In the spring of 2008, I was privileged to chat with Jerry Weinberg on why he was favouring CAST with his only conference appearance of that year, other than the Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference, of which he’s a co-founder and host. CAST that year saw the launch of Jerry’s book Perfect Software and Other Illusions About Testing. It’s now available as an e-book, too.
Jerry will not, so far as I know, be at CAST 2011. Nonetheless, his advice about going to conferences where smart people hang out remains sound.
Michael: You’ve been involved with computers for 50 years, and with giving people advice for almost that long. What do you suggest my first question should be, and how would you answer it?
Jerry: Ask me why I chose this conference as my one of the year. And other things.
Michael: Sounds good. So: why did you choose this conference as your one of the year?
Jerry: Errors have been the principal issue in computing right from the beginning, as John von Neumann pointed out even before I got into the field (and that’s really a long time ago). I wrote about testing as the opening topic in my first book, “Computer Programming Fundamentals” way back in 1960—and way back then, I already took flack from some reviewers who didn’t think errors was a suitable topic for politically correct people. You’d think I had written about human excrement.
And you’d also think that as our field matured, we would have outgrown that prudish attitude about error—but we haven’t. Back then, we had no professional testers. Testing was every developer’s job (though they weren’t called “developers” back then, or even “programmers”). We fought hard to have testing recognized as a profession of its own, and though we have people called “testers” today, we still have the prudes. In many organizations, testers are, sadly, considered lower-class citizens.
Testing holds a special place in my vision of the future of the computing profession as a whole. Why? Because testing is the first place where we generally get an independent and realistic view of what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong when we build new systems. We do get this view from Support (another area that’s considered low-class), but by the time information arrives from Support, the people who put the errors in a product are often long gone and immune to learning from their mistakes.
Quite simply, if we don’t learn to learn from our mistakes, we won’t improve as a profession. And if we don’t improve, we limit whatever good this amazing new (still) technology offers to humanity.
That’s why I’ve made the status of testing and testers my first priority for some years, and why I’m debuting my book on testing fallacies and myths (Perfect Software, and Other Illusions About Testing) at CAST, the one conference that I feel is a creation of testers, by testers, and for testers.
Michael: Recently you launched a new Web site, and your banner is “Helping smart people to be happy.” Why did you choose that?
Jerry: Most of the people in the computing professions are pretty smart, at least as measured by tests and the kind of technical work they accomplish. But so many of them haven’t learned how to use their smarts on themselves. They can create wonderful systems, but when they use their brains to think about themselves, they often think themselves into depression.
I was like that, for a long time, until I began to figure out what I was doing to myself. I set myself the task of learning how to be happy, and as I began to succeed, I realized that one of the things that makes me happy is working with other happy people. So, selfishly, I decided I would devote myself to helping my colleagues and students learn to share my happiness. Like most things I do, it’s completely selfish—but has side effects that others may enjoy.
Michael: Why not “Helping happy people be smart?”
Jerry: If you’re happy, you don’t need to be smart. Smart isn’t the only road to happiness. It’s not that I mind helping people be smart, or smarter, but it’s just not my primary goal. Nevertheless, I guess there are thousands of people out there who would say I’ve helped them grow smarter in some way. I think that’s true of you, Michael, at least from what you tell me. I hope I’ve helped you be happier, too.
Michael: Happier for sure, and smarter I hope. I’ve learned about both from conversations that I’ve had with you and other smart people. I remember once that Joshua Kerievsky asked you about why and how you tested in the old days—and I remember you telling Josh that you were compelled to test because the equipment was so unreliable. Computers don’t break down as they used to, so what’s the motivation for unit testing and test-first programming today?
Jerry: We didn’t call those things by those names back then, but if you look at my first book (Computer Programming Fundamentals, Leeds & Weinberg, first edition 1961 —MB) and many others since, you’ll see that was always the way we thought was the only logical way to do things. I learned it from Bernie Dimsdale, who learned it from von Neumann.
When I started in computing, I had nobody to teach me programming, so I read the manuals and taught myself. I thought I was pretty good, then I ran into Bernie (in 1957), who showed me how the really smart people did things. My ego was a bit shocked at first, but then I figured out that if von Neumann did things this way, I should.
John von Neumann was a lot smarter than I’ll ever be, or than most people will ever be, but all that means is that we should learn from him. And that’s why I go to a select number of conferences, like CAST and AYE, because there are lots of smart people there to learn from. I recommend my tactic to any smart person who wants to be happy.
Jerry’s Web Site is at http://www.geraldmweinberg.com. Want to help to make at least one smart person happy? I’d recommend buying—and reading—one of his fiction books, and letting him know that you did.
6 replies to “Jerry Weinberg Interview (from 2008)”
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