Why we do experience reports


Not so long ago a workshop was held at Improve Quality Services. The theme of the workshop was ‘Test strategy’ and the participants were asked to present a testing strategy that they recently used in a work situation. Mind you that participants were asked to present, as in to show and explain, their test strategy; not to do an experience report on it. Several strategies were presented and the differences were notable. Very broadly the following reports were discussed.

  • A description of the organization (people and processes) around the software system.
  • A description of the way testing was embedded in the development lifecycle.
  • A description of the testing principles that were shared by the testers.
  • A description of the test approach, aimed at communicating with integrating parties.
  • A description of the test approach, aimed at communicating with management.
  • A description of the approach and the actual testing of a screen.
  • A description of the approach and the actual testing of a database trigger.

I am not in a position to say whether any of these testing strategies were right or wrong and I am certain my judgement is irrelevant. I furthermore doubt that any of these strategies can be judged without further investigation, and I am sure that each of these contains elements that are great and elements that can be improved upon. It is not my aim to comment on this. However, as the evening went on, I felt a growing frustration about a number of things.

Considering the open mindedness and critical thinking abilities of the people that were in the room (all of them had, for example, taken the Rapid Software Testing course) there was a remarkably low number of comments on the strategies as presented. Aside from the occasional remark, the presentations were largely taken at face value. Now the fact that were not a lot of remarks can still imply many things about the evening itself, the organization of the meeting, the mental conditions of the people present and so on. Still, I like to think that the setup was conducive to feedback and learning and so I’d like to focus on the presentations themselves to see why they didn’t invite comment, or at the very least, why I did not feel inclined to comment.

My first issue during the evening was that most of the presentations did not discuss what happened when the rubber actually hit the road. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we hardly discussed how the strategy went down. Whether it cracked under the first strain or whether it was able to stay the course. If there is a way to evaluate a testing strategy (to put it to the test) it is to carefully note what happens to it when it is applied. Evaluation was the part that was largely missing from our presentations.

You see this kind of thing quite a lot at (testing) conferences. The speaker presents an approach, a framework, a general theory or general solution without getting into how this solution came into being or how it developed when it was actually applied in practice. The mere presentation of a theory does not lend itself to criticism. My reaction to this form of presentation is to shrug and move on with my business. I am unable to criticize it from my specific context, because usually the presented approach is not very specific about context so I cannot check whether my context applies. The only other form of criticism available to me is then to reason about the approach in an abstract way, either by checking the internal logic of the theory, or by comparing the theory to other theories in the same domain and to see if it is consistent. This is not ideal and certainly to do this in the timespan of the 40 minutes of a conference talk, without having access to reference material, is a tall order.

I had this feeling when a couple of months ago, at my work, an ATDD (Acceptance Test Driven Development) framework was presented as the new Agile way of working. The thing I can remember from that presentation is that there was a single image with bits and pieces and connections explaining the framework. The rest is a blur. I never heard anything of it since.

So the question is: what do we need to do to open up our theories to evaluation and investigation?

My second issue with the presented strategies was initially about distance. Quite a number of the strategies that were presented seemed to be distanced from the subject under test (SUT). By the subject under test I mean the actual software that is to be tested. And by distance, I mean that there were strategies that did not primarily discuss the subject under test. I was absolutely puzzled to see that some of the presented strategies did not discuss the execution of that strategy. As I stated above, the proof of the strategy should be in its execution. Discussing strategy without execution just didn’t make sense to me. But looking back at this experience I think I wrestled with the purpose of offering up the strategies to (more or less) public scrutiny. At least one or two presentations discussed not so much the test strategy itself but the communication of the strategy with management, integrating parties or the test department. This focuses on an entirely different aspect of testing, being the communication about the test strategy in order to reach a common ground or to align people along a common goal. The purpose of the presentation is not to scrutinize the test strategy, but to invite an examination of the way it was communicated. This purpose should be clear from the start. Otherwise the ensuing discussion is partly consumed by determining that purpose (which may be a waste of time) or, if there is no quest for the purpose, the discussion follows a winding path that has a good chance of not leading the audience, nor the presenter, anywhere at all.

