Friday, February 6, 2015

The direct route ... or the interesting one? Managing time and goals, whilst allowing for discovery

Over the summer holidays, I've become increasingly fascinated with how we as individuals plan and spend time.  Putting my families behaviour under the microscope, I've found once I returned to work that we perform similar planning in the office.

It's interesting, because we tend to just go along with a certain path of behaviour, which like many habits we tend not to be conscious of.  When in January we visited Auckland with my parents it allowed me to take notice of how we spend time and make decisions as a family group.

"The itinerists"

Let's start with a pattern of behaviour my family don't do regarding over-planning.

As a resident in New Zealand, when we take holidays within the country we always find it somewhat easy to tell the tourists.  For me, I tend to call them the "itinerarists".  To be fair, they're visiting the country, and trying to fit the whole experience into 2-3 weeks, which means they're operating under a tight schedule.

So everything is done to an itinerary.  They only have about 48 hours in each location before moving on, so there's no room to hang around.

These people used to stand out like a saw thumb - they typically had a clipboard (it's all iPads now though).  At the Waiotapu geothermal park, they were the ones who as soon as the Lady Knox geyser erupted would be dragging the rest of the family around, going "we're on a schedule ... can't watch this all day".  Tick that box, move on ...

To me, "being on a schedule" always meant that you get to see a lot of things, but you don't really take time to enjoy what you're seeing either.  That's not how we tend to do things.

Aliens Landing!!!

The best way to describe how my family operates is to tell a story of one of our journeys.  This event occured when I was a kid in the 80s, before the days of smartphones or even a tape player was available in the car to keen us entertained.  [Oh the horror - we used to sing folk songs on the way to holiday ...]

We used to travel from where we lived, to my grandparents in Stoke-on-Trent fairly regularly.  It was over an hours drive each way, and often we'd be driving home in the dark.

It was during one such nighttime journey that my mother acted a little panicked.  "We need to go back ... I saw something ... it looked like an alien landing".

If we wanted to get back at a decent hour, we really needed to keep going.  But what the heck ... our family included my father (who was a scientist), my brother and I (who'd both go on to do science at University) and my mum (who pretty much tutored us to be rational-thinkers and engineers).  That makes for a whole car-load of curiosity ... so there was no way we were just going on ahead

It wasn't simply a matter of turning back.  We could see something oddly lit, but way off to the side of us.  That meant trying side road, which sometimes which didn't take us very much nearer.  There was a sense of exhilaration, and even "is this particularly wise?".  But we had to know ... we needed to know ...

What we found was odd indeed, and yes, in the night light it was a strange and alien sight.  But it wasn't of alien origin.  Turns out there was a large JCB plant there which we'd never seen, and someone had built a giant sculpture from JCB parts.

We were impressed - in fact, this became a new route home from my grandparents that we'd often use from then on.

The story really outlines how we function as a family (even now when my folks were over in Auckland with us), and indeed how I love to function within my test team.

We have a broad goal

We're driving home.  Our goal destination is our home.  We had some time constraints on us (we had school the next day).  If for instance we were rushing home for a TV program on that night, we might have listened to my mum's tale and gone "interesting ... but nah".

We're not tied up by the itinerary and goal of getting home, that it's not possible to do some exploration.  But had it gone on for more than half an hour, we'd have probably abandoned it as a wild goose chase.


My mum came right out with "it looks like aliens".  In hindsight today, I don't know if she knew about the place beforehand and manufactured the adventure.  My parents are the kind who'd love to do that to make our lives more interesting, and keep instilled within us our sense of wonder.

My brother and I were always going to be more engaged to a tale of "I thought I saw an alien landing" over "hey kids, I hear there's this really neat sculpture".

However at the time it seemed real.  We trusted to what mum had seen, and even afterwards when we discovered the truth, we didn't mock her going "are you seeing aliens again?".  We understood why something like that would look alien.  Alien was a very apt description of it.

Sometimes you need people around you who you can describe exactly what you think you've seen.  Even if you know it doesn't particularly makes sense at the time.

