Dictator or Liberator

James Bach reached out to me in 2010, offering to mentor me. At this time, I was an established member of the context-driven community. I had been blog writing since 2006 and had a modest following. I was a BBST Instructor and had met a few people, including Dave Liebreich, Scott Barber, Dawn Haynes and Cem Kaner. I also worked with Rosie Sherry building up the Software Testing Club, the precursor to the Ministry of Testing. I had a small software testing consultancy, with a solid client base.

At the time, the context-driven community was a dominant voice in the testing community. Cem Kaner was (as James describes him) the godfather. The inner circle (yes, there was one) included James & Michael Bolton. I was their recruit.  I was incredibly flattered to have been chosen; these were heroes of mine. People I looked up to and respected in the community.

Debating was a big thing in the context-driven community. Being able to reason and vocalise your thoughts and ideas was encouraged. The CDT was strongly anti-certification at the time, relentlessly attacking people like Stuart Reid and ISTQB with the aim of enabling excellent testing.  

The conflict was not all external. In 2011, Cem & James officially separated ways for a reason nothing to do with testing. James, who was second in command, took the helm.

I was working on a coaching model with James. I had no interest in debating (or ISTQB, to be honest) but was keen to learn how to articulate my ideas. So coaching helped me practice that. He announced to the world that we would write a book on coaching testers together.

I adored working with James. At the time, I thought he was intelligent, articulate and funny. He often spoke of wanting to liberate people, give them confidence and empower themselves. He would endlessly help for free when he spotted talent and ambition. I admired this side of James immensely. He was a hero to me.

But I knew I had to be careful. James hated people questioning his ideas or work, especially people who "should know better". I once observed a dressing down of an experienced and respected software tester who dared to question James ideas. It reconfirmed what I suspected, "don't disagree with James".

And people who did disagree with James and his philosophies were being ejected from the community. A lot of people. Marlena Compton, Lanette Creamer come to mind, but there were many others. Not just ejected but vilified. Many others disengaged and walked away. Context-driven testing became associated with words such as 'cult' and 'echo chamber.'

In all this time, I like others, said nothing. James once told me that he could work with me because he didn't feel threatened by me. I knew my place and turned a blind eye.

Eventually, I walked away too. One reason was that there was nothing new to learn. Instead of innovation and questioning, there was compliance and submission.  The context-driven testing community had become the very thing that James had set out to tear down. It had become an institution immune to changing technologies and fresh ideas.

James once told me he wrestled between dictator and liberator. This doesn't surprise me. I believe, at some level, James wants to help people, but his desire to control and dominate is never far behind.  

James left a lasting legacy on me and my work. But, unfortunately, most of it has been unhealthy. I own that; I made choices and own those choices.

But when I continue to see claims of ownership of people's success, it sends a chill down my spine. Communities don't own people; they serve people. It's not about power and control but advancing our profession. We don't need a second generation of people being chewed up and tossed out of communities. Instead, we must encourage and promote our work by airing and safely discussing ideas.

If you are in a community where you feel it's unsafe to speak out or question, where you find yourself censoring your words for fear of retribution, please be aware that many safe communities can nurture and support your growth. Ministry of Testing is an excellent example of one.