The third thing that bothered me was that the displayed strategies rarely, if ever, discussed people. They discussed roles, but not people. That is the reason why, in my very short presentation, I decided (on the spur of the moment) to hardly pay any attention to the actual strategy that I selected and focused on the characteristics of the individuals in my team. There are two aphorisms that I had in mind while doing this: “Not matter what the problem is, it is always a people problem” and “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. It appears to me that no matter how excellent your plan is, the result of its execution largely depends on the people that are aligned to play a part in this strategy. Wherever the strategy leaves room for personal interpretation, there will be interpretation. And basically, no strategy will ever be executed in the same way twice, not even with the same group of people, because the decisions people make will differ from time to time, influenced by many factors. If this is true, and I think it is, then I wonder why the human factor is not present in a more explicit and defined way in our testing strategy and in our reports in general. We seem prejudiced (primed?) to talk about processes and artifacts, and to fear the description of flesh and bone. This is a general remark on the evaluation of the context. If a report displays people as ‘puppet A’ and ‘puppet B’ then this is a sure sign of trouble. I know this from experience because our famed Dutch testing approach TMap Next exclusively discusses cardboard figures as a replacement for humans.

In conclusion; for an experience report to be open to evaluation and investigation and for a meaningful discussion to ensue, it should contain at least these three things.

  • The purpose (research question) of the report should be clear,
  • the context of the report should be described (including the hominids!) and
  • the results of applying the approach should be presented.

Hopefully I have been able to clarify these demands by sharing my feelings above. The discussion loops back to the usage of experience reports within the peer conferences as organized by the Dutch Exploratory Workshop on Testing. The way we look at an experience report is evolving and the road towards a better understanding of what we do (as a workshop) and how we do it, has been a very meaningful one.


Agile Testing Days 2015 – At the Lab


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.Black box puzzle 8
  • 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.

My selection for the TestNet Autumn event


Each year TestNet, the Dutch society for testers, organizes a spring event and an autumn event. The event is a single days conference with the morning reserved for workshops and the afternoon and the evening reserved for two key notes and parallel tracks. On Wednesday 14 October, the autumn event takes places. Its theme is ‘Trends in Testing’. Most of the presentations are in Dutch and therefore the descriptions of the sessions may not make a lot of sense to those who do not understand Dutch, but I am going to try and describe some of them, together with my personal selection for this conference.

The conference attracts more than five hundred visitors! Part of its attraction must be that the program is varied, the venue is excellent, and the admission price is zero euros if you’re a member of TestNet. TestNet membership costs next to nothing, so basically you get two big conferences for free each year. There is no reason why you, as a professional tester, would not show up at these conferences, other than personal circumstances.

As I said the theme of the autumn event is ‘Trends in Testing’. Let’s have a quick look how this theme is reflected in the presentations. Besides the key notes there are four presentations about test automation, two about performance testing, two about security, one about big data and one about the internet of things and that’s just about it for the buzz words. The other presentations are about the selection of test data, about roles in testing, about information ethics (nice find Nathalie!), about operational intelligence, about handling functional specifications in a more efficient way, and one (only one?) about exploratory testing. For a conference theme that could easily end up facilitating a buzz word bingo, it turned out pretty well.

From the four track sessions I selected the sessions that I am going to attend. The first one is ‘Subset: Less is more’ by Marten Bakker. I do not know the speaker, but I am drawn to the topics of his talk. Marten is going to talk about test data management and the creation of subsets of data. From personal experience I know that testers easily focus on functional specifications and easily lose sight of test data. In my current project there is almost complete ignorance of test data. This, of course, is very bad, but when one deals with large sets of data and a large variety of data, it can be become quite intimidating to handle this with some form of elegance. I hope Marten has some good suggestions.

The second track session that I am going to attend is ‘Panacea – A test framework for all’ by Adonis Stanislas Sheeban. Again, I do not know the speaker. The talk is about test automation, specifically about the tools Protractor and Cucumber. I heard of these tools, but never worked with them, and I am taking this chance to get to know a little bit more about them.

