Artificial Stupidity

I just tried to use the automated support system at Paypal…

Sarah – PayPal :
Hello, I’m Sarah and I’m here to answer your questions about PayPal. Even though I’d like to be a real person, I’m not. I’m programmed to answer your questions. How can I help you?
You :
How do I change my security questions?
Sarah – PayPal :
I’m sorry but I’m unavailable right now. Please try again in a few minutes.
You :
what the hell??
Sarah – PayPal :
I’m sorry but I’m unavailable right now. Please try again in a few minutes.
You :
You just ASKED ME how you can help!
Sarah – PayPal :
I’m sorry but I’m unavailable right now. Please try again in a few minutes.
You :
You’re talking to me right now. How can you be unavailable?
Sarah – PayPal :
Et oui,… Mais c’est comme ça. Et sinon ?
You :
what?
Sarah – PayPal :
I’m sorry but I’m unavailable right now. Please try again in a few minutes.

I’d almost rather talk to Sarah Palin than Sarah Paypal.

The Great Implication of Context-Driven Methodology

Sometimes I hear people react to context-driven methodology with a shrug. “Yeah, everything depends on context. So what?”

Here’s the so what: If all practice depends upon context, then the competent practitioner must know how to invent, evaluate, criticize, and modify practices. In other words, focus must shift from merely copying and memorizing practices to developing skill in the craft.This is a profoundly different focus.

Wouldn’t it be absurd for someone to claim that the best way to commute to work, for everyone in the software industry, is to take a horse and buggy? Wouldn’t it still be absurd even if they added the words “but you should take context into account and do what’s right for you” at the end of such a strange claim? When consultants talk to people from different practical contexts, and they treat context variables as a trivial concern, they do their audience little service. That’s the trouble with “best practices.”

To say that context matters but that “almost always X is the right thing to do” is to speak like a parent dictating to a child. I fear that many testing bloggers and consultants are happy to do just that. But if what we want is a meeting of minds and sharing of wisdom, we need to practice talking about context-dynamics and the dynamics of practices that serve those contexts.

The most recent time I practiced this, myself, was in writing the previous paragraph. I almost wrote that you should not, as a methodologist, speak to your clients as a parent dictating to children. But then I noticed that very statement is just such a dictum. I don’t want to be like that. So I had to add “But if what we want is…” to at least acknowledge that even here there are different ways to be, depending on context.

A Suggestion

A great way to automatically avoid the perils of best practice talk is simply to talk about your own experiences and preferences, rather than make general prescriptions. This is why, in peer conferences such as LAWST, we focus on experience reports (actually we called them “war stories” until our terminology was attacked by bloodthirsty pacifists) rather than advertisments for good practice.