Pro-testing Against Bad Software Quality

6Apr/134

An Object Is What the Object Does – Or Is It?

It's been a while since my last blog post and earlier today I came across a post that started a thought process I just had to write down. This post is based on the blog entry titled "“Testing vs Checking” : ‘Tomato’ vs ‘Tomato’" by Mario Gonzalez of Ortask.

As a quick recap, the gist of Mario's blog post is to criticize the differentiation James Bach, Michael Bolton and, generally, the people aligned with the context-driven approach to testing make between the terms "testing" and "checking". He basically goes on to claim the whole differentiation is a moot point or even potentially harmful to the testing community, and its future, as a whole (in terms of adding confusion to a field already swamped with definitions). Simplified, but that is my interpretation of the text.

[UPDATE April 8th]: As pointed out by @JariLaakso in Twitter, not all context-driven testers necessarily make the distinction between testing and checking, so I can't really say "generally, the people aligned with..." as I am not aware of the exact number of people who actually do. I may have simply just communicated with people who do make the distinction so reformat that one sentence in your mind to your liking. [END UPDATE]

However, I am not going to go any deeper into that or any of the other problems I perceived while reading through the post, at least not for now - I'm sure other people will. Instead, I will concentrate on the one thing that bothered me the most at the time of reading it: Mario's definition of a test. So I decided to dissect it. Here is the definition he offered:

a test attempts to prove something about a system

First of all, that is not even a definition of a test - it is a definition of the purpose of a test. Let me clarify with an analogy. Consider this for a definition of a car:

A car is used to transport people and goods from one place to another

Now, based on that "definition" alone, answer me the following questions:

  1. What does a car look like?
  2. What principles and mechanisms does a car operate on?
  3. Under what conditions and circumstances can a car be used to transport people and goods from one place to another?

You can't, can you? That's because I haven't given you a definition of a car - only what it's typically used for. In other words:

Defining what an object does does not define what the object is.

While still lacking and incomplete, a definition of a car could be something like: "A car is a typically four-wheeled, land-based vehicle that usually operates on the principle of an internal combustion engine turning the energy contained within a liquid fuel into mechanical movement through a series of controlled explosions the pressure of which cause a crankshaft to rotate and apply torque to the vehicle's drive wheels".

While the non sequitur I pointed out above would be reason enough to stop going any further, I want to go through the definition (of the purpose of a test) for the sake of completeness:

  • "A test" - Now what is that? In this context the question is impossible to answer - Mario hasn't told us!
  • "attempts" - How does "a test" attempt anything? It's not a sentient being. It would seem to me it is the tester who is the one to make the attempt through performing a test, making observations, analyzing and interpreting data, behavior and results before, during and after performing a test.
  • "to prove" - What, exactly, constitutes proof? Here are some definitions of the term:
    • evidence or argument establishing a fact or the truth of a statement (Oxford dictionaries)
    • the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact (Merriam-Webster)
    • sufficient evidence or an argument for the truth of a proposition (Wikipedia)

Now, how does one arrive at "proof", based on the above definitions? An obvious problem that immediately comes to mind is that, in many cases, "truths" or "facts" are relative and dependent on a number of factors. Don't believe me? Well, this is the last sentence in this blog entry. True at the time of writing, but false only seconds later when I kept going.

Also, if you want to pursue the scientific angle, I don't think anyone would take the result of a single experiment as any kind of proof of anything. You would need to repeat the experiment multiple times (and, ideally, have an independent peer group do the same) in order for it to gain any kind of credibility but therein lies a problem: the conditions would need to be exactly the same every time and that is virtually impossible to achieve in software testing. The date and time change, the amount of available CPU power, RAM and hard disk space varies, there might be network congestion or packet loss that you can not possibly predict, another application might suddenly misbehave and distort your test results or any number of other, unknown, factors that can affect the outcome of a test could manifest themselves.

It would seem to me that "proof" is much too strong a word to use in this context. Testing may suggest behavior that appears consistent but it can not prove that any more than a turkey being generously fed on a daily basis can predict that on the 180th day of its life the farmer comes out with an axe instead of seeds and takes the turkey's life instead of feeding it.

