The Toxic Tester

The interviewed an SPL who recently went through a protracted battle with a toxic person on his team. We’ve written up the interview as a narrative, in the hope it may provide a resource for other leaders who find themselves in a similar position.

As always we have removed all personal and client identifying details.

The Toxic Tester

I’ve been a scrummaster for several years. I had two development projects under my belt, each being year long contracts. During this time I also wrote a blog post about a method on a microsoft API that got some hits, and a couple of dozen comments. I qualified as a scrummaster and software project lead, and added a few other Agile certificates as well. Total investment was around $12,000 for the certifications.

With these I also decided that in my next contract I would save tax by working through my own limited company and paying myself minimum wage. It’s much easier to land an IT contract if you can present yourself as a CEO, they never check if it’s a one-man company, and it didn’t take long before I was offered one.

It was in the automotive industry. The client company make robot arms for factory production lines. They don’t keep a permanent IT dept and use body-shops and contractors for most of their development. I got in as SSPL – software sub-project leader.

The project had started two years previously and was in a mess. The delivery date was not going to be met and I could see that it would require a least a few more years work if we all played our cards right.

The team I inherited needed some changes. The tester we had wasn’t all that good, and it typically took him an entire sprint to do the sprint testing, when I needed the tests completed quicker than that so I could ship.

At the time, this would have been late 2012, the banks had been laying off a lot of IT people so I thought I could leverage that to find a new tester. I hired three of them on one-month contracts with the idea of keeping the best one and letting the others go at the end of the month.

This worked better than expected. One of the three was excellent, and out-performed my existing tester. By the end of that month I let the other two go and arranged to have the existing tester transferred to another project. I’d have liked to have let him go as well, but I didn’t have the authority, at that time, to cancel his contract.

My new tester, though, more than made up for that. True, he was the highest-paid person on the team, but worth every dollar. The first week when I asked him for an estimate of how long the sprint’s tests would take he said “three days”. I thought he was a little over-confident, but sure enough three days later all the tests are completed and documented to a very high standard. Test reports that anybody could follow, and testing that uncovered defects we would never have found ourself. In addition to this, our tester seemed to push himself to complete a little bit more every sprint.

I needed to make a few more adjustments to the team. We had one African chap, a database expert, who was an immigrint that had moved here about twenty-five years ago. Most of the team were Eastern Europeans and a couple of them told me they weren’t comfortable working with this fellow. But he was another one who had signed his contract before I took over the team, so I wasn’t able to simply cancel it and march him out of the door.

Instead, I decided to take him off database work. I announced in the stand-up that we were going cross-functional and put him onto the UI thread. This was a mess that nobody else wanted to work on anyway. He certainly wasn’t happy with it, and sure enough, within two months he found another job and left us. I replaced him with another East European so that the team would be balanced.

At the end of 2012 I ran into another problem. I’d only just moved into this country six months before and I found out that I couldn’t evade tax by working through my own company. They have a tax rule here that means I would be taxed as an employee of the end client. An employee? Me! I’m a CEO!

My accountant told me that if I employed somebody myself then I would be classed as a legit business and could get all the tax advantages.

I had a Ukrainian on the team, a bit of a geek, not too much in-depth knowledge but clearly he loved working with microsoft windows. He’d married a local woman and moved here about ten years ago and he was one of the bodyshoppers. The company were paying the bodyshop $800 a day for his services, of which he got $400. So I offered him a deal that if he came over to my company I would make him the solution architect and pay him $600 per day. The other $200 I had to give to the bodyshop to pay them off for breaking his contract.

This turned out to be the best move I made, since about nine months later the EuroMaidan protests started and it was all over the television. My East Europeans were clearly excited by the developments, and to motivate them I decided that we would hold a mini-maidan in the office to support Ukraine.

We weren’t collecting money for them or anything, but it made us look good, you know? Everybody is hearing about this shit on the news, and it’s like I’ve got the participants on my team. They spoke the language and were able to explain to the rest of the team what the communists were really trying to do in Ukraine.

This is when the trouble with our tester started. For some reason he wouldn’t join in. He was on an hourly rate and instead of joining our maidans after hours he would leave the office as soon as he had finished and go home.

I didn’t really think much about it. Figured the guy doesn’t really care what’s going on in the world so long as he get his pay.

