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....


  1. I've heard the "sell me this pen" interview question, but it works better as a testing analogy. A great way to sound people out or even to encourage existing testers to think about how, why, what and when we should test.

    Thanks for sharing this. :-)

  2. I heard the 'sell me this pen' but I never heard of 'how to test this 'pen'. However, the same would apply and I agree, maybe it's time to go back to asking these types of questions. I am a QA Manager and interview candidates quite often. Candidates do come prepared to answer questions regarding strategy and approach very well but when it's time to execute based on the answer they provided or their resume, they often come up short. One way I describe my company is 'fast-paced'. Now we've all heard of that term. However, when I ask candidates if they are comfortable in working in a 'fast-paced' environment, they of course answer yes. What they are unable to provide is the difference between 'fast-paced', and ever-changing or lack of process as these all ream different characteristics and approaches.