On with the definition:

  • "something" - Anything? Well, Mario did elaborate on this in the following paragraph so I'll just leave it at that.
  • "about a system" - Now there's another interesting word: "system". Various definitions to follow:
    • 1 a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole, or
    • 2 a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method (Oxford dictionaries)
    • a group of devices or artificial objects or an organization forming a network especially for distributing something or serving a common purpose (Merriam-Webster)
    • a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole or a set of elements (often called 'components') and relationships which are different from relationships of the set or its elements to other elements or sets (Wikipedia)

Complexity. On multiple levels. Especially when talking about computers and software. What if there is a fault in the hardware such that it exhibits certain behavior at one time but a different behavior at other times? Maybe a capacitor is nearing the end of its life and causes a test to give different results based on the ambient temperature of the environment in which the system resides. How many are prepared to, or even capable of, anticipating and accounting for something like that?

I'm not even trying to be funny here - my stereo amplifier does this and for exactly that reason!

Based on all of the above, I'm afraid I can only arrive at the conclusion that this particular definition of a test is fundamentally flawed (even starting from the fact that the claim of what is being defined is unrelated with the actual definition presented) and, in my view, would warrant serious reconsideration and refining.

8Jun/129

Standards and Best Practices in Testing

This is my response to two closely related texts written by James Christie. The first one is James' article Do standards keep testers in the kindergarten? and the second one is James' post titled ISO 29119 the new international software testing standard - what about it? at the Software Testing Club forums. Due to the texts being so closely related, I won't be commenting them in any particular order or referring to the exact source of each quote in detail.

Let's begin with two quotes, one from each text:

"Even if the standard's creators envisage a set of useful guidelines, from which people can select according to their need, the reality is that other people will interpret them as mandatory statements of “best practice”."

and

"I like for words to mean something. If it isn't really best, let's not call it best."

As a vapid cliche, Voltaire wrote: "The best is the enemy of the good".

One of the problems here, as so well put by Markus Ahnve (@mahnve on Twitter) at Turku Agile Day 2012 in Finland, is that "'best practices' are only guaranteed mediocrity". In order for something to qualify as a best practice it must, necessarily, forfeit context due to the vast diversity of software projects out there. In my view, that, on its own, is grounds enough for it to lose relevance and if it's not (fully) relevant in my context how can it be best practice for me? Either I'm missing out on something that matters, or I'm getting extra weight I really don't want or need.

Note that I'm intentionally linking 'best practices' with standards here since I really don't see much of a difference in between. Both seem, to me, as one-size-fits-all sets of rules that tell me how I should do things without even asking me what I'm actually doing.

As James hinted in the texts quoted above, standards, especially in software testing, would not be so much of a problem if people didn't take them - or expect them to be taken - like gospel. I believe the problem might, at least partially, boil down to the fact that it's easier to simplify things to vague generalizations than to try and account for all contexts (which would probably be impossible anyway).

People tend to be lazy so it should come as no surprise that there are those who would prefer to just resort to a standard rather than spend time thinking about what's best for the context at hand. With luck (from that person's perspective), this approach might even be seen as beneficial. People striving towards standards-compliance are obviously just being responsible and doing their very best to drive the project to optimal results, right?

Another potential problem with standards is, in my opinion, extremely well put in one of my favorite online comics: http://xkcd.com/927/

I don't know how to better put that to words than that.

"Obviously the key difference is that beginners do need some kind of structural scaffold or support; but I think we often fail to acknowledge that the nature of that early support can seriously constrain the possibilities apparent to a beginner, and restrict their later development."

I completely agree with James here. Maybe a stupid analogy but you don't buckle toddlers up to braces when they're trying to learn how to walk. You encourage them, you give them a taste of what walking is like by supporting them for a while and then leaving them to their own devices to build up the muscles, balance and coordination required. You give them something to reach out for - quite literally - and let them work out a way to get there.

In the same spirit, I wouldn't want to restrain the learning of a beginning tester by dictating rules, requirements and restrictions. I share my own experiences, I point them to various authors, books, forums and blogs and let them work things out from there, giving advice when they ask for it or are obviously lost.

"the real problem is neither the testers who want to introduce standards to our profession, nor the standards themselves. The problem lies with the way that they are applied."

I wouldn't leave the people wanting to introduce standards to software testing out of the picture since demand drives supply (or vice versa if your marketing is good enough). The problem here, as I see it, is the way how a lot people just wait to be commanded and when they receive recommendations they interpret them as absolutes ie. commandments instead. I believe this is strongly cultural and psychological.

