Agile Testing Heuristic: The Power of Looking

Today I broke my fast with a testing exercise from a colleague. (Note: I better not tell you what it is or even who gave it to me, because after you read this it will be spoiled for you, whereas if you read this and at a later time stumble into that challenge, not knowing that’s the one I was talking about, it won’t be spoiled.)

The exercise involved a short spec and an EXE. The challenge was how to test it.

The first thing I checked is if it had a text interface that I could interact with programmatically. It did. So I wrote a program to flood it with “positive” and “negative” input. The results were collected in a log file. I programmatically checked the output and it was correct.

So far this is a perfectly ordinary Agile testing situation. It is consistent with any API testing or systematic domain testing of units you have heard of. The program I wrote performs a check, and the check is produced by my testing thought process and its output analyzed by a similar thought process. That human element qualifies this as testing and not merely naked checking. If I were to hand my automated check to someone else who did not think like a tester, it would not be testing anymore, although the checks would still have some value, probably.

Here’s my public service announcement: Kids! Remember to look at what is happening.

The Power of Looking

One aspect of my strategy I haven’t described yet is that I carefully watched the check as it was running. I do this not as a bored, offhanded, or incidental matter. It’s absolutely vital. I must observe all the output I can observe, rather than just the “pass/fail” status of my checks. I will comb through log files, watch the results in real-time, try things through the GUI, whatever CAN be seen, I want to see it.

As I watched the output flow by in this particular example, I noticed that it was much slower than I expected. Moreover, the speed of the output was variable. It seemed to vary semi-randomly. Since there was nothing in the nature of the program (as I understood it) that would explain slowness or variable timing, this became an instant focus of investigation. Either there’s a bug here or something I need to learn. (Note: that is known as the Explainability Oracle Heuristic.)

It’s possible that I could have anticipated and explicitly checked for performance issues, of course, but my point is that the Power of Looking is a heuristic for discovering lots of things you did NOT anticipate. The models in your mind generate expectations, automatically, that you may not even be aware of until they are violated.

This is important for all testing, but it’s especially important for tool-happy Agile testers, bless their hearts, some of whom consider automation to be next to godliness… Come to think of it, if God has automated his tests for human qualities, that would explain a lot…

 

 

Test Jumpers: One Vision of Agile Testing

Many software companies, these days, are organized around a number of small Agile teams. These teams may be working on different projects or parts of the same project. I have often toured such companies with their large open plan offices; their big tables and whiteboards festooned with colorful Post-Its occasionally fluttering to the floor like leaves in a perpetual autumn display; their too many earbuds and not nearly enough conference rooms. Sound familiar, Spotify? Skype?

(This is a picture of a smoke jumper. I wish test jumpers looked this cool.)

I have a proposal for skilled Agile testing in such places: a role called a “test jumper.” The name comes from the elite “smoke jumper” type of firefighter. A test jumper is a trained and enthusiastic test lead (see my Responsible Tester post for a description of a test lead) who “jumps” into projects and from project to project: evaluating the testing, doing testing or organizing people in other roles to do testing. A test jumper can function as test team of one (what I call an omega tester ) or join a team of other testers.

The value of a role like this arises because in a typical dedicated Agile situation, everyone is expected to help with testing, and yet having staff dedicated solely to testing may be unwarranted. In practice, that means everyone remains chronically an amateur tester, untrained and unmotivated. The test jumper role could be a role held by one person, dedicated to the mastery of testing skills and tools, who is shared among many projects. This is a role that I feel close to, because it’s sort of what I already do. I am a consulting software tester who likes to get his hands dirty doing testing and running in-house testing events. I love short-term assignments and helping other testers come up to speed.

 

 

What Does a Test Jumper Do?

A test jumper basically asks, How are my projects handling the testing? How can I contribute to a project? How can I help someone test today?

Specifically a test jumper:

  • may spend weeks on one project, acting as an ordinary responsible tester.
  • may spend a few days on one project, organizing and leading testing events, coaching people, and helping to evaluate the results.
  • may spend as little as 90 minutes on one project, reviewing a test strategy and giving suggestions to a local tester or developer.
  • may attend a sprint planning meeting to assure that testing issues are discussed.
  • may design, write, or configure a tool to help perform a certain special kind of testing.
  • may coach another tester about how to create a test strategy, use a tool, or otherwise learn to be a better tester.
  • may make sense of test coverage.
  • may work with designers to foster better testability in the product.
  • may help improve relations between testers and developers, or if there are no other testers help the developers think productively about testing.

Test jumping is a time-critical role. You must learn to triage and split your time across many task threads. You must reassess project and product risk pretty much every day. I can see calling someone a test jumper who never “jumps” out of the project, but nevertheless embodies the skills and temperament needs to work in a very flexible, agile, self-managed fashion, on an intense project.

