Writing About Testing? Think Motivation, Not Discipline

Ok, I’ve already lost some of you by using the word “writing” in the title. I understand. It’s not a sexy sport. Sit in front of a keyboard and type stuff. Woo hoo.

For testers, however, it’s a necessary evil. We have to be able to describe what we see in our work. There are bug reports, notes during testing, and reports to write. I’ve long thought that there could even be a new role on projects titled “Project Journalist” to keep track of important decisions, meeting notes, risks, and information that always emerges during projects.

But forget that for now.

I’m writing this hoping that you may consider another important kind of writing about testing — blogging and articles about our craft.

For two days this past weekend, Chris McMahon thought it would be a good idea to convene a small group of testing professionals to talk about just that. Sixteen or so of us agreed and showed up to join him in the middle of nowhere (Durango, CO).

For two days at 6500 feet above sea level, we met in Durango’s public library to see what the fuss was all about. We were all writers, bloggers, article authors, and a few us were book authors. There was even one rep from the media (Joey McAllister from SQE).

There was the usual peer conference stuff — presentations, exercises, break-out sessions for conferring and trading ideas. But for me, I found a possible solution to a problem I had been having for years: I have the time and the passion to write, but I lack the discipline. So, how do I get it?

Elisabeth Hendrickson, Marlena Compton and Marisa Seal helped me smash a solution together in a few minutes. What emerged from that discussion was that it’s not about discipline, but motivation. After a few minutes of talking with them, I was suddenly aware of the factors over the years that have helped me to get writing done. Maybe I just forgot them because they weren’t all in one easy list, so let me fix that here:

1) Passion — When I’m Provoked, Pissed Off, or Pumped, that’s passion — energy like a raging river that carries the writing. It’s an elixir, a form of inebriation I find myself in that results in an excitement to communicate something. Other writers at the conference agreed that when you’re bored when writing, someone will be bored reading. If the opposite is true, then Passion may be your #1 motivating factor. The beauty is you can’t force it. You can’t sit down and try to get passionate about something — at least, it doesn’t work for me. But I can sit down and ask “what am I passionate about?” and learn what I think I already know because of being fueled in some way. (E.g. The first draft of this article was 1700 words written in 2 hours.)

2) Pressure (or Promises) — some people love deadlines. I do, too, and time boundaries work for me. But that’s not the only form of pressure. Another form is a promise you make to someone. It’s peer pressure in a good way. My brother calls it the “Bold Boast” (formerly known as the “Rash Promise”) heuristic — publicly agree to do a talk on something you want to know more about. Tell someone you’re doing a blog by X date and to kick your butt if they don’t see it.

3) Peers: Similar to Pressure above, but it’s a subtle difference. The kind of pressure above works for me because I like to think I have a service mindset. That is, I like coming through for people, even if I’m the one who sets the expectation. What motivates me is if I can help them when they ask. It also motivates to see their feedback, even if it’s critical, because I trust them enough to know it will be worth my time to consider what they say. I’m eager to put in print the things that impress my friends or will win me new ones — not that it’s THE reason, but there’s something about putting yourself out there, to say “This is Who I Am.” When you do that, you invite others to agree with you. If they disagree, it’s a test for you. All it takes for me to get good writing done is to get an email from a colleague who needs help and has asked me specifically for my take. Not hard to write a 2000-word email in 30 minutes if the topic is right and if the need is greatest. In fact, what I plan to do is look through my old emails to colleagues and see if I have several blogs already written in that Sent Items folder and just don’t realize it!

4) Publicity / Portfolio — As Manager for Corporate Intellect for Quardev, part of my job is writing in a business context. Offshore effort tends to be cheaper than us, so I have to find ways to make us more valued and credible. But I also have to be authentic, because people (like me) see right through marketing BS. You might have the same problem. In this economy, there is no job security. You are expendable, replaceable, even after years of service. But perhaps if your persona was online and available, if you had a PR guy or a portfolio you could point to — articles that showed your work — you might be much less difficult to part with and much more attractive for those in need of people who stand out. Imagine a conference with the top names in software. Imagine that they offshore all of those keynotes and presentations to people who just came in and read the person’s slides. It would be a far different conference. Keynotes are chosen because of marketing, name, and reputation. You don’t have to strive for that level of recognition, but the more Public your Portfolio is, the more likely you will stand out. It might motivate you to contribute more writing about testing.

