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Attending the CASTx conference in Sydney (21st February, 2017)

The annual conference of the Association for Software Testing (AST) took its first step outside of North America in 2017, with the CASTx conference in Sydney on February 20 & 21. Since I align myself with the context-driven principles advocated by the AST, I decided to attend the event’s conference day on the 21st (disclaimer: I submitted a track session proposal for this conference but it was not accepted.)

The conference was held in the stunning Art Deco surrounds of the Grace Hotel in the Sydney CBD and drew a crowd of about 90, mainly from Australia and New Zealand but also with a decent international contingent (including representatives of the AST). The Twitter hashtag for the event was #castx17 and this was fairly active across the conference and in the days since.

The full event consisted of a first day of tutorials (a choice of three, by Michael Bolton, Goranka Bjedov and Abigail Bangser & Mark Winteringham) followed by a single conference day formed of book-ending keynotes sandwiching one-hour track sessions. The track sessions were in typical peer conference style, with forty minutes for the presentation followed by twenty minutes of “open season” (facilitated question and answer time, following the K-cards approach).

My conference day turned out to include:

  • Conference opening by Ilari Henrik Aegerter (board member of the AST), Anne-Marie Charrett (conference program chair) and Eric Proegler (board member and treasurer of the AST).
  • Opening keynote came from Goranka Bjedov (of Facebook), with “Managing Capacity and Performance in a Large Scale Production Environment”.
  • Track session “Rise of the Machine (Learning)” from Stephanie Wilson (of Xero)
  • Track session “Testing with Humans: How Atlassian Validates Its Products With Customers” by Georgie Bottomley (of Atlassian)
  • Track session “To Boldly Go: Taking the Enterprise to SBTM” by Aaron Hodder (of Assurity Consulting NZ)
  • Track session “Auditing Agile Projects” by Michelle Moffat (of Tyro Payments)
  • Closing keynote by Michael Bolton (of Developsense) with “The Secret Life of Automation”

The opening keynote was fantastic.  I last heard Goranka speak when she keynoted the STANZ conference here in 2011. She started off by saying how well Facebook had prepared for the US elections in terms of handling load (and the coincidental additional load arising from India’s ban on large currency notes), but then told the story of how around half of all Facebook users had been declared dead just a few days after the election (an unfortunate by-product of releasing their new “memorial” feature that didn’t actually bother to check that the member was dead before showing the memorial!). This was an example of her theme that Facebook doesn’t care about quality and such changes can be made by developers without being discovered, but their resolution times are fast when such problems immediately start being reported by their users. The stats she provided about Facebook load were incredible – 1.7 billion monthly active users for the main site, around 1 billion for each of WhatsApp and Messenger, plus around 0.5 billion for Instagram. Facebook now has the largest photo storage in the world and already holds more video content than YouTube. Her 2013 stats showed, per 30 minutes, their infrastructure handled 108 billion MySQL queries, the upload of 10 million photos and scanned 105TB with Hive! This load is handled by Facebook’s private cloud built in ten locations across the US and Europe. Servers are all Linux and all data centres are powered using green power (and it was interesting to note that they rely on evaporative cooling to keep power usage down). The reasons for a lack of an Australian data centre became obvious when Goranka talked about the big long-term power contracts they require and also “world class internet” (at which point the room burst into laughter). Details of all the server specifications can be found at OpenCompute.org Her objectives in managing capacity and performance are: low latency for users, the ability to launch things quickly (succeed or fail quickly, don’t worry about efficiency, don’t care about quality) and conservation (in terms of power, money, computers, network and developer time). Her goals are: right things running on the right gear, running efficiently, knowing if something is broken or about to break, and knowing why something is growing. She also talked through their load testing approach – which runs every second of every day – and their testing around shutting down an entire region to be ready for disasters. Although this wasn’t really a pure testing talk, it was fascinating to learn more about the Facebook infrastructure and how it is managed and evolving. It was made all the more interesting by Goranka’s irreverent style – she openly admitted to not being a Facebook user and cannot understand why people want to post photos of cats and their lunches on the internet!

From the tracks, it was interesting to hear about Xero’s QA mission statement, viz.  “Influence Xero culture to be more quality oriented and transform software from “good” to “wow”” (Stephanie Wilson’s talk) and it was surprising to me to learn that Atlassian was not doing any decent sort of UX research until so recently (from Georgie Bottomley’s talk), but maybe that explains some of the quirky interactions we’ve all come to known and love in JIRA!

