Testing with Professional Integrity

Last week I witnessed what can only be described as a completely integrity-challenged moment by a performance consultant I know, who said, in reference to my current customer:  “You’ve done a nice job educating them -- or should I say, brainwashing them!

The consultant was cheering on what they thought was an effective strategy, that of persuading the customer into an overly elaborate view about what they need to succeed in order to compete with lesser experienced consultants.  In actuality my work had been focused on helping my customer and their other consultants fully understand the value and importance of doing performance testing and engineering in the best possible way.

Later, that same person went on to claim that “there are a lot of stupid people in the world” and that consultants like us need not commit ourselves to excellence in delivery of our consulting services, that lesser quality would suffice.  This person was advocating that it might be just fine to waste the customer’s time and money by delivering less than what was required by or expected by the customer. And sadly, this far from the first time I have witnessed this kind of unethical approach to consulting.

If you haven’t yet read Matt Heusser’s excellent posts on integrity in IT (Part 1 and Part 2), I encourage you to do so. He highlights a specific example from New York City (CityTime/TechnoDyne), an appalling tale of a team who decided to shakedown the city for $700M by taking advantage of the customer’s lack of technological acumen.

This is on an entirely different level from the snakeoil-selling forwarned by technology guru Clifford Stoll -- the CityTime scam went beyond the simple seductions of technology, and right off the deep end into egregious illegality. For a consultant with no ethics, it seems, any rule will get bent just to make few bucks.

So, after considering my interaction with the performance consultant who actively encouraged customer manipulation, and after reading Matt's great posts, and after reflecting on the many ethical lapses I have been witness to while working in this field over the last 20 years, I’d like to put on the table the three key practices in technology consulting which are perfect examples of a lack of professional integrity:

#1 – Unscrupulous persuasion. The consultant engages in dishonest tactics to “win the customer” by leaving out important details about their lack of talent, lack of legal licensing, lack of real experience or lack of professional certification. Conversely, embellishing on any of these subjects dishonestly is equally damaging to customers.

To operate with integrity, most professional testers will recommend that customers obtain second or third opinions, consult with other sources or professionals, and also thoroughly check consultant references.

#2 – Deliberate under-delivery. The consultant delivers less than excellent quality, when they know that they should be producing higher quality deliverables, but they leave out some of the required work in favor of a work extension or to ensure continued dependency on their own work product (e.g. leaving comments out of code, inadequate documentation).

To operate with integrity, a professional tester will provide industry-standard examples of the deliverables to the customer and commit to the same or better level of quality.

#3 – Willful perpetuation of ignorance. The consultant withholds important details about the work or the subject area from the customer so that the consultant may gain favor or financial gain. In the example above, the performance consultant expressed support for the idea of under-educating the customer about all aspects of the subject or situational context.

To operate with integrity, a consultant must provide as much information as possible to assist the customer, as well as admit with honesty the limits of their own scope of knowledge.

Consulting companies often have mechanisms to ensure that they are operating with professional integrity. Customers should always ask to see the employee code of ethics, standards of business conduct, or the legal statement of integrity in their contracts.

As an independent consultant, there are several ways I demonstrate my commitment to professional integrity. My contributions to and membership in industry forums shows that I am aware of and accountable to many other individuals in my own profession. As a member of the Software Test Professionals organization I am committed to learning and keeping up to speed on the state of the art practices for my profession. I consider myself a representative both of this profession and of its professional ethics; I encourage all of us to do the same.

I also just wrote this blog entry -- to put it on the record.