“I’ve seen better-dressed wounds!”

A little while ago, I heard (for the second time) a segment of the BBC Radio 4 show Women’s Hour which talked about dress codes at work. It made me think about my own  experience.

I am a bit out of the ordinary for both my company and indeed the whole sector. I go to work in a suit. Up until my last job, about seven years ago, I would also have worn a tie. Why is this?

Well, for one thing, my parents were that much older than those of my contemporaries when I was born, in 1957. So I grew up in a family where the expectation was that men would go to work in formal work attire, and casual clothes were something that really didn’t exist, not in my parents’ world of the 1930s and 40s when they grew up. (The fact that my father had been an Army drill sergeant might also have had something to do with it.)

Then I went to work in a very traditionalist organisation, the British Civil Service. For the first ten years, I was public-facing and so collar and tie was required. I then moved to the water regulator, Ofwat, and for the first five years I was effectively in the Director General’s outer office. We could have FTSE100 company chairman passing through, Ministers of the British or overseas governments, or any other sort of VIP. And as I was located in the press office, there was an outside chance that I might – if everyone else had been out of the office or otherwise engaged – have had to do broadcast media interviews. (I was a long way down the pecking order, so my appearance on tv would have been a sign that something really, really had gone south in a Big Way, but it was nonetheless a possibility. )

For the next fifteen years, although I was not so directly exposed, my work was nonetheless quite important to the organisation and so there was always the possiblity that VIPs might be brought round to be shown the leading edge troops, shovelling data into the digital furnaces down in Ofwat’s engine room. And I also had to liase and sometimes visit or recieve senior people from the water or civil engineering industries. So collar and tie remained the order of the day.

(Meanwhile, in my former employer, the social security department, there had been a change after one chap whose job was 100% behind the scenes was disciplined for not observing the dress code. This escalated into a full-blown Employment Tribunal on sex discrimination grounds, as women in the same job were not required to observe any particular dress code. Before this was settled – in the worker’s favour – there was the spectacle of dozens of junior civil servants suddenly discovering a previously-unknown Scots heritage and turning up to the office in kilts, as ethnic dress was exempt from departmental dress codes. Yes, it all got rather silly.)

After I left Ofwat, I was freelancing and so, from time to time, had to walk the walk as well as talk the talk; on a couple of occasions, turning up to a consultancy job in a silver Mercedes and showing up in the corporate conference room suited and booted got me not only listened to respectfully but also paid on time!

As I said earlier, I lost the tie in my previous job, as there was a CEO there who wore a suit but an open-necked shirt. He was quite innovative in other ways; that company ran a call centre for taking facilities calls from shops and offices up and down the country, and finding plumbers or electricians or maintainance engineers local to the caller to go out and address these jobs. The CEO took a rather egalitarian attitude to his work, and once a month would block out one morning so he could go and sit on the call centre, not just to be seen at the workface, but actually to put on a headset and take calls. This certainly endeared him to me; sadly, a lot of the Board and the company’s owners weren’t so enlightened and in due course, he went, not long before I did.

When I took up that job, I had to move to get an easier commute; and some of my belongings had to go into storage. I took on a storage unit on a farm not far from my former home, and when I went to see the unit and shake hands on the agreement, I noticed that the farmer and his son-in-law were calling me “sir”. I’d gone straight there from the office; so I said “Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight and drop this “Sir” business. I’m in my working clothes, you’re in yours, end of. OK?” And it was.

I now work in IT, where wearing a suit in a back-office role is distinctly eccentric. (We recently had a client user consultation group meeting, where our dress code was ‘smart casual’. “Do I have to dress down, then?” was my question.) Fortunately, a number of my colleagues, like me, have memories of the tv science fiction show Stargate: Atlantis, which oddly enough has a bearing on this. The premise of the show is that the US Air Force has come into possession of an ancient alien transport device, a ‘Stargate’, which enables easy travel to other planets, and even galaxies. In due course, the lost city of Atlantis is discovered in a distant galaxy and an expedition of soldiers, scientists and archaeologists is sent to explore it; and that expedition is led by a civilian. Towards the end of the show’s run, the civilian administrator of the expedition is replaced by a Washington lawyer, Mr. Wolseley, played by the under-rated Robert Picardo. And although whilst on duty, Wolseley wears the same uniform coveralls as other civilian staff on the expedition, when he goes off-duty, he relaxes by putting on a suit and tie.