I’ve seen Aaron Hodder present a few times before and he always delivers real experiences with a unique insight – and this session was no exception. His talk was a fascinating insight into dysfunctional client/vendor contract-heavy enterprise IT environments. The novel approach he came up with at Assurity was session-based test management in a light disguise in order to make it palatable in its terminology and reporting, but it was very cleverly done and the project sounds like it’s in much better shape than it was as a result. A really good talk with handy takeaways, and not just for a tester finding themselves in the unfortunate position of being in a project like the one Aaron experienced.

Michelle Moffat presented the idea that the agile practices are, in audit terms, controls and it is the way evidence is gathered in this environment that is so different – she uses photos, videos, attends meetings and automated controls (for example, from the build system) rather than relying on the creation of documents. This was a really interesting talk and it was great to see someone from well outside of our sphere taking on the ideas of agile and finding ways to meet her auditing responsibility without imposing any additional work on the teams doing the development and testing.

Michael Bolton’s closing keynote was a highlight of my day and he used his time well, offering us his usual thought-provoking content delivered with theatre. Michael’s first “secret” was that a test cannot be automated and automated testing does not exist. He made the excellent point that if we keep talking about automated testing, then people will continue to believe that it does exist. He has also observed that people focus on the How and What of automated button-pushing, but rarely the Why. He identified some common automation (anti)patterns and noted that “tools are helping us to do more lousy, shallow testing faster and worse than ever before”! He revealed a few more secrets along the way (such as there being no such thing as “flaky” checks) before his time ran out all too soon.

There were a few takeaways for me from this conference:

  • There is a shift in focus for testing as SaaS and continuous delivery shifts the ability to respond to problems in production much more quickly and easily than ever before.
  • The “open season” discussion time after each presentation was, as usual, a great success and is a really good way of getting some deeper Q&A going than in more traditionally-run conferences.
  • It’s great to have a context-driven testing conference on Australian soil and the AST are to be commended for taking the chance on running such an event (that said, the awareness of what context-driven testing means in practice seemed surprisingly low in the audience).
  • The AST still seems to struggle with meeting its mission (viz. “to advance the understanding of the science and practice of software testing according to context-driven principles”) and I personally didn’t see how some of the track sessions on offer in this conference (interesting though they were) worked towards achieving that mission.

In summary, I’m glad I attended CASTx and it was good to see the level of support for AST’s first international conference event, hopefully their first of many to help broaden the appeal and reach of the AST’s effort in advocating for context-driven testing.

An excellent set of summary photos has been put together from Twitter, at https://twitter.com/i/moments/833978066607050752

A worthwhile 40-minute roundtable discussion with five CASTx speakers/organizers (viz. Abigail Bangser, Mark Winteringham, Aaron Hodder, Anne-Marie Charrett and Ilari Henrik Aegerter) can also be heard at https://t.co/A0CuXGAdd7

What we can learn from the “schools” of organic food production

The Sustainable Living Festival took place in Melbourne recently and we decided to take a look on the Sunday of the festival. It was a pleasant set up, along the banks of the Yarra river next to Federation Square, with a wide variety of stalls, eateries and venues for talks throughout the day.

After wandering the stalls for a while and then enjoying an early lunch, we opted to head to a talk and ended up at the outdoor stage for Permaculture – The 4th Ethic, presented by “Pete The Permie”. Not knowing anything about permaculture before this talk, we were perhaps not his target audience but he was an engaging presenter and the content was really interesting.

Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered on simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. Permaculture was developed, and the term coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978. It is based on three core tenets, viz.

  • Care for the earth: This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics.

You can become “certified” in permaculture via the “Permaculture Design Course” (PDC), based around these three core tenets of the approach. Pete’s talk was about whether such PDCs should also include a fourth ethic on “Care of spirit”. He was discussing whether religion, Biodynamics or other spiritual systems should be included in the teaching or not (and, if not, where does the nurturing of people fit in a “Science Only” based design system in a world that needs lots more caring of oneself & each other?). This was fascinating stuff and it’s obviously a big deal in the permaculture community about whether these less scientific aspects should be included in their certification.

These other aspects are a feature of the Biodynamic approach.

Biodynamic agriculture is a form of alternative agriculture very similar to organic farming, but it includes various esoteric concepts drawn from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Initially developed since 1924, it was the first of the organic agriculture movements. It treats soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock care as ecologically interrelated tasks, emphasizing spiritual and mystical perspectives.

