Communication Between the Hominids


How do we build the theories that describe what we think testing is? How do we evaluate them?

Five minutes into a presentation I attended at the Dutch TestNet Spring Event, the speaker recklessly confronted the audience with the following phrase.

communication between the disciplines

For me that was a clear call to run for the exit. The title of the talk was Test Improvement is Something You Do in the Workplace and I attended it hoping that I would learn a thing or two from hearing another tester’s perspective on how to improve testing. The phrase ‘communication between the discplines’ however, ignited my fear that this talk was not going to be about humans. When the speaker announced that we would do an excercise and consequently checklists were handed out, I was dead sure.

Later in the evening I reflected on my moment of frustration and on why the word ‘discipline’ startled me. If you quickly substitute ‘the discplines’ with ‘the people on the project’, which is probably what you did already without even noticing it, then there is nothing wrong with that phrase. But we should notice ‘communication between the disciplines’ actually means something different.

According to my Oxford Paperback Dictionary & Thesaurus a discipline is a branch of academic study. A discipline has a field of study, is likely to have a paradigm and will have ways of doing research. Here is a taxonomy of academic disciplines (PDF).

The concept ‘discipline’ is an abstraction, and the use of the word discipline to indicate people doing different tasks on a software project is indicative of a particular point of view. It shows how a theory of software testing choses to identify and classify entities in its realm. In this case it is a theory that is based on the use of ‘discipline’  as a classification mechanism. ‘Discipline’, in this theory, serves a mechanism that abstracts from the realm of software testing exactly those aspects that serve a purpose to the theory. Exclusively, or most preferably, the elements that form the concept of a discpline, are those that lend ultimate support to this theory of software testing.

This means that this particular theory of software testing decides to regard the humans doing particular tasks in a software project not from the perspective of them being human, but from the perspective of them working in a profession that originates from an academic field of study. The theory states that the latter perspective is by far more useful; it accounts for the phenomena that occur when doing testing in an excessively superior way.

I was inclined to dismiss this point of view right away. But I think further investigation is warranted. If this theory speaks of ‘disciplines’ rather than ‘people’ then there should be in the literature relating to this theory an examination of the disciplines that interact with software testing, and for each of these disciplines a clarification of how aspects of the discipline are relevant to the theory and how other perspectives are not. I’m assuming there are case studies or field studies too.

As of yet, however, I have been unable to find solid evidence that the ‘disciplines’ perspective trumps the ‘human’ perspective when it comes to communicating with other people on the project. Since conclusive evidence is lacking,  the speaker in the presentation mentioned above would be required to at least add a disclaimer to his ‘disciplines’ perspective and inform his audience that he is using a highly contestable abstraction. As you can guess, he did not say a word about it and I reacted too slowly to question his reasoning. Frankly, I was too infuriated.

In my current project I have five software developers. In theory their work is the subject of investigation of the following academic field of study.

Physical Sciences and Mathematics: Computer Sciences: Software Engineering

When this team creates software there are discussions on almost every aspect of software engineering. There are different points of view on what should be in the definition of done, how we should write our unit tests, how far refactoring should go, what should be documented where, what should be in code comments, what should be in scope for the acceptance tests, what tooling we should use, how we set up test automation, what should be the level of detail of our use cases, how we set up test environments and what purpose they should serve, how we set up data and how we should deal with incidents and interruptions. Behind each of these considerations there is a whealth of rationales, most of them probably not based on mathematical calculations, but on human emotions.

According to the ‘disciplines’ perspective I should be communicating with each of developers alike, as members of an academic field of study. In practice this will probably get me blank stares across the board. The thing that will help me in my communication with my fellow units is to know that they have very valid human reasons or sentiments to act in a certain kind of way. To make progress (to improve) is to appeal to these sentiments.

From this experience and a couple of others, I would say a typical software development workplace contains mostly hominidae of the genus homo. If we are looking to improve our testing, perhaps we should therefore start ‘communicating between the humans’ and concentrate our precious resources and intellect on the study of aspects of human behavior in software development, as did Gerald Weinberg, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, and Alistair Cockburn.


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