We need to talk about testing…

Rosie Sherry posted a scary statement / question / challenge on The Ministry of Testing site: “The Abysmal State of Testing in 2016 and What Can We Do About It“. I started responding on the forum, but my musings quickly became too convoluted – I thought – to be of much value until I could give them some more thought and structure. Whether I’ve been successful or not, well, you be the judge.

Before we can answer the second part of the challenge, we need to understand and agree what the problems are. I think there’s one underlying issue that presents itself in different ways, and that is;

We don’t understand what testing is.

There’s a statement that needs explained.

Who is “we”? It’s everyone involved to directly or indirectly with the business of learning about what software actually does; what we might call “testing”. “We” encompasses everyone from career testers, who one would hope know the most about testing, to non-technical managers, who are business people and not technically savvy.

Rosie also posted a comment:

Does stuff like this have anything to do with the abysmal state of things?

If you don’t want to click the link, it’s an advert from a company selling automation on the back of a questionable infographic (which I poo-pooed, and to which they responded with a “yeah, we know, so read our whitepaper”). But therein lies the problem.

The people who understand testing the least, and are probably least inclined to expend much effort in digging any deeper, will look at the infographic and be given an overly simplistic and inaccurate understanding of what is a hugely complex endeavor.

So, to answer Rosie’s question: 100% yes, this stuff absolutely feeds the problem. There are lots of companies out there selling testing services who really don’t seem to understand – or their marketing cannot convey – what testing even is, let alone deliver useful testing.

This perceived or unconscious lack of knowledge is behind my probably cryptic tweet:

Why is the state of testing abysmal, @rosiesherry ? How about Dunning-Kruger managers versus Imposter Syndrome testers?

The people who have the loudest voice right now about testing are the people who are trying to sell it to other people, and none of those people – the sellers and the prospective buyers – really seem to understand what testing is. These are the Dunning-Kruger people: they have a little knowledge about testing and have high – and unfounded – confidence in that knowledge.

Those of us who are more experienced – the career testers – are much more wise about the ways of the testing world, and are right at the bottom of the Dunning Kruger curve, at the point where Socrates defined true knowledge as “knowing you know nothing”.

We therefore have less confidence in our knowledge and – broadly, as a community – succumb to Imposter Syndrome, where we think that those loud and overconfident voices will find us out. When you see confident statements along the lines of “this is what testing is / what testers do”, there are immediately cries of “I don’t do that!” or “OMG, why don’t I do that?” from testers.

So, What Can We Do About It?

We need to have a louder voice. We need to recognise that we do know what we’re talking about, but at the same time be clear that we still don’t know what testing is. But we need to give ourselves a break about that.

Testers have been struggling for decades to try and define what testing “is”, and it doesn’t seem to fit into any one box. Perhaps we need to declare that it’s its own thing; it’s a new species in the taxonomy of human endeavor. I think it’s a fabulous mongrel of different breeds, and even species, of activity, to the point where it defies classification using “conventional” or “classical” understanding.

This of course does nothing to solve what testing is for the purposes of explaining it to others. It might, however, explain why it is so difficult for us to accurately and completely explain, and for others to grasp.


Because our business, like Archaeology, is the search for Fact (not The Truth!), I believe we are more open and clear about what we know and what we don’t. The problem is that this is interpreted as a lack of knowledge by the loud “a little knowledge is dangerous” people.

Find Your Voice

Despite being a tester for a long time, I’d always been reticent about writing / blogging about my experiences, partly because of Imposter Syndrome, partly being worried about people telling me I’m wrong, but mainly because I didn’t want to restate / steal the hard work of the heavy lifters who are pushing the envelope of what testing is.

However, more recently I’ve come to the conclusion that there is value in other people re-framing the thoughts of others in their own words. That a “peer-reviewed scientific paper”, crowd-sourced approach will allow us to further our collective understanding. That if each of us can, in the process, advance our understanding, we might provide the kernel of the next big idea that moves us forward. That if “standing on the shoulders of giants” was good enough for Bernard of Chartres and Isaac Newton, it’s good enough for us.

So, all you huddled masses of testers yearning to be understood; collect your thoughts, clear your throat, and speak out. We must be heard.

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