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 roomis designated the “expert.” Joining the expert is a sales person, account rep,project manager or technical manager, who has complete confidence in theexpert 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 tothe customer that transparent ink doesn’t exist or that the customer can’tviolate geometry.

My own version of this involved me sitting in a conference room with adirector, a vice president, the author of the original framework, and myrecently appointed boss. I was the lead on an effort to port our WinRunnertest framework to TestComplete, and the “expert” in the room. It was asuccessful port (though someday I need to share why it wasn’t a goodframework). We were meeting with these executives to present our progress andplans for the future.

The author of the original framework and I explained to the executives how thenew framework was ready and that we could start converting tests to run withTestComplete. Then we suggested that, in two years, we would have the wholeteam humming along and writing tests like nobody’s business. The reaction wasimmediate. “That’s unacceptable; it all has to be done in 6 months.” I ampretty sure my mouth hung open. My boss, who has zero background in testautomation, or testing explained “Dan doesn’t mean two years. Of course we cando it in six months.”

So, much like the woman asking for transparent ink, these executives wereasking for something I knew was impossible. The framework, while a port, wasstill going to require a manual process to convert the tests, because the newtool was going to have problems we just hadn’t run into yet. I also knew wedidn’t have a team of automators, but of manual testers who could be taught toautomate. Finally, I was certain what they meant by “all” was that all of ourmanual tests needed to be automated in that time. My boss was agreeing withthem without understanding it wasn’t going to happen. He later explained thatI 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 Iwas billed to be or I billed myself as back then. So in retrospect, I realizetheir reaction should have been expected and understood. While there areexceptions, executives don’t realize how complicated test automation is. It’snot their job to understand test automation. They know they have only so muchtime, energy and money to throw at any problem. To hear it’s going to take twoyears until the team is writing tests on a regular basis and keeping up withthe 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 Ifocused too much on role of the executives. I wasn’t prepared for theirobjections. What I would do now, is talk about what can be possible in theshort term. I would suggest that in six months we could have a logical numberof tests converted (backed with a certain amount of math and realism). It verywell 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 aneternity in business. Neither of the executives were in their same roles twoyears later. Both had moved up into new or expanded roles. They probably don’teven remember the meeting, let alone me. I left the company within a fewmonths of the incident, taking on a slightly different “expert” role for aconsulting firm. That meeting, along with a few other events, made it clear tome 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 aboutto sign a big deal with your company, and to tell them no. Saying no can be acareer 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 rightanswer. But when you are “the expert,” you had best be prepared to expertlyidentify and defuse unrealistic expectations when they come. “No” is not whatexecutives 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 allowsthe novices in the room to be open to change.

Parting Thoughts

A final comment about the sales person and/or manager in the room. Their rolein this situation is critical. The executives in my case, and the customers inthe 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 tosupport you that way. Blindly agreeing with the customer because they want thedeal or to protect their job, and ignoring the counsel of the person theyclaim actually knows how to draw lines or write automated tests, makes themthe weakest link in the chain. If they really think you are the expert, thenthey should do their best to understand your concerns or reservations beforeagreeing to anything. And if they can’t or won’t do that, you may want to besomeone else’s “expert”.