Blog: On a Role

This article was originally published in the February 2015 edition of Testing Trapeze, an excellent online testing magazine produced by our testing friends in New Zealand. There are small edits here from the version I submitted.

Once upon a time, before I was a tester, I worked in theatre. Throughout my career, I took on many roles—but maybe not in the way you’d immediately expect. In my early days, I was a performer, acting in roles in the sense that springs to mind for most people when they think of theatre: characters in a play. Most of the time, though, I was in the role of a stage manager, which is a little like being a program manager in a software development group. Sometimes my role was that of a lighting designer, sound engineer, or stagehand. I worked in the wardrobe of the Toronto production of CATS for six months, too.

Recent discussions about software development have prompted me to think about the role of roles in our work, and in work generally. For example, in a typical theatre piece, an actor performs in three different roles at once. Here, I’ll classify them…

a first-order role, in which a person is a member of the theatre company throughout the rehearsal period and run of the play. If someone asks him “What are you working on these days?”, he’ll reply “I’m doing a show with the Mistytown Theatre Company.”

a second-order role that the person takes on when he arrives at the theatre, defocusing from his day-to-day role as a husband and father, and focusing his energy on being an actor, or stagehand, or lighting designer. He typically holds that second-order role over the course of the working day, and abandons it when it’s time to go home.

a third-order role that the actor performs as a specific character at some point during the show. In many cases, the actor takes on one character per performance. Occasionally an actor takes on several different characters throughout the course of the performance, playing a new third-order role from one moment to another. In an improvisational theatre company, a performer may pick up and drop third-order roles as quickly as you or I would don or doff a hat. In a more traditional style of theatre, roles are more sharply defined, and things can get confusing when actors suddenly and unexpectedly change roles mid-performance. (I saw that happen once during my theatre career. An elderly performer took ill during the middle of the first act, and her much younger understudy stepped in for the remainder of the show. It was necessary on that occasion, of course, but the relationships between the performers were shaken up for the rest of the evening, and there was no telling what sense the audience was able to make of the sudden switch until intermission when the stage manager made an announcement.)

It’s natural and normal to deal simultaneously with roles of different orders, but it’s hard to handle two roles of the same order at exactly the same time. For example, a person may be both a member of a theatre company and a parent, but it’s not easy to supervise a child while you’re on stage in the middle of a show. In a small theatre company, the same person might hold two second-order roles—as both an actor and a costume designer, say—but in a given moment, that person is focusing on either acting or costume design, but not both at once. People in a perfomer role tend not to play two different third-order roles—two different characters—at the same moment. There are rare exceptions, as in those weird Star Trek episodes or in movies like All of Me, in which one character is inhabiting the body of another. To perform successfully in two simultaneous third-order roles takes spectacular amounts of discipline and skill, and the occasions where it’s necessary to do so aren’t terribly common.

Some roles are more temporary than others. At the end of the performance, people drop their second-order roles to go home and live out their other, more long-term roles; husbands and wives, parents, daughters and sons. They may adopt other roles too: volunteer in the community soup kitchen; declarer in this hand of the bridge game; parishioners at the church; pitcher on the softball team.

Roles can be refined and redefined; in a dramatic television series, an actor performs in a third-order role in each episode, as a particular character. If it’s an interesting character, aspects of the role change and develop over time. At the end of the run of a show, people may continue in their first-order roles with the same theatre company; they may become directors or choreographers with that company; or they may move on to another role in another company. They may take on another career altogether. Other roles evolve too, from friend to lover to spouse to parent.

In theatre, a role is an identity that a person takes to fulfill some purpose in service of the theatre company, production, or the nightly show. More generally, a role is a position or function that a person adopts and performs temporarily. A role represents a set of services offered, and often includes tacit or explicit commmitments to do certain things for and with other people. A role is a way to summarize ideas about services people offer, activities they perform, and the goals that guide them.

