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.