If You’re Human, You Test …

… but you may not be a tester. Or at least not a specialist tester. Here I’ll close out 2017 on this topic which will indicate some of my future direction in 2018.

Okay, so the key thing about humans is this: we all test. The idea of a “test” is ingrained in us. It’s hardwired into the human brain. It has been as we evolved as creatures in uncertain environments of ever increasing complexity where we had to make decisions with incomplete information and thus expose ourselves to risk.

Testing is, in fact, about the most fundamentally human thing you can do.

Testing as Human Activity

Testing is about investigation, experimentation, and exploration. It really is that simple. And that complex. Those three things cover the basis of what it means to be human.

So if we go with the idea of “everyone tests”, what does that actually mean, particularly in the context of our projects? It means that testing is a democratized activity. However it’s also the case that some people specialize in testing.

Consider that most everyone can put words together in sentences. But lawyers, as one example, are trained in the careful aggregation of words around a concept to be very precise and specific to provide effective argumentation. That’s specializing in the use of language as a means of fact-gathering and persuasion. The fact that most everyone can put words together does not mean everyone can be a lawyer.

Test specialists are those who have taken investigation, experimentation, and exploration and honed those into a set of skills that goes beyond the ordinary, everyday form of testing that everyone does.

Testing as (Specialized) Human Activity

But, again, what does that actually mean? That, I believe, is the key challenge for testers in terms of articulating what exactly they do, how they do it, and why it’s a unique skill. This is all about how “being a (specialist) tester” is a refined discipline.

It is a fact that just as everyone can’t be a lawyer, not everyone can be a specialist tester. There is a discipline to learning how to harness aspects of human interaction with complexity such that testing becomes a skill and an art that rewards experience and dedication.

Referring to another discipline with testing as its basis, Oliver Sacks, in The River of Consciousness, said this:

“Botany had remained almost entirely a a descriptive and taxonomic discipline: plants were identified, classified and named but not investigated.”

Testing is often like that. The practitioners of testing need to be concerned with the “how” and the “why” not just the “what.” That study should be infused with theoretical purpose. Charles Darwin said something that always stuck with me:

“No one could be a good observer unless he was an active theoriser.”

So we need to harness theory and practice because they do lead to good observation. And observation is critical to those three things I mentioned earlier: investigation, experimentation, and exploration.

Way too many testers out there are unable or unwilling to articulate this. And it is hurting our discipline. It is hurting our practice.

Let’s Consider an Example

One such example is that specialist testers understand categories of error that lead to cognitive biases. These biases lead to problems and risks that hide hide in the blind spots that we all have, particularly as we engage with anything even remotely complex or abstract.

Specialist testers understand these categories and are able to apply techniques that seek out when they have occurred (past), are occurring (present), or may occur again (future). And this is just one aspect of the specialist discipline. Another part of this is understanding not just these categories of errors, but understanding that these errors often come wrapped up in the stories we tell ourselves; in the narratives we provide as part of our team.

So specialist testers do have to understand narrative and when there are gaps or breaks in a narrative that suggest the equivalent of logical inconsistencies or plot holes, if you will. But you have to do this while you are, at the same time, constructing your own narratives that are subject to the very same problems.

And if you, as a tester, don’t understand how the theory of what I just said translates into the actual practice of humans introducing risks and bugs into a project … well, then you have a ways to go before you are can say you specialize in testing.

Articulate the Specialization

So you don’t need to learn to test, per se; after you, you do that innately. You do need to learn how to test at higher levels of abstraction, with varying techniques (including those that require tools to augment your skills), while understanding how and why people are subject to mistakes, both when they talk about something and when they build something.

All of that can often happen as a logical extension of the testing we as humans do innately. But it has to go far beyond that for it to be a specialization. That is what I believe our industry is lacking and, right now from what I can see, that’s happening not as a fault of developers or any other roles, but rather from testers themselves.

The specialized discipline of testing is in most danger from its own practitioners.

So … Do Something About It

A major focus for me in 2018 is to get better at articulating what I’m saying here. I particularly want to reach out to testers, and even more particularly, I want to reach out to those who feel the need to deny realities of testing (past and present) as well as those who are trying to redefine testing rather than reframe it. I then want to amplify that focus by helping companies better interview for roles that deal with specialist testers.

I want to help testing, as a discipline, stop becoming a technocracy but without succumbing to the rise of fundamentalism within our ranks, with the subsequent mindless quoting of authorities that always seems to follow.

I want to make sure we who specialize in testing — we who are the practitioners — keep the human in testing, stop being reactionary against automation without at the same time becoming slavish devotees of it, stop drawing unhelpful boundaries around testing, stop talking about what “testing is not” and more about what testing is, and in general recognize that testing is practically and philosophically a lot wider and deeper than many, including its most ardent supporters, give it credit for.


This article was written by Jeff Nyman

Anything I put here is an approximation of the truth. You're getting a particular view of myself ... and it's the view I'm choosing to present to you. If you've never met me before in person, please realize I'm not the same in person as I am in writing. That's because I can only put part of myself down into words. If you have met me before in person then I'd ask you to consider that the view you've formed that way and the view you come to by reading what I say here may, in fact, both be true. I'd advise that you not automatically discard either viewpoint when they conflict or accept either as truth when they agree.

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