Addendum #1: Commenter Augusto Evangelisti suggests that I emphasize the point about coaching. It is already in my list, above, but I agree it deserves more prominence. In order to safely “jump” away from a project, the test jumper must constantly lean toward nudging, coaching, or even training local helpers (who are often the developers themselves, and who are not testing specialists, even though they are super-smart and experienced in other technical realms) and local responsible testers (if there are any on that project). The ideal goal is for each team to be reasonably self-sufficient, or at least for the periodic visits of the test jumper to be enough to keep them on a good track.

What Does a Test Jumper Need?

  • The ability and the enthusiasm for plunging in and doing testing right now when necessary.
  • The ability to pull himself out of a specific test task and see the big picture.
  • The ability to recruit helpers.
  • The ability to coach and train testers, and people who can help testing.
  • A wide knowledge of tools and ability to write tools as needed.
  • A good respectful relationship with developers.
  • The ability to speak up in sprint planning meetings about testing-related issues such as testability.
  • A keen understanding of testability.
  • The ability to lead ad hoc groups of people with challenging personalities during occasional test events.
  • An ability to speak in front of people and produce useful and concise documentation as necessary.
  • The ability to manage many threads of work at once.
  • The ability to evaluate and explain testing in general, as well as with respect to particular forms of testing.

A good test jumper will listen to advice from anyone, but no one needs to tell a test jumper what to do next. Test jumpers manage their own testing missions, in consultation with such clients as arise. A test jumper must be able to discover and analyze the testing context, then adapt to it or shape it as necessary. It is a role made for the Context-Driven school of testing.

Does a Test Jumper Need to be a Programmer?

Coding skills help tremendously in this role, but being a good programmer is not absolutely required. What is required is that you learn technical things very quickly and have excellent problem-solving and social skills. Oh, and you ought to live and breathe testing, of course.

How Does a Test Jumper Come to Be?

A test jumper is mostly self-created, much as good developers are. A test jumper can start as a programmer, as I did, and then fall in love with the excitement of testing (I love the hunt for bugs). A test jumper may start as a tester, learn consulting and leadership skills, but not want to be a full-time manager. Management has its consolations and triumphs, of course, but some of us like to do technical things. Test jumping may be part of extending the career path for an experienced and valuable tester.

Mr. Langella Never Does it the Same Way Twice

This is from the New York Times:

Its other hallmark is that Mr. Langella never does the part the same way twice. This is partly because he’s still in the process of discovering the character and partly because it’s almost a point of honor. “The Brit approach is very different from mine,” he said. “There’s a tendency to value consistency over creativity. You get it, you nail it, you repeat it. I’d rather hang myself. To me, every night within a certain framework — the framework of integrity — you must forget what you did the night before and create it anew every single time you walk out on the stage.”

I love that phrase the framework of integrity. It ties in to what I’ve been saying about integrity and also what is true about informal testing: if you are well prepared, and you are true to yourself, then whatever you do is going to be spontaneously and rather effortlessly okay, even if it changes over time.

I often hear anxiety in testers and managers about how terrible it is to do something once, some particular way, and then to forget it. What a waste, they say. Let’s write it all down and not deviate from our past behavior, they say. Well I don’t think it’s waste, I think it’s mental hygiene. Testing is a performance, and I want to be free to perform better. So, I make notes, sure. But I am properly reluctant about formalizing what I do.

Doing your best work includes having the courage to let go of pretty good work that you’ve done before.

Programmer Pairing with a Tester

My sister, Erica, is not a programmer. Normally she’s not a tester, either. But recently she paired with me, playing a tester role, and spotted bugs while I wrote in Perl. In the process, it became clear to me that testers do not need to become programmers in order to help programmers write programs in real-time.

The Context

While working on the report for the Rapid Testing Intensive, recently, I needed a usable archive of the materials. That meant taking all of the pages, comments, and attachments out of my Confluence site and putting them in a form easier to shuffle, subdivide, organize, refer to, and re-distribute. It would be great if that were a feature of Confluence, but the closest I can get to that is either manually downloading each item or downloading an entire archive and dealing with a big abstract blob of XML and cryptically named files with no extensions.

(Note to Atlassian: Please enhance Confluence to include a archivist-friendly (as opposed to system administrator-friendly) archive function that separates pages, attachments, and comments into discrete viewable units with reasonable names.)

The Deflection

While Erica catalogued the names of all the attachments representing student work and the person or persons who created them, I was supposed to write a program to extract the corresponding material from the archive. Instead, I procrastinated. I think I checked email, but I admit it’s possible I was playing Ghost Recon or watching episode 13 of Arang and the Magistrate on Hulu. So, when she was ready with the spreadsheet, I hadn’t even started my program.

To cover my laziness, I thought I’d invite her to sit with me while I wrote it… you know, as if I had been waiting for her on purpose to show her the power of code or whatever. I expected her to decline, since like many computer power users, she has no interest in programming, and no knowledge of it.

The Surprising Outcome

She did not decline. She sat with me and we wrote the program together. She found six or seven important bugs while I typed, and many other little ones. The programming was more fun and social for me. I was more energized and focused. We followed up by writing a second, bigger program together. She told me she wants to do more of this kind of work. We both want to do more.