Now: to software. As a member of a software development team within an organization, I’m an individual contributor. In that first-order role, I’m a generalist. I’ve been a program manager, programmer, tech support person, technical writer, network administrator, and phone system administrator, business owner, bookkeeper, teacher, musician… Those experiences have helped me to be aware of the diversity of roles on a project, to recognize and respect the the people who perform them, and to be able to perform them effectively to some extent if necessary. In the individual contributor role, I commit to taking on work to help the company to achieve success, just as (I hope) everyone else in the company does.

Normally I’m taking on the everyday, second-order role of a tester, just as member of a theatre company might walk through the door in the evening as a lighting technician. By adopting the testing role, I’m declaring my commitment to specialize in providing testing services for the project. That doesn’t limit me to testing, of course. If I’m asked, I might also do some programming or documentation work, especially in small development groups—just as an actor in a very small theatre company might help in the box office and take ticket orders from time to time. Nonetheless, my commitment and responsibility to provide testing services requires me to be very cautious about taking on things outside the testing role. When I’m hired as a tester, my default belief is that there’s going to be more than enough testing work to do. If I’m being asked to perform in a different role such that important testing work might be neglected or compromised, I must figure out the priorities with my client.

Within my testing role, I might take on a third-order role as a responsible tester (James Bach has blogged on the role of the responsible tester) for a given project, but I might take on a variety of third-order roles as a test jumper (James has blogged about test jumpers, too).

Like parts of an outfit that I choose to wear, a role is a heuristic that can help to suggest who I am and what I do. In a hospital, the medical staff are easy to identify, wearing uniforms, lab coats, or scrubs that distinguish them from civilian life. Everyone wears badges that allow others to identify them. Surgical staff wear personalized caps—some plain and ordinary, others colourful and whimsical. Doctors often have stethoscopes stuffed into a coat pocket, and certificates from medical schools on their walls. Yet what we might see remains a hint, not a certainty; someone dressed like a nurse may not be a nurse. The role is not a guarantee that the person is qualified to do the work, so it’s worthwhile to see if the garb is a good fit for the person wearing it.

The “team member” role is one thing; the role within the team is another. In a FIFA soccer match, the goalkeeper is dressed differently to make the distinct role—with its special responsibilities and expectations—clearly visible to everyone else, including his team members. The goalkeeper’s role is to mind the net, not to run downfield trying to score goals. There’s no rule against a goalie trying to do what a striker does, but to do so would be disruptive to the dynamics of the team. When a goalkeeper runs downfield trying to score goals, he leaves the net unattended—and those who chose to defend the goal crease aren’t allowed to use their hands.

In well-organized, self-organized teamwork, roles help to identify whether people are in appropriate places. If I’m known as a tester on the project and I am suddenly indisposed, unavailable, or out of position, people are more likely to recognize that some of the testing work won’t get done. Conversely, if someone else can’t fulfill their role for some reason, I’m prepared to step up and volunteer to help. Yet to be helpful, I need to coordinate consistently with the rest of the team to make sure our perceptions line up. On the one hand, I may not have have noticed important and necessary work. On the other, I don’t want to inflict help on the project, nor would it be respectful or wise for me to usurp anyone else’s role. Shifting positions to adapt to a changing situation can be a lot easier when roles help to frame where we’re coming from, where we are, and where we’re going.

A role is not a full-body tattoo, permanently inscribed on me, difficult and painful to remove. A role is not a straitjacket. I wouldn’t volunteer to wear a straitjacket, and I’ll resist if someone tries to put me into one. As Kent Beck has said, “Responsibility cannot be assigned; it can only be accepted. If someone tries to give you responsibility, only you can decide if you are responsible or if you aren’t.” (from Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change) I also (metaphorically) study escape artistry in the unlikely event that someone manages to constrain me. When I adopt a role, I must do so voluntarily, understanding the commitment I’m making and believing that I can perform it well—or learn it in a hurry. I might temporarily adopt a third-order role normally taken by someone else, but in the long run, I can’t commit to a role without full and ongoing understanding, agreement, and consent between me and my clients. If I resist accepting a role, I don’t do so capriciously or arbitrarily, but for deeply practical reasons related to three important problems.

