The Art of Doubting

As a software tester, it is my job to question things. Questioning involves doubt, but is that doubt of a certain kind? Perhaps; let’s call it ‘good doubt’.

Monday May 15th 2017, I facilitated a philosophical, protreptic salon in Copenhagen about the art of doubting. The protreptic is a dialogue or conversation which has the objective of making us aware and connecting us to personal and shared values.

Doubt is interesting for many reasons. Self-doubt is probably something we all have and can relate to. But there seems to be value in a different kind of doubt than that with which we doubt ourselves.

Doubt is related to certainty. Confidence can be calculated statistically, and that seems to be the opposite of doubt.

Science almost depends on doubt: Even the firmest scientific knowledge is rooted in someone formulating a hypothesis and proving it by doubting it and attempting to prove it wrong.

Even religion, faith, seems to be related to doubt.

It is always interesting to examine the origins of a worud. The Danish and German words “tvivl” and “Zweifel” have the same meaning as the English doubt and all relate to the duo; two; zwei; to.

That appears to indicate that when we doubt we can be in “two minds”, so to speak.

So is doubt a special type of reflection, “System-2”, or slow thinking?

The protreptic is always about the general in terms of the personal. We examine our relations to doubt.

“What is it that our doubts wants or desires for us?” was one of my protreptic questions during the salon.

We circled a lot around that particular question. Finding an answer was difficult and we came back to self-doubt, which can be difficult to live with. Self-doubt can even harm our images, both the external ones and those that are internal to ourselves.

Leaders are usually expected not to have self-doubt: A prime minister risk loosing the next election if he doubts his own decisions and qualities. A CEO that doubts her own actions will drive the share value of the company down.

But there is a good doubt, and good doubt seems to be of a helpful nature.

Good leadership requires having the courage to doubt. It seems to help us act wisely and based on our experiences.

During the salon, my personal image of doubt changed. In the beginning I thought of doubt as a kind of cognitive function, perhaps a process I had to go through. Doubting could even be an event.

But at the end of the salon, my image of doubt changed into that a good friend walking with me through my life. Continuously present, if I want him.

With that image we found an answer to the question: Doubt is my friend. A friend who wants my actions to be driven not only by my instincts or simple gut feelings. A friends that help me shape my actions by my values.

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Where might the Black Swans be lurking?

Summary: Last year in September, I spoke at Anna Royzman’s New Testing Conference “Reinventing Testers Week” in New York about testing in Black Swan domains. The title of the talk refers to Nassim Taleb’s book “Black Swan” and concerned testing in contexts where improbable risks can have disproportionate effects. This blog contains an invitation to a peer conference in New York on the subject Sunday April 30th.


Sometimes things happen which appear to be beyond “the possible”.

This awareness haunts us in testing: We aim to get those important bugs to materialize. We want to qualify real and serious risks. Yet, our stakeholders have to accept that no matter how much testing is done, we cannot cover everything.

Logically, testing has to be focused on what is important to the business, and what might go wrong in reality. To me, that is at the core of risk based testing.

But saying that is one thing; doing it in reality is quite another. Certain risks seem almost impossible to qualify through testing. How should our stakeholders interpret the absence of clear testing results, for example, when we are trying our best to dig out quality information about quality? Could there be a serious problem lurking? The thought may seem paranoid, but experience shows it is not.

Years ago, I read Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable”. The book blew my mind and set me on a path to find out what we can do in testing about what he writes about.

The book is about “the random events that underlie our lives, from bestsellers to world disasters. Their impact is huge; they’re nearly impossible to predict; yet after they happen we always try to rationalize them.” (from the backcover of the 2010 paperback edition)

As an engineer and a human, I think testers and test managers should not give up and leave to product owners, project managers or developers to interpret testing results take care of potential Black Swans. As a tester, I wish to embrace the possibility of Black Swans and do quality testing with the aim to qualify them.

I think, however, that we need new models in testing. The problem is that most of our techniques and heuristics tend to support us best on the functional testing level.

Accident Focused Testing?