The track session that I am really looking forward to is ‘Google naar fouten met operational intelligence’ (Google for errors using operational intelligence) by Albert Witteveen. Albert is going to talk about complex, linked systems and how to check if these systems are functioning correctly. In my current project, and in the one before that, I’ve been digging through databases and logs quite a lot, in order to establish how well the system is functioning or to find out the root cause of a defect. This can be a tedious and yet very difficult, time-consuming job. Albert envisions software that can do the gathering of relevant data for us and that make this data easily accessible. I am sure such tools can save a lot of time. I tried my hand at building a log analyzer once and loved doing that. So in this talk I am also going to look for opportunities for self development.

The last track session that I want to visit is ‘Trifolium Repens: de nieuwe testbasis voor Agile en Waterval testen’ Trifolium Repens: the new test basis for Agile and waterfall testing) by Rudi Niemeijer. I am not entirely sure what Rudi is going to talk about. I think he is going to introduce a method to reduce overhead (functional specifications) by combining the strong points of the tester and the developer. At the very least he is going to have to explain why he uses a plant (white clover) as a metaphor. I am looking forward to his explanation.

I do not know if any of the sessions that I am going actually describe trends in testing. I hope they do.

Making Sense of the Legacy Database, Introduction


For the past 3 years I spent a lot of time digging through relational databases. Most of these databases that I looked at could be considered legacy databases. In one case it was an Oracle database, in another a Sybase database. They are legacy systems in the sense that the technology with which they have been built has been around for quite a while. Heck, relational databases were conceived in the 1970’s (link opens PDF), so from the perspective of computer history the concept of the relational database is pretty old.

The databases I worked with can be considered ‘legacy’ in another way. At least one of them has been in existence, and thus has been under maintenance, for 15 years. So, in terms of a software life cycle this database is relatively old. It is a monolith that has been crafted and honed by generations of software developers, so to speak.

And there is a third way in which these databases could be considered ‘legacy’. It appears that for at least a couple of these systems, someone was able to make the documentation about the inner workings of the database disappear almost entirely. And not only that; over time the people who knew the database intimately moved away from the company. So what remains is a database that is largely undocumented, with very few people who can tell you the intricacies of its existence. Clearly this is an exceptional situation… or maybe not.

Now, both knowledge and joy can be gained from studying the database. It is reasonable to assume that the database is a reflection (a model, if you will) of the world as the company sees it. In it is stored knowledge about elements of the world outside and the relationships between these elements. As a way of gaining deep knowledge about how its builders classify and structure the world, studying the database is fine starting point.

Indeed, one of the goals I have when I study the database, is to get to know how knowledge is classified. I study in order to gain knowledge about the functional aspects and the meaning of the system. Some may regard the database as a technical thing. Those sentiments may be strengthened by the fact that knowing how to write SQL queries is usually considered to be a ‘technical’ skill, one that ‘functional’ testers stay away from. That is a very damaging misconception, withholding a fine research instrument from the hands of the budding tester. SQL is not anything anyone should ever be afraid of.

But gaining knowledge about functional aspects is just one object of the study. Another one is that mastering a database allows you to verify what information is stored and whether it is stored correctly or not. This, clearly, allows you to check (test) the functioning of the system. Mastering the database also allows you to manipulate data for the purpose of testing and to create new data sets. And finally, it allows you conjure up answers to questions such as “Show me the top 100 books that were sold last year to customers from the Netherlands above the age of 45” much more quickly than through any GUI. So it can be used for analytical purposes.

The question I would like to answer is how do we analyze the database. What methods do we employ to get to the core of knowledge that may be spread out over hundreds of tables. There are a few methods that make use of the typical features of a relational database. Other methods are more general in nature. In other blog posts I would like to dig deeper into these methods of investigation. But for now I would like to leave you with a quick overview and a description of the first method.