The reason for this is, he explains, that he had his best moments as a Washington lawyer in the courtroom. That is who he is, and so that is how he feels most comfortable. And so he reflects his personality and his personal history in his clothing of choice. I identify with that character very closely! And so I wear a suit to work, because that’s how I know I’m at work, and to me it says that I take my work seriously. I’m not saying that my more casually-attired colleagues don’t take their work seriously – they do – but this is how I show it. It’s who I am.

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The value of soft skills

I don’t follow football much, but I grew up in Derby in the 1970s, when Derby County were managed by the infamous Brian Clough. It was impossible not to follow Cloughie’s career, so I watched his 44 days at Leeds and then his move to Nottingham Forest.

I remember the 1991 FA Cup Final between Forest and Spurs. It was one all after 90 minutes and so they went into extra time. After 15 minutes the score was still level. During the break, Spurs went into a huddle, with their manager talking to the players, encouraging them, inspiring them and generally reinforcing their team spirit. Clough, however, just sat in the dugout with his arms folded and a face like thunder. The Forest team milled about aimlessly on the touchline and had no words of encouragement.

When play resumed, Nottingham Forest conceded an own goal and that was how the match ended, Spurs winning 2-1. Clough only lasted another two years in the job and then retired from football management altogether.

Out of the few football matches I’ve ever watched, this one has stuck in my mind precisely because of the illustration it makes of the value of soft skills. Brian Clough was an excellent technical manager but had no soft skills whatsoever; and when it was most important, their absence swung the match – and the Cup – without the other side having to do a thing apart from hold the game together.

 

99 Second Talk
Midlands Testers, 17th April 2019 (Photo: Ben Fellows)

The trees are evil and must be punished

Someone asked this morning on the MoT site about the relative importance of documentation in testing. “Do we have to spend so much time documenting our tests? It’s so time-consuming: can we do without it?”

If the application you are testing is only ever going to be used once by one person for a completely trivial purpose and never used again, then no documentation is required. In every other instance, some sort of documentation will be needed:

  • When users report bugs in production but no-one who worked on the app is still with the company;
  • When version 2 needs to be developed but the devs who built version 1 have left the company;
  • When users need help or support in the ordinary operation of the app (traditional test scripts are actually very good for helping to create Help files or a wiki);
  • When a third party (a client, a regulator, a lawyer, the police, the Government) requires evidence of tests performed or some other tangible guarantee of “quality”;
  • When a user blames the app for something bad happening and escalates their complaint to:
    • Your CEO, or
    • a court of law; or
  • When something happens in real life (on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is “everybody is laughing at your company” and 10 is “somebody died”) and your company is blamed for it in the media.

These are the times when you will be thankful for your test documentation. I know, I’ve seen all of these (though fortunately, on the last one, my personal involvement was around a 5). Risk analysis will help companies and managers take a reasoned decision on just how much documentation is essential to create and retain. If your risk on the last one is a 10, then be prepared for a lot of printing which you hope no-one will ever have to look at again.

The Way of the Tester: 9. Do nothing which is of no use.

In Musashi’s time, this principle, the final one in his Way of Strategy, was exhorting his pupils to fill each shining hour with valuable, objective-oriented activity. Practice, train, do – that was the mantra. Our modern age might encourage us to add: learn, create, teach, share.

But much of our corporate life might be taken up with meaningless activity. No matter how streamlined and agile our teams may be, we may find ourselves working with partner companies whose ideas don’t match our own. In a recent testers’ meetup, I heard an account of working with a digitial media partner whose internal compliance criteria required the submission for scrutiny of all the content provider’s test cases and scripts. Their reaction was, shall we say, interesting.

