Before the hustle and bustle of the work day set in, a colleague of mine and I were discussing a picture someone had drawn on a post-it and left on his monitor.
The message was clear, someone wanted to thank him for his efforts recently, which is a lovely gesture. What wasn’t so clear was the little picture in the bottom corner. Within the context of the message it was easy, the picture represented someone in the water. However, take the message away and the picture becomes less clear. I described it as one of those balsa airplanes with a rubber band propeller (indicated below), flying above the clouds.
This led my colleague to introduce me to a wonderful joke that he was told when he was growing up in Spain. The joke goes like this:
Teacher: “Listen carefully: Four crows are on the fence. The farmer shoots one. How many are left?”
Little Johnny: “None.”
Teacher: “Can you explain that answer?”
Little Johnny: “One is shot, the others fly away. There are none left.”
Teacher: “Well, that isn’t the correct answer, but I like the way you think.”
Little Johnny: “Teacher, can I ask a question?”
Little Johnny: “There are three women in the ice cream parlor. One is licking, one is biting and one is sucking her ice cream cone. Which one is married?”
Teacher: “The one sucking the cone.”
Little Johnny: “No. The one with the wedding ring on, but I like the way you think.”
In the first part, the teacher’s context was that of an arithmetic problem. The teacher was likely expecting Little Johnny to say 4, but Little Johnny may have been considering a less abstract interpretation of the information provided. Little Johnny hears the word ‘shot’ and his internal model converts that to a gun, a loud noise and the jittery nature of birds. In that context it’s perfectly understandable that Little Johnny gave the answer he did.
What was the trigger for this misunderstanding? I think it’s caused because the teacher, unknowingly at the time, left their question ambiguous in the face of their audience. This is something Little Johnny takes advantage of in the second part, setting a trap for the teacher to lead to the inevitable punch-line. Little Johnny provides very specific information to describe the scene, building a picture or model in the head of the teacher and in doing so, introducing biases of perspective that the teacher will use to answer the question. Little Johnny then comes in left field with a question, which the teacher will attempt to answer with the specifically limited information Little Johnny provides and laughter ensues.
Why is this an important lesson for Software Testers?
Each and everyday, the life of a tester is filled with information that is provided either knowingly incomplete, or more dangerously, obliviously incomplete.
It’s very much the role for us Software Testers to remember Little Johnny and the teacher when we’re communicating across the disciplines of the teams we work with. As we learn what it is that the product is expected to do, we must force ourselves to remember that it is very likely that our interpretation of the information is incorrect or incomplete based on our own biases and perspective.
We can counter this by asking questions, even if we feel like it might come across as dumb to do so – I’d almost argue that this is exactly when we must ask questions.
The 5 Why’s technique is a useful tool for understanding the primary objectives and drivers of an activity. With it we can challenge the assumptions made by ourselves and others and take them from the world of implicit to explicit.
Specification by Example is another technique that is practised throughout the software industry to provide a consistent language to describe behaviours and expectations, however I find that it’s rarely used to its full potential. Yes GWT scenarios can provide a suite of regression checks but the real power is in the conversation that can be had between a group of people to again, make the implicit, explicit – this will be the subject of another post, so keep tuned!
Even if we think we have a complete picture, the reality will be that we don’t. Rarely have I met anyone who can keep a whole network of related systems, dependencies, contracts and expectations in their head or even down on paper, in a sufficiently useful way, to remove any risk of misunderstanding or gaps in understanding.
That’s why for us Software Testers, our most useful tool can be our ability to explore the landscape in front of us, with a specifically chosen context, to build up a more complete understanding of the actual with respect to what we think we know.