But then Russia invaded, annexed Crimea and started driving Ukrianian civilians out of their homes in what was essentially an unprovoked attack on what was more or less the territory of the EU. My Ukrainian pointed out to me that the tester was wearing a black-and-orange ribbon on his car keys, he had seen it the night before after he had followed the tester to the car-park. This, apparantly, was a communist symbol that commemorated the Russian invasion of Ukraine during WWII.

I knew I had to do something as this guy was clearly intending to disrupt the team with his politics. I decided to ask HR about him first, and they told me the guy has a Russian wife. Probably he bought her over some Internet bride website so that he could have a subservient woman at home. That explained everything. I’ve got a Kremlin Troll on my team. It doesn’t really matter how good at the job he might be, his thinly-disguised pro-Russian views were offending the team.

I could cancel his contract at any time on a pretext, but there was a problem. It was now 2014, the project was two years behind schedule, and if I lost this tester now it would definately have a major impact on productivity. It would be much better for me if he was to leave of his own accord.

I took him to one side and requested that he stopped making political statements in the office. He pretended to have no idea what I was talking about, so I told him he had been seen getting into his car with Russian symbols, and that I knew he secretly had a Russian wife.

After having been called out his entire attitude changed. I had instructed the scrum team that they were not to invite the tester down to lunch anymore, but you know what he did? Five or ten minutes after we went to lunch without him, and on his own initiative, he’d come and join us. Refusing to get the message.

After that I had the team work on a secret branch one sprint that would not contain any bug-fixes. We let the tester test the main branch, but we submitted to the customer the buggy build. Naturally they were very angry, but we were quickly able to ship them the real build the next day and say that our tester hadn’t been doing his job and would be disciplined.

I called the tester into a meeting with my scrummaster and myself and asked him to explain how he had failed to find any of the bugs in the build we had delivered. His response showed just how toxic a person he could be. He got angry, claimed that he had tested every story and raised five issues. He was even arrogant enough to come prepared with a list of the five issue numbers and the dates on which I had rejected them.

I started taking work away from him. Told him his work wasn’t up to standard and handed a lot of it over to one of the juniors, but still he stayed on. Some days I would deny him work altogether but he would still come in and sit at his desk for eight hours with nothing to do.

True, he never actually mentioned the Ukraine crisis, or spoke about Russia while he was in the office, but we all knew he was thinking it. Nobody could be comfortable with this guy sitting around us. I moved him to another desk, in the corner near the machines shop, but he pretended he didn’t mind the noise and just carried on with his work as if nothing was happening. Doing it just to annoy us all, I’m sure.

We then had a bad sprint, we were a week behind. The customer expected us to deliver on Monday but we needed at least a week for testing. I figured that once again I could say the tester has got behind, and maybe the customer would start asking for a change in the test team themselves.

But you know what this toxic bastard did? Without asking, he took his laptop home on Friday, worked all weekend, and came in on Monday morning with everything done putting us right back on track.

I took him aside again that very morning. I told him that half the team had been to me with complaints about him and they don’t want to work with him anymore. I suggested that if he wanted to hand in his notice he was free to do so. But it turned out he had just signed a new contract with procurement that very day, and had been given a 10% raise.

There didn’t seem to be anything I could do to get rid of him. I was stuck with him for another eight months until eventually the customer pulled the plug on the budget and I had to let most of the team go.

Looking back, it would have been better for me to have simply sacked the tester at the first hint of trouble. The lesson learned is that toxic people should be treated like cockroaches and eliminated immediately they manifest themselves. As leaders we have to be prepared to make the tough decisions and see them through. This time, I failed. But I’ve learned my lesson and am a much more ruthless CEO now.

As a kind of footnote, this toxic tester circulated an email before he left offering people to come out for leaving drinks, but he purposefully left all managers off the distribution list and said in the email that his night would be “free of management”.

Naturally this got back to me. So I decided I would attend his leaving drinks, regardless of whether he wanted me to, because I am his SPL. That was when I found out just how toxic he could really be. He told me, “I don’t work for you anymore. You’re not welcome here, so why don’t you just fuck off?“. In front of a dozen of my former employees who happened to be sitting with him.

Typical. The guy has no social skills and hasn’t a clue what being Agile is about. He almost wrecked the project. His real boss, Vladimir Putin, probably paid him handsomely for it.

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Food for thought. En guete.