But most of our thinking has gone beyond this. “Do nothing that is of no use” could equally well apply to our working practices. We should look for ways of working that eliminate pointless activity and add as much value to our products or processes as possible. If there is one thing I took away from thirty years’ working in the UK Civil Service, it was that there are actually good reasons for a lot of bureaucracy; but over time, these get forgotten; then new managements bring in “reform” and “sweeping away the cobwebs”, and this works reasonably well until suddenly one morning, people wake up and things have all gone horribly wrong. And then we find ourselves hastily re-inventing the bureaucratic wheel. I’m going to be a bit heretical here; it’s my opinion that the public sector, having been under continual political pressure to “cut out pointless bureaucracy”, has actually got rather good at streamlining processes to get the maximum benefit for the least effort (at least in areas where political interference is kept to a minimum). The worst bureaucracies are to be found, in my opinion, in the supposedly efficient private sector, especially in finance and insurance.

These latter two sectors are good examples of complex organisations. And it is those organisations that severely test our ability to “do nothing that is of no use”. But the more complex a system is, the more likely it is to demonstrate situations where there are unexpected system behaviours and outcomes.

James Christie has written a series of blog posts on the subject of “The dragons of the unknown”, about the broader testing issues exposed in a career that started out working for one of the major corporate accountancy firms and then moving into business audit work before specialising in IT audit, which is rather like software testing but coming to systems that are already in place and at a time when they aren’t actually broken (well, at least not in the eyes of their admins…)

https://clarotesting.wordpress.com/2018/10/12/facing-the-dragons/ 

In the second blog, he looks at the characteristics of complex systems:

https://clarotesting.wordpress.com/2018/10/14/the-dragons-of-the-unknown-part-2-crucial-features-of-complex-systems/

And he writes about the nature of IT audit work in the final post of the sequence:

https://clarotesting.wordpress.com/2018/10/15/the-dragons-of-the-unknown-part-3-i-dont-know-whats-going-on/

All this goes to show that there is value even in the most menial of tasks if you can extract lessons from it that you might be able to apply elsewhere. I wrote in earlier posts about the value of experience; well, this is the “information gathering” phase, where to get the experience to inform your later decisions, you first have to put the time in at the workface. Experience cannot be bought, only taught.

There is a story that if you asked someone sweeping up leaves outside NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston what they did, they would say “I help launch the Space Shuttle”. That is an example of knowing about the whole organisation’s objectives and how an individual fits into the wider system. It also suggests an appreciation of the interconnectedness of things, which again is something that the modern world relies on. An appreciation of the relationships within complex systems will help show areas where tests are in or out of scope, because of interactions with a different app, or an upstream or downstream system, or an external provider, or a third-party application. There will be points of hand-off between all these, and criteria for successful hand-off. Often, in complex sytstems, these are the points where failures can occur. James Christie writes about not relying on the system specifications as Holy Writ to be adhered to, but such documentation can reveal where someone overlooked some data packet parameters when designing a downstream application. At some point, a tester may well have to report that what looks like a bug may be a configuration issue, or a problem in another application; and the fix may not be an IT matter but a business decision.

Very few of our systems work in complete isolation. And the more everything is connected to everything else, the more likely it is that the solution to a problem might lie outside the immediate environment. And that is where we might find that nothing we ever learn about the real world is ever “of no use”. Even in a 16th century manual of strategy for samurai.

The Way of the Tester: 8. Pay attention even to trifles.

Nowadays, we say “The Devil is in the detail”. In Musashi’s time, things could be a bit more drastic than that. A small clue – a bird suddenly bursting into flight, a change in the fall of shadows, a movement of a branch or someone hanging back from stepping through a certain doorway – might indicate the presence of a hidden attacker. Trifles like these could save your life; or more importantly, your lord’s.