Unfortunately, in my experience, this seems to have nothing to do with a person's position in a company or in the society in general. These people strive to memorize and follow the rules to the letter instead of trying to understand and apply them in a way that fits the current context. Ever heard of anyone going "by the book"? Yeah, me too, and I find the amount of such people disconcerting.

I'm going to stray from the subject for a bit but, since this is closely related to the interpretations, I think it's relevant and called for so bear with me. I've personally been involved in a number of projects where the so-called agile project model has actually been waterfall from start to finish and for no other reason than certain key people's strict adherence to the "rules" of agile. When those people are in a position of authority that by-the-book approach can wreak havoc all across the company while appearing beneficial at a quick glance. Being standards-compliant can never be a bad thing, right? CMMI level 5 or bust and all that.

I'll give you a hint: there will be no prince(ss) at the end of the dungeon but by the time you get there you will have created your own end-of-level boss to fight.

For me, the very first thing I ever learned about agile was: "adjust it to your needs". Incorporate the parts that serve your purpose and context and leave out the ones that are a hindrance. It's called agile for a reason so think for yourself because it's your context. The obvious problem here, of course, is the fact that you should have a solid grasp of the underlying ideas and principles or the advice is likely to backfire.

I do believe standards can be a good thing - even in software testing - if used constructively, as a support, instead of being taken as compulsory mandates that disallow any and all deviation from the norm. The problem here, as James mentioned, is the fact that people easily take the word "standard" as a synonym of "must".

Testing is a creative mental process closer to art than mechanical engineering. It most certainly isn't a repetitive conveyor belt performance as some people would like others to think (mostly out of pure ignorance, I'm guessing). If painting or composing were governed by strict standards the end results would probably be pretty darn boring and bland.

2Aug/100

Because You’re Worth It…

This post should probably have been named as "Brothers in Arms, Part 3" as it was inspired by the blog post Two "Scoops" of "Bugs" by James Bach but I felt like doing things a little differently this time. Just to keep things fresh. If that's even a valid expression as most of this post is about something I wrote back in 2001 (I seem to have been rather productive back then).

As comments to what James Bach wrote, an obvious problem with the loose use of language is the communication gaps that it opens up between individuals. Simply put: more room for interpretation, higher chance of misunderstandings (pretty obvious, eh). Then again, as he mentioned in his post, it also makes communication smoother when you don't drill down to exact specifics of every little nuance and detail right away as going too deep too fast could lead to losing the big picture which would not be very likely to be a good thing. Balancing these two (high-level communication versus gory, but necessary, details) is an art form on its own, imo - a tester needs to speak manager in addition to tester, with maybe a little added marketing accent, to get things straight.

Anyway, a little something from the past:

There can be no single logical mappings between words and concepts - not even within a single language - simply because words are nothing more than words; generally-agreed symbols one after another - creating a generally-agreed "meaningful" combination. In actuality, words are just empty placeholders or pointers, if you want to put it that way - without any intrinsic or implicit content or value. It is us humans, as unique individuals, who fill those placeholders/pointers with subjective meanings that are unique to each and everyone and are entirely based on emotions.

Since there are and can never be two individuals exactly alike, there is no way a single word could have the exact same content for any two persons, unless explicitly agreed on, between those individuals. Thus, dictionary words aren't "true" or "right", they are just meanings intersubjectively agreed on by a group of people. Then again, the purpose of a dictionary is not to enforce meanings to words but, to explain - reflect, if you want - generally agreed meanings of those words at the time.

Media sells products with advertisements filled with images "giving meaning" to those empty words (words criticized by Richard Rorty) as if those words in themselves meant something and, you had to buy the product in order to become what the images are trying to associate you with. "Buy product X and you will become beautiful. Naturally, because you're worth it". See how it goes? Is it really me who is worth the product? Is it really owning the product that makes me worth something? At least, that is what many advertisements want to imply. What these advertisements also imply (but leave unsaid) is the image of what happens if you don't buy the product advertised; from that viewpoint the advertisement reads: Not buying this product makes you less worthy, less beautiful and less desirable.

No wonder people are confused and anxious.

Come to think of it, the Most Questionable Title for a Profession that I can think of would go somewhere along the lines of: Marketing Psychologist. O' fear ye mortal ones.

While, again, this is not directly testing-related, it's very strongly people-related, which does make it relevant. The single biggest reason for failed software projects in my experience is the lack of proper communication. One way or another. Which makes things interesting as one of my goals in testing is to try and help close down those communication gaps by pointing them out to people. Is that quality assistance?