The Expertise Problem. I’m willing to do or to learn almost anything, but there is often work for which I may be incompetent, unprepared or underqualified. Each set of tasks in software development requires a significant and distinct set of skills which must be learned and practiced if they are to be performed expertly. I don’t want fool my client or my team into believing that the work will be done well until I’m capable, so I’ll push back on working in certain roles unless my client is willing to accept the attendant risks.

For example, becoming an expert programmer takes years of focused study, experience, and determination. As Collins and Evans suggest, real expertise requires not skill, but also ongoing maintenance; immersion in a way of life. James Bach remarked to me recently, “The only reason that I’m not an expert programmer now is that I haven’t tried it. I’ve been in the software business for thirty years, and if I had focused on programming, I’d be a kick-ass programmer by now. But I chose to be a tester instead.” I feel the same way. Programming is a valuable means to end for me—it helps me get certain kinds of testing work done. I can be a quite capable programmer when I put my mind to it, but I find I have to do programming constantly—almost obsessively—to maintain my skills to my own standards. (These days, if I were asked to do any kind of production programming—even minor changes to the code—I would insist on both close collaboration with peers and careful review by an expert.) I believe I can perform competently, adequately, eventually, in any role. Yet competence and adequacy aren’t enough when I aspire to achieving excellence and mastery. At a certain point in my life, I decided to focus my time and energy on testing and the teaching of it; the testing and teaching roles are the ones that attract me most. Their skills are the ones that I am most interested in trying to master—just as others are focused on mastering programming skills. So: roles represent a heuristic for focusing my development of expertise, and for distributing expertise around the team.

The Mindset Problem. Building a product demands a certain mindset; testing it deeply demands another. When I’m programming or writing (as I’m doing now), I tend to be in the builder’s mindset. As such, I’m at close “critical distance” to the work. I’m seeing it from the position of an insider—me—rather than as an outsider. It’s relatively easy for me to perform shallow testing and spot coding errors, or spelling and grammatical mistakes—although after I’ve been looking at the work for a while, I may start to miss those as well. It’s quite a bit harder for me to notice deeper structural or thematic problems, because I’ve invested time and energy in building the piece as I have, converging towards something I believe that I want. To see deeper problems, I need the greater critical distance that’s available in the tester’s mindset—what testers or editors do. It’s not a trivial matter to switch between mindsets, especially with respect to one’s own work. Switching mindsets is not impossible, but shifting from building into good critical and analytical work is effortful and time-consuming, and messes with the flow.

One heuristic for identifying deep problems in my writing work would be to walk away from writing—from the builder’s mindset—and come back later with the tester’s mindset—just as I’ve done several times with this essay. However, the change in mindset takes time, and even after days or weeks, part of me remains in the writer’s mindset—because it’s my writing. Similarly, a programmer in the flow of developing a product may find it disruptive—both logistically and intellectually—to switch mindsets and start looking for problems. In fact, the required effort likely explains a good deal of some programmers’ stated reluctance to do deep testing on their own.

So another useful heuristic is for the builder to show the work to other people. As they are different people, other builders naturally have critical distance, but that distance gets emphasized when they agree to take on a testing role. I’ve done that with this article too, by enlisting helpers—other writers who adopt the roles of editors and reviewers. A reviewer might usually identify herself as a writer, just as someone in a testing role might normally identify as a programmer. Yet temporarily adopting a reviewer’s role and a testing mindset frames the approach to the task at hand—finding important problems in the work that are harder to see quickly from the builder’s mindset. In publishing, some people by inclination, experience, training, and skills specialize in editing, rather than writing. The editing role is analogous to that of the dedicated tester—someone who remains consistently in the tester’s mindset, at even farther critical distance from the work than the builder-helpers are—more quickly and easily able to observe deep, rare, or subtle problems that builders might not notice.