5) Pairing — writing is a lonely sport, which is why I tend to hate it. I’m an extrovert. People fuel me, they don’t often drain me. This past weekend at the Writing About Testing conference, I had a chance to pair with Lanette Creamer (also from Seattle) on an assignment to write a haiku about testing (and writing) in 5 minutes. Our values must have been in line because we wrote two and talked about the mechanics of what we were doing (with time to spare). I confess I didn’t trust the exercise (c/o Elisabeth Hendrickson) because it felt too easy! Later, Lanette and I decided to pair on a larger topic — an article about certification. It started out as a point/counterpoint, with me being against certification, but it came out as I typed the words she narrated that she felt there were bigger fish to fry. That intrigued me. I typed in transcript mode, as fast as I could to capture my thoughts and her reaction, and as I did, our conversation turned to a subject we felt could really use more words — the chilling effect of hiring managers all seeming to want only programmers as testers. It’s known that paired programming is a crucial component of Extreme Programming and Agile Development. I’ve long believed (and experienced) that paired testing works well to expose more risks and ideas than one person tends to do alone. And here comes Paired Writing. Not just co-authorship do I mean, but real-time pairing on an article or a blog or something where there will likely be one voice. Pairing helps carry the load, the deadline pressure, and the feelings of being inadequate in one area — because you have another to help.

6) Pooling — maybe it will help to see all of your ideas in one place like on a kanban-style board or scrum backlog. One idea per index card or sticky note and look at the pool of them. Does something stand out? It usually does for me. When you see things in context, in aggregate, “in toto” as they say in legal circles, one idea may emerge as stronger or more resonant. That’s motivating to me. You don’t have to write all of them at once, just one. Which is best might be an easier decision if you could see your choices.

7) Process — Sometimes knowing I have peers and passion and pairing and pooling and publicity and pressure helps me undertake a new piece of writing. Just like software, there are different stages in to bringing an idea to term. You don’t often have to sit down and get the thing done in one hour and have it be perfect. You can rely on these other factors (comprised in a process you create) as “helpers” to make the task not seem so daunting. It may be motivating to see your idea as being so valuable that it will take more than one P to get it sorted out. I’m not a big process guy, but in writing this article, I know I will lean on several other P’s. It doesn’t have to be perfect right now and that takes some of the bad pressure off (the good pressure being peers and deadlines, both of which I have for this piece). The bad pressure I refer to is: “Is this good enough”? “Is this trite?” “Is this too contrived?” “Is this too long?” These questions may just as well stop me from writing this whole l blasted piece, but I sense there is something valuable in the Process that will help me sort out those issues. That is motivating, and here it is, with that, I am declaring this piece done enough for now.

8) Pay — Ok, this one is the least motivating to me, but I need to mention it because there are magazines out there that will pay you, even in this economy. An editor has told me more than once “The Content Monster must be fed.” That is, every month, they need to have a backlog of articles to choose from and those don’t often come easy. Editors (like Joey McAllister @ SQE) will love to hear from you. They’ll help you midwife those ideas, and there may be a little something in it for you besides all of the things I’ve listed above.

So there it is, my 8 contrived, true-for-me ways that you might find resonate with you too, in order to get your blog or article about testing on record. I suppose I could make a 9th consisting of “Produce” — and that is, Produce your own peer conference and let that be its own motivation for you. McMahon’s “Writing About Testing” conference spoke for itself, but it doesn’t have to be the only place to get together to talk about how we’re all trying to improve both crafts — testing *and* writing.

The Right Combination

Once upon a time, I was in a meeting in a conference room with a projector on the table, chained to the desk with a combination lock — the kind that has four dials with numbers from 0 to 9. The bulb on the projector was burned out, so it was a big interfering brick. Word was, the admin had forgotten the combination, so there it stood.

It occurred to me that I had nothing to lose by trying to find the combination. I did some math in my head and determined that it would take just four uninterrupted hours to try every combination from 0000 to 9999.

