Disposable Time

In our Rapid Testing class, James Bach and I like to talk about an underappreciated tester resource: disposable time. Disposable time is the time that you can afford to waste without getting into trouble.

Now, we want to be careful about what we mean by “waste”, here. It’s not that you want to waste the time. You probably want to spend it wisely. It’s just that you won’t suffer harm if you do happen to waste it. Plus… in knowledge work—like testing—nothing is a complete waste if you learn something from it.

Disposable time is to your working hours what disposable income is to your total personal income. (In fact, even that’s not quite correct, strictly speaking; we actually mean discretionary income: the money that’s left over after you’ve paid for all of the things that you must pay for—food, shelter, basic clothing, medical, and tax expenses. The money that people call disposable income is more properly called discretionary income; as Wikipedia says, “the amount of ‘play money’ left to spend or save.” Oh well. We’ll go with the incorrect but popular interpretation of “disposable” here.)

You’re never being scrutinized every minute of every day. Practically everyone has a few moments when no one important is watching. In that time, you might

  • try a tiny test that hasn’t been prescribed.
  • try entering a risky value instead of a safe value into that input field.
  • pretend to change your mind, or to make a mistake, and go back a step or two (users make mistakes, and error handling and recovery are often the most vulnerable parts of the program).
  • take a couple of moments to glance at some background information relevant to the work that you’re doing.
  • write in your journal.
  • see if any of your colleagues in technical support have a hot issue that can inform some test ideas.
  • steal a couple of moments to write a tiny, simple program that will save you some time; use the saved time and the learning to extend your programming skills so that you can solve increasingly complex programming problems.
  • spend an extra couple of minutes at the end of a coffee break befriending the network support people.
  • sketch a workflow diagram for your product, and at some point show it to an expert, and ask if you’ve got it right.
  • snoop around in the support logs for the product.
  • add a few more lines to a spreadsheet of data values
  • help someone else solve a problem that they’re having.
  • chat with a programmer about some aspect of the technology.
  • even if you do nothing else, at least pause and look around the screen as you’re testing. Take a moment or two to recognize a new risk and write down a new question or a new test idea. Report on that idea later on; ask your test lead, your manager, or a programmer, or a product owner if it’s a risk worth investigating. Hang on to your notes. When someone asks “Why didn’t you find that bug,” you may have an answer for them.

If it turns out that you’ve made a bad investment, oh well. By definition, however large or small the period, disposable time is time that you can afford to blow without suffering consequences.

On the other hand, you may have made a good investment. You may have found a bug, or recognized a new risk, or learned something important, or helped someone out of a jam, or built on a professional relationship, or surprised and impressed your manager. You may have done all of these things at once.

Even if you feel like you’ve wasted your time, you’ve probably learned enough to insulate yourself from wasting more time in the same way. When you discover that an alley is blind, you’re unlikely to return there when there are other things to explore. And when you know something about that blind alley, you can return to it when it might become important to do so.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb proposes an investment strategy wherein you put the vast bulk of your money, your nest egg, in very safe securities. You then invest a small amount—an amount that you can afford to lose—in very speculative bets that have a chance of providing a spectacular return. He call that very improbable high-return event a positive Black Swan.

Your nest egg is like the part of your job that you must accomplish. Disposable time is like your positive Black Swan fund; you may lose it all, but you can afford to lose it, and you have a shot at a big payoff. But there’s an important difference, too: since learning is an almost inevitable product of using your disposable time, there’s almost always some modest positive outcome.

In our consulting work and in the Rapid Software Testing Managed classes, we encourage test managers to allow disposable time explicitly for their testers. As an example, Google provides its staff with Innovation Time Off (or at least, it used to). Engineers are (were) encouraged to spend 20% of their time pursuing projects that interest them. That sounds like a waste, until one learns that Google projects like Gmail, Google News, Orkut, and AdSense came of these investments.

What Google may not know is that even within the other 80% of the time that’s ostensibly on mission, people still have—and are still using—non-explicit disposable time. People have that almost everywhere, whether they have explicit disposable time or not.

Many managers aren’t watching that closely. You can tell. If they were watching, they would be appalled at the time their own policies waste, wouldn’t they?

If you’re working in an environment where you’re being watched so closely that none of this is possible, and where you’re punished for learning or seeking problems, my advice is to make sure that slavery has been abolished in your jurisdiction. Then find a job where your testing skills are valued and your managers aren’t wasting their time by watching your work instead of doing theirs.

But when you’ve got a few moments to fill, fill them and learn something!

4 replies to “Disposable Time”

  1. Extremely useful information!!
    Shall put a copy of the points on my softboard so that I consciously spend time constructively.

  2. It is essential to approve testers to have disposable time. I see too often testers sitting in organizations only focusing on the current product and test process that they are in. I believe that there are two parts that should be encouraged for testers in an organization. The first part is to focus on the product under test. That is, to LEARN enough about it to be able to find the bad code hideouts. The other part is to maintain your overall testing skills. By that I mean to NOT focus on the current product or the test process. Here I want testers to use disposable time for reading some chapters in a good book, google internet for anything that could improve your testing skills or participate in bloggs, etc. It should of course be up to the tester how he or she want to do it. I feel that this last part isn't prioritized within the most of the organizations out there. They simply don't see the great investment that it definitely is. I feel sorry for them.


  3. I don’t feel that this is a problem with the organizations…I truly believe that it is up to the individual to find out the disposable time that their work permits… and make best use of it… so that the individual and the organization are mutually benefited!!!


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