When you are going to analyze a database, you will be writing SQL queries. Many of them, probably. If you are going to place all of your queries in a single file, that will become chaos rather quickly.  Bad organization will be a really heavy dead weight during the whole of your investigation. I like to organize my queries in folders, in which case these folders represent broad classifications. For examples, I create a folder containing all queries relating to orders, another one relating to customers and another one relating to financial data. Usually, this division really helps you to quickly zoom in on a specific area.

Within a folder there may be many different files containing queries. Again I try to group queries by ‘functional’ area. So I may create a file containing queries relating to ‘cancelled orders’ or ‘orders that are waiting to be processed’, or ‘orders from returning customers’. I first tried to group queries in files based on the table that was queried (such as a single file containing all queries on the ‘order’ table) but for some reason a ‘functional’ classification is easier to comprehend.

One of integrated development tools I worked with – Oracle SQL Developer – has a plugin for Subversion, so it allows you to keep and maintain a repository and a version history of the files containing your queries and to share it easily with other team members. I learned the hard way that keeping your laboriously built up set of queries solely on a single internal hard disk is not such a good idea.

Like in other programming languages, in SQL it is possible to add comments to your queries. I found out that comments are an essential part of your investigation. In SQL queries comments are usually written with two hyphens (–) at the beginning. Queries can quickly become long and complex. If your files that contain the queries contain only SQL statements and nothing else, this will seriously hamper your investigation. You will need to read each query again and again in order to find out what it meant. Reading a SQL query that joins many tables can be really tough, if you want to find exactly what information you are pulling from the database. Also, queries may look very similar but may differ on a slight detail that you will only find when you read and conceptualize the whole thing. And last but not least, since writing queries takes time and mental effort, your do not want to write duplicate queries. The only way to prevent you from doing things many times over is to have an easy way to detect if you already ‘have a query for that’.

So comments are essential as a means of identification or indexing. I like to go over my files with queries from time to time, ‘grooming’ and improving the comments and the queries themselves.

So far for the organization of queries. Below are the other topics that I like to cover as methods for the investigation of the legacy database. I will get back to these in posts to come.

  • Structuring the query
  • Testing your queries
  • What to do with the data model (if it exists)
  • Searching for distinct values
  • Paying attention to numbers
  • Scanning data & data patterns
  • Using dates
  • Complex joins
  • Emptiness (null values)
  • Querying the data model
  • Comparing the query results with the application
  • Looking for names
  • Use of junction tables
  • Use of lookup tables
  • Database tools and integrated development environments

New Nationalities in the Testing Blogosphere


Recently I’ve been adding some new weblogs to my overview of software testing weblogs. The overview now lists 267 weblogs on software testing. I do not claim to have an overview of all software testing weblogs, but I think I have quite a large number. So for me, it was strange to notice that in the last few days I added four weblogs from countries that were not yet on my list. Proof of the fact that blogging about testing is truly an international sport.

These are the newly added weblogs, their authors and their countries…


Martial Testing by Andrés Curcio and Ignacio Esmite


AskTester by Thanh Huynh and others


One Software Tester by Jason B. Ogayon


Mr. Slavchev by Viktor Slavchev

On the Value of Test Cases


Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

William Shakespeare – Hamlet

Over the period of a couple of weeks, I was able to observe the usage of test cases in a software development project. The creation of test cases was started at the moment when the functional specifications were declared to be relatively crystallized. The cases were detailed in specific steps and entered into a test management tool, in this case HP Quality Center. They’d be reviewed, and in due time executed and the results would be reported to the project management.

During these weeks after the finalization of the functional specifications, not a lot of software was actually built, so the testers involved in the project saw the perfect chance to prepare for the coming release by typing their test cases. They believed that they had been given a blissful moment before the storm, in which they would strengthen their approach and do as much of the preparatory work as they could, in order to be ready when the first wave of software would hit. Unfortunately, preparation, to these testers, meant the detailed specification of test cases for software changes that still had to be developed, a system that was partly unknown or unexplored by them, and functional specifications that proved to be less than ready.