The first part in solving a problem is accepting it. It sounds basic, but acceptance implies understanding what we are dealing with. Reading Talebs book asserted to me that we have to accept the fact that really bad things can happen in the world. Knowing what I do about information technology, I appreciate that his philosophy can be applied on technology. I also believe that the functional testing will not help us muc.

Mentally examining what I do as a tester, I understood that the idea of Black Swans is fundamental to the very nature of what we do and the systems we work with.

That much about acceptance.

The problem is that in some contexts – banking, healthcare, industrial plant management, safety systems, public sector, transportation etc – accidents and Black Swans could be of a nature where they cause irrecoverable losses, set lives at stake or otherwise be fundamentally unacceptable.

Let me give an example:

I recently came across a story of an interesting IT breakdown in a hospital in Sweden. It concerned something most people do on a regular basis: Apply the newest updates to our pc’s.

As updates were rolled out in the hospital, performance of pc’s started degrading. During the rollout the problems became worse, and before the rollout could be stopped all computers in the hospital became useless.

Now that the computers stopped working, undoing the rollout became extremely difficult and had to be carried out manually, one pc at a time.

In the end it took IT-operations several days to get everything back to normal. Meanwhile the hospital had to be run “on paper”.

The hospital used an uncommon Windows network configuration, which is not recommended by Microsoft which in combination with the Microsoft update triggered a problem in the network. What is interesting here is not the root cause, however: The outcome of a seemingly trivial update in a complex system turned out very bad.

It is easy to imagine how the stress experienced by doctors and nurses due to this situation could have affected patients. Someone could have been hurt.

We can shrug and blame Microsoft or the hospital IT operations. However, as skilled testers, I think we need to be able to provide some kind of answer as to how we can constructively contribute to hospital safety by qualifying even Black Swan-types of risks.

Systemic risks

Before moving on, let me dive into the subject of risk. Risk is something we all talk about, but do we really know what it means? I’m not sure. Risk is a common thing to talk about, but the concept of risk is in no way simple.

There seems to be at least three “risk domains” in software projects:

  • Some risks concern plans and schedules. Will the project be done on time and budget? That’s what we usually call “project risks”.
  • Other risks concern the product or system under development: Will it do what it is conceived to do? Will it do it correctly? These are called “product risks”.
  • Then there is a third class, a class of risks of a different nature: Systemic risks. They exist by combinations of systems, users, data, and environments.

Black Swans lurk in all three: Even simple products or components can sometimes fail in strange ways with huge impact. Just think of the defective Galaxy Note 7 battery problem, which was only a manufacturing problem with the battery, but one which has caused lots of harm to Samsung.

Black Swans are sometimes annoyingly simple.

But those kinds of Black Swans can be prevented by stricter quality control and similar tradtional measures. Project- and product risks are usually relatively easy to deal with using appropriate care in the context.

Systemic risks are different. They seem much more troublesome – and in some ways more interestng.

From simple to complex

Back in the early days of computing, I think systemic risks used to be rather uninteresting. Systems were simply… simple. Developing a new product, we would sometimes work to make sure usability was good, or the machine which the computer system was designed to control would work as a whole.

But that was it. Interfaces and interactions to other systems and contexts could be counted on one hand and there were usually very few connections to other computer interfaces etc.

If you have been interested in risk in software, you may have read about the Therac-25 accident. If not, let me summarize: A difficult-to-find multi-tasking bug in the control software of a radiation therapy machine turned out to be the root cause of apparantly random radiation burns of cancer patients placed in the machine for treatment. Some of these burns were fatal.

Obviously a Black Swan: A difficult-to-find bug in a lacking design.

The system was simple, however as there was only four components in the system: The user, the user interface software, the machine control software, and the machine itself. Of course there was also the patient, victims of the accidents, but they were only victims, receivers of the problem. (Some victims attempted to provide feedback though.)

The issue turned out to be a simple multitasking problem, where experienced operators who were fast on the keyboard used to control the machine could cause the software to enter illegal states. I.e. a software engineering problem.

Today, however, complexity is increasing. To me at least, it seems our industry has crossed a boundary: The number of components that work together in complex ways to realize important business functionality has grown significantly. While counting can never tell the truth, it is worrying that modern systems can be comprised of 10’s, even 100’s of components that are assumed to work seamlessly together on sunny days. Often no-one knows what will happen when the sun goes away and rain comes, so to speak.

