out against “nice”: A favorite inside joke with my wife and I is that the world often mistakes politeness for niceness, implying that we are thinking and judging others worse than they know. So let’s call it polite. Grownups are generally polite to each other, and that’s a good thing. Being polite and pleasant to each other makes the world a better place. Not being polite hurts people needlessly. If you disagree with someone, you can still do so respectfully. That’s not what happened here.

By contrasting niceness with authenticity, James strongly implies that people that are nice are inauthentic.

Treating people with respect is the minimum requirement for being a decent person. The United States has a vein of people right now who are frustrated with “political correctness”, which they would describe as inauthentic and performative (if they knew those words). I recommend substituting “treating people with respect” every time you hear that phrase – it is enlightening to think about “treating people with respect is destroying our country” or whatever.

Compassion is a great place to be, though. The world is awfully short on it. I know that every person I meet is struggling with things they can’t control but still suffer from. When I am frustrated with people who don’t get something, are boring me, are wasting energy and time – I am not proud of myself. I then shudder to think of how people judge me. That’s why you should be polite…or, “nice”. Because why make this world any worse, if you can help it?

Also, in case you missed it – since the slide is about Maaret, isn’t James essentially calling her inauthentic?

What about anyone else in that room who wants to be nice – or polite? Isn’t that also saying they are inauthentic?

Suggests Debate is Critical: I pretty much agree with this. Who wouldn’t? We need our bullshit detectors turned up high, particularly in testing. If we see or hear something we disagree with, we need to be able to process that…productively.

What I disagree with is the contention that James gets to unilaterally set the rules of engagement, which seem to be that he can challenge anyone at any time about anything he wants. There was a question and answer period after Maaret’s keynote, where James could have asked whatever challenging question he wanted. I hear he did not avail himself of that opportunity. Outside of that window, he needs her consent to have a debate. It’s only a “debate” if both parties want to participate.

If you write that you disagree with someone’s public statements, then no worries, as long as you are reasonably polite about it. If you physically direct your criticism at an unwilling participant, it’s just harassment. Twitter is in person, for some definition of in person, because of @’s. It’s not as confrontational as speaking directly to someone, but it still makes your criticisms known to their subject, usually in real time, and challenges them to defend themselves.

If a person doesn’t want to debate with you any more, that could be because they feel overwhelmed by your superior logic. Or, it could be because they feel they’ve explained their point of view already, and you’re not getting it. Or, they could feel overwhelmed by being criticized by someone they admire. Or, they may have something else they need to do right then and don’t have time to discuss it.

Or, they’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends. Not all “debate” or criticism is honorable in intent. In fact, much of it isn’t, and says much more about the needs of the person doing the criticizing than anything else. If you’ve been close to a person who is emotionally abusive, you’ve experienced criticism for the sake of criticism, designed to hurt, crafted to cut deep, deployed to destroy confidence. It is very difficult to hear criticism and process it as face value, even if you haven’t been abused (many people have been abused).

Even if we grant the positive intention and somehow make it so that everyone can easily assume good intentions, we’re not going to get there with just arguing. We’ll just figure out who is good at arguing in public. If you have to resort to bullying someone into debate as combat sport, then it isn’t about ideas anymore.

Others defending James cited academia. Of course, in academia, people are allowed to assemble their arguments calmly, taking their time to reflect deeply so that they can best represent themselves. A process of real-time showdown does not lend itself to deep reflection.

And sometimes, people are just tired of arguing with YOU.

Deciding that you are entitled to criticize someone in person, whenever you want, however you want, is bullshit. That is demanding that people absorb you being an asshole whenever you think you’re entitled – which is exactly the right word here.

And again, by “defining (his) position vs. Maaret’s”, he is implying she is the opposite. What, she is against examining statements and discussing them? Or is it that she doesn’t grant James his terms of debate – verbal combat any time, any where he feels like it?

Double Negative Something Something: Again, the formulation here seems to imply that since James is contrasting himself with Maaret, she must believe excellence is achievable without focusing attention and energy. Not James’ best work.

