In the last post, my LinkedIn correspondent provided a couple of reasons why she liked writing test cases, and why she thought it necessary to write them down in the early stages of the project. Then she gave a third reason:
When I’m on a project and I am the only one who knows how to test something, then I can’t move on to something new. I’d still be testing Cut/Copy/Paste if I were not able to pass that script on easily to a new recruit.
I often hear this kind of justification for test cases: “We need test cases so that testers can learn quickly how to test the product.” To me, that’s like saying that we need driving cases so that people can learn quickly how to drive in a new city. In a new city, a map or a general set of ideas might be helpful. Driving cases won’t, because to drive through a new city well, you have to know how to drive. In the same way, test cases are unlikely to be anything more than negligbly helpful. In order to learn quickly how to test a new program well, you have to know how to test.
It also seemed to me that she considers writing to be the One True Way to impart information, and reading to be the One True Way to receive it. Now, if I’m wrong about that, it would have to be because I’ve misinterpreted something she’s written. Fancy that!
So for the sake of discussion, let’s say I were to to hire (say) an older domain expert, making a career change, who had no computer experience, and let’s use Cut/Copy/Paste as an example. With the new recruit, I’d do what I’ve done many times in coaching sessions. I’d sit with her down with a copy of Microsoft Word, and open up a document that had some text and some images in it. Then I’d say something like this:
“We’re going to learn how to move text around, cutting and pasting and making copies of it so we can save time on retyping stuff that the machine can do for us. Okay. Put your cursor there, and press Shift-RightArrow there. Good. See what happened?”
(There would be lots of pauses. I’d pause after each question to give the trainee time to answer; frequently to let the trainee experiment; and often to let the trainee ask questions of her own. I won’t do that explicitly here; I’ll let you put most of the pauses in yourself, as you read. For sure, assume that there’s one at least after every question, and usually after every sentence.)
“So try doing that a few more times. What happened? So you’ve highlighted the text; people call that marking or selecting the text. What happens when you add the Ctrl key, and press Ctrl-Alt-RightArrow at the same time? Right: it selects a word at a time. Now, try pressing Ctrl-X.
“Whoa, what happened just there?! Right: pressing Ctrl-X that makes the selected text go away; you can see that. What you might not know is that the text goes onto the Windows Clipboard, a kind of temporary storage area for all kinds of stuff. So you haven’t erased it; it’s more like you’ve cut it out, and the computer still has a copy of it stashed somewhere.
“Now, put your cursor here, and hit Ctrl-V. What did that do? Yeah; it pasted the text you cut before. That is, it retrieved the text from the clipboard, and made a copy right where you pressed Ctrl-V. So, Ctrl-X cuts, and Ctrl-V pastes a copy of the thing you cut.
“Try that again. What happened? Right; another copy. So it’s a little different from regular cutting and pasting, in that you can make many copies of the same thing. When might that come in handy? Good idea! Yep, that’s a good idea too. Try it a few more times, in other places.
“What does Ctrl-V do? What does Ctrl-X do?
“Try selecting something else, and pressing Ctrl-X again. What happens when you paste now? Can you get the old one back? Well, there might be special add-ons that allow you to keep copies of lots of things you pasted, but normally, you can only paste the last thing you put on the Clipboard.
“How are you going to remember that Ctrl-X means “cut”? That’s a great idea! Myself, I think of the X as a pair of open scissors, ready to cut—but your idea is great, and better than that, it’s your own, so you’ll remember it.
“How are you going to remember Ctrl-V as paste? Yeah, it’s tough to come up with a way to remember that, isn’t it? I think of it like the tip of one of those old glue bottles from grade school. On the other hand, what’s in between X and V on the keyboard? Now, go select some text again. Remember how? Good.
“This time, try pressing Ctrl-C, instead of Ctrl-X. Right; nothing seems to happen. And yet… move your cursor here, and try pasting. Yeah; it’s a copy, even though the original stays where it was. So Ctrl-C is Copy–C for copy, which makes some kind of sense, for a change—right there in between cut and paste. And there’s another way to remember; try pressing Alt-E. E stands for Edit, that’s right. What do you see listed on the menu, there?
“Now… there’s some documentation for these cut-and-paste features; it’s in the Windows documentation. Press F1. Great. Now look for ‘Keyboard Shortcuts’.
“There’s a list. How many different ways can you find of marking, cutting, and pasting text? Make me a list, and I’ll be back in ten minutes. Be ready to show me your report, and to demonstrate the ones you’ve discovered. Oh—and one more thing: create a list of at least five circumstances in which you might use this stuff, and we’ll talk about that too.”
It’s taken quite a while to type this example. It would take considerably less time to do it. Moreover, the trainee would learn more quickly and more deeply, because she’d be interacting with the product herself, experiencing the actions in her body, literally incorporating them. The questions, the answers, and the interactions make the learning more sticky. The practice makes it more sticky still.
I try to encourage people to create mnemonics to help remember. While conversing with the trainee, I’d also be observing her. She’ll be making plenty of mistakes; people do that when they’re learning. In fact, people should be encouraged to do that when they’re learning. (Brian Marick’s book Everyday Scripting in Ruby encourages deliberate mistakes, which is one of the reasons I like it so much.) When I see mistakes, I’ll give her a chance to feel the mistake, puzzle out a way around it, and then—if she needs it—help her get out of it. (“Let’s figure out how to fix that. Hit Alt-E again. What’s listed on the Edit menu? So what’s the keyboard shortcut for Undo?” “Oops, you pressed Ctrl-Z one time too many… What does Ctrl-Y do?”).
After a while, I won’t tell her how to do everything right away. I’ll start asking her to figure out some things on her own, and only help out when she’s stuck. That way she’ll be learning it for herself, which is more challenging but which has more effect. I’ll keep trying to raise the bar, giving her more challenging assignments, increasing her independence while also increasing her responsibility to report. When I see her make a mistake, I might correct her right away, or I might let her continue with the mistake for a bit until she encountered some kind of minor consequence. That makes the learning even more sticky.
Finally, I’d cut the conversation short if she told me that she already knew how to cut and paste—but I’d get her to show me that she knew it, and I’d give her some more exercises so that I could observe her.
The trouble that I see with “passing on a script to a new recruit” is that most test scripts I’ve seen are very long on what to do or how to do it, and correspondingly short on why to do it and how to generalize it. That is, they’re short on motivation, and they’re short on risk, and they rarely include a mission to learn. In our teaching, when we’re working with test groups, and when we’re coaching individual testers, James and I put less emphasis on techniques. Instead, we focus on making sure that people have the skills to know what to do when they receive a testing mission, whether that mission is written down in detail or not.
If there are specific things that I want a tester to look for, I’ll provide specific instructions (either written or spoken), but mostly I want to set out on their own to discover things. I want to encourage testers to vary their work and their observations. Variation makes it more likely that they will find problems that would be out of sight if we were to focus on the scripts. As a bonus, giving testers a concise, open-ended task keeps writing to a minimum, which saves on development cost, maintenance cost, and opportunity cost.
We’ll finish up this series in the next post.