Becoming Healthily Uncertain Doubt by Doubt

Fiona Charles’s workshop “We Can’t Know Everything – Promoting Healthy Uncertainty on Software Projects” at Let’s Test 2014 reminded me of a dusty old idea at the back of my mind…

Once when I was musing about what good has seven years and 2 degrees at the university done to me, I realized that one of the greatest lessons I learned was that I learned to doubt. I learned to be suspicious of quick and definite answers. I learned to deal with not knowing things for sure. I became conscious of how fallible I am.

What did I study that taught me this? I studied English language and literature.

I started out along with a bunch of others thinking that we shall be really good at English, that we shall be experts of sorts. I ended up being an expert doubter scrambling for information from a variety of resources to have some degree of certainty in a specific and limited context. It’s what studying a language teaches you: usually the meaning of words is not straightforward and it tends to depend on context. “No wonder context-driven testing makes so much sense to me,” I thought.

I have discussed the feeling of constant uncertainty with my course mates and they have agreed that it’s one of the most persistent lessons they’ve learned. Conversely, we’ve noticed that it’s not a lesson other people have learned or willingly learn when it comes to language. If I’m asked to translate a word or a sentence, I can rarely offer up an immediate translation, and this is when people express their confusion. “It’s just a word” or “it’s not that complicated” is what I hear.

As a professional doubter, I beg to differ. I need to use several heuristics to determine what could be a suitable word, for example. What is actually meant (use rephrase as a method) and what is the specific context? What is the style? What is the register? Sometimes there may be a few words that look very similar in meaning but may have nuances in the contexts they’re being used. Choosing the right one from that set may take some additional research into the usage of the word. Eventually, I’ll have to make a decision and accept it that I may still be wrong.

That’s how I’ve been exposed to and conditioned by uncertainty in the unexpected event of my becoming a software tester. I don’t know if others have similar experiences from different specialties. Also, I still need to think about if I can find a way to translate parts of my experience into something that can help other people on the software projects.

I still have this question, though… Will long-term exposure to (a certain kind of) uncertainty help to deal with it or can there be short-term strategies that help as well?

Let’s Test 2014

Let’s Test 2013 changed my life as a tester. Literally, I have changed as a person and what I do as a tester since then thanks to the people I met and the inspiration I got. I’m yet to see what will happen after this year’s Let’s Test.

I quickly sketched the titles of the blog posts I want to write about different topics (re)inspired  by Let’s Test and I stopped at 13. Now, I’m determined to write them all, I just need to schedule time for them… 🙂

People

Last year I used some interesting and creepy (now slightly embarrassing) introductory phrases like “Hi, you don’t know who I am but I’m following you on Twitter”. This year I felt like I had returned for a family reunion, hence, such introductions weren’t necessary anymore.

I like that at Let’s Test people really are in the center of everything. I had a number of great conversations with people I had met before and with those I hadn’t. And then I discovered a number of people I met briefly but with whom I wish to have a longer conversation, so I had to make a list of them and hopefully, I’ll be able to run into them at a conference in the future.

It was awesome to meet my friend Erik Brickarp face-to-face again and we had a few lovely conversations about on different topics over the course of the conference. I feel like any words I choose would be fairly inadequate in expressing how important a peer and a friend he’s become for me. I know he’s helped me change my perspective on testing and myself in the testing context. I guess Erik’s own words sum it up best: “You’ve done some crazy shit since I met you, Helena!”

Kristoffer Nordström and Richard Bradshaw also joined me and Erik while we were discussing our #transpectiontuesday and I think we had a really nice chat around the topics of reaching out to people, how me and Erik have ended up where we have, and how other testers could connect to each other. I hope both Kristoffer and Richard will act on what we discussed… and another alliance will be formed 🙂

I can call out some more people but then I’m a bit afraid I may forget someone just because I’m not even sure on which days I had some of the conversations 😀 (yes, I made the conscious decision not to sleep very much). One thing is for sure, Meike’s hugs were an important and energizing part of the conference.

I was glad to meet David Högberg at last who was among the reviewers of my article for The Testing Planet.