This meeting was a two-hour requirements meeting, so there was half of it right there…

Now I wouldn’t be worth my reputation if I just started at 0000 and tried every combination until I hit 9999. No, no, no. I am a rapid tester, schooled in the use of risk-based methods and heuristics – especially when stakeholders want to ship as soon as possible.

So before the meeting started, I asked a few questions of the people around me.”Does anyone know the combination to this thing?” I asked. (Always good to check some major assumptions that can haunt you later).

Nobody knew.

The conference room was 1215.

No luck.

Our address started with 2445.

No love there either.

“What’s Tracy’s birthday?” I asked, referring to our admin.

No one knew.

I had already taken stock of the spinners — four spinners, 0 – 9. I spun them to see if any were sticky, maybe that would give me a clue as to how the tumblers were seated. A sticky number may be a clue.

I quickly tried 0000, 1111, 2222, and up.

Nope. Just like a good password, this one wasn’t immediately obvious.

Some people offered ideas (welcome to paired testing).

“Try the phone extension — #16787.”

I tried 1678 and 6787. Nope.

“2468,” someone else offered.

Why that?!?

“Random testing.”

Didn’t sound too random to me, but it was easy and quick to try anyway.

I blindly spun the spinners to get something more random.



Other ideas from people around me:

0101 — binary — it was the room closest to the developers. I tried that and 1010, 1011, 1101, 1001, 0001, etc.

Then 2525 (that was how old someone thought Tracy was).

Then I remembered to write my ideas. This was a testing problem after all — just like a bug repro.

I wrote one combination and tried to change the last number 0 – 9 as I pulled on the lock each time to see if I could feel it getting looser. Then I tried the next spinner over, and spun it 0 – 9 (the heuristic “one factor at a time”, OFAT as opposed to MFAT for “many factors”).

Then it opened.

Just like a good math exam, it doesn’t matter that I got the answer right, it matters how I GOT the answer. Show your work. And thank goodness I had a little diagram to show my last few tests.

For a few happy seconds, I was a hero, a magician, a svengali, as a few people laughed at their astonishment of what they had just seen. It kind of sucked that it opened right there in the meeting. It was a bit distracting, and hard not to celebrate my accomplishment even a little bit.

Since then, I have always carried with me a combination lock to present to testers and take notes on what I observe as they try to discern the combination. The exercise is very much like reproducing a bug. You try things on your own and you try to elicit data from sources.

A day came when I was in Walgreens and found a combination lock with letters instead of numbers. You could also set the lock to a custom word to make it easier to remember. I thought that was a great idea.

I have tried this on professional colleagues like James, Rob Sabourin, Shmuel Gershon, and Justin Hunter from Hexawise – a company that makes a combinatorial testing tool! I wrote their questions, recorded their tries, watched their techniques, and asked them questions as they tested. I also invited them to turn the tables on me by setting their own combination and giving it to me to discern.

Then, about two weeks ago, I met a 12-year-old at a peer conference about testing. It was the son of one of the attendees. His name was Steven and he seemed bored, of course. It wasn’t even a testing conference, after all, it was about *writing* about testing conference. Snoozefest for him, for sure.

Never one to shy away from new perspectives on testing no matter what age, I asked if he would be interested in helping me with a problem.

I handed him the combo letter lock.

“I forgot the combination to this lock,” I said. “What if I said ???lsquo???If you find it, there’s a half million dollar prize…? What would you do to open it?”

I said he could ask me anything he wanted. I took out my notebook ready to observe what he tried.

The following is a report from Steven about what happened next.

I present it free and without commercial interruption…

“I went to a conference in Colorado with my mom. It was a group of software testers. This guy, Jon, gave me a lock and told me to try to open it. He said I would get a half million dollar prize. So, I tried to lift the metal part of the lock because when it got stuck, that’s probably where the combination was. That’s what I have done on some other combination locks.

I tried doing that but it didn’t work.

Then I started asking him questions, like “Was it something you forgot in the office?”

I tried the combination “DOOR “, but that didn’t work.

Then I asked him “Were you trying to remember something?” and he said “Yes.” So then I tried “BUGS ” and that didn’t work either.