The Workspace Problem. Tasks in software development may require careful preparation, ongoing design, and day-to-day, long-term maintenance of environments and tools. Different jobs require different workspaces. Programmers, in the building role, set up their environments and tools to do development and building work most simply and efficiently. Setting up a test lab for all of its different purposes—investigation of problems from the field; testing for adaptability and platform support; benchmarking for performance—takes time and focus away from valuable development tasks. The testing role provides a heuristic for distributing and organizing the work of maintaining the test lab.

People sometimes say “on an Agile project, everybody does everything” or “there are no roles on an Agile project”. To me, that’s like saying that there is no particular focusing heuristic for the services that people offer; throwing out the baby of skill with the bathwater of overspecialization and isolation. Indeed, “everybody doing everything” seems to run counter to another idea important to Agile development: expertise and craftsmanship. A successful team is one in which people with diversified skills, interests, temperaments, and experiences work together to produce something that they could not have produced individually. Roles are powerful heuristics for helping to organize and structure the relationships between those people. Even though I’m willing to do anything, I can serve the project best in the testing role, just as others serve the project best in the developer role.

That’s the end of the article. However, my colleague James Bach offered these observations on roles, which were included as a sidebar to the article in the magazine.

A role is probably not:

  • a declaration of the only things you are allowed to do. (It is neither a prison cell nor a destiny from which escape is not possible.)
  • a declaration of the things that you and you only are allowed to do. (It is not a fortress that prevents entry from anyone outside.)
  • a one-size, exclusive, permanent, or generic structure.

A role is:

  • a declaration of what one can be relied upon to do; a promise to perform a service or services well. (Some of those services may be explict; others are tacit.)
  • a unifying idea serving to focus commitment, preparation, performance, and delivery of services.
  • a heuristic for helping people manage their time on a project, and to be able to determine spontaneously who to approach, consult with, or make requests to (or sometimes avoid), in order to get things done.
  • a heuristic for fostering personal engagement and responsibility.
  • a heuristic for defining or explaining the meaning of your work.
  • a flexible and non-exclusive structure that may exist over a span of moments or years.
  • a label that represents these things.
  • a voluntary commitment.

A role may or may not be:

  • an identity
  • a component of identity.

—James Bach

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7 responses to “On a Role”

  1. Thomas Ponnet says:

    Very well written essay, I especially find the three order roles helpful.
    I once did a presentation about the many roles of a software tester – it was basically about the third order roles. Naming these roles, for example exploratory tester, performance tester, diplomat, developer, salesperson, risk analyst, etc can be very useful in communicating, as a second order tester, what commitments we are happy to take on. This will change from project to project or assignment.
    I called the third order roles the different hats I’m wearing during a working day. I may put the exploratory tester hat on finding information about the application; be the risk analyst to find problem areas or classify bugs; the diplomat to tell a developer that their baby is ugly or at least a little dirty; and the salesman to argue about more time for testing with the PM.
    None of these third order roles detract from the second order role, tester, to which usually an identity is attached.

  2. […] On a Role Written by: Michael Bolton […]

  3. Outstanding! Great insights, useful model. I will be referring people to this piece.

    Michael replies: Thank you, Dave.

  4. […] are operating in the most congruent role. Michael Bolton further clarifies roles in one of his blog posts, if you are interested in going deeper on that […]

  5. […] on titles; however, Michael Bolton further clarifies roles, as opposed to titles, in his blog post, On A Roll. Within our company, testers in any group can jump laterally to another group, given they show the […]

  6. […] Bolton ???????? ???????? ? ?????? ? ?????? ? ?????? ? ???????? ???????????? ??, ??????? ?????? ???? ?? ?????? […]

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