I sat down with the Panda and got an insight to his wonderful integrity.

Me and Erik talked to Steve Smith about communities, a conversation where Jon Bach joined in to tell about his adventures in Europe.

Fiona Charles gave me a sleepmask which really helped because those damn white nights are too white for me.

Zeger van Hese patiently listened when I talked about my testing workshop for programmers (and then some more things), and at 3am I discovered he has a great sense of humor as well.

Huib Schoots sat down with me for a looooong time (I had a lot of content and slides) to discuss the testing workshop I created for programmers as I had used some of his materials for inspiration. I got many useful pointers out of this discussion, so I will go back to my slides and add some notes to them. I also gave a rundown of my workshop when I ran into Stephen Blower.

Bert Jagers introduced me to the book about storytelling: Stories that Move Mountains: Storytelling and Visual Design for Persuasive Presentations which I now want to get my hands on.

And the list goes on… and on… and on…

Thank you everyone for spending some of their time with me!

Tutorial, Tracks&Workshops

Tutorial: James Bach and Pradeep Soundararajan –  “Review by Testing: Analyzing a Specification by Testing the Product”.

This one shall deserve a blog post on its own once I tidy up my notes. At my current job, we don’t have any written specs, so I was hoping to learn something useful about working with specs as I will be changing jobs soon and there shall be specs there. I believe I did get quite a few useful ideas out of it but time and practice will tell if it’s true.

Key takeaway: sometimes it may not be a good idea to ask a lot of questions about the spec. As testers, we’re aware that a spec can’t answer every question and a bad spec can make us generate very many questions. An alternative is to form possible answers to your questions as statements and ask if this is what someone meant. It’s easier for people to make a quick evaluation of such a statement instead of gathering your strength to start answering a question. Also, in my experience, asking questions can sometimes be seen as a personal attack or an attack against someone’s expertise but using the “statement method” can probably help reduce this risk.

Pradeep Soundararajan “Testers as Respected Business Problem Solvers – A True Story”

This was an awesome track where Pradeep got us and himself in the mood by chanting “PANDA! PANDA!”. I have a sketchnote from this session that I need to finish up, so this one will also be a separate blog post. My key takeaway was how Pradeep has expanded on what testing can do and how it can be useful. Trying to pay close attention to actually understanding the initial problem or a need behind a request from a customer instead of just “doing my bit of the work called testing” is something I try to do in my day-to-day role as a tester/test lead. Therefore, I could really relate to what Pradeep said about his journey. Of course, he’s on a whole other level as he’s built a business around testers providing “more than just testing” to businesses. He provides a way to not lose money and help a business grow with the help of testing.

I also attended the workshop on note taking techniques&practice by Louise Perold and the track talk by Martin Hynie and Christin Wiedemann about how playing games could be useful. I don’t have very many notes from the note taking workshops as I was taking notes about the game we were testing. The game kind of distracted me from note taking as I found it a bit hard to use in a productive way. I got more into the playing mode to advance in the game to even have notes to take but that reduced the number of notes I could take, so I ended up doing quite a bit of balancing between these activities.

For me, Martin’s and Christin’s talk about the science behind playing games mostly made the point that following your energy and curiosity can take you to really interesting place and that you may learn a lot on the way. Having a bit of an academic background myself, I’m very familiar with the problems of trying to find useful information from the research out there, carefully applying “hedging” to your language use, and ending up with somewhat inconclusive findings. Martin and Christin also ended up with something like “further research needed” after their experiments with the complex human brain. Regardless, I’m looking forward to hearing more about how to use games as a way for creating new avenues in our brain to use for other purposes.

Fiona Charles “We Can’t Know Evertything – Promoting Healthy Uncertainty on Software Projects”

Fiona’s workshop took the participants through considering and outlining the different aspects of uncertainty on a software project, and then figuring out ways how to tackle them. To me it seems that accepting uncertainty is largely influenced by the mindset you have built from your contexts. I have a few experiences related to people accepting or not accepting uncertainty and will write a blog post about them. I suspect it may have a lot to do with the kind of language we use…

My key takeaway was the image of how the path of a hurricane is predicted point by point. The whole path is given as a possibility but only the first few points on the path are given as fairly sure facts. Therefore, you can communicate the overall movement quite explicitly while leaving room for uncertainty which you can communicate clearly.

