Friday, June 3, 2011

Perception is Reality for Most People

Do you ever find yourself participating in something that you think is perfectly normal, but others around you may have a totally different interpretation of what is going on?

I had that experience yesterday when our Boy Scout Roundtable group held a dutch oven cook-off and a flag retirement ceremony. A little background for recent readers, I am an active adult leader in the Boy Scouts of America and have been for 18 years. Every first Thursday in June, other adult leaders in our district as a way to celebrate the traditional "end of the scouting program year" hold a potluck dinner in a park in San Mateo, where leaders and scouts can enter Dutch Oven dishes in an informal competition. Our troop has two dishes which are consistent winners, our "Philmont Ranger Peach Cobbler" and our "Redwood Enchilada Pie" so of course we made those last night. Yes they turned out great. Yes, I'll share the recipes if you want them (leave me a note below if you want them and I'll get them to you ;) ).

The part that we also do, and it's a solemn ceremony that we hold each year, is a flag retirement ceremony. What's that, you may ask? Well, in the U.S., when an American flag is seen as being unfit for further use (meaning it has become torn, damaged, or otherwise has become old or ragged enough to no longer be serviceable as a flag, then the appropriate way to deal with the flag is to retire it. According to U.S. law, customs and traditions, the appropriate way to retire a flag is to burn it. Golden Gate National Cemetery, which is located in my home town of San Bruno, CA, is the resting place for over 120,000 veterans. Every year Scouts and Scouters place a flag on each tombstone for Memorial Day weekend as a show of respect. Over time, these small flags become worn and unusable, as do several larger flags. Therefore, GGNC gives us these flags to be retired in the ceremony we hold each June.

What made this year's experience just a little bit more interesting was that, as we were doing this flag retirement ceremony, most of us dressed in our full field scout uniforms, a teenaged boy walked up to us and calmly but with a concerned look on his face, asked "Excuse me, but could you please tell me what you are doing here?!" The look on his face showed that he was greatly concerned with our actions. My guess was that he saw what he'd seen many times on the news in the past, a flag burning, and jumped to the conclusion that we were somehow holding a protest, or otherwise desecrating the U.S. Flag. As I saw the concern in his eyes, I took him aside and explained to him the purpose of a flag retirement ceremony and the fact that this is a perfectly normal, respectful and government sanctioned way to retire flags no longer fit for service. As I explained the situation, the boy relaxed, smiled and said "Oh, OK, I didn't know that!", and returned over to a group of his friends. It was when he was walking back that I noticed a few of the teenagers were flipping us off. They too saw what we were doing, and I am guessing jumper to the same conclusion. As I watched the boy who asked us the question walk back, I could see a conversation ensued, and the boys who were flipping us off had a look of understanding cross their faces, and they lowered their hands, and went on to do other things, paying us no more mind.

As I drove home from this event last night, I kept thinking about this, and realized that we often operate under rules that we understand, but that others may have no idea even exist. When we create an application, or a service, we have to expect that many people will understand the "rules of the road" but many others will not. As an advocate of the customer, those of us who are testers have the mission and obligation to make sure that the whole story gets told, and that the issues we see are being addressed. Sometimes, though, we may not see an issue as an issue because we understand the underlying "culture" of the application. Without that perspective, we may have a totally different interpretation and perspective of what is going on. This experience reminded me that different people have a different level of understanding of what we may often consider as "everyday occurrences". We should be on the lookout for these opportunities. My guess is that, where misunderstandings exists, so do potential issues.


Ajay Balamurugadas said...

Thanks for sharing Michael.

In software testing, isn't it a skill to understand, use, test the software based on the conditions (we are aware of) under which it was developed and yet think like a customer who is unaware of how it was developed.

Knowing what happens behind the scenes (why the programmer used this function and not the other) might be helpful but does the customer really care about the process being used?

According to me, more than telling the whole story to those concerned, is the customer happy/unhappy with the final outcome is what matters.

Mark Vasko said...

Good story that really drives the point home. Things like this remind me of when we see someone blow through a red light, and sometimes we may judge them in our heads and say what jerks they are, but we don't know their story. Perhaps they are running to the hospital for some reason? What if THEY need to get to the hospital? While I think I have gotten better about this, I still find that I have to remind myself from time to time that I don't know their story and I really can't judge.

I had some similar thoughts last year around the use of "The reality is.." in our speech, and it made me think about perception so much that I dropped a blog post on it too. The underlying culture of my company can have a significant impact on how we handle our development projects, and it can vary from group to group. They can be rough waters to navigate at times if you are unfamiliary with their perception.

Thanks for sharing Mike!

Brian Nelson said...

I appreciate your insights. Hopefully you took the opportunity to share your thoughts with your scouts. I am also a Boy Scout leader and know that the boys need to hear it.