Monday, July 28, 2014

It's Just Semantics

Why is it so important to say exactly what we mean? Checking vs testing, test cases aren't artefacts, you can't write down a test, best practice vs good practice in context - isn't it a lot of effort for nothing? Who cares? 

You should. If you care about the state of testing as an intellectual craft then you should care. If you want to do good testing then you should care. If you want to be able to call out snake oil salesmen and con artists who cheapen your craft then you should care. If you want to be taken seriously then you should care. If you want to be treated like a professional person and not a fungible data entry temp then you should care.

Brian needs to make sure that their software is okay. The company doesn't want any problems in it. So they hire someone to look at it to find all the problems. Brian does not understand the infinite phase space of the testing problem. Brian wants to know how it's all going - if the money the tester is getting is going somewhere useful. He demands a record of what the tester is doing in the form of test cases because Brian doesn't understand that test cases don't represent testing. He demands pass/fail rates to represent the quality of the software because Brian doesn't understand that pass/fail does not mean problem/no problem. The test cases pile up, and writing down the testing is becoming expensive so Brian gets someone to write automated checks to save time and money because Brian doesn't understand that automated checks aren't the same as executing a test case. So now Brian has a set of speedy, repeatable, expensive automated checks that don't represent some test cases that don't represent software testing and can only pretend to fulfil the original mission of finding important problems. I won't make you sit through what happens in 6 months when the maintenance costs cripple the project and tool vendors get involved.

When we separate "checking" and "testing", it's to enforce a demarcation to prevent dangerous confusion and to act as a heuristic trigger in the mind. When we say "checking" to differentiate it from "testing" we bring up the associations with its limitations. It protects us from pitfalls such as treating automated checks as a replacement for testing. If you agree that such pitfalls are important then you can see the value in this separation of meaning. It's a case of pragmatics - understanding the difference in the context where the difference is important. Getting into the "checking vs testing" habit in your thought and language will help you test smarter, and teach others to test smarter. Arguing over the details (e.g. "can humans really check?") is important so we understand the limitations of the heuristics we're teaching ourselves, so that not only do we understand that testing and checking are different in terms of meaning, but we know the weaknesses of the definitions we use.

So, we argue over the meaning of what we say and what we do for a few reasons. It helps us talk pragmatically about our work, it helps to dispel myths that lead to bad practices, it helps us understand what we do better, it helps us challenge bad thinking when we see it, it helps us shape practical testing into something intellectual, fun and engaging, and it helps to promote an intellectual, fun and engaging image of the craft of testing. It also keeps you from being a bored script jockey treated like a fungible asset quickly off-shored to somewhere cheaper.

So why are people resistant to engaging with these arguments?

It's Only Semantics

When we talk about semantics let's first know the difference between meaning and terminology. The words we use contain explicature and implicature, operate within context and have connotation. 

Let's use this phrase: "She has gotten into bed with many men".

First there's the problem of semantic meaning. Maybe I'm talking about bed, the place where many people traditionally go in order to sleep or have sex, and maybe you think I'm talking about an exclusive nightclub called Bed.

Then there's the problem with linguistic pragmatic meaning (effect of context on meaning). We might disagree on the implication that this women had sex with these men. Maybe it's an extract of a conversation about a woman working with a bed testing team where she's consistently the only female and the resultant effects of male-oriented bed and mattress design.

Then there's the problem with subjective pragmatic meaning. We might agree that she's had sex with men, but might disagree on what "many" is, or what it says about her character, or even agree that I'm saying that she's had sex with many men where I am implying something negative about her character but you disagree because you've known her for years and she's very moral, ethical, charitable, helpful and kind.

So where we communicate we must understand the terms we use (in some way that permits us to transmit information, so when I say "tennis ball" you picture a tennis ball and not a penguin), and we must appreciate the pragmatic context of the term (so when I say "tennis ball" you picture a tennis ball and not a tennis-themed party).

When we say "it's only a semantic problem" we're inferring that the denotation (the literal meaning of the words we use) is not as important as the connotation (the inference we share from the use of the words).

Firstly, to deal with the denotation of our terminology. How do we know that we know what we mean unless we challenge the use of words that seem to mean something completely different? Why should we teach new people to the craft the wrong words? Why do we need to create a secret language of meaning? Why permit weasel words for con artists to leverage?

