When Cem Kaner introduced the term “exploratory testing” in the mid-80’s, everyone ignored it. When I picked up the term and ran with it, I was mostly ignored. But slowly, it spread through the little community that would become the Context-Driven School. I began talking about it in 1990, and created the first ET class in 1996. It wasn’t until 1999 that Cem and I looked around and noticed that people who were not part of our school had begun to speak and write about it, too.
When we looked at what some of those people were saying, yikes! There was a lot of misunderstanding out there. So, we just kept plugging along and running our peer conferences and hoping that the good would outweigh the bad. I still think that will happen in the long run.
But sometimes it’s hard to stomach how the idea gets twisted. Case in point: James Whittaker, an academic who has not been part of the ET leadership group, and also has little or no experience on an industrial software project as a tester or test manager, has published a book called Exploratory Software Testing.
Whatever Whittaker means when he talks about exploratory testing is NOT what those of us mean who’ve been working on nurturing and developing ET for the last 20 years. As far as I can tell, he has not made more than a shallow study of it. I will probably not write a detailed review (though his publisher asked me to look at it before it was published), because I get too angry when I talk about it, and I would rather not be angry. But Adam Goucher has published his review here.
Another guy who shows up at the conferences, B.J. Rollison, also gets ET wrong. He’s done what he calls “empirical research” into ET, at Microsoft. Since he, again, has not engaged the community that first developed the concept and practices of ET, it’s not altogether surprising that his “research” is based on a poor understanding of ET (for instance, he insists that it’s a technique, not an approach. This is similar to confusing the institution of democracy with the mechanics of voting), and apparently were carried out with untrained subjects, since Rollison himself is not trained in what I recognize as exploratory testing skills.
Experimental research into ET can be done, but of course any such work is in the realm of social science, not computer science, because ET is a social and psychological phenomenon. (see the book Exploring Science, for an example of what such research looks like).
Now even within the group of us who’ve been sharing notes, debating, and discovering the roots of professional exploratory thinking in the fields of epistemology and cognitive psychology and the philosophy and study of scientific practice, there are strong differences of opinion. There are people I disagree with (or who just dislike me) whom I still recognize as thoughtful leaders in the realm of exploratory testing (James Lyndsay and Elisabeth Hendrickson are two examples). Perhaps Whittaker and Rollison will become rivals who make interesting discoveries and contributions, at some point. Time will tell. Right now, in my opinion, they are just skating on the surface of this subject.