For the most part, our testing jobs are  not quite so life-and-death these days. Though I’ve worked on medical applications which were subject to very stringent regulation to safeguard patients and ensure that defects were minimised; in another job, if I’d gotten my testing wrong, there could ultimately have been a knock-on effect that would have affected utility bills paid by every household in the country. The financial sector also places a strong emphasis on accuracy because of both financial probity and the need to try to ensure legal compliance with money laundering regulations.

But for the most part, the ‘trifles’ we encounter are likely to be quite minor manifestations of error, though if these are things that occur in outputs, a minor error may be an outward sign of more serious issues in the code. And if the app handles a large volume of transactions, a rounding error four decimal places down may become subject to a multiplier effect and have a material impact on decisons taken in the real world using those numbers.

Even if you are not dealing with transactional apps or working in business areas subject to regulatory oversight, paying attention to small details is highly worthwhile. People notice small things. A small feature that gives them pleasure makes them think favourably of your app; a minor error that sticks out for one person may affect decisions taken about your app, your work or your company. If two apps are under consideration for purchase, and one has minor typographical or presentational issues in it and the other doesn’t, the final decision may hinge on those errors. As the saying goes, “you only have one chance to make a first impression”. Any compromise on presentation, spelling or grammar is going to be important to somebody – and they may be the decision-taker in your dealings with them.

The Way of the Tester: 7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen.

In this principle, Musashi was thinking about using all the senses – hearing, smell and the other, more peripheral senses – to supplement sight when in combat. It might even apply to not allowing what you are seeing to distract you from other non-visual clues about the what is happening around you. For most applications, that won’t apply to software testing, though of course if your app involves different media channels, that may well apply in its most direct sense.

But for most testers, “perceiving what cannot be seen” will be a rather harder task. We’re back to that old standby, experience.

So many software issues occur when two things interact. Finding that interaction is one of the hardest jobs in testing – “Well, it works on my machine.” There are always hidden outcomes, display issues, and accessibility problems. All of these may fall into the category of “things that cannot be seen”.

Cross-browser testing is one area which may expose “that which cannot be seen”. An app may display differently on one browser to another; one I have seen recently literally has a feature which cannot be seen in one popular browser but is OK in others.

Developing insight is another of these things that comes with experience; and just as I said in an earlier post, it’s never too early to start gaining that experience. Everyone has to start somewhere.

There is also the question of unintended consequences. You will never be able to think through all the possible permutations, but you should try to anticipate some of the more obvious possible ones. The more you think of them, the more new possibilities may occur to you. This is an area where mind mapping or risk storming may be useful techniques.

The Way of the Tester: 6. Develop an intuitive judgement and understanding for everything.

“But what,” you might ask, “should I do in the afternoon?”

That’s a little unfair of me. But this is one of Musashi’s principles that can only come with experience. It stands against the snap judgement, “we have to do something; this is something; therefore we should do it” position that you get in so many situations.

It may not be about deciding to do a thing; it may be about deciding not to do a thing. I came across a bug yesterday that I thought was happening when the system did a certain thing. But examining it further showed that this was a coincidence and the bug was happening without the certain thing happening as well. My intuitive judgement was to look a bit further and try out a number of scenarios before committing the bug report back to the devs.

I have had a working career of nearly fifty years. I’m not for one moment suggesting that people with less experience than me are not suitable to be testers – far from it. But I’m often finding that I draw on experience dating back before I was a tester, or sometimes even before we had computers in the workplace, to inform me about user behaviour and business needs. It is a question of developing the art of seeing, a capacious memory for odd things that people do at work, and being able to develop the intuition to link the two.

That skill doesn’t come overnight. But neither does the repository of experience. Keen testers need to start developing the habits of observing and finding out about other people’s lives, jobs and transactions. You never know when a bit of obscure knowledge will come in handy.

It’s no good thinking that “my company makes software for soft toy manufacturers, so I need to learn everything there is to know about soft toys.” That may be so, but restricting your hunt for knowledge only to soft toys will not make you a better tester. One day, a problem will arise that can only be solved with reference to the outside world.

A tester can never have too much knowledge.