Secondly, connotation. The words we use convey meaning by their context and associations. Choosing the wrong words can lead to misunderstandings. Understanding and conveying the meaning IS the important thing, but words and phrases and sentences are more than the sum of their literal meaning, and intent and understanding of domain knowledge do not always translate into effective communication. Don't forget that meaning is in the mind of the beholder - an inference based on observation processed by mental models shaped by culture and experience. It's arguments about the use of words that lead to better examination of what we all believe is the case. For example some people say that whatever same-sex marriage is it should be called something else (say, "civil union") because the word marriage conveys religious or traditional meaning that infers that it is between a man and a woman. The legal document issued is still the marriage licence. We interpret the implicature given the context of the use of these words which affects the nature of the debate we have about it. We can argue about "marriage" - the traditional religious union, and we can argue about "marriage" - the relationship embodied in national law and the rights it confers. We can also talk about "marriage" - the practical, day to day problems and benefits and trials and goings on of being married.

Things Will Never Change

Things are changing now. Jerry Weinberg, James Bach, Michael Bolton and many others' work is rife with challenging the status quo, and now we have a growing CDT community with increasing support from people who want to make the testing industry respected and useful. There's work in India to change the face of the testing industry (Pradeep Soundararajan's name comes to mind). There's STC, MoT, AST and ISST. The idea that a problem won't be resolved is a very poor excuse not to be part of moving towards a solution. Things are always changing. We are at the forefront of a new age of testing, mining the coalface of knowledge for new insight! It's an incredibly exciting time to be in a changing industry. Make sure it changes for the better.

It's The Way It's Always Been

Yes, that's the problem.

I'll Just Deal With Other Challenges

Also known as "someone else will sort that out". Fine, but what about your own understanding? If you don't know WHY there's a testing vs checking problem then you're blinding yourself to the problems behind factory testing. If you don't investigate the testing vs checking problem then you won't know why the difference between the two is important to the nature of any solution to the testing problem, and you're leaving yourself open to be hoodwinked by liars. Understand the value of what you're doing, and make sure that you're not doing something harmful. At the very least keep yourself up to date with these debates and controversies.

There's another point to be made here about moral duty in regard to such debates and controversies. If you don't challenge bad thinking then you are permitting bad thinking to permeate your industry. If we don't stand up to those who want to sell us testing solutions that don't work then they will continue to do so with complete repudiation. I think that this moral duty goes hand-in-hand with a passion for the craft of testing, just as challenging racist or sexist remarks goes hand-in-hand with an interest in the betterment of society as we each see it. It's okay to say "I'm not going to get into that", but if you claim to support the betterment of the testing industry and its reputation as an intellectual, skilled craft then we could really use your voice when someone suggests something ridiculous, and I'd love to see more, innovative approaches to challenging bad or lazy thinking.

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." - John Stuart Mill

Sounds Like A Lot Of Effort

Testing is an enormously fun, engaging, intellectual activity, but it requires a lot of effort. Life is the same way. For both of these things what you get out of it depends on what you put in.

Arguments Are Just Making Things Less Clear/Simple

This is an stance I simply do not understand. The whole point of debate is to bash out the ideas and let reason run free. Clear definitions give us a starting point for debate, debate gives us rigour to our ideas. I fail to see how good argument doesn't make things better in any field.

As for simplicity, KISS is a heuristic that fails when it comes to the progress of human knowledge. We are concerned here with the forefront of knowledge and understanding, not implementing a process. Why are we so eager to keep it so simple at the expense of it being correct? I've talked to many testers and I've rarely thought that they couldn't handle the complexity of testing, as much as they could the complexity of life. I don't know who we're protecting with the idea that we must keep things simple, especially when the cost is in knowledge, understanding and the progression of our industry.

I've been reluctant to release this post. It represents my current thinking (I think!), but I think it's uninformed which may mean that it's not even-handed. Linguistics and semantics are fairly new to me. I'm reading "Tacit and Explicit Knowledge" at the moment, I may come back and refine my ideas. Please still argue with me if you think I'm wrong, I have a lot to learn here.

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