A junior tester relates some of the issues she’s encountering in describing her work.
To the people who thinks she “just breaks stuff all day”, here’s what I might reply:
It’s not that I don’t just break stuff; I don’t break stuff at all. The stuff that I’ve given to test is what it is; if it’s broken, it was broken when I got it. If I break anything, consider what my colleague James Bach says: I break dreams; I break the illusion that the software is doing what people want.
And when somebody doesn’t understand what a tester does, these are some of the metaphors upon which I can start a conversation. These are some things that, in my testing work, I am or that I aspire to be.
I’m a research scientist. My field of study is a product that’s in development. I research the product and everything around it to discover things that no one else has noticed so far. An important focus of my research is potential problems that threaten the value of the product. Other people—builders and managers—may know an immense amount about the product, but the majority of their attention is necessarily directed towards trying to make things work, and satisfaction about things that appear to work already. As a scientist, I’m attempting to falsify the theory that everything is okay with the product. So I study the technologies on which the product is built. I model the tasks and the problem space that the product is intended to address. I analyze each feature in the product, looking for problems in the way it was designed. I experiment with each part of the product, trying to disprove the theory that it will behave reasonably no matter what people throw at it. I recognize the difference between an experiment (investigating whether something works) and a demonstration (showing that something can work).
I’m an explorer. I start with a fuzzy idea of the product, and a large, empty notebook. I treat the product as a set of territories to be investigated, a country or city or landscape to learn about. I move through the space, sometimes following a safe route, and sometimes deviating from the usual path, and sometimes going to extremes. I might follow some of the same paths over and over again, but when I really want to learn about the territory, I turn off the marked roads, bushwhacking, branching and backtracking, getting lost sometimes, but always trying to see the landscape from new angles. I observe and reflect as I go. In my notebook I create pages of maps, diagrams, lists, journal entries, tables, photos, procedures. Mind you, I know that the book is only a pale representation of what I’ve seen and what I’ve learned, no matter how much I write and illustrate. I also know that many of the pages in the book are for myself, and that I’ll only show a few pages to others. The notebook is not the story of my exploration; it helps me tell the story of my exploration. (Here’s some more on notebooks.)
I’m a social scientist. I’m a sociologist and anthropologist, studying how people live and work; how they organize and interact; how things happen in their culture; and how the product will help them get things done. That’s because a product is not merely machinery and some code to make it work. A product fits into society, to fulfill a social purpose of some kind, and humans must repair the differences between what machines and humans can do. Thus testing requires a complex social judgement—which is much more than a matter of making sure that the wheels spin right. (I am indebted to Harry Collins for putting this idea so clearly.) What I’m doing has hard-science elements (just as anthropology has a strong biological component), but social sciences don’t always return hard answers. Instead, they provide “partial answers that might be useful”. (I am indebted to Cem Kaner for putting this idea so clearly.) As a social scientist, I strive to become aware of my biases so that I can manage them, thereby addressing certain threats to the validity of my research. So, I use and interact with the product in ways that represent actual customers’ behaviour, to discover problems that I and everyone else might have missed otherwise. I gather facts about the product; how it fits into the tasks that users perform with it, and how people might have to adapt themselves to handle the things that the product doesn’t do so well.
I’m a tool user. I’m always interacting with hardware, software, and other contrivances that help me to get things done. I use tools as media in the McLuhan sense: tools extend, enhance, intensify, enable, accelerate, amplify my capabilities. Tools can help me set systems up, generate data, and see things that might otherwise be harder to see. Tools can help me to sort and search through data. Tools can help me to produce results that I can compare to my product’s results. Tools can check to help me see what’s there and what might be missing. Tools can help me to feed input to the product, to control it, and to observe its output. Tools can help me with record-keeping and reporting. Sometimes the tools I’ve got aren’t up to the task at hand, so I use tools to help me build tools—whereupon I am also a tool builder. I’m aware of another aspect of McLuhan’s ideas about media: when extended beyond their original or intended capacity, tools reverse into producing the opposite of their original or intended effects.
I’m a critic. Like my favourite film critics, I study the work and how it might appeal—or not—to the audience for which it is intended. I study the technical aspects of the product, just as a film critic looks at lighting, framing of the shots, and other aspects of cinematography; at sound; at editing; at story construction; and so forth. I study culture and history—I study the culture and history of software—as a critic studies those of film—and of societies generally—to evaluate how well the product (story) fits in relation to its culture and its period and the genre in which the work fits. I might like the work or not, but as a critic, my personal preferences aren’t as important as analyzing the work on behalf of an audience. To do this well, I must recognize my preferences and my biases, and manage them. I fit all those things and more into an account that helps a potential audience decide whether they’ll like it or not. (A key difference is that the reader of my review is not the audience of a finished product; my review is for the cast, crew, and producers as the product is being built.)
I’m an investigative reporter. My beat is the product and everything and everyone around it. I ask the who, what, where, when, why, and how questions that reporters ask, and I’m continually figuring out and refining the next set of questions I need to ask. I’m interacting with the product myself, to learn all I can about it. I’m interviewing people who are asking for it, the people are who building it, and other people who might use it. I’m telling a story about what I discover, one that leads with a headline, begins with a summary overview and delves into to more detail. My story might be illustrated with charts, tables, and pictures. My story is truthful, but I realize the existence of different truths for different people, so I’m also prepared to bring several perspectives to the story.
There are other metaphors, of course. These are the prominent ones for me. What other ones can you see in your own work?