Decision making as a group

We made the decision to go back as a group.  We all wanted to know more, but we also didn't want to spend all night doing it.

When we were in Auckland back in January, each day we'd have a rough plan of what we'd want to do.  During the day we'd sometimes find new things we'd want to do which we hadn't known about before.  Did we stick to our plan, or reach a compromise.  We're loose enough with our itinerary that we can swap events over, do new things, or drop some items.  Sometimes one of us got a bit unhappy about that, but then we work to make sure not everything someone wants is being dropped (it's really hard to keep a herd of 5, quite strong-willed individuals happy all the time).

Coming back to the office in 2015 with this experience fresh in my mind, I realise that there are a lot of parallels of this into how I like to operate with my test team.

There are a lot of people who think being a test manager just means creating an itinerary for test scripts.  On Monday we'll do TC01-12, on Tuesday we'll do TC13-24 ...

In fact I've been on projects where that kind of planning has been absolutely demanded.  It's somewhat foolish, as invariably testing uncovers defects, and that means automatically that you're not going to complete what you plan, and before you know it, you end up re-planning every night.  Usually on the basis that "everything will work fine tomorrow".

It gets really tiring, and doesn't really add any value - testing at it's heart is dealing with some factors which are uncertain.  We know for instance we'll encounter some bugs, but we lack the foresight to know exactly where and how those bugs will manifest (I have tried crystal balls and tarot cards, and it's impossible to get that information ahead of time - best I have is guesses based on previous similar project experience).

Another problem I find with this re-planning approach (as with any over-planned itinerary) is that pretty soon, it can be that this tick-list of items to show progress becomes the goal.

With the itinerist on their holiday, soon that daily plan can take over, and we find we dance to the strings of what we've planned.  The funny thing is though when we originally booked the holiday, we probably did so "to see another country, to relax and have fun" ... shame it doesn't say that on our check-list ... no time for fun, we have another event scheduled in 30 minutes.

Most definitions for testing, even those from ISTQB have the aim of testing as not to tick off a list of activities, but to find software bugs.  So, when it comes to planning, I much prefer to split the testing phase into a series of small milestones, or what Johanna Rothman calls inchpebbles.  They are a series of goals to have for your effort.

If you looked at our trip to Auckland, these were our original goals (our inchpebbles),

  • Visit the Auckland War Museum
  • Take a trip up the Sky Tower
  • Take the ferry to Takapuna
  • Check out where the Universities are (my son does University next year, and is considering Auckland)

We ended up expanding the ferry trip to include a harbour tour and a visit to Rangitoto, this was good, but meant we didn't really do as much in Takapuna as planned (but heck, we got to see a lot of the city on that tour).  There were places we planned to go to dinner which we ended up swapping for other places we encountered along the way.

Within a testing framework, you might be testing your new system - you'll find that certain of the tests group together organically and it's possible to umbrella them together.  Looking back that the "back to basics" series of articles, I set a series of inchpebbles for testing for "registration", "login", "account self-management" and "helpdesk support".

I might break this down into a series of timeboxes, giving each a different value according (typically) to the richness of features in each area,

  • registration - 2 days
  • login - 1 day
  • account self-management - 2 days
  • helpdesk support - 3 days
I'll also probably have a pot of time for "general retesting" for any time I'm expecting to lose due to problems in the build, waiting for fixes and retesting defects.

An important part of this model is like any journey it encourages some level of exploration by testers performing the task provided (as with our JCB alien hunt), to detour "if they think they saw something odd", and even try new tests.  If they're working on a one day task, and their additional testing is going to be about 30 minutes, then let's not even discuss this - just do this.

If your testing is going to take half a day or more, then let's discuss this before chasing - what are you intending to do, and much like our car journey, let's make a decision as a group if it's worth the detour.  Let's weigh the risks, and decide between going off track now, or maybe finding time later to run the tests you want to (especially if they're more invasive to the system).

But regardless, when testing, we need to appreciate that sometimes we need to take some of the side roads, and to empower our staff that it's okay to do so.  Our job as testers is to find the unexpected, and sometimes that means the occasional detour ...

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