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Articles : Exploratory Testing: Finding the Music of Software Investigation
on 2008/3/18 1:03:16 (3626 reads)

My friend Steve is an exceptional classical guitarist. Watching him perform is inspiring – he has a rare mastery over the instrument and has spent years developing his craft. Steve can also explain the techniques he is using while he is playing, to teach and demonstrate how a student can learn and improve their own skills. Steve can make a guitar sing, and says that music is about tension and resolution. If music is all tension, you get uncomfortable as a listener. If it only resolves, it is boring, tedious repetition. Steve extends this concept to the actual physical actions that a guitarist employs to create certain sounds. For example, if you play with a lot of tension, you will limit your ability to do certain tasks. To make music, you need to find a balance between tension and resolution, and to find this balance, you need a mix of knowledge, skill and creativity.

Like Steve, my friend James Bach is also exceptionally skilled. James isn’t a guitarist, he is a software tester. James is also inspiring to watch while he practices his craft. He is a master of skilled exploratory testing: simultaneous test design, execution and learning [1]. James can also explain the testing techniques he uses while he is testing, to instruct testing students. The first time I saw him test software, I was reminded of my friend Steve. This time the tension and resolution wasn’t related to music composition or the execution of techniques on a musical instrument. Instead, the tension and resolution revolved around ideas. James would simultaneously design and execute tests based on his curiosity about the application. He would get feedback on a test, learn from it and design a new test. The tension was generated by the questioning nature of his tests, and the resolution emerged from the results of those tests. There was something almost musical in this interplay between the mind of the tester and the application being tested. This shouldn’t be surprising; as a software tester, James has a well-developed mix of knowledge, skill and creativity.

Author: Jonathan Kohl, Kohl Concepts Inc., www.kohl.ca

As a software testing consultant and musician, I meet a lot of skilled testers who do amazing work. Through experience and a lot of trial and error, they have developed skills they can’t easily explain. Unfortunately, with software testing, there aren’t as many obvious avenues for skill development as there are for musicians. Many software testers don’t realize that there are learnable exploratory testing skills they can develop to help them become even more valuable to software development teams.

When I work in a new organization, it doesn’t take long for me to get introduced to the testers who are highly valued. Often, when I ask testers about the times they did their best work, they apologize for breaking the rules: “I didn’t follow any pre-scripted test cases, and I didn’t really follow the regular testing process.”  As they describe how they came through for the team on a crucial bug discover, they outline activities that I identify with skilled exploratory testing. Little do they know that this is often precisely why they are so effective as testers. They have developed analysis and investigative skills that give them the confidence to use the most powerful testing tool we have at our disposal: the human mind. Exploratory testing is something that testers naturally engage in, but because it is the opposite of scripted testing, it is misunderstood and sometimes discouraged. In an industry that encourages pre-scripted testing processes, many testers aren’t aware that there are other ways of testing other than writing and following test scripts. Both software testing and music can be interpreted and performed in a variety of ways.

Western classical music is often highly scripted in the form of sheet music. Compositions are written in a language that performers can interpret with their voices or instruments. Despite a detailed well-disseminated shared “language” for printed music, it is difficult to perform music exactly the way the composer intended, particularly with musical pieces that have been around for centuries, because we don’t have the composer around anymore to consult. The opposite of playing from sheet music is improvisation, creating unrehearsed, unscripted music. A continuum exists between these two styles, because a composition is open to at least some interpretation by the performer, and some performers embellish more than others. Software that plays music is very precise in repeating what is input from sheet music, but is rarely as pleasant to listen to as a real performer. Music can be boring and tedious when played by a computer program, and full of life when played by a musician. At the other end of the spectrum, successful improvisation requires skill, and top performers study to develop a large breadth and depth of musical theory and technical proficiency on their instruments in order to successfully and creatively improvise.

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