A Question

How does someone who knows nothing about Perl programming, and isn’t even a tester, productively find bugs almost immediately by looking at Perl code?

That’s kind of a misleading question, because that’s not what really happened. She didn’t just look at my code. She looked at my code in the context of me talking to her about what I was trying to do as I was trying to do it. The process unfolded bit by bit, and she followed the logic as it evolved. It doesn’t take any specific personal quality on the part of the “coding companion,” just general ones like alertness, curiosity, and basic symbolic intelligence. It doesn’t take any particular knowledge, although it can help a lot.

Perhaps this would not work well for all kinds of coding. We weren’t working on something that required heaps of fiddly design, or hours of doodling in a notebook to conceive of some obscure algorithm.

My Claim

A completely non-technical but eager and curious companion can help me write code in real-time by virtue of three things:

  1. The dynamic and interactive legibility of the coding process. I narrate what I’m doing as it comes together step-by-step. The companion doesn’t eat the whole elephant in a bite; and the companion encounters the software mediated by my continuous process of interpretation. I tell him what and why and how. I do this repeatedly, and answer his questions along the way. This makes the process accessible (or in the parlance I like to use “legible” because that word specifically means the accessibility of information). The legibility is not that of a static piece of code, sitting there, but rather a property of something that is changing within a social environment. It’s the same experience as watching a teacher fill a whiteboard with equations. If you came at the end of the class, it would look bewildering, but if you watched it in process, it looks sensible.
  2. The conceptual simplicity of many bugs. Some bugs are truly devious and subtle, but many have a simple essence or an easily recognized form. As I fix my own bugs and narrate that process, my coding companion begins to pick up on regularities and consistency relationships that must be preserved. The companion programs himself to find bugs, as I go.
  3. The sensemaking faculties of a programmer seeking to resolve the confusion of a companion. When my dogs bark, I want to know why they are barking. I don’t know if there’s a good reason or a bad reason, but I want to resolve the mystery. In the course of doing that, I may learn something important (like “the UPS guy is here”). Similarly, when my coding companion says “I don’t understand why you put the dollar sign there and there, but not over there” my mind is directed to that situation and I need to make sense of it. It may be a bug or not a bug, but that process helps me be clear about what I’m doing, no matter what.

And Therefore…

A tester of any kind can contribute early in a development process, and become better able to test, by pairing with a programmer regardless of his own ability to code.

A Tester’s Commitments

This is the latest version of the commitments I make when I work with a programmer.

Dear Programmer,

 

My job is to help you look good. My job is to support you as you create quality; to ease that burden instead of adding to it. In that spirit, I make the following commitments to you.

 

Sincerely,

 

Tester

  1. I provide a service. You are an important client of that service. I am not satisfied unless you are satisfied.
  2. I am not the gatekeeper of quality. I don’t “own” quality. Shipping a good product is a goal shared by all of us.
  3. I will test your code as soon as I can after you deliver it to me. I know that you need my test results quickly (especially for fixes and new features).
  4. I will strive to test in a way that allows you to be fully productive. I will not be a bottleneck.
  5. I’ll make every reasonable effort to test, even if I have only partial information about the product.
  6. I will learn the product quickly, and make use of that knowledge to test more cleverly.
  7. I will test important things first, and try to find important problems. (I will also report things you might consider unimportant, just in case they turn out to be important after all, but I will spend less time on those.)
  8. I will strive to test in the interests of everyone whose opinions matter, including you, so that you can make better decisions about the product.
  9. I will write clear, concise, thoughtful, and respectful problem reports. (I may make suggestions about design, but I will never presume to be the designer.)
  10. I will let you know how I’m testing, and invite your comments. And I will confer with you about little things you can do to make the product much easier to test.
  11. I invite your special requests, such as if you need me to spot check something for you, help you document something, or run a special kind of test.
  12. I will not carelessly waste your time. Or if I do, I will learn from that mistake.

(This is cool! Yong Goo Yeo has created a Prezi of this.)

An Important Comment

This comment came in from Stuart Taylor. I think it’s important enough that I should add this to the post:

Hi James,

I’m not sure if this is meant to be a little tongue in cheek, but that’s how I read it. That said, I fell at point 1. “I provide a service” really?

Yes, really. This is not a joke. And point #1 is the most important point.

This implies there may be alternative service providers, and if my customer relationship management isn’t up to snuff, I could lose this “client”. Already I feel subservient, I’m an option.

Of course there are alternative service providers. (There are alternative programmers as well, but I’m not concerned with that, here. I’m making commitments that have to do with me and my role, here.) And yes, of COURSE you may lose your client. Actually that’s a lot of what “Agile” has done: fired the testers. In their place, we often find quasi-tester/quasi-programmers who are more concerned with fitting in and poking around tools than doing testing.