There is no need to guess what happened next. When eventually software started coming down the line, the technical implementation of the changes was not quite as expected, the functional specifications had changed, and the project priorities and scope had shifted because of new demands. It was like the testers had shored up defenses to combat an army of foot soldiers carrying spears and they were now, much to their surprise, facing cannons of the Howitzer type. Needless to say, the defenders were scattered and forced to flee.

It is easy to blame our software development methods for these situations. One might argue that this project has characteristics of a typical waterfall project and that the waterfall model of software development invites failure. Such was argued in the 1970s (PDF, opens in new window). But instead of blaming the project we could ask ourselves why we prepare for software development the way we do. My point is that by pouring an huge amount of energy into trying to fixate our experiments in test cases (and rid them of meaning — but that’s another point), we willingly and knowingly move ourselves into a spot where we know we will be hurt the most when something unexpected happens (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan for reference). Second of all, I think we seriously need to reassess the value of drawing up test cases as a method of preparation for the investigation of software. There are dozens of other ways to prepare for the investigation of software. For one, I think, even doing nothing beats defining elaborate and specific test cases, mainly because the former approach causes less damage. It goes without saying that I do not advocate doing nothing in the preparation for the investigation of software.

As a side note, among these dozens of other ways of preparing for the investigation of software, we can name the investigation of the requirements, the investigation of comparable products, having conversations with stake holders, having conversations with domain experts or users, the investigation of the current software product, the investigation of the history of the product, the reading of manuals etc… An excellent list can be found in Rikard Edgren’s Little Black Book on Test Design (PDF, opens in new window). If you’re a professional software tester, this list is not new to you. What it intends to say is that testers need to study in order to keep up.

Yet the fact remains that the creation of test cases as the best way to prepare for the investigation of software still seems to be what is passed on to testers starting a career in software testing. This is what is propagated in the testing courses offered by the ISTQB or, in the Netherlands, by TMap. This approach should have perished long ago for two reasons. On the one hand, and I’ve seen this happen, it falsely lures the tester in thinking that once we’re done specifying our test cases, we have exhausted and therefore finalized our tests. It strengthens the fallacy that the brain is only engaged during the test case creation ‘phase’ of the project. We’re done testing when the cases are complete and what remains is to run them, obviously the most uninspiring part of testing.

The second thing I’ve seen happening is that test case specification draws the inquiring mind away from what it does best, namely to challenge the assumptions that are in the software and the assumptions that are made by the people involved in creating the (software) system — including ourselves. Test case creation is a particular activity that forces the train of thought down a narrowing track of confirmation of requirements or acceptance criteria, specifically at a time when we should be widening our perspectives. By its focus on the confirmation of what we know about the software, it takes the focus away from what is unknown. Test case creation stands in the way of critical thinking and skepticism. It goes against the grain of experimentation, in which we build mental models of the subject we want to test and iteratively develop our models through interaction with the subject under test.

mcl82If there is one thing that I was forced to look at again during the last couple of weeks — during which I was preparing for the testing of software changes — it was the art of reasoning and asking meaningful questions. Though I feel confident when asking questions, and though I pay a lot of attention to the reasoning that got me to asking exactly that particular set of questions, I also still feel that I need to be constantly aware that there are questions I didn’t ask that could lead down entirely different avenues. It is possible to ask only those questions that strengthen your assumptions, even if your not consciously looking for confirmation. And very much so, it is possible that answers are misleading.

So for the sake of better testing, take your ISTQB syllabus and — by any means other than burning — remove the part on test cases. Replace it with anything by Bacon, Descartes or Dewey.

“Criticism is the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a mental habit and power. It is a prime condition of human welfare that men and women should be trained in it. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances. Education is good just so far as it produces well-developed critical faculty. A teacher of any subject who insists on accuracy and a rational control of all processes and methods, and who holds everything open to unlimited verification and revision, is cultivating that method as a habit in the pupils. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded. They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.”