In Summary

The way James behaved Tuesday was poor enough that I feel some responsibility to my current and future colleagues in testing to publicly say something about it. Other people tried to tell James he had gone too far. Instead, we got belligerence and admonitions that we simply didn’t understand his points. Let’s bring this home with a “public debate”:

Trying to deal with the problem, though I have a different opinion about what exactly the problem is. I am speaking up here, and saying that this was too much and too far.

 

Hopefully, it is clear that it was some specific things, and some of it was context. It got personal, and it seems to have got personal enough that the arguments got flimsy. Just like you assume we’ll trust your good intentions, assume we really mean what we say.

Any uninvited, in-person debate, yes. That’s exactly right. The other words you might use here are harassment or abuse.

While some of my criticism here is based on the context of an older man speaking at a younger woman, rest assured that James has behaved in a similar fashion to people of different sexes, ages, and ethnicities. When I note the sexist subtext, it’s because when we tolerate this level of disrespect in public discourse, we signal that our community is not a safe place. I’m still not convinced James would be equally likely to interrupt and confront a man.

We understood. You were clear, in what you said, and in your choices around who/what/where/how. The why? We can give you credit for just wanting truth out. But when someone is emotional, it’s hard to take their word that there aren’t other motivations, whether they know them or not.

James, you’re being called out. Your behavior is not acceptable, and it’s time for people to tell you to stop. 

You’ve been a pillar of our community, with roots that go back farther than most of us have been in testing. Our work and our craft are immensely better because of the work you’ve done. But imagine how much farther we’d be without the handicap of our brightest light also “leading” us into infighting and extremism.

You greatly influence the intellectual climate of the community, and therefore have a lot to do with its size and current condition. You’ve built a history of treating people poorly. Much of what has happened is perceived as related to the age and gender of the people you have “debated” on your own terms, regardless of what they were comfortable with. I think there is a gender issue here, too. In any case, one-sided debates are just abuse.

People fear you, and not just because of imposter syndrome. Whether you realize it or not, some good people have been lost to our community because of your behavior. Some were chased away directly by you, and others quietly left after seeing what happens if anyone gets too far ahead of themselves around you.

Sure, you’ve embarrassed some people who “deserved it”. But you’ve also shut down plenty who have not. I won’t publicly list the people who won’t engage with you any more, but I think you can think of a few pretty smart people – mostly women – without trying too hard.

Worse, there are acolytes who model your behavior, and feel entitled to treat people the same way you do. When people feel they have the right to challenge anything anyone ever says in public at any time, they’re getting that from you. I am far more ready to point to the gender implications in this source of abuse.

And it is abuse – it should be clear that no one owes you a debate duel when and wherever you demand it. Our community creates appropriate environments to encourage the easy flow of debate/dialog/talking about stuff. Outside of these, you are back to the expectations of society at large – basic human decency and politeness. Or if that seems inauthentic: not being an asshole, particularly to young women. 

Old white guys all over the place are finding out that behavior people used to tolerate isn’t tolerated any more. It was always wrong, but it’s not being allowed to pass by any more. Time to evolve.

7 Comments

  1. Philip Daye says:

    September 29, 2016 at 2:54 pm

    Eric,

    Thanks for raising your voice and speaking out on this issue. Well said!

    The idea that it’s ok to attack a person in the context of a debate is just an excuse for bullying. No constructive discussions happen when one person is made to feel the target of the discussion. I do think that we, as a community should have discussions, healthy, vigorous debates about ideas, but in a manner that is respectful of people – regardless of any of the things that differentiate us.