Testing is not programming. Programmers are not testers. If you mix that, you do a sorry job of both. In other words: I am a programmer and a tester, but not a good programmer at the same time that I’m a good tester.

Please meditate on the difference between service and subservience. I am a servant and I am proud of that. I am support crew. I spent my time as a production programmer and I’m glad I don’t do that any more. I don’t like that sort of pressure. I like to serve people who will take that pressure on my behalf.

This doesn’t make me a doormat. Nobody wipes their feet on me– I clean their feet. There’s a world of difference. Good mothers know this difference better than anyone.

Personally, when I work on a software  project, I want to feel like I’m part of the team. I need the developer, and the developer wants me. We work together to bake quality in from the start, and not try and sprinkle it on at the end as part of a “service” that I offer.

What strange ideas you have about service. You think people on the same team don’t serve each other? You think services are something “sprinkled” on the end? Please re-think this.

I want to be on the same team, too. The difference, maybe, is that I require my colleagues to choose me. I don’t rap on the door and say “let me in I belong here! I like to be on the team!” (You can’t just “join” a team. The easier it is to join a team, the less likely that it is actually a team, I think. Excellent teams must gel together over time. I want to speed that process– hence my commitments) Instead, I am invited. I insist that it be an invitation. And how I get invited quickly is by immediately dissolving any power struggle that the programmers may worry about, then earning their respect through the fantastic quality of my work.

You can, of course, demand respect. Then you will fail. Then five years later, you will realize true respect cannot be demanded. (That’s what I did. Ask anyone about what a terror I was when I worked at Apple Computer. If you are less combative or more intelligent than I am, you may make this transition in less time.)

I may have actually agreed with your points before I was exposed to Continuous Integration, because that’s how my relationship used to be; hence me interpreting this as a light hearted piece. However I know that this kind of relationship still exists today (its here at this place). When I began working with continuous integration, the traditional role of the tester, with a discrete testing phase became blurred, as the test effort is pushed back up stream towards the source. If the tester and developer share a conversation about “how can we be sure we build the right thing, and how can we ensure we built it right” before the code gets cut, and the resulting tests from that are used to help write the code (TDD, BDD, SBE), then both of us can have a nice warm fuzzy feeling about the code being of good quality. The automation removes the repetition (and reduces the feedback) to maintain that assertion.

First, your experience has nothing to do with “continuous integration.” Continuous integration is a concept. Your experience is actually related to people. Specific people are collaborating with you in specific satisfying ways, probably because it is their pleasure to do so. I have had wonderful and satisfying professional relationships on a number of projects– mostly at Borland, where we were not doing continuous integration, and where testers and programmers cooperated freely, despite being organized into separate administrative entities.

(Besides, I have to say… Testing cannot be automated. Automation doesn’t remove repetition, it changes it. Continuous integration, as I see it, is another way of forcing your customers do the testing, while placing naive trust in the magic of bewildering machinery. I have yet to hear about continuous integration from anyone who seemed to me to be a student of software testing. Perhaps that will happen someday.)

In any case, nothing I’m saying here prevents or discourages collaboration. What it addresses are some of the unhealthy things that discourage collaboration between a tester and a programmer. I’m not sure if in your role you are doing testing. If you want to be a programmer or a designer or manager or cheerleader or hanger-on, then do that. However, testing is inherently about critical thinking, and therefore it always carries a risk (in the same way that being a dentist does) that we may touch a nerve with our criticism. This is the major risk I’m trying to mitigate.

[Note: Michael Bolton pointed out to me the “warm fuzzy” line. I can’t believe I let that go by when I wrote this reply, earlier. Dude! Stuart! If you are in the warm fuzzy business, you are NOT in the testing business. My goal is not anything to do with warm fuzzy thinking. My goal is to patrol out in the cold and shine my bright bright torches into the darkness. On some level, I am never satisfied as a tester. I’m never sure of anything. That’s what it MEANS to be a professional tester, rather than an amateur or a marketer. Other people think positively. Other people believe. The warmth and fuzziness of belief is not for us, man. Do not pollute your testing mentality with that.]

My confusion over this being a tongue in cheek post is further compounded by point 2. Too many testers do believe that they own quality. They become the quality gate keeper, and i think they enjoy it. The question “can this go live” is answered by the tester. The tester may be unwilling to relinquish that control, because they perceive that as a loss of power.

Just as excellent testers must understand they provide a service, they must also understand that they are not “quality” people. They simply hold the light so that other people can work. Testers do not create quality. If you create quality, you are not being a tester. You are being an amateur programmer/designer/manager. That’s okay, but my commitment list is meant for people who see themselves as testers.

I guess what i’m fumbling about with here, is that some testers will read this, and sign up to it. Maybe even print it out and put it up on the wall.

I hope they do. This list has served me well.

Either way, you have written another thought provoking piece James, but i cant help wondering about the back story. What prompted you to write it?

