The Way of the Tester

For a while now, I’ve been following the Monday Musings blog of Simon Knight. In a recent post, he wrote in a detailed and personal way about finding insights into testing in non-testing texts. Simon’s left-field approach is something that resonates with me, and his post made me think about a text which I value that I think has quite a bit to say about testing – despite coming from a time when the idea of computer software was utterly unimaginable.

I refer to a book called A Book of Five Rings (Go Sho No Rin), written by the 16th century Japanese swordsmaster Miyamoto Musashi.

A quick history lesson here. Medieval Japan was subject to a series of wars, both external and internal. The internal wars were about rival warlords competing for power. Finally, in 1600 at the Battle of Sekigahara, the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged victorious and assumed the title of Shogun (military dictator), exercising rule over the country on behalf of the Emperor, who was considered semi-divine and so above worldly matters of governance.

One of Tokugawa’s measures to cement his authority was to institute a feudal hierarchy. Local lords (daimyo) were appointed, each of whom owed allegiance and taxes to the Shogun. The daimyo, in turn, appointed samurai as deputies. They were allowed to exercise their own authority over smaller areas, but they owed the same degree of allegiance to the daimyo. Both daimyo and samurai were drawn from the same pool of military talent; but limiting the numbers of daimyo and the samurai they could appoint was Tokugawa’s way of restricting any challenge from below.

But the  numbers involved meant that the armies that the various warlords had gathered were now no longer required; and the samurai who had served in those armies were too numerous all to be given retainers. So there arose a class of “masterless samurai” who roamed the country, finding what occupation they could – often as blades for hire. These were known as ronin (in English, “wave-men”, because they came and went as the waves on the shore). Most of the best-known stories of samurai, such as Kurosawa’s famous film Seven Samurai, are set in this period.

Musashi was 20 at the time of Sekigahara, and indeed fought in it (on the losing side). Afterwards, he retreated into training and perfected both techniques of swordsmanship and of applying Buddhist teaching to the business of being a successful samurai. Under the new system, samurai were not just military muscle; they also had to manage their fiefdoms on behalf of the daimyo, seeing to it that order was maintained and that everything was harmonious so as to ensure that crops were planted and harvested, and taxes were paid. In this time, Musashi fought many duels and was undefeated in all. He travelled extensively, had a number of posts with different daimyo as military advisor, trainer and swordsman, and also practised the arts of calligraphy, writing and painting. He started writing A Book of Five Rings in 1643 and finished it a few months before his death in 1645.

So where’s the testing wisdom in all this?

Well, Musashi set out in A Book of Five Rings to describe the Way of the Samurai. He set this out in a number of different subtexts, but the overarching one was the Way of Strategy. It had nine principles:

1. Do not think dishonestly.
2. The Way is in training.
3. Become acquainted with every art.
4. Know the Ways of all professions.
5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
6. Develop an intuitive judgement and understanding for everything.
7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
8. Pay attention even to trifles.
9. Do nothing which is of no use.

It seems to me that those principles apply very well to the craft of testing. In future posts, I shall explore these principles in more detail.


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