William Graham Sumner – Folkways: A Study of Mores, Manners, Customs and Morals

On Performing an Autopsy


On Tuesday the 3rd of March 2015, a Quality Boost! Meetup was held by Improve Quality Services and InTraffic in Nieuwegein, the Netherlands. The evening was organized around a session by James Bach, who performed a ‘testing autopsy’ — or ‘testopsy’. Huib Schoots facilitated the questions and the discussion and Ruud Cox created a sketch note. James’ aim was to test a product for ten minutes, narrate his train of thought during that session, and afterwards discuss what happened. He chose this approach in order to be able to do a close examination of what happens during testing.

The definition of an autopsy, according to Merriam-Webster, is as follows.

a critical examination, evaluation, or assessment of someone or something past

On narration and obsession-based testing

The definition above describes pretty accurately what James was trying to do with the testing session. By making explicit the thoughts that guided him during the testing of the application, he made them available for examination. He told the audience about narration — the ability to tell a story — and how important it is for a tester to explain what he is doing and why he is doing it. There are many reasons why narration is important; for example because you want to explain to your team mates what you did. But James’ main reason for narration in this session was to be able to teach us about testing and about the particular skills that are involved in testing.

James said he does not recommend spelling out a testing session word for word. He showed us an example of a report that he created when he was challenged at the Let’s Test conference to test a volume control for a television. In the report he explains everything that is related to his testing. The report contains mental notes, records of conversations, sketches and models and revisions thereof, graphs, experiments and also pathways that eventually proved to be dead ends. The report contains a huge amount of material, but only part of that material would be useful in a practical report out to, for example, management. The full narration of a testing session has its uses, but you’d have to be pretty obsessed with testing to create such an elaborate report. Therefore James dubbed it obsession-based testing.

A very detailed report of testing can serve at least two purposes that were mentioned during the evening.

  • It can be used for teaching testing and to have a discussion about it. The Quality Boost! Meetup that I attended was an example of such usage.
  • It can be used to investigate the skills that are involved in testing. James recently received a detailed test report from Ruud Cox that matched his own obsession-based report. Ruud used the report that he created to find more about the mental models that testers use when testing.

On survey testing

The tested appplication
The tool that James tested during his session is Raw. Raw is an open web app to create custom vector-based visualizations.

The subject under test was an online tool that can be used to generate — among other things — Voronoi diagrams. The Voronoi diagram is a mathematical diagram in which a plane is partitioned into regions based on distance to points in a specific subset of the plane. Through the tool it was possible to provide a data set as input, based on which the tool would generate the diagram. James had prepared some data sets in Excel in advance and during the ten minute session he ran the data sets through the tool and with the audience he examined the diagrams that were generated. This way we all got to know a little bit more about Voronoi diagrams and about how we could detect if the diagrams that were shown were more or less correct.

The type of testing James performed during this particular session is what he himself described as survey testing; a way of learning about the product as fast as possible. He did not focus particularly on, for example, the user interface or on the handling of erroneous data. He just wanted to get to know the application. Later on in the evening, when asked what method he used to explore an application in such a survey, James mentioned the Lévy flight; a random walk that appears to resemble his own type of search. This scanning pattern is made up of long, shallow investigations and short, deep investigations, after which the long, shallow walk is resumed. It seems to be a pattern that is used by animals looking for food (though scientific studies in this direction have been contested), or even by human hunter-gatherers (PDF).

A Lévy flight

A Lévy flight

 On sense making

Because his aim was to learn about the product by examining it through testing, he called his investigation an act of sense making. To make sense of a software product we need a number of skills. Sense making is something we all have to do in software testing. If the application under test does not make sense to us, it will be very hard to test it. Yet sense making is a difficult art. During the evening we discussed how sense making depends on you being able to handle your emotions about complexity. When faced with a complex problem it is not uncommon to become frustrated or to panic. As testers we have to deal with these emotions in order to progress and get closer to the problem. It may take time to get to the core of the problem and it is possible that we make mistakes. In order to make sense of a situation we have to allow for these phenomena. Other tools that help in making sense are guideword heuristics that aid us in remembering what we know.

