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Sota so Good



Much of Definition of The Engineering Method by Billy Vaughn Koen chimes with what I've come to believe about testing. 

In part, I think, this is because thinkers who have influenced my thinking were themselves influenced by Koen's thoughts. In part, also, it's because some of my self-learned experience of testing is prefigured in the article. In part, finally, it's because I'm reading it through biased lenses, wanting to find positive analogy to something I care about. 

I recognise that this last one is dangerous. As Richard Feynman said in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: "I could find a way of making up an analog with any subject ... I don’t consider such analogs meaningful.” 

This is a short series of posts which will take an aspect of Definition of The Engineering Method that I found interesting and explore why, taking care not to over-analogise.

--00--

The leaping off point for Definition of the Engineering Method is the scientific method. From Wikipedia:
The scientific method is an empirical method of acquiring knowledge that has characterized the development of science since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. It involves formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental and measurement-based testing of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings. 
Specifically Koen observes that, while the scientific method has been much studied, he does not believe that engineering is simply "applied science" and there is little literature on what he calls the engineering method. Yet engineering has been, is, and will continue to be critical to the way our world is shaped and the way we live in it. Shouldn't we care about how we engineer our environment and ourselves?

(Answer: yes.)

As Koen develops his ideas on what the engineering method could be, he co-opts a term, state of the art (abbreviated as sota), which he takes to be the set of heuristics known by an individual or a group at a specific time. For any pair of engineers, it is likely that their sotas will intersect at some foundational points and then differ where their experience has caused them to specialise on tasks. A given engineer's sota will change through her career, as she finds some heuristics more or less valuable.

This concept is interesting because it allows him to visualise, with simple set diagrams, how problems fall into or outside of the sotas of individuals and groups. This feels neat and I found it easy to nod along to until I read this (p. 31):
The [sota] of the engineering profession defines the best possible engineering solution. This overall solution represents best engineering practice and is the most reasonable practical standard against which to judge the individual engineer. It us a relative standard instead of an absolute one, and like all sotas it changes in time
As a card-carrying context-driven tester, I flinched. Best practice? Really?

Fortunately, in Koen's context, "best" has a specific interpretation (p. 12):
A fundamental characteristic of an engineering solution is that it is the best available from the point of view of a specific engineer. If this engineer knew the absolute good, he would do that good. Failing that, he calculates his best based on his subjective estimate of an informed society's perception of the good.
Sotas allow Koen to represent an engineering sota distinct from a society's sota, and speculate on how this difference can lead to solutions to the wrong problem, or the wrong problem being put forward to be solved. Where sota intersection is smaller, there is likely to be less shared understanding and more chance of problem and solution being incompatible in some important way.

In this consideration of the relationships between the expert and the public, there are echoes of Harry Collins' work on Science Studies. Take this passage (p. 39):
Some argue that we are witnessing a shrinking of [joint efforts between the general population and engineers] as society disciplines the engineering profession because of disagreement over past solutions. No longer is it sufficient for an engineer to assert that a mass transportation system or nuclear reactor is needed and safe ... What is most urgently needed is research to determine the minimum overlap necessary for a non engineer to be technologically literate.
I was also struck by similarities between sotas and the thoughts on the propagation of theory (a term we were using more broadly than its conventional meaning) around communities that Sneha Bhat and I presented in Transforming Theory and Practice:
... we perceive two broad types of theory: behavioural (what the system does) and practical (how to exercise the system).  In a typical project the first of these is likely to get reported back to the team in general, but the latter is likely to remain local with either this tester or her peers when they share information that helps them to do their job. 
This flow of theory aligns well with the idea that the sotas of different individuals and different can be populated differently, and perhaps even helps to explain how that can be the case for members of the same team with different areas of expertise.

An angle we explored, but I don't think Koen does, is the idea that practitioner knowledge may be tacit, again per Harry Collins. In Transforming Theory and Practice we wrote:
An expert practitioner may add enormous value to a project by virtue of being able to divine the causes of problems, find workarounds for them, and gauge the potential impacts on important scenarios. But they may find it hard to explain how they arrived at their conclusions ... This kind of tacit knowledge is learned over time, and with experience ...
Could tacit knowledge be part of an individual's sota? Is it the case that all engineering decisions are thought to be justifiable in terms of some aspect of a sota? Could the "art" aspect of sota permit undefined intuition? I like these kinds of questions.

But how are sotas relevant to testing? It's relevant to me in my testing because, as part of an engineering team solving problems for people who are generally not engineers, I want to do these kinds of things:

  • recognise that the customer perspective is not the team's perspective
  • recognise that my personal perspective is not the same as my colleagues' perspective
  • look for the aspects of all relevant perspectives that are most relevant to the problem
  • look for ways to communicate with all parties such that the right information is available to make informed choices about aspects of the problem that matter

The sota, and Koen's Venn-style diagrams, give me some language for, and visualisation of, that space.

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