Saturday, 16 September 2017

On Testing this Pen

I am currently flying to Wellington, NZ to attend the WeTest 2017 Conference. I have just had two interviews last week for another placement with clients of my employer. It was while reflecting on this that a memory about one of my most early interview experiences came to me.

Years ago when I was a young, uncouth and very poor university graduate, I spent a year doing quite unglamourous jobs in Manchester, UK. The first of these was as an outbound telesales person "selling" credit cards over the phone. Suffice to say that I was a woeful salesman and after two weeks of utter mediocrity someone took pity on me and I was allowed move to a much less stressful data entry position with the same company.

What makes this story testing-blog worthy is the interview. The interviewer took a Bic biro and held it up in the air, asking me that most common of sales interview questions "Sell me this pen!"
I had never done sales before but the recruitment consultant who placed me had given me a primer on just this question. One isn't supposed to try to market the pen immediately. The interviewer hasn't yet stated what he or she wants in a pen and you may sell it all wrong. You ask questions about the interviewers' needs and circumstances - what documents will they write with it? What is their pen budget? How long do they want it to last? Will it be used on a paper surface, and what type? Does the interviewer like pen lids and clips that fit over a top pocket? ..and so on.

The candidate then looks at the pen's qualities with respect to the answers to the above and tries to find selling points in the pen that match the interviewer's needs. "You say you like pens cheap - nothing cheaper than a Bic".. "You don't want any of that leakage and filling up with ink hassle - not much of that with this biro!"... "You have a penchant for blue - here is a lovely blue pen!" etc..

Years later when I first started working in testing in London and meeting other testers at meetups, I did hear from others that it was common for a while for testing interviewers to take out a biro or ballpen and ask "(How would you) test this pen?" Nobody liked this question as it seemed obtuse and somewhat demeaning to ask this to an IT professional. It appears to have gone out of fashion and I have never been asked it and known of anyone else ask it in recent years. Nevertheless, as it does for the mindset of a salesperson, it does give the interviewer to gauge the approach and mindset of a candidate tester - especially a relatively inexperienced one.

How do candidate testers approach this question? Do they attack the pen with scenarios immediately - without knowing what the interviewer values in or wants to do with a pen or do they ask the right questions? Maybe the interviewer only likes things with the colour blue - the red biro you were given would be a severe no! Maybe there are multiple interviewers each with conflicting expectations of what their ideal pen would be lie - this could be explored further until some consensus. For writing signatures to formal letters to clients a fountain pen in order. To scribble notes into a notepad whilst exploratory testing, a biro or cheaper ballpen would do the job.

Does the tester then start scripting a set of test scenarios before testing? If the pen turns out to have no ink in it or the lid doesn't come off then most other tests will be blocked and it may be largely wasted effort. What about if the damn fickle interviewers want to change the pen requirements or don't have many requirements at all? Maybe a tester more inclined to an exploratory approach will have more luck. How would one approach that?

What sort of risks does the tester come up with? A terrible leakage accident? We could have a risk of that in your top pocket or in that vital signed release document! How about running out of ink at the worst moment? How about the lid being lost and ink drying up - maybe a clickbutton pen might be better!

What does the candidate suggest regarding edge cases? Can we test the pen on parchment? How about writing out the pen on a huge roll of paper until the ink runs out? How about subjecting it to 35-40 degree heat for those days when the air conditioning beaks - some pens may fail or leak in this temperature.

The interviewer may ask how the pen test result will be reported. A full test summary document? A simple set of pass/fail results? An extract from HPQC? A simple review meeting? What tools does the candidate say are required?

These are all largely facetious examples - however pondering on the points above is a huge part of what we testers do. A simple question, largely forgotten, can reveal so much....

Maybe it's time we started asking about how we test our pens again....

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

On Blogging - the Fears and the Inspiration

Whilst I don't write as many blog articles as I would like - and it sometimes takes a lot to get me started, I do immensely enjoy the act of writing tech and testing blog articles. The act that any tester, even someone as ordinary and relatively unknown as I, could write and self-publish (unedited by others) something that expresses personal thoughts and experiences related to tech - and yet without cost to me could be read by and stimulate thought and conversation for anybody in the world as soon as one posts it - is the kind of marvel that the great writers and philosophers of the past would have killed for. We take it for granted.