On breaking down complexity and using a simplified data oracle

In order to make sense of an application or a system, we usually need to break down the complexity of this application. In our craft it is not very helpful to be in awe of, or afraid of complexity; we need to have ways to tackle it. James mentioned how systems thinking (and particularly Gerald Weinberg’s An Introduction to General Systems Thinking) helped him to handle complexity.

Some Voronoi diagrams
Below are displayed some Voronoi diagrams that were generated during the testing session, using data from the following Excel sheet: voronoi data.
As you can see all diagrams except the second display regular patterns that can be checked quite easily for correctness. The titles of the diagrams correspond with the titles of the data in the Excel sheet.
1) Diagonal
2) Randomvoronoi5
3) Cartesian Plane w/o Diagonals
4) Widening Spiral

The trick is to break complexity down into simple parts, to find the underlying simplicity of a complex system. There are many ways to find this underlying simplicity. One way is to break down the system until you have parts that you are able to understand. Another way is what James showed during his testing session. When you look at Voronoi diagrams, this subject matter may be considered complex by many, especially by those who do no have a background in mathematics. James tackled the problem by preparing sets of data by which it would be easy to predict what the generated diagram would look like. As James puts it:

to choose input data and configuration parameters that will result in output that is highly patterned or otherwise easy to evaluate by eye.

By simplifying the data you throw at the problem, you are better able to predict what the observed result should look like. James calls this a simplified data oracle. He used, for example, his own tool for generating pairs (I believe it was ALLPAIRS, but I am not 100% sure) to generate a simple set of combinations that would serve as input data (figure 3). Also he used his knowledge of mathematics to generate data that would display a spiraling Voronoi pattern. And indeed, a spiraling pattern was displayed (see figure 4).

On flow

A couple of loosely connected things were said about the flow of testing — or what James called the ‘tempo of testing’ — during the session. The flow of testing is impacted by the aim of testing. Testing is a deliberate art, but there is room for spontaneity to guide your testing. The balance you strike between deliberation and spontaneity (serendipity?) impacts the flow of testing. Also, a session may be interrupted, or you may want to interrupt your session at certain moments. Furthermore we talked about alteration, switching back and forth between different ideas, different parts of the application or between the application and the requirements.

On skills

In order to generate the test data for the testing of the application above, James used the following Excel sheet: voronoi data (click to download). He briefly discussed his usage of Excel and mentioned that being skilled with Excel can be a huge advantage for software testers. It is an extremely versatile tool that can be used to generate data, analyze data, gather statistics or draw up reports. I have personally used Excel, for example, to quickly analyze differences between the structures of large database tables in different test environments. Easily learned functions can help you a lot to generate insight into larger data sets.

James furthermore related a story about an assignment in which he was asked to evaluate the process that was used by a group of testers to investigate bugs. When he first asked the testers how they investigated bugs he was presented with a pretty generic four step process, such as identify > isolate > reproduce > retest or something similar. But when he investigated further and worked with the testers for some time, he learned that the testers used quite a large number of skills to judge their problems and come up with solutions. The generic process that they described when first questioned about what they did, diverted the attention from the core skills that they possessed but perhaps were unable to identify and name. Narration, as mentioned above, serves to identify and understand the skills that you use.

On acquiring skills

There are many ways to acquire the skills that are needed for testing. One way is to acquire a skill— for example a tool, a technique, or a programming language — by developing it on the job, while you’re doing the work. However, sometimes we need to have the knowledge beforehand and do not want to spend the time on the job for learning a tool or a language. For such situations James recommends creating a problem for yourself so that you can practice the tool or the technique. He showed that he is currently working on learning the programming language R this way. James reminded me of my own work for my website Testing References and having to learn (object-oriented) PHP, CSS, MySQL and the use of Eclipse for software development. This prepared me for learning other programming languages that I can use in projects. Also, I recently bought a Raspberry Pi and I am looking to do something with a NoSQL database (particularly MongoDB) on that machine, just for fun. During the evening James mentioned Apache Hadoop as a possible point of interest.

So far for this summary of the Quality Boost! Meetup with James Bach. I want to thank James Bach and Ruud Cox for providing me with additional material. I hope you enjoyed reading it.