Stuart – sat in the coffee shop, but with laptop and wifi, not a notepad 😉

This piece was originally prompted when I took over a testing and build team for SmartPatents, in 1997. I was told that I would decide when the software was good enough. I called a meeting of the programmers and testers and distributed the first version of this document in order to clarify to the programmers that I was not some obstacle or buzzing horsefly, but rather a partner with them in a SERVICE role.

That was also the first time I gave up my office and opted to sit in a low cubicle next to the entrance that no one else wanted– the receptionist’s cubicle. It was perfect for my role. Programmers streamed by all day and couldn’t avoid me.

I think this piece is also a reaction to the Tester’s Bill of Rights (the one by Gilb, not the one by Bernie Berger, although I have my concerns about that one, too), which is one of the most arrogant pieces of crap I’ve ever seen written on behalf of testers. I will not link to it.

And now that I think of it, I wrote this a year after I hired a personal assistant, and two months later had her promoted to be my boss, even though she retained almost the same duties. The experience of working for someone whose actual day-to-day role was to serve me– but who felt powerful and grateful as my manager– helped me understand the nature of service and leadership in a new way.

Finally, a current that runs through my life is my experience as a husband and father. I am very powerful. I can make my family miserable if I so choose. I choose to serve them, instead.

Behavior-Driven Development vs. Testing

The difference between Behavior-Driven Development and testing:

This is a BDD scenario (from Dan North, a man I respect and admire):

+Scenario 1: Account is in credit+
Given the account is in credit
And the card is valid
And the dispenser contains cash
When the customer requests cash
Then ensure the account is debited
And ensure cash is dispensed
And ensure the card is returned

This is that BDD scenario turned into testing:

+Scenario 1: Account is in credit+
Given the account is in credit
And the card is valid
And the dispenser contains cash
When the customer requests cash
Then check that the account is debited
And check that cash is dispensed
And check that the card is returned
And check that nothing happens that shouldn’t happen and everything else happens that should happen for all variations of this scenario and all possible states of the ATM and all possible states of the customer’s account and all possible states of the rest of the database and all possible states of the system as a whole, and anything happening in the cloud that should not matter but might matter.

Do I need to spell it out for you more explicitly? This check is impossible to perform. To get close to it, though, we need human testers. Their sapience turns this impossible check into plausible testing. Testing is a quest within a vast, complex, changing space. We seek bugs. It is not the process of  demonstrating that the product CAN work, but exploring if it WILL.

I think Dan understands this. I sometimes worry about other people who promote tools like Cucumber or jBehave.

I’m not opposed to such tools (although I continue to suspect that Cucumber is an elaborate ploy to spend a lot of time on things that don’t matter at all) but in the face of them we must keep a clear head about what testing is.

Technique: Paired Exploratory Survey

I named a technique the other day. It’s another one of those things I’ve been doing for a while, but only now has come crisply into focus as a distinct heuristic of testing: the Paired Exploratory Survey (PES).

Definition: A paired exploratory survey is a process whereby two testers confront one product at the same time for the purpose of learning a product, preparing for formal testing, and/or characterizing its quality as rapidly as possible, whereby one tester (the “driver”) is responsible for open-ended play and all direct interaction with the product while the other tester (the “navigator” or “leader”) acts as documentarian, mission-minder, and co-test-designer.

Here’s a story about it..

Last week, I was on my way home from the CAST conference with my 17 year-old son Oliver when a client called me with an emergency assignment: “Get down to L.A. and test our product right away!” I didn’t have time to take Oliver home, so we bought some clean clothes, had Oliver’s ID flown in from Orcas Island by bush plane, and headed to SeaTac.

(I love emergencies. They’re exciting. It’s like James Bond, except that my Miss Moneypenny is named Lenore. I got to the airport and two first class tickets were waiting for us. However, a gentle note to potential clients: making me run around like a secret agent can be expensive.)

This is the first time I had Oliver with me while doing professional testing, so I decided to make use of him as an unpaid intern. Basically, this is the situation any tester is in when he employs a non-tester, such as a domain expert, as a partner. In such situations, the professional tester must assure that the non-tester is strongly engaged and having good fun. That’s why I like to make that “honorary tester” drive. I get them twiddling the knobs, punching the buttons, and looking for trouble. Then they’ll say “testing is fun” and help me the next time I ask.

(Oliver is a very experienced video gamer. He has played all the major offline games since he was 3 or 4, and the online ones for the last 5 years. I know from playing with him what this means: he can be relentless once he decides to figure out how a system works. I was hoping his gamer instinct would kick in for this, but I was also prepared for him to get bored and wander off. You shouldn’t set your expectations too high with teenagers.)

The client gave us a briefing about how the device is used. I have already studied up on this, but it’s new for Oliver. The scene reminded me of that part in the movie Inception where Leonardo DiCaprio explains the dynamics of dream invasion.We have a workstation that controls a power unit and connects to a probe which is connected to a pump. It all looks Frankenstein-y.