Finally, he gave me a hint and he said the first letter was T and the last letter was S. When I heard that I tried TESTS because it was the first thing that came to my mind when he said that and it popped open!

Then I asked him “Where is my half million bucks?”

After that, we went back inside, and I asked him to give me another problem. I kept trying and trying and trying and this time he gave me a few hints and then I finally got it — the combination was “WRITE”.

Then he said I could set the lock, so I wanted to try to give him one. I gave him one where I put the letters into the default code of WORDS and then I picked another set of letters from another side of the lock. They didn’t make a real word. But eventually he got that.

Then I tried giving him a combination of “DALLAS”, which was too long, so I used “DALAS”. But as I was setting it to that combination, after I turned the key to set it, I tried to open it with that combination and it wouldn’t open. I mixed it up and tried “DALAS” again. But that didn’t work. I realized that as I was setting it to that combination, I think I mixed up some letters.

I tried doing the letters just before and after the ones in DALAS, but that still didn’t work. Then I didn’t know what to do, and then I told Jon and he tried to open it but he couldn’t either. I tried working on this for many hours, but I couldn’t get it open.

I remembered that you can open a lock with a soda can. I’ve seen on the internet where you cut it in like little hill shapes, and then it’s like a rectangle on the bottom and you fold it in half and then slide the hill part where the button is inside the combination lock and then when you slide the hill part over you can push on the lock and then it should open. But I cut a whole can apart and I did it wrong and I messed it up.

I was really upset because I really wanted to get this lock opened. I got so frustrated that I went downstairs to play video games on the computer.

Jon came down and said that I actually had given him a new challenge. He told me that this was like when testers couldn’t reproduce a new bug. So he told me that this would be a really great challenge for him and next time he brings this to some students, they could try to get it open.


Here’s what I noticed in his report:

1) Authenticity: he was upset and frustrated at his mistake of forgetting the combination once he set it.

2) Obsession and drive: he said he worked on the lock for many hours. He never asked for a hint, but I felt bad and gave him one, which he accepted and improvised ideas around.

3) Cognition and recall: he remembered seeing a video about hacking a lock (be careful, Mom)

4) Integrity: he admits he messed up the soda can hack.

5) Curiosity: he tried things.

6) Inquiry: he asked questions.

7) Humor: “where is my half million?”

He also gave me a web reference to where he had seen the soda can lock hack, but for security and ethical reasons, I’m choosing not to disclose it.

This is a wonderful combination of skills and traits that make me think this kid has a bright future.

Yes, I had rolled my eyes when Steven mentioned something about needing a coke can to open the lock. He explained, but I could not visualize what he was talking about. It was no different than working with someone with a thick accent trying overseas. I needed him to show me.

The next day, he did. He found a can, cut it up into little pieces and used one of those little pieces to insert around the hasp in an attempt to make a shunt for where the tumbler met the lock. I thought that was pretty cool. I obsessed about it with him for several minutes.

I think he came up with this idea because of his guilt for forgetting the combination he had set. Call it peer respect, but it seemed important for Steven to make sure I could get this thing open before I left.

That blew me away. Unlike my nephews who could not care less what I do for a living, this young man was engaged and engaging. They call these kinds of kids “problem children” in school, but give them a real problem to solve that interests them and the “problem” goes away.

His hack didn’t work, but that wasn’t the point. When his mother said he felt awful about forgetting the combination, I knew it would take a mere 3 seconds to think of what I would say to him. I told him I saw more heart and energy in his idea than I see in professional testers sometimes, and even though it didn’t open, I would have a challenge for the plane ride home *and* a story to tell about it at the next conference. At the very least, I said, I’d have a blog entry about it. And here it is.

I’ll have to take his Mom’s word for it that I made a difference to him somehow, but even then that’s not my aim. Steven confirmed for me that the spirit behind the lock exercise is a good one, no matter the age. Maybe we’re all just grown-up 13 year-olds looking to apply ourselves to something that needs our skill and insight.

Well done, Steven. Given more time, you would have gotten that lock open, but that’s beside the point. There’s a future in this business if you want one, and all you have to do is show up and try different combinations. I can’t think of a better life metaphor than that, so thanks for the life lesson.

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