Systemic risk in IT systems is no longer something that can be excluded from risk analysis and managed technologically.

So why are we not spending more time testing based on systemic risk analyses?

Explore the whole picture

Some readers might think of the Cynefin framework, and yes, I think it certainly appears promising as Cynefin provides a thought framework for understanding complex and complicated systems.

I went by a different path, however, when I explored the situation: I looked at safety engineering and mechanical safety analysis. I can recommend two books in particular:

(In a later blog post, I’ll come back to what a found in these two books, but you can get a peek of it in the presentation recording at the bottom of this blog. I’ll certainly also be coming back to Cynefin as it seems promising.)

But there might be a bigger problem to address too as it seems there is a management problem worsening the situation: Testers very often do not receive sufficient freedom to test the “big picture”.

When have you last heard of a tester tasked to test a product in complete integration with real users for a long time? I’d like to hear about examples of it, as very often, when I talk to people, I hear about product owners, project managers or C-level managers deciding and controlling tightly what should be tested.

And risk reporting to the rest of the organization is filtered through these levels.

Focus is too often only on going live on time, on schedule, no matter what. Too seldomly on qualifying complex or systemic risks.

I think testers should be tasked to explore the dynamics of the product in contexts resembling the real world.

Speaking about testing in a Black Swan Domain

I spoke about this first time at the first Let’s Test conference in 2012 in Stockholm (slides – PDF) and second time in September 2016 at the New Testing Conference during “Reinventing Testers Week” in New York. Scroll down to see a recording of the latter presentation.

The feedback I received at those two events has confirmed to me that this is a subject that needs exploration. Our craft can be advanced to go below the functional, performance, or usability perspectives. New models in testing, heuristics and even types of testing strategies can be developed, I think.

Going alone can be difficult, and I’m therefore extremely grateful to have received moral backing from both Michael Bolton and Fiona Charles. Additionally, Anna Royzman has agreed to co-host a peer workshop on the subject in New York with me in connection with her May conference.

I find New York an interesting place for a few reasons:

  • It is where I talked about the subject last time.
  • Nassim Taleb lives in New York.
  • It is a very big city, so big, that it’s even difficult to comprehend for someone like me who comes from a little county with less than half the population of it. New York is seems a complex system beyond imagination.
  • It is the world’s financial centre, and some of the systems running that are extremely complex. I try not to think about what types of systemic risk they manage on a daily basis.

If you are interested, feel you have something to contribute with, have time, etc, it would be great to see you at the first WOTBLACK: Workshop on Testing in Black Swan Domains on Sunday April 30th in New York.

The objective?

Advance the testing craft by co-developing and sharing models, heuristics, and strategies.

Write me an e-mail if you’re interested in participating, or ping me on twitter if you feel you have something to share now or wish to start a discussion about the subject.

Passion for Testing and the Need for ‘Julehygge’

Christmas is almost over and while I am still having holiday with the family, I’m beginning to think a bit about testing again.

I am passionate about software testing.

There is a lot of talk about passion, but do we know what passion is?

The word shares roots with the greek ‘pathos’, which is one of the three key components of persuasion in rhetoric. The other two are ethos and logos.

Good communication should be fact based (logos) and serve a common greater good (ethos), but passion adds something important to communication.

The passionate lecturer

I remember two math lecturers from university. One taught analytical algebra, the other graph theory and combinatorics.

Both were personalities of the type you would notice if you saw them in the street, but if someone would then whisper to you: “He is an associate professor in mathemathics”, you would exclaim “ah!” and understand exactly what you were seeing 🙂

Their style of lecturing was very different, however.

Every lecture in graph-theory and combinatorics was unique. It seemed the lecturer literally reinvented what he was lecturing while he was doing it. He was not particularly organised in his teaching, sometimes he would even forget the subject, and divert off a wrong ‘graph’ (sic!). But he had passion for the subjects, and that showed. The lectures were often very engaging and fascinating.