It soon became clear as Pete talked about the differences of opinion between the “schools” of organic food production – Permaculture and Biodynamic – that there were similarities with the “schools of testing” that our industry appears to have become somewhat preoccupied with in recent years. Pete’s approach has been to learn lots more about some of the unscientific aspects of the Biodynamic approach, as he argued it can’t do him any harm to learn about them and see if there are lessons to be learned in his application of permaculture. It was notable that he didn’t show disrespect to people following Biodynamics but was open to learn more about their ideas, while maintaining his strong association with Permaculture.

The lesson I took away from this talk was that isolating your thinking to one particular school of thought – in any field – is limiting and you might be surprised by the usefulness of approaches or ideas from a different school of thought. Hopefully those of us who align ourselves strongly with the context-driven “school” of testing can always remember to be respectful of those who align themselves with other schools and also become students of those schools to understand them better and perhaps find useful ideas to apply in our own contexts.

My first Sydney Testers Meetup – 20 February 2017

The Sydney Testers meetup is one of the largest software testing meetup groups in the world and they hold meetups and other gatherings very frequently in the Sydney CBD.

With the CASTx conference taking place on 21st February, the group organized a meetup the evening before in the offices of IAG (just across the road from the conference venue, The Grace Hotel) and so I went along to take part in my first Sydney Testers meetup event.

It was a complicated and diligent security operation that meant only those who had explicitly RSVP’d to the meetup would be allowed entry through the well-secured IAG building, so only around 50 people actually got into the meetup. The first 45-minutes or so were an opportunity to network over pizza and drinks and it was good to meet up with some familiar faces from both the local (Australia and New Zealand) and international testing community, as well as chat with some unfamiliar testers.

It was Eric Proegler’s job to kick off proceedings at 6.15pm and he talked about the Association for Software Testing (organizers of the CASTx event), for which he is a board member and had travelled from the US to be at the conference. Eric has been a key player in expanding AST’s reach outside of North America, with the CASTx conference being their first conference outside of those shores (and hence confirming his joke that AST does not stand for “American Software Testers”!).

The 2000th member of the meetup was in the house and received a gift for their trouble, this is a seriously big group and it was instrumental in helping to bring the CASTx conference to Australia, so kudos to Sydney Testers for their efforts.

The first 50-minutes of the meetup were devoted to a panel Q&A session on “Questions Facing Software Testing”, with the panel consisting of some serious testing talent:

The first question was around whether “manual testing” is dead. Goranka talked about the “death of quality”, thanks to SaaS delivery and the ability to fix very quickly when customers discover a problem. Aaron questioned the use of the term “manual testing” but managed to avoid ranting too much, noting that “testing looks like it’s easy to understand” when in fact it isn’t. Michael Bolton, sitting just behind me in the audience, pointed out that as testers “our job is to demolish unwarranted confidence”.

The next question simply asked “What are the top three challenges facing software testing today?” It came down to Eric, Ilari and Aaron to proffer one challenge each, viz. “explaining what good testing is to people who think they already know what testing is”, “not losing your humour” and “describing our value to stakeholders” respectively.

The third question was “Why hasn’t the AST had global reach and how is software testing different in different parts of the world?” Ilari suggested that previous AST boards made up entirely of Americans hadn’t helped the situation. On the topic of differences between testing around the world, Eric suggested that there were no big differences but Goranka strongly disagreed and said she’d recently travelled to New Zealand mainly to get the different perspectives from their testing community. She also mentioned that ISTQB is more favoured in some parts of the world than others, with Europe being “in love with ISTQB”. Ilari came back to the discussion and said the main differences around the world were simply “just different flavours of stupidity” when it comes to testing!

Question four was “Can we show senior managers what better testing looks like? Can we win the battle?” The panel were fairly pessimistic in answering this question, with Eric pointing out that only a very small percentage of testers attend conferences or meetups, but the AST really want to reach disengaged testers to help them become more passionate about their craft. Ilari noted that “most people in testing don’t give a sh*t” (like in most professions, he argued). Aaron spoke from his experience in consulting and noted that many testers & their managers are “cut off from the outside world and better ideas” in their organizations with a “cult-like” devotion to following company processes.

With time running out, one more question was directed to the panel, “What should we as a testing community be focused on next?” Eric suggested looking at robots and automation in general, Ilari said we should focus more on continuous learning in general rather than a particular technology, Goranka said all things Cloud (but especially around performance and security), and Aaron suggested doubling-down on the human stuff (UX, systems thinking, ethics, etc) in a world where we are now able to “churn out crap faster than ever”.

This was a good-natured panel session and it was interesting that even these highly-regarded individuals (most of whom associate themselves very strongly with the context-driven testing community) disagreed on many things but were able to maintain a civilized and engaging discussion.

A fifteen-minute break was welcome, before the group reformