Saturday, March 31, 2012

Introvert? Extrovert? Or Both?

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of going up to Calgary, Alberta to facilitate the Calgary Perspectives On Software Testing (POST) workshop. Our topic was "Software Testing as a Service". My job? Keep the conversation rolling and give everyone who wanted a chance to participate a chance to participate. The presenters were given 20 minutes to present an idea, and the conversations that followed went as long as people wanted to let them go (a hallmark of these style of facilitated workshops).

Out of all the presentations, none generated as much conversation and discussion as the talk that Marianne Murray gave, titled "Testing as a Service and the Introvert". We riffed on this topic for almost two hours, and there was plenty more to go by the time we decided we should give other attendees a chance to present their talks.

Why does this topic resonate with so many people? I think in some ways, it comes down to the fact that we have been taught our whole lives that there are two kinds of people. Introverts and Extroverts. Introverts are the quiet, shy ones that sit in the corner and would rather read a book than talk to people. Extroverts are lively party animals that are the center of attention. You're either one or the other. Problem is, human beings are not quite that easy to pigeon hole. More to the point, there's a continuum of experiences, and I believe that people shift over time, or that specific stimuli and learned behaviors help to shape the perceived image. Why do I hold this opinion? Because I can point to periods of my life when I would have been painted as a total introvert (my elementary and middle school years) and a total extrovert (my years as a musician singing in a glam rock band).

When left to be seen as they are, we have to ask, what was the difference? Did I magically change from an introvert to an extrovert? Is it something that can be easily switched on or off? Or is it that I learned behaviors that I realized were advantageous, and somehow "overcame" my more natural introverted tendencies? Or, really, did I ever actually overcome those introvert tendencies at all? And what does this all have to do with testing anyway?

Marianne boiled it down to a basic tendency, and I thought this insight was actually quite telling. If we wanted to take the most basic and fundamental aspect of what it means to be an introvert or an extrovert, she used a simple picture of two heads. The first was an input (think into the eyes or ears) and that it was processed, and output was generated (think out of the mouth or by physical actions). Marianne argues that the true difference between the extrovert and the introvert is the processing time. For the extreme extrovert, the processing time and function is minimal; input received, output expressed, with little to no perceivable processing. The introvert, on the other hand, was reflected by a much more circular feedback process; the input would come in, and the information would be processed in a much longer loop, before the resulting output was seen (speaking or action).

In my experiences, I think this is a really good representation of the difference, in that it gets to the heart of what we do. Still, I cannot help but think that, even with this approach, that we are missing something when we describe someone as an introvert or an extrovert, and I think, personally, that something is "experience".

For me, when I was younger, I often found myself at a loss for words or an inability to speak to certain things with others. It's not because I was stupid or uneducated (relatively speaking) but because I hadn't had a lot of experience talking about those things. Add to the fact that I had a tremendously short attention span (still do, though now I realize that certain "fixations' can monopolize the process) and what you had was someone who would internalize a lot of things, mull them over, and then act when I had a chance to consider everything. In short, I would be defined in those years as a classic introvert. Medications such as Methylphenidate Hydrochloride, which I took from 3rd grade through about 7th grade, and then off and on again through high school, tended to make that "classic introversion" more pronounced.

At the same time, I loved performing in plays, singing on stage and doing other things that are more commonly associated with people who are "extroverts". At first, I did get anxious about going on stage. Of course I had butterflies in the stomach, mild anxiety about doing a good job, or any other number of things that would impact how I might perform or how I might respond to an audience. Over time, and with practice, I grew to feel more comfortable with them, and I grew to adapt and take part in a more "social" and gregarious approach to those activities. Did I magically become an extrovert? I don't think so. Instead, I learned how to perform to "extrovert" expectations, and the experiences I had allowed me to shorten the feedback loop necessary to respond.

As we approach software testing, we sometimes think that personality shapes how we think and how we interact. We believe that Introverts will be more detail oriented. We believe that Extroverts will be able to sell the process better. We feel that if we can align the right people with the right roles based on their tendencies, we will be successful. The problem is, the whole introvert vs. extrovert approach is somewhat false. Without really getting into the minds and the histories of the people we are interacting with, we don't really know if they are introverts, extroverts, or any other "erts" we might want to apply. How much of it is nature? How much of it is learned? How much of it is an act? If you were to meet and talk with me, depending on the day you meet me, you might think I'm incredibly quiet and non-engaging, or you might think I never shut up! You might label me an introvert on one day, and an extrovert on another. The truth is, I don't even know where one ends and the other begins.

I do know that my emotions, my personality and my approach to situations comes in waves. It's not like the high wave is extroversion, or the low ebb is introversion. Some times when I'm really on my game, I hide from everyone to immerse in it and get the most out of it I can. Sometimes when I'm at super low energy, all I want to do is talk and discuss ideas, perhaps to draw out my own, because I don't feel them making sense to me at that moment. It's a variety and on any given day, or any given hour, it may manifest itself very differently. For me, while I think it's important to figure out where on the continuum you fall, you also need to know that where you fall on the continuum may swing like a pendulum, and so might those people you work with each day. Take the time to get to understand that, and it's much more likely you will be better attuned to understanding what they need long term, not just at the moment you are interacting with them.
Post a Comment