Anna Royzman’s talk on the quality leader definitely resonated with me. Understanding that a tester’s role can be broader than its typical definition can push us to learn more things and discover more stuff worth learning. What I took away from this talk in mind was that new practices of building software can and will ask new things from someone who calls him- or herself a tester. In itself this statement is nothing new… There has been a debate going on about the skills part (especially regarding programming) for some time. But I appreciate Anna pointing out that there are specific things that someone with testing expertise can help a team or organization with such as facilitating testing activities, doing the thinking about test strategy and helping others in thinking about quality, also helping them realize the subjectivity of quality.

Keynotes

Tim Lister’s keynote took us back in time, propelled us through 4 decades of lessons and insights (in history for the large majority of participants, I believe). I realized I could recognize some of his lessons as something I’ve learned as well but had forgotten… or they aren’t as eminent to me all the time. Importantly, I realized I haven’t really looked back, I haven’t looked into the history of the field I’m in which means I’m lacking some depth in understanding where the things I take as a given today have come from in the past.

Steve Smith’s keynote was a treat for me because I love discovering metaphors, observing something that is layered and that can have many meanings depending on the angle you take to look at it; that there is a central message that is being communicated but there is also a meta-level commentary on it that is weaved into the whole thing. Therefore, I will think about the keynote a bit more but don’t worry, there’s a blog post brewing about this one as well…

The final keynote was a unique one like Steve’s. A large part of the content for it came from the tutorial Jon Bach held at Let’s Test. I really liked the opening of the keynote where Jon was musing whether being on stage is a best practice for a keynote. I think the main takeaway for me was to not accept simple statements about a practice being always true (or for anything else): get creative and you WILL find that it depends on context.

Lightning talks

About 20 minutes before the lightning talks began, I signed up for giving one. Then I scrambled to take quick notes about what I wanted to talk about. Topic: “A model for assessing reliability of test reports”. I knew it was going to be a bit far-fetched as I tried to build something useful for test reporting pulling ideas from rhetorical narrative theory. I won’t know if I will end up with anything useful but I’d like to do some additional thinking, doodling and writing on this topic and then have my peers help and work with me on this.

There was plenty of interesting and intriguing content in the lightning talks. I witnessed quite a few conversations to be sparked by the questions or followup comments. Yay for more conferring!

I’m glad lightning talks were part of the conference as it makes the speaker experience accessible for people. Thanks, Erik, for taking the initiative and facilitating the talks!

Other stuff that happened

There was this extra intriguing puzzle with blinking red lights to solve (not sure if it was a tip of the hat to the dice game :)). I learned what broneys are. I played set with a bunch of people. I gave Michael Albrecht advice on what to do in Las Vegas. I got a bit of a “talking to” from James Bach (something along the lines of “You have to speak up! Why are you so humble?! If Erik says you’re smart, why are you hiding?” – needless to say I said something completely inadequate in return which is an obvious sign of my inability to accept good stuff even if my life depended on it… But I will work on this anyway). I stayed up late and witnessed an unexpected consequence when I uttered a couple of Estonian words after the Panda had asked me about the Estonian language. Ilari was promoting the barefoot movement by example. I laughed a lot but also cried once. I felt cold outside but my heart was warmed by the people around me. I talked to people new to Let’s Test about how it can take very little to get something personal and meaningful started at a conference using the story of how I ordered Erik Brickarp to sit down and have lunch with me as an example from last Let’s Test.

Eventually, I feel a bit “stolen away” (listen to the lyrics of the song below…) by Let’s Test – nostalgic, somewhat sad, bittersweet yet hopeful. There’s a lot to look forward to, a lot of thinking to do. Will I change my course? What is the course I should take? What else to learn? What not to learn?

I won’t really know. But I’m excited to find out.