March 5, 2015

Everybody tests!

After meeting Michael Larsen at last year's EuroSTAR conference, I discovered that we shared a common trait, that of tsundoku: having unread books piling up around you. Although Michael's backlog is much more impressive than mine (his can be seen in this blog post, Solving my Tsundoku), nevertheless I'm making a concerted effort to clear mine this year. Spending two hours on a train each day is certainly helping!

As a result, I'm finding myself flitting between vastly differing books, and drawing some interesting parallels along the way. For example, one morning I was reading the following from Paul Gerrard's excellent The Tester's Pocketbook, about how - as a species - we are all testers:

We test drive a car before we buy it. We test our food before we swallow it. We re-read our emails before we send them [...] In every case, our behaviour is affected by the outcome of a test [...] If the outcome is negative, we don't buy, commit, swallow or even propose marriage. If we are risk-averse, if the outcome is neutral or uninformative, we might decide we need more information, new tests, and test again.

This segment was still bouncing around inside my head later that day, when I was reading Jonathan Green's engrossing book, You Are The Hero, which tells the history of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. You may be more familiar with their more mainstream counterparts, the Choose Your Own Adventure series, where after each short section, the user is given a choice about which page to turn to next. Fighting Fantasy was aimed more towards existing role-players, introducing elements such as dice-rolls and skill points to create a more varied challenge.

You Are The Hero is a real labour of love (Green himself has authored multiple FF gamebooks, and has been a fan since he was a child) and, along with a wealth of new and original artwork, the book is full of discussions with the people behind the Fighting Fantasy series. As a tester, one of the most interesting interviews came from Philippa Dickinson, who at the time was a junior editor at Puffin Books.

Philippa provided an interesting insight into how editing a Fighting Fantasy book was different to a normal text, and (as both a qualified journalist and a long-time tester) I found this section a true joy:

"When confronted with this thing I thought how do you edit something like this? And the way I did it was I got large sheets of paper – wallpaper lining paper – and just started mapping all the different choices and options. So I actually tried to make a graphical representation, I tried to make a map of what they were doing.

"My job was to make sure it worked, really, 'cos normally you edit in a fairly linear fashion, but this you couldn't edit because you needed to follow every strand through and I needed to make sure they'd covered all the options and make sure there weren't dead-ends and that if you'd dropped this sword there or that sword there that you didn't suddenly find that by going that way round the options that you still had it... It was a really interesting logical puzzle to make it work.

"The bit that was unusual was having to do the checking that all the steps worked, and so I had these huge, long bits of paper with maps, and the first one, I remember, I actually did it with maps and tunnels, and eventually, after a few books, I realised that I didn't need that, I just needed lines, cos I didn't need to draw it... So I was actually drawing corridors and tunnels and caves the first one, or possibly two, but certainly had it in the first one... Later on I just needed to map the options with lines, like some absolutely crazy mindmap, I suppose, just to make sure that all the loops came back. That there weren't dead-ends or if there were that you ended up dead."

- taken from You Are The Hero (p19), by Jonathan Green (2014)

Although sub-editing and testing are two careers that share some degree of overlap (indeed, it was my love of sub-editing that guided me towards a testing career when I discovered that slaving away on a local newspaper wasn't the job for me), I doubt that Philippa would describe herself as a tester. Yet what she eloquently displays above is a tremendous ability for communicating her test activities - something which many in our industry could learn a great deal from.

In particular, I noticed the following activities that Philippa was performing:

  • Model your environment - Mind-mapping is a great way of bringing structure to otherwise-linear information, and can be useful both passively (as reference material) or actively (as a way of generating additional test ideas while you are in full flow). Given this was the early 1980s, mature computerised mapping tools were in their infancy, so it's delightful that she drew them by hand on huge sheets of paper - I would love to have seen some of those!
  • Know your constraints/challenges - Philippa recognised how this project was different to others that have gone before, and determined what might need to be done differently. We can reuse a lot of our core skills and tendencies across a wide range of projects, but it's important that we learn to recognise (and embrace) when we're encountering something new.
  • Refine your method - In the final paragraph, Philippa talks about how she adapted her working after the first few iterations, to eliminate waste and increase clarity. There's a temptation in testing to always stick with what you know if it's worked before, but this can sometimes lead to using an over-engineered solution to a problem which is becoming simpler. Don't let your tools lead you astray!
  • Describe the activities - Her report is detailed enough for her own needs; although it's describing events from decades ago, I'm confident that (given the opportunity) Philippa would be able to repeat a similar activity today. I have an understanding of her approach, and how I might use it to tackle a similar task. Importantly, it's not a step-by-step guide to how to do her job! (Despite what enthusiasts of heavily-scripted test cases might have you believe.)

If, as Paul Gerrard posits, each and every one of us is in some way a tester, then those of us who call it our profession should strive to be able to communicate our work as meaningfully as Phillipa's excerpt. This can be improved with learning and practice; for example, we ran a recent Weekend Testing Europe (WTEU-48) session on test reporting, and on Saturday the Weekend Testing Americas (WTA-59) session will be doing similar. But if you keep your eyes open to the wider world, you may spot such interesting anecdotes as Phillipa's.

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