Friday, January 12, 2018

On The Wisdom Of Testing

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, EuroSTAR asked 25 testers who have played a big part in its history for a "top tip or piece of advice" that has returned value to them across their career and compiled the answers into a short (in length and height) publication, The Little Book of Testing Wisdom. Sales from the book raise money for the Saving Linnea campaign.

We put the book on our Test team reading group agenda at Linguamatics for this week with the mission to "read all or some, but bring one (or more) articles you liked!" I decided on the strategy of reading the start of every article and continuing only with those that grabbed me immediately. I didn't seek (and haven't sought) to understand why some grabbed me and some not, but I did think about whether there was any commonality to the set of four that I particularly liked by the end and took to the meeting ...

For me, advice that will stand the test of time must have inbuilt sensitivity to context, and be valuable enough frequently enough to make it a net positive for the advice-taker.  I can't claim to have been in testing for a quarter-century, but I do feel like I've been around the block a few times and, while walking that beat, and watching the scenery change as the years go by, I've come to feel that any advice with designs on immortality is likely to be meta-advice. That is, advice that guides the making of a decision, rather than advice that dictates the decision to take.

Jerry Weinberg is a master of advice that is not only responsive to the context in which it is to be applied, but which forces the advice-taker to think about that context and the factors at play in it. Here's one gem from a discussion about reporting test results:
When I say start with the most important item, I mean start with the one that's most important to start with.
Even with good intent on the part of the advice-giver, even with inherent adaptivity to circumstance, even with pieces of advice that have served you well for many years, it's worth regarding any kind of lore as heuristic. You and your interpretation of a given situation are only two of the variables in play and you are unlikely to control them all. Put simply, any advice is likely to fail to achieve what you want sometimes.

With that in mind, I've picked out a handful of words of wisdom from the 25 that got past my first-paragraph filter and spoke to me and my own experience.

Rikard Edgren, Understand Your Testing Mission

To do a good job as a tester you need to know what information the relevant stakeholders want from your testing. Unfortunately, you can't just ask them what your mission is because others don't think in terms of test missions. Instead you need to find out what's important to them and then think of ways to find it at an acceptable cost. These are your missions. Personally, I sometimes start with a mission of finding out what my mission should be.

Alan Richardson, It's Simpler Than That

When we begin to learn a skill it feels hard. We are slow and awkward and we do unnecessary work because we haven't identified which aspects are core and which can be glossed ... yet. Take solace, though, from Richardson's advice to tell yourself that, whatever you are doing, however you are doing it, it's simpler than that. With practice and particularly with reflection, you can discover other ways, and those ways will have time, resource, or effort advantages over the current one. This chimes with something I read last year: regard even your best ideas as bad ideas and you'll feel more able to challenge them, alter them, substitute other people's ideas for them.

Fiona Charles, Diversify Your Thinking

There's value in recognising that not all problems are amenable to the same solution, or even the same patterns of finding solutions. It's also worth remembering that different people will respond differently to a problem cast in different forms: verbal, written, or pictorial. Finally, be aware that at different times, changing your own perspective on a problem can provoke you into thinking about it differently too. I love the rule of three as a way to provoke the use different perspectives in pursuit of more options.

Michael Bolton, Relatively Rational

The advice here is actually Weinberg's. When confronted by what looks like irrationality on the part of others — an ugly codebase, for example — try to view is as "rational from the perspective of a different set of values". This advice requires us to put ourselves in someone else's shoes, and to consider that they were trying to do a good job in spite of whatever constraints (personal or contextual) they were under at the time they did the work in question. I think it's useful also to turn this around and understand your (often implicit) hope that others see your own efforts for what they are: a pragmatic attempt to compromise on a decent solution given all the competing pressures on you at the time.

The full set of contributors is: Michael Bolton, Hans Buwalda, Fiona Charles, Anne-Marie Charrett, Derk-Jan de Grood, Rikard Edgren, Isabel Evans, John Fodeh, Paul Gerrard, Shmuel Gershon, Dorothy Graham, Julian Harty, Anne-Mette Hass, Rob Lambert, James Lyndsay, Rik Marselis, Fran O’Hara, Declan O’Riordan, Stuart Reid, Alan Richardson, Huib Schoots, Ruud Teunissen, Geoff Thompson, Bob van de Burgt and Erik van Veenendaal. (Taken from Derk-Jan de Grood.)
Image: EuroSTAR

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