At One Point, We’ve All Been the “Expert”
There’s a video making the rounds recently. It’s a humorous take on the experience an Engineer faces being the “Expert” in a sales meeting. Here’s the video:
It’s a familiar scene, and one that many of us have experienced first hand: the customer/client asking for something, and the technical person in the room is designated the “expert.” Joining the expert is a sales person, account rep, project manager or technical manager, who has complete confidence in the expert and assures the customer the expert can do it. Ultimately, the “expert” is sitting there trying to figure out how the heck to explain the reality to the customer that transparent ink doesn’t exist or that the customer can’t violate geometry.
My own version of this involved me sitting in a conference room with a director, a vice president, the author of the original framework, and my recently appointed boss. I was the lead on an effort to port our WinRunner test framework to TestComplete, and the “expert” in the room. It was a successful port (though someday I need to share why it wasn’t a good framework). We were meeting with these executives to present our progress and plans for the future.
The author of the original framework and I explained to the executives how the new framework was ready and that we could start converting tests to run with TestComplete. Then we suggested that, in two years, we would have the whole team humming along and writing tests like nobody’s business. The reaction was immediate. “That’s unacceptable; it all has to be done in 6 months.” I am pretty sure my mouth hung open. My boss, who has zero background in test automation, or testing explained “Dan doesn’t mean two years. Of course we can do it in six months.”
So, much like the woman asking for transparent ink, these executives were asking for something I knew was impossible. The framework, while a port, was still going to require a manual process to convert the tests, because the new tool was going to have problems we just hadn’t run into yet. I also knew we didn’t have a team of automators, but of manual testers who could be taught to automate. Finally, I was certain what they meant by “all” was that all of our manual tests needed to be automated in that time. My boss was agreeing with them without understanding it wasn’t going to happen. He later explained that I had put my foot in my mouth. I was mortified.
I’m now older and more experienced than I was then. I’m still not the expert I was billed to be or I billed myself as back then. So in retrospect, I realize their reaction should have been expected and understood. While there are exceptions, executives don’t realize how complicated test automation is. It’s not their job to understand test automation. They know they have only so much time, energy and money to throw at any problem. To hear it’s going to take two years until the team is writing tests on a regular basis and keeping up with the changes in the system, well that’s not what they pay “experts” for.
I look back on my time in the room as “the expert” and I understand now that I focused too much on role of the executives. I wasn’t prepared for their objections. What I would do now, is talk about what can be possible in the short term. I would suggest that in six months we could have a logical number of tests converted (backed with a certain amount of math and realism). It very well may not have been enough, but it would have been easier to defend.
My two year prediction essentially proved to be accurate; but two years is an eternity in business. Neither of the executives were in their same roles two years later. Both had moved up into new or expanded roles. They probably don’t even remember the meeting, let alone me. I left the company within a few months of the incident, taking on a slightly different “expert” role for a consulting firm. That meeting, along with a few other events, made it clear to me that the place was not going in a direction i was confident in.
It’s hard to be in the room with someone who is paying your salary, or about to sign a big deal with your company, and to tell them no. Saying no can be a career affecting thing to do. Someone is probably waiting in the wings to say “yes” and get the job or the deal. And “no” isn’t necessarily the right answer. But when you are “the expert,” you had best be prepared to expertly identify and defuse unrealistic expectations when they come. “No” is not what executives want to hear. However, there can be options available that are not “Yes.” You need to learn to communicate your concerns in a way which allows the novices in the room to be open to change.
A final comment about the sales person and/or manager in the room. Their role in this situation is critical. The executives in my case, and the customers in the video, don’t seem to know that what they were asking for couldn’t be done. The manager who is presenting you as the “expert” had best be prepared to support you that way. Blindly agreeing with the customer because they want the deal or to protect their job, and ignoring the counsel of the person they claim actually knows how to draw lines or write automated tests, makes them the weakest link in the chain. If they really think you are the expert, then they should do their best to understand your concerns or reservations before agreeing to anything. And if they can’t or won’t do that, you may want to be someone else’s “expert”.