The other lecturer prepared his lectures to perfection: He always started on the exact minute putting his chalk to the board in the top left corner of the first of the six large black boards in the auditorium, and by the end of the 90th minute, he would finish writing formula in the last available spot of the lower right corner of the last board. He repeated that time after time. A fascinating performance. But there was a problem, as he had obviously lost passion for the subject he was teaching. I felt bored to death during his lectures, and I am not sure I ever passed that exam.

Some testers are passionate about what they do, others try to be perfect. I always prefer passion over perfection.

Suffering by Passion

Passion is one of those tacit capabilities we know by heart, but will probably never be able to code, teach to a neural network, or explain to someone who has never experienced it.

The word has an interesting record in the Douglas Harper online etymology dictionary. Apparantly, passion used to be a kind of suffering:

Passion: late 12c., “sufferings of Christ on the Cross,” from Old French passion “Christ’s passion, physical suffering” (10c.), from Late Latin passionem (nominative passio) “suffering, enduring,” from past participle stem of Latin pati “to suffer, endure,” possibly from PIE root *pe(i)- “to hurt” (see fiend).

The article even goes on linking passion to sufferings of martyrs.

Let me confess now: While I am very passionate about good testing, I am not going to become a testing martyr.

Words change meaning over time and passion is certainly a word that has become more of a daily language term than it probably was back in the late 12th century.

Today, linking passion to sufferings, even physical sufferings, may seem out context.

However, it reminds us that passion does involve trading in some things that I like too: Staying relaxed, calm and cool, for example.

I am neither of those things when I am feeling passionate.

Passion seems to be a kind of double-edged sword.

Passion-Fatigue

I am always more tired after working passionately on a testing problem than when I’m doing more trivial things in my job: E.g. diligently replying to e-mails, writing factual test reports, checking out plans and schedules.

Could there be something called passion-fatigue? I think so, and when passion is a driver in daily work life, relaxation and recharging is important to stay healthy, sane, and well in the longer run..

The need for Hygge

Now that Christmas has just passed, but I am still enjoying days of holiday with the family, it seems right to mention ‘hygge’ (pronounced “hyk-ge”).

Hygge is Danish for relaxing with others, a good book or in other nice ways.

Hygge is difficult to define. In that way it’s similar to passion, except opposite: Relaxing, calming and mentally soothing.

A day with hygge could be so relaxing and good that it deserve finishing off with a good tequila, scotch, or another good drink of your preference 🙂

What’s interesting here is that hygge seems to be a good cure for passion-fatigue. Hygge creates space for passion.

And this is exactly what ‘Julehygge’ is about: Getting away from daily life, relaxing with family and friends, and recharging.


Is “hygge” becoming a global fashion trend? The New York Times had an article on the fashion of hygge a few days ago: Move Over, Marie Kondo: Make Room for the Hygge Hordes


 

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Detail of Christmas tree in our living room. Perhaps more than anything, a Christmas tree is in Denmark a symbol of “Julehygge”.

Playful Software Testing

I met with and enjoyed a very good conversation with Jessica Ingrassellino in New York back in September. Jessica presented a workshop on playful testing during the Reinventing Testers Week (I presented at the conference about “Testing in a Black Swan Domain” which, unfortunately, I have not had time to write about yet).

We talked mostly about philosophy.

Jessica is quite a multi-talent: Plays the violin virtously, is an educated music teacher, has switched career to testing, taught herself Python, authored a book on Python programming for kids, and is teaching Python classes at a local community college, as well as music classes.

She has a vision of making testing playful and fun.

Structured work govern testing in professional settings, work which has nothing to do with play. So why is play important?

Jessica puts it this way:

When the power of play is unleashed in software testing, interesting things happen: The quality of the testing performance becomes noticeably better, and the outcomes of it too. This results in better software systems, higher product quality.

I have a product engineering background and play is important for me too. Engineers have methods, calculations, and procedures, but great engineers know that good solutions to problems are not found by orderly, rational processes. Good solutions depend on creativity and play.

Friday December 9th, I met with Mathias Poulsen in Copenhagen. Mathias is the founder of CounterPlay, a yearly conference and festival on serious play in Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark.

About three years ago, Mathias got the idea for the conference.

