Always ask someone to test your product

This morning, one of my colleagues posted this message to our Slack channel:

please ask someone else to test your code before pushing it

It brought to mind an important thought (and more ‘blog article fodder): any time you produce something, regardless of what it is — a software application, documentation, a presentation, a music composition, a dish you cooked, etc. — always ask someone else to test it out before you send it out for public consumption.

That testing could take several different forms — it could be an end user trying your application, somebody reading your document, listening to your presentation or your music, trying your dish, and so on.  Testing results in feedback, which results in improvements to your product.

Whenever we produce something, we have our own vision — and our own biases — as to how the product should come out.  We expect our products to be perfect as resulting from our own visions, and we expect (and demand) that the consumers adhere to our visions and how we expect the products to be viewed or interpreted.

Unfortunately, we are blinded by our biases.  The world does not share our same visions.  People who use our products will never, ever, perfectly interpret how our products should be consumed.  More often than not, we’ll find that what we produce will be used or interpreted in ways that never occurred to us.

Even in my own workplace, I write and edit a lot of online documentation.  Much of what I write comes from other sources, often about topics about which I know little (or, sometimes, nothing).  I try to write material based on the information I have at hand.  Very often, I come across gaps that need to be filled.  I’ll do my best to ask original authors what was intended, or to dig for information to fill those gaps.  But in absence of those resources, I end up making assumptions and using my own intuition to fill in the blanks.  Those assumptions might not necessarily be correct, and what I write could end up being different from what was originally intended.  It is for this reason why I am constantly asking my colleagues, “take a look at what I wrote.  I want to make sure what I wrote is accurate.”

In a manner of speaking, creating products is a form of communication — in that what we produce results from an idea in our heads, and the end users — the consumers — are the ones “listening” to the communication — in this case, the end product.  If you are familiar with the basic communication model, a sender creates a message, a receiver interprets the message, and the receiver reacts to the message in the form of feedback.  Producing a products works in exactly the same way — a producer creates a product, a consumer uses the product, and the consumer reacts to the product, generating feedback.  In between the sender and the receiver is “noise” that degrades the message or the product (it is not literally noise — the “noise” can simply be the fact that the sender’s and receiver’s interpretation of the message are not one and the same).

So, any time you create some kind of product, always ask someone else to try it out.  You’ll find that the person’s feedback will result in tweaks to your product.  And you will end up with a better product.

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The importance of accepting critical feedback

A few weeks after giving two presentations at SQL Saturday #526 in Rochester, I received my session evaluations.

I was quite happy with my evaluations for my presentation on how to talk to non-technical people.  I received mostly positive reviews and high scores.

My disaster recovery presentation? Not so much.

My presentation got low scores.  Some of the comments I received included, “needs significantly more actionable & useful take-aways,” “attendees need to leave with action items, ” “very little in the way of reputable facts,” “needs to be updated for 2016,” and “paper is not the solution to documentation anymore” (my presentation was about the importance of documentation in disaster recovery, and this was a point of emphasis — more on that in a bit).

However, despite the negative feedback, it was that on which I focused — not so I could sulk, plot my revenge, or wallow in despair, but rather, so I could improve.  The fact is, the feedback I received was not what I wanted to hear.  It was what I needed to hear.

How else was I going to get better?

It seems like such a simple concept.  You want to get better at something.  You ask people to tell you what’s wrong.  Ideally, when people do tell you what’s wrong, you go back to fix it.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world.  Too often, people who are told what’s wrong react adversely, sometimes violently.

Why?

The fact is, people listen to what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.  More often than not, people go looking for feedback, but instead of paying attention to red-flags that need to be addressed, they keep cycling through until they find feedback they like and justifies their position(s).

This is human nature.  It’s also a recipe for disaster.

If you don’t believe me, do a Google search on “groupthink.”  This mindset of ignoring negative feedback defines one of groupthink’s major symptoms.  And if you don’t believe that this type of thinking is destructive, look up the history behind the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Challenger disaster.  Researchers cite these as prime examples of groupthink, and one of the major contributing factors in each of these disasters is the willful ignorance of certain facts — negative feedback that the people involved desperately needed to hear and address.  It is a phenomenon that impairs quality decision-making and incapacitates our ability to improve.

I am no expert in psychology, and I cannot adequately explain why people are so averse to feedback.  I’d guess that it might have something to do with the fact that people avoid things that are unpleasant.  It’s like experiencing pain.  If you feel pain, you need to find out what’s causing it and address it.  Pain is feedback.  We don’t like it, but we need to address it to improve.

As for my presentation, it includes a section where I list “takeaways from the experience.”  I went into my slides and reworked the section.  Instead of simply listing what I learned, I reworded the points as action items for the audience.  As part of those action items, I wrote them in a way that could be applied to today’s technical environment.  And as for the comment about “paper no longer a solution,” I realized that the person had a point (although I didn’t completely agree with him) and came up with a compromise that should satisfy both opponents and defenders of paper.

Hopefully, my next session evaluation will be better than the last!

(Note: The “next time” is coming up very quickly; I will be giving this presentation this coming Saturday, June 4, at SQL Saturday #517 in Philadelphia.)