(I can’t tell you much about the device, in this case. Let’s just say it zaps the patient with “healing energy” and has nothing whatsoever to do with weaponized subconscious projections.)

I set up a camera so that all the testing would be filmed.

(Video is becoming an indispensable tool in my work. My traveling kit consists of a little solid state Sony cam that plugs into the wall so I don’t have to worry about battery life, a micro-tripod so I can pose the camera at any desired angle, and a terabyte hard drive which stores all the work.)

Then, I began the testing just to demonstrate to Oliver the sort of thing I wanted to do. We would begin with a sanity check of the major functions and flows, while letting ourselves deviate as needed to pursue follow-up testing on anything we find that was anomalous. After about 15 minutes, Oliver became the driver, I became the navigator, and that’s how we worked for the next 6 or 7 hours.

Oliver quickly distinguished himself as as a remarkable observer. He noticed flickers on the screen, small changes over time, quirks in the sound the device made. He had a good memory for what he had just been doing, and quickly constructed a mental model of the product.

From the transcript:

“What?!…That could be a problem…check this out…dad…look, right now…settings, unclickable…start…suddenly clickable, during operation…it’s possible to switch its entire mode to something else, when it should be locked!”

and later

“alright… you can’t see the error message every single time because it’s corrupted… but the error message… the error message is exactly what we were seeing before with the sequence bug… the error message comes up for a brief moment and then BOOM, it’s all gone… it’s like… it makes the bug we found with the sequence thing (that just makes it freeze) destructive and takes down the whole system… actually I think that’s really interesting. It’s like this bug is slightly more evolved…”

(You have to read this while imagining the voice of a triumphant teenager who’s just found an easter egg in HALO3. From his point of view, he’s finding ways to “beat the boss of the level.”)

At the start, I frequently took control of the process in order to reproduce the bugs, but as I saw Oliver’s natural enthusiasm and inquisitiveness blossom, I gave him room to run. I explained bug isolation and bug risk and challenged him to find the simplest, yet most compelling form of each problem he uncovered.

Meanwhile, I worked on my notes and noted time stamps of interesting events. As we moved along, I would redirect him occasionally to collect more evidence regarding specific aspects of the evolving testing story.

How is this different from ordinary paired testing?

Paired testing simply means two testers testing one product on the same system at the same time. A PES is a kind of paired testing.

Exploratory testing means an approach to testing whereby learning, test design, and test execution are mutually supportive activities that run in parallel. A PES is exploratory testing, too.

A “survey session,” in the lingo of Session-Based Test Management, is a test session devoted to learning a product and characterizing the general risks and challenges of testing it, while at the same time noticing problems. A survey session contrasts with analysis sessions, deep coverage sessions, and closure sessions, among possible others that aren’t yet identified as a category. A PES is a survey test session.

It’s all of those things, plus one more thing: the senior tester is the one who takes the notes and makes sure that the right areas are touched and right general information comes out. The senior tester is in charge of developing a compelling testing story. The senior tester does that so that his partner can get more engaged in the hunt for vital information. This “hunt” is a kind of play. A delicious dance of curiosity and analysis.

There are lots of ways to do paired testing. A PES is one interesting way.

Hey, I’ve done this before!

While testing with my son, I flashed back to 1997, in one of my first court cases, in which I worked with my brother Jon (who is now a director of testing at eBay, but was then a cub tester). Our job was to apply my Good Enough model of quality analysis to a specific product, and I let Jon drive that time, too. I didn’t think to give a name to that process, at the time, other than ET. The concept of paired testing hadn’t even been named in our community until Cem Kaner suggested that we experiment with it at the first Workshop on Heuristic and Exploratory Techniques in 2001.

I have seen different flavors of a PES, too. I once saw a test lead who stepped to the keyboard specifically because he wanted his intern to design the tests. He felt that that letting the kid lean back in his chair and talk ideas to the ceiling (as he was doing when I walked in) would be the best way to harness certain technical knowledge the intern had which the test lead did not have. In this way, the intern was actually the driver.

I’m feeling good about the name Paired Exploratory Survey. I think it may have legs. Time will tell.

Here’s the report I filed with the client (all specific details changed, but you can see what the report looks like, anyway).

The IMVU Shuffle

Michael Bolton reported on our quick test of IMVU, whose development team brags about having no human-mediated test process before deploying their software to the field.

Some commentors have pointed out that the bugs we found in our twenty minute review weren’t serious– or couldn’t have been– because the IMVU  developers feel successful in what they have produced, and apparently, there are satisfied users of the service.

Hearing that, I’m reminded of the Silver Bridge, which fell down suddenly, one day, after forty years of standing up. Up to that day, it must have seemed quite reasonable to claim that the bridge was a high quality bridge, because– look!– it’s still standing! But lack of information is not proof of excellence, it turns out. That’s why we test. Testing doesn’t provide all possible information, but it provides some. Good testing will provide lots of useful information.