In the first year, 2014, it was an immediate success with more than 20 talks and workshops in 3 tracks on “Playful Culture, Playful Learning, and Playful Business”, and more than 150 participants. This year (2016), the conference had 50 scheduled sessions: keynotes, talks, workshops, mini-concerts and open sessions.

Mathias explains (about 0:30 into the video):

Counterplay is basically an attempt to explore play and being playful across all kinds of domains and areas in society. We are trying to build a community of playful people around the world to figure out, what does it mean to be playful and why do we think it is beneficial?

Processional IT has so far not been represented at the conference, Mathias told me. I found that a bit surprising, as at the moment almost everything in IT seems to be buzzing with concepts promising joy and fun – play.

Sometimes, however, there is an undertone to all the joy. Agile and DevOps have become popular concepts even in large corporations, and to me, both strive to combine productivity with playfulness. That is good.

But is the switch to Agile always done in order to pass power to developers and testers, allowing them to playfully perform, build and test better solutions? No, not always.

Play facilitate change and breaking of unhelpful patterns, but sometimes play is mostly a cover for micromanagement. There is a word for this: In a recent blog post, Mathias talks about playwashing:

Playwashing describes the situation where a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “playful” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing strategies and business practices that cultivate a playful culture in said organization.

A question is therefore how we genuinely support play? Are there methods or processes that better accommodate playfulness at work?

I believe there is. Processes need to leave space for exploring context, knowledge sharing and actual interaction with customers, stakeholders and team members.

But processes or methods will not do the job alone. In fact, putting play under the examination of psychology or cognitive sciences will never be able to grasp what play really is.

Play is more like music and poetry, where ideas based on assumptions about order, rational choice, and intention cannot explain anything.

Philosophy and especially the dialectical exploration of what it means being a playful human is much better at embracing what play means to us and how to support it.
Jessica and I are working on a workshop about playful and artful testing. It will combine ideas of playful testing with philosophy.

We are certain that breaking out of patterns will help testers, and breaking out of our patterns, participating in a conference which is fully devoted to play will teach us a lot.

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I took this photo in the local forest on a walk with our dog Terry (the black poodle). It is obvious, when dogs play well, that they have fun and learn a lot through play. Play seems a fundamental capacity for mammals.

Reinventing Testers and Staying Sane in New York

I did a bonus talk/workshop on Tuesday on Test Masters Academy‘s conference during the Reinventing Testers week. Title was: “Reinventing Testers, Reinventing Myself, Staying Sane.” The talk was an introduction of explorative, valuable, and supportive conversations.

Imagine you are at the scrum meeting. You’ve reinvented yourself as a tester and feel fit in the new team. But today, a senior manager has joined the meeting: The release is in testing and “go live” is today.

The problem is that you are facing some very odd issues. How are you going to manage talking about them?

Testers are often under pressure. We have to stay cool – and sane.

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect” – Mark Twain

(It was Jess Ingrassellino who tweeted this quote a few days ago.)

An experienced tester on my team recently mentioned that a sudden change in schedule had caused him to fear he would loose sense of himself.

I am very passionate about providing testers with ways to remain true to themselves, even under pressure.

In the talk, I introduced the type of philosophical conversations I practice as often as possible with team members and friends: Protreptic dialogues.

(I have written and talked about it before.)

We formed a circle and I spread Dialoogle cards with pictures on the floor for us to pick from: Pick a card that relates to testing.

Picking a picture of something and associating it to testing requires you to use your intuition better and think creatively about yourself and what you do.

The thoughts enable protreptic conversations in which I as the “guide” and facilitator listens and ask questions. The conversation is personal, but never intimidating as it is always only about assisting you in reflecting positively about your thoughts, ideas and values.

Sane comes from latin sanus, which means healthy, sober, sensible.

Being sensible, sensing, sensemaking and staying sane is linked. The kind of sanity I seek, is that where we seek to understand who we are, and stay true to our values.

I shared this slide in PDF with five helpful principles that you can follow to perform explorative, valuable and supportive conversations with colleagues and friends.

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Morning sun reflecting in the rivers as seen from the insanely tall Empire State Building. Far out in the horizon, the Atlantic is barely visible. New York is beautiful in its own ways.