Mechanical or Magical? Noah Says “Neither.”

As I was having dinner with Noah Höjeberg tonight, he said an interesting thing. “Some people think testing is mechanical, and that’s bad enough. But a lot of people seem to think the alternative to mechanical is magical.”

(Noah is the new test strategist at Scila AB, in Stockholm. Interesting guy. I’ve played a lot of testing dice with him, in the past. I meant to do the Art Show game with him, too, but we got so much into our conversation that I completely forgot.)

Mechanical and magical are false opposites. In Rapid Testing, we pursue another path: Heuristical. In other words, skilled testing, achieved through systematic study and the deliberate application of heuristics. This is neither a mechanical, algorithmic process, not is it magical, mystical. We can show it, talk about it, etc. And yet it cannot be automated.

How I Invented Sympathetic Testing

I did not invent sympathetic testing. Anyone who says I claim to have invented it will have only read the title of this post, but nothing further. Now you know.

I may have been the first in my circle to recognize one specific benefit of sympathetic testing. But if so, that is a minor technical point. Because I know that my recognition came directly from a point of view championed by Cem Kaner. From where I stand, it came largely from him.

Okay, James, this is a bit confusing. Why are you talking about this, today?

Ajay Balamurugadas came to me today asking if I came up with the idea of “sympathetic testing.” This is an idea he’s found in Mike Kelly’s work, which derives partly from my work (on tours). It’s also in the section of Lessons Learned in Software Testing that I wrote (and which was edited by Cem Kaner and Bret Pettichord). He had already asked Cem Kaner, who said he got it from my brother [correction: Ajay tells me he saw Cem say that on a video]. But if so, I know exactly where Jon got it: from me, during a project we worked on around 1997. That’s where he was working for me on a court case where I had to do an analysis of “good enough” quality, using a method strongly influenced by Cem’s thinking about cognitive biases.

I’m talking about this today because the provenance of ideas can be confusing when people work closely together. Who cares who invented it, or named it? You might be surprised. Credit is important to people who live by their reputations in a world of ideas. Reputation is money, to put it bluntly. To achieve high income and control over your work as a tester, one way– and the only way I know, actually– is to build your public reputation. Moreover, a lot of our motivation is the respect of our peers. Therefore, this matters.

This isn’t really about “sympathetic testing”, then. Still, what IS sympathetic testing?

Sympathetic testing, as I think of it, is sometimes slightly confused with the closely related ideas of “happy path” or “positive testing.” Sympathetic testing means testing while affirming (rather than challenging) each assumption, resource, or service. But if that’s all it meant, then it would be the same as positive testing. For me, sympathetic testing means more. It means asking “what is wonderful about this product?” rather than “what is broken about this product?” I can do positive testing all day and still be focused on bugs. With sympathetic testing, I may find bugs, but that is not my focus or purpose– my main purpose is learning; building a rich model in my mind.

The insight I had, when working with my brother (way back before he was a recognized test expert in his own right) was that sympathetic testing made me better at unsympathetic testing. Searching happily prepares me to search aggressively.

Okay, then what’s really troubling you?

What bugs me is that Cem deserves more credit for sympathetic testing. But if he claims it himself, he probably thinks he will anger me, and if he gives me full credit, it would anger him: because Cem and I aren’t on speaking terms, at the moment. (I hope that’s temporary.)

I’m hereby offering him credit. Cem and I collaborated for roughly 16 years. We had probably hundreds of deep conversations about testing. Among those conversations, he lectured me on mental models and biases. We once had a fairly bitter argument about what a model is. He won that argument, thankfully, and I have been comfortable with the outcome ever since. He introduced me to Cognitive Science and pushed me deeper into Epistemology. It was that sensibility that led to me discovering a lot of things: among them the power of sympathetic testing. I’m certain that the first person I ran to with my discovery was Cem, but not only that, this is exactly the sort of thing that he was famous for encouraging: to look at things in a sympathetic way. I can’t remember the conversation itself or what he said. I bet he said something like “That’s just what I’ve been trying to tell you!”

Therefore, “sympathetic testing” is part of our joint work. Between about 1997 and 2007, it’s a good bet that I didn’t have a significant thought about testing which wasn’t also sifted and tested by Cem. We didn’t always agree, but we were extremely close. It’s for that reason that he put my name on his BBST class, even though I didn’t do any direct work on it. He was recognizing my influence on him. I’m doing that now.

I’m my own man. I have reinvented testing for myself (just as I recommend that others do). And yet a few people have deeply influenced me in that process. The three people who have had the most influence on my are my father, Jerry Weinberg, and Cem Kaner. I sometimes joke that I can sell out and offer baloney certifications to gullible testers, just like the ISTQB does– but only after those three men have died and I’m no longer seeking their respect.

[Postscript: Why did I title this piece “How I Invented Sympathetic Testing”? Because it was the best way I could think of to attract the attention of people who might be upset that I would make such a claim. Then maybe they would read this post, and feel a lot better.]

What We Read

I staggered out of the Cambridge Press bookstore a bit dazed, today, having gorged on 21 books. [Addendum: I mean by this that I browsed them, purchased them, and had them shipped home.] If you want to know what a Context-Driven tester reads, here it is:

  • A First Course in Statistical Programming with R
  • Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development
  • Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory
  • Sequential Analysis and Observational Methods for the Behavioral Sciences
  • Observing Interaction: An Introduction to Sequential Analysis
  • Human Error
  • Combinatorics: A Problem Oriented Approach (Mathematical Association of America Textbooks)
  • A Mathematician Comes of Age (Spectrum)
  • The Golem at Large: What You Should Know about Technology (Canto)
  • The Golem: What You Should Know about Science (Canto)
  • A Practical Introduction to Denotational Semantics (Cambridge Computer Science Texts)
  • Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a Socio-cultural Practice and Theory of Education (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives)
  • From Teams to Knots: Activity-Theoretical Studies of Collaboration and Learning at Work (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives)
  • Nuts and bolts for the social sciences
  • How to Fold It: The Mathematics of Linkages, Origami and Polyhedra
  • The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology)
  • The Manuscript of Great Expectations: From the Townshend Collection, Wisbech (Cambridge Library Collection – Literary Studies)
  • The Cognitive Basis of Science
  • Satisficing and Maximizing: Moral Theorists on Practical Reason
  • The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology)
  • Risk Communication: A Handbook for Communicating Environmental, Safety, and Health Risks

One of the challenges I have for the ISTQB proponents is “What do you read?” You see it’s a trap. If they tell me they read widely, deeply and liberally, I contrast that with the intellectual desert that is the ISTQB Syllabus and ask them why there is such a disconnect between their education and their professional claims. And if they read narrowly, well, there you go.

If you want to be an excellent tester, you need a good education. You didn’t get that in school (or if you’re in school, you’re not getting it), so you need to do something like what I do: scout for fabulous and offbeat books about all the matters of great testing– and testing touches EVERYTHING!

[addendum: If you are not familiar with my distaste for institutional education, before picking a fight with me, go see my book, Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar. I spent 26 years doing the research by which I assert that school, although not always destructive and occasionally helpful, is certainly not necessary if you want to live a successful intellectual life. Each day of my life is another data point about how wrong were the teachers who told me I would not be successful without submitting to “the game” of school they desired me to play.]

Most of the books on my list are self-explanatory. One in particular may seem strange: the manuscript of Great Expectations. I picked that one up because the photographic images of Dickens’ original manuscript is a beautiful example of how messy the creative process is. Imagine trying to put metrics on the process of writing that, with all its crossouts and insertions.Writing is exploratory. Just. Like. Testing.