I don’t know if the IMVU system is good enough. I do know that IMVU has no basis to claim that their “continuous integration” process, with all their “automated test cases” has anything to do with their success. By exactly the same “not dead yet” argument, they could justify not running any test cases at all. I can’t help but mention that the finance industry used the same logic to defend deregulation and a weak enforcement of the existing laws that allowed Ponzi schemes and credit swap orders to cripple the world economy. Oops, there goes a few trillion dollars– hey maybe we should have been doing better oversight all these years!

It may be that no possible problem that could be revealed by competent testing would be considered a bad problem byIMVU. If that is the case, then the true reason they are successful is that they have chosen to offer a product that doesn’t matter to people who will accept anything they are offered. Of course, they could use ANY set of practices to do that.

Clearly, what they think they’ve done is establish a test process through automation that will probably discover any important problem that could happen before they release. That’s why Michael and I tested it, and we quickly verified what we expected to find: several problems that materially interfered with the claimed functionality of IMVU, and numerous glitches that suggested the presence of more serious problems nearby. Maybe its present users are willing to put up with it, or maybe they are willing to put up with it for now. But that’s not the point.

The point is that IMVU is not doing certain ordinary and obvious things that would reveal problems in their product and they promote that approach to doing business as if it’s an innovation instead of an evasion of responsibility.

The IMVU people can’t know whether there are, in fact, serious problems in their product because they have chosen not to discover them. That they promote this as a good practice (and that manual testing doesn’t scale, which is also bullshit) tells me that they don’t know what testing is for and they don’t know the difference between testing and a set of computerized behaviors called “test cases”.

They are setting themselves up to rediscover what many others have before them– why we test. Their own experiences will be the best teacher. I predict they will have some doozies.

Should Developers Test the Product First?

When a programmer builds a product, should he release it to the testers right away? Or should he test it himself to make sure that it is free of obvious bugs?

Many testers would advise the programmer to test the product himself, first. I have a different answer. My answer is: send me the product the moment it exists. I want avoid creating barriers between testing and programming. I worry that anything that may cause the programmers to avoid working with me is toxic to rapid, excellent testing.

Of course, it’s possible to test the product without waiting to send it to the testers. For instance, a good set of automated unit tests as part of the build process would make the whole issue moot. Also, I wouldn’t mind if the programmer tested the product in parallel with me, if he wants to. But I don’t demand either of those things. They are a lot of work.

As a tester I understand that I am providing a service to a customer. One of my customers is the programmer. I try to present a customer service interface that makes the programmers happy I’m on the project.

I didn’t always feel this way. I came to this attitude after experiencing a few projects where I drew sharp lines in sand, made lots of demands, then discovered how difficult it is to do great testing without the enthusiastic cooperation of the people who create the product.

It wasn’t just malicious behavior, though. Some programmers, with the best of intentions, were delaying my test process by trying to test it themselves, and fix every bug, before I even got my first look at it (like those people who hire house cleaners, and then clean their own houses before the professionals arrive).

Sometimes a product is so buggy that I can’t make much progress testing it. Even then, I want to have it. Every look I get at it helps me get better ideas for testing it, later on.

Sometimes the programmer already knows about the bugs that I find. Even then, I want to have it. I just make a deal with the programmers that I will report bugs informally until we reach an agreed upon milestone. Any bugs not fixed by that time get formally reported and tracked.

Sometimes the product is completely inoperable. Even then, I want to have it. Just by looking at its files and structures I might begin to get better ideas for testing it.

My basic heuristic is: if it exists, I want to test it. (The only exception is if I have something more important to do.)

My colleague Doug Hoffman has raised a concern about what management expects from testing. The earlier you get a product, the less likely you can make visible progress testing it– then testing may be blamed for the apparently slow progress. Yes, that is a concern, but that’s a question of managing expectations. Hence, I manage them.

So, send me your huddled masses of code, yearning to be tested. I’ll take it from there.

Who Stole Agile?

Brian Marick complains about people, like me, who prefer to use dictionary definitions of words such as agile, instead of capitalizing the word and using it as a brand name, as he does. Read his blog post here.

In his post, Brian said, It really gripes me when people argue that their particular approach is “agile” because it matches the dictionary definition of the word, that being “characterized by quickness, lightness, and ease of movement; nimble.” While I like the word “agile” as a token naming what we do, I was there when it was coined. It was not meant to be an essential definition. It was explicitly conceived of as a marketing term: to be evocative, to be less dismissable than “lightweight” (the previous common term).

Brian says he was there when it was coined. I think he’s talking about the meeting where the Agile Manifesto was produced. Actually, Jim Highsmith was promoting the term before that meeting, and spoke to me about it. Then he went to that meeting and suddenly there’s a manifesto.

Before and after the Agile Manifesto meeting, I had a number of conversations with Jim Highsmith and with Brian Marick. I served on the Cutter IT Council with Jim Highsmith, and I worked at Reliable Software Technologies with Brian Marick. We talked. It was always my understanding that “agile” meant agile. The Agile Manifesto looks to me like an enumeration of the factors that allow software development to be agile. That’s why I like the manifesto.