Nevertheless, it took me ages to overcome my fears about putting my thoughts out to the world. I had written blogs about other things that seemed more trivial in nature (My Another Sydney Blog about less touristy areas of Sydney was a good example) but writing out about Testing?!?

Fears I Had....

1) What about if I write something awful and contentious or get something wrong and end up vilified on Twitter?

2) What about if my current or future employer took offence at it?

3) Testing is still a landmine of arguments and fierce debate even today. What about if my experience didn't match up with some perceived glorious vision of modern testing practice - I'd look like some old fossil!

4) What do I have to say that the testing experts and gurus haven't already said? I'm just an average journeyman tester who had never spoken at a conference (at the time) or written a bestselling tech book, studied CS at Oxbridge or MIT or worked at Google. Who cares what I think?

5) I don't know how to write like a pro. Will people be interested?

...and others I have probably forgotten.

Of the fears above, some can be real issues whilst some are laughable and more indicative of my own issues with imposter syndrome at the time, however I am sure that they do put off others from sharing their thoughts and experience online.

So how did I get started? By chance actually. I went to a talk many years ago by the testing expert and prodigious blogger James Bach at Google Sydney - not long after reading his great book "Secrets of A Buccaneer Scholar", then having the pleasure of talking with him afterwards in person and by email about writing articles. He was extremely encouraging on the topic of blogging and if I hadn't met him it is quite likely that I would have never got started. I asked him what a tester should write about that hadn't already been said. His answer "Write about your experiences!" Perfect...

My first efforts were tentative and not great. I wrote a rather muddled and unsatisfactory article about ISO29119 - the impending software testing standard that ended up widely hated and disappeared. My next article, taking the de Montaigne approach, was a very personal article about my own Imposter Syndrome.

From my first few tentative blog articles I entered a period of fear and procrastination that lasted for over two years until I started writing again in early 2017. The last several months has been a period of experimenting with different writing styles and finding my own "voice" - which I am nowhere close to yet, however there has been improvement and an encouraging reception.

What about the fears I mentioned above, which caused so much hesitation and procrastination? None of them have materialised at all (thankfully).

1) I have made mistakes and written about contentious subjects but the feedback received has been overwhelmingly positive. Where criticism has been levelled, it has always been polite and constructive. I presume that for most new testing bloggers not writing controversy for its own sake, their feedback will also be civil.

2) Of course it is possible that your employer could take an issue with your blog article, however I think companies are generally supportive of their staff blogging as long as some details remain confidential. My employer has generally liked the blog and @TestingRants twitter handle and I have had likes and retweets from its social media (much appreciated).

3) Testing is a large enough field with diversity of practice for all types of experiences to be shared. For all the companies practicing agile, exploratory, devops, continuous integration, various levels of automation etc. there are still lots of companies taking traditional waterfall/V-Model approaches doing scripted manual tests (prepared, matched carefully with requirements, stored in HPQC to be approved by a BA or stakeholder beforehand). My last project was very similar to this. I do expect this to diminish over time however - even so, with the incredible rate of change in IT the future of testing and QA is unwritten. We can all write about our experiences without embarrassment.

4) This is probably the most laughable and mostly indicative of my struggle with imposter syndrome at the time. My experience is that if you put your thoughts out in a blog and make considered and rational points, people will read it and appreciate it - if only because the act of writing honestly about one's work is challenging. However we all have something others can learn from and nobody started off a testing expert. This was developed through years of experience and reflection. Also, whilst prestige does matter in IT to a degree the vast majority of dev and testing bloggers have never studied CS at Oxbridge or MIT or worked at Google and do just fine!

5) The reality is that your first set of articles will be woeful to middling. Everyone starts off like that and the chances we will ever truly write like a great a very slim anyway, however don't let that put you off. You will be struggling to find a writing style that suits you, and many times something to write about. Your content may be inspired or random more than considered - mine tends to be. You may look back at it and think "What the F**k was that?", however the reality is that when written from a position of personal experience and thinking about the field, your article will be interesting and useful to someone - and over time your following will grow as your confidence and skill grow.

So if you haven't yet started a blog, come and join us! We don't bite, and sometimes we even offer kind words and encouragement! Get started!

And one final note - Thanks James Bach for your kind words and encouragement at the beginning. They meant a lot.