  2. says:

    September 29, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    I wasn’t at the conference, but from social media I think I understand the context for the slide and have multiple problems with it…

    1) There is so much room for interpretation in the way the slide is worded it reads like an attack on Maaret for being inauthentic, uncompassionate, etc. basically the opposite of everything listed (which are bad traits) – if insulting her was not the intent then it was very poorly worded…

    2) Unless the two of them were debating, I think it’s very poor form to do that at a conference in that way, meaning making commentary on another keynotes presentation part of yours – UNLESS you both discussed and agreed the content beforehand so they knew it was coming (it sounds like she did not). There was no opportunity for her to respond in the same public way…

    3) Unless I’m missing something, her keynote was not addressing James specifically, just generically her thoughts on learning/testing, so for him to respond directly as if she was addressing him is inappropriate/excessive and as well could have been done verbally during the Q&A portion of her keynote…

    4) Finally, the whole thing feels so context unaware which frankly, is what bothers me the most about all of this. I cannot see ANY benefit to putting that slide, with those words, at that conference, about Maaret, with their history with each other, in the age of social media…unless he was deliberately trying to start a flame war – it seems beneath everyone’s position in the community

    I strongly believe that we should hold people in our industry who present themselves as “experts” or “thought leaders” to a higher standard of accountability – especially in public discourse. But it is my understanding this not the status Maaret claims nor seeks.

    An apology is required.

  3. says:

    September 29, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    Eric, thank you for taking the time and putting in the effort to enunciate your feelings on this. In my humble opinion, you have said what many of us have been thinking for a long time – James Bach needs to be called out when he oversteps the mark. I was going to write something akin to this myself, but your eloquence is far beyond my abilities AND you are far better placed to comment than I.
    I spoke out at the EuroSTAR conference last year about the various divisions that have occurred within the broader testing community due to the outspoken and disrespectful nature of some of our debates. I also said that this was getting in the way of our craft being seen as professional and worthy.
    It appears to me that we take one step forward and two steps back each time this unsociable behaviour occurs.
    I’m sure my support for your position will not make a major difference in this debate, but if we can keep highlighting this type of behaviour as being totally unacceptable then maybe one day we will achieve a fair abandon level playing field where everyone feels safe in being able to share their ideas and beliefs.
    Thank you once again, Eric, for speaking out.

  4. says:

    September 29, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    My first personal introduction to James was at a StarWest lunch where he spoke to the table (all strangers) about James Whittaker being dishonest and Lisa Crispin having no skill. He then tore in to the person sitting next to him for choosing to go to college.

    James is a bully who hides behind “The Socratic Method”.

    He’s done plenty good for the testing profession; however, he stagnated some years ago and instead attacks people with differing opinions.

    Thank you for calling him out. I hope conference organizers will stop giving him a space and a voice. There are others out there who are just as smart and skilled who can take over as better mentors, teachers, and thought leaders.

  5. Jim Hazen says:

    September 30, 2016 at 7:05 am

    This just about sums it all up ” I also know he can be an asshole sometimes, and gets plenty of practice.”

    And I only point this statement out because I’ve heard too many stories over the years where James has done the same thing he did to Maaret to other people. I’ve known of James for almost 20 years, even interviewed with him while he was at STLabs in the late 1990’s (I did get a job offer, but turned it down because of other reasons unrelated to James or STLabs). A few years later I ran into him at STARWest and we had a friendly discussion, he even gave me crap for being one of the few people to turn him down on a job offer.

    Anyway, my point and concern is that as much good as he has done for the profession of Software Testing I think at times he goes and blows his foot off by doing things like this. Which is a shame and a disservice to all of us. I’m not trying to harshly admonish him here, but just say “Damn James, take a lude bro”. He is deep down a good guy and a very passionate one, but at times his passion can really make him look like an ass.

  6. Jim Hazen says:

    September 30, 2016 at 7:54 am

    A follow up post here. I cannot claim innocence myself when it comes to acting like an asshole. I am very opinionated regarding Test Automation, and have at times been very assertive (not totally in your face, but very terse) regarding the subject and trying to correct misconceptions and myths about it and the related work (and who should really be doing it).

    So for those who know me in the testing community you know about my passion for this work, and how at times I engage mouth before brain. This is not to excuse James’ behavior, but to say even the best of us can get on our pulpits and pound on it hard. No one is innocent, but how we act afterwards is what matters.

Comments are closed.