The idea that agile was always supposed to be a brand name and not taken literally does not hold water. This wasn’t at all what we were talking about, back then. Agile became another word for Extreme Programming about five years ago, as the inevitable forces of marketing worked their special magic.

How strange that Brian should argue that agile is a word like “glade” in Glade air freshener, as if we should have known all along that we were buying a fragrance of an idea, not the idea itself.

No Brian. You can’t have agile. Agile belongs to us, the English speaking world, and it belongs to us, the people who want to promote agility in software development. We are taking it back.

Defining Agile Methodology

Brian Marick has offered a definition of agile methodology. I think his definition is strangely bulky and narrow. That’s because it’s not really a definition, but an example.

Those of us who’ve worked with Brian know that he doesn’t like to talk about definitions. He’d rather deal with rich examples and descriptions than labels. He worries that labels such as “Agile” and “Version Control” can easily become empty talismans that can turn a conversation about practice into a ritualized exchange of passwords. “Oh, he said Agile, that must mean he’s one of us.” I admire how Brian tries to focus on practice rather than labelling.

Where Brian and I part ways is that I don’t think we have a choice about labels and their definitions. When we decline to discuss definitions we are not avoiding politics, we are simply driving the politics underground, where it remains insidious and unregulated. To discuss definitions is to discuss the terms by which your community governs itself, so that we do not inadvertantly undercut each other.

Here’s an example of how postponing a conversation about definitions can bite you. A few years ago, at the Agile Fusion peer conference I hosted at my lab in Virginia, Brian and I got into a heated debate about the meaning of the word “agile”. He said he was completely uninterested in the dictionary definition. He was interested only in how he felt the word was used by a certain group of people– which group, it turned out, did not include me, Cem Kaner, or very many of my colleagues who can legitimately claim to have been working with agile methodologies since the mid-eighties (or in one case, mid-sixties). Perhaps because of Brian’s reluctance to discuss definitions, our disagreement came up out of the blue. I don’t know if it surprised Brian, but it shocked me to discover that he and I were operating by profoundly different assumptions about agile methodology.

Actually, I have had many clashes with people who claim to own the word agile. It’s not just Brian. But some agilists in the capital “A” camp don’t limit themselves to it. Ward Cunningham is a great example. Find Ward. Meet him. Talk to him. He gives agile methodology a good name. I have had similar positive experiences with Alastair Cockburn and Martin Fowler.

There are at least two agile software development communities, then. My community practices agile development in an open-ended way. We support the Agile Manifesto (in fact, I was invited to the meeting where the manifesto was created, but could not attend). However:

  1. We do not divide the world into programmers and customers.
  2. We do not demand that everyone on the project be a generalist, and then define generalist to be just another word for someone who remains ignorant of all skills other than programming skills.
  3. We believe there can be different roles on the team, including, for instance, the role of tester; and that people performing a role ought to develop skill in that art.
  4. We don’t limit our practices to fit guru-approved slogans such as “YAGNI” and “100% automated testing”, but instead use our skills to match our practices to our context.
  5. We don’t accuse people who question practices of “going meta” as if that is a sin instead of ordinary responsible behavior.
  6. We aren’t a personality cult. (if you ever hear someone justify a practice by saying “because James Bach said so” please email me so I can put a stop to it. I like being respected; I hate being a blunt object for ending a debate.)
  7. We don’t talk as if software engineering was invented in 1998.
  8. We question. We criticize. We learn. We change. We are agile.
  9. When we make definitions, we strive to be inclusive and try not to redefine ordinary English words such as “pattern” or “agile”. Specifically, we probably won’t say you just don’t “get it” if you cite the dictionary instead of using approved gurucabulary. GURUCABULARY: (noun) idiosyncratic vocabulary, often a redefinition of preexisting words, asserted by one thinker or thinkers as a way of establishing a proprietary claim on a field of interest.

I want to offer an alternative definition for use outside of the insular world of capital “A” agilists.

First, here is the Websters definition of agile:

agile
Function:adjective
Etymology:Middle French, from Latin agilis, from agere to drive, act, more at AGENT
Date:1581

1 : marked by ready ability to move with quick easy grace *an agile dancer*
2 : having a quick resourceful and adaptable character *an agile mind*

Here, then is my definition of agile methodology:

agile methodology: a system of methods designed to minimize the cost of change, especially in a context where important facts emerge late in a project, or where we are obliged to adapt to important uncontrolled factors.

A non-agile methodology, by comparison, is one that seeks to achieve efficiency by anticipating, controlling, or eliminating variables so as to eliminate the need for changes and associated costs of changing.

Brian Marick’s definition of agile methodology is an example of how one community approaches what I would call agile methodology. My definition is intended to be less imperialistic and more pluralistic. I want to encourage more of us to explore the implications of agility, without having to accept the capital “A” belief system whole.

Fight the power!