This year I attended the Agile Testing Days for the second time and I can say for sure that I will be attending in 2016. It is worth to return to this conference, because it has as delightful mix of topics across the Agile spectrum. The program offers technical talks and workshops that focus on coding, debugging, frameworks and test automation. It also features talks and workshops on Agile leadership and collaboration, with focus on human aspects, motivation and learning. And if offers sessions on many aspects of testing, such as exploratory testing, note-taking, modeling and the relation of testing to Agile methodologies. There is more than enough to go round for the modern tester.
From this year’s conference I took away some particular things. I spend quite some time in the Anything Build Party & TestLab, expertly hosted by James Lyndsay and Bart Knaack. I played around with CodeBug, which is a programmable and wearable device with 25 leds (see picture). The device can be programmed using a Blockly-based programming interface, which makes it easy to build controls for the LEDs. I spend a while thinking about what I would like to create and then got stuck halfway through coding. At that point I paired up with another participant trying to improve the program that I wrote. We seemed to run into the limits of the programming interface, but it was fun doing this together and we were both energized by the experience.
I also finally took a serious look at some black box puzzles, created by James Lyndsay. At the Belgium Testing Days last year I struggled with a black box puzzle, turned into a physical puzzle by Altom. Now I wanted to look at the other puzzles. With some hints from James I found a satisfying description of the functional behavior of puzzle 8. After that success I picked up puzzle 7 which I was unable to fully figure out, also because the conference was drawing to an end.
I learned the following things from the puzzles.
- Taking notes helps. Using the notes as a guideline, it is easier to explain your testing. At least, that was how I was able to explain my testing when people who stopped by asked what I had been testing so far. Taking notes in a notebook with a pen or pencil is quicker, much more flexible and much more intuitive than taking notes in the form of a mind map. I tried both the mind map and the pencil. Creating a mind map (even tough it appears to be very light weight tool), seemed to interrupt the flow of thoughts and the flow of testing exactly when I needed that flow. I chucked the mind map and grabbed the pencil. I always thought of a mind map as a ‘informal’ tool that enables creativity. I do so now to a lesser degree.
- Having a mental model helps you devise theories and experiments. The mental model is the idea you have about how the subject under test might function. Whether the idea is right or wrong doesn’t matter that much. I got pretty far in explaining the behavior of puzzle 8 using a wrong (but very useful!) mental model. The beauty is that once you have an idea about how an application might function, you can test that theory. Often this provides you with more information about its behavior and about the validity of your model. Having gained that information I was able to move to a more advanced model. I think I moved through several mental models during puzzle 7 and 8.
- Frequent interaction with the subject under test is important. With regards to the puzzles I tried, I found it not very useful to sit back and philosophize a whole lot about the excercise. Reflection is needed in order to move ahead through the theories about the functioning of the device, but you need data to reflect on. Interacting with the subject under test makes you notice certain behavior and it will generates test data. This is the data that you need in order to build a theory. I observed people playing the dice game during the Agile Games Market on Wednesday evening and one participant in this game took long pauses (of up to a minute!) between ‘throws’. I was almost yelling ‘Come on, test, test, test!!’ to urge him to gather data faster. The brain needs something to work with.
- And yet, taking a break helps. This has been mentioned time and again in testing literature and blog posts. It is true that when one detaches himself from the situation, usually the mind starts offering clues as to how the application functions. I took a cigarette break and it helped me. James told me a story about a man who tried one of his puzzles at a conference and got stuck. During the ensuing keynote he had an epiphany, went back to the lab and presented, in one go, the answer to the puzzle.
- Use tools. Since puzzles 7 & 8 are about timing, it is nice to have a timer and use it. I took my smartphone and used the timer to at least get an idea of the time between the flashing of the red light. It helped me to be a bit more confident about the reproducibility of certain situations and it helped me to falsify (or confirm) my theories. Yet at my current assignment quite a number of testers seem to be very wary of using tools, whether it be a SQL query tool, a tool to transfers loan data from one database to another, to make notes, to call a SOAP interface, to view logs, to drive a GUI, to debug the environment etc… I think it is inexperience in using such tools that is keeping them.
Since I didn’t ‘solve’ puzzle 7, James gave me a final hint and he urged me to look at it at home. I will do this, but in the meantime I want to thank James for creating these puzzles, and James and Bart for running the testlab at so many conferences, making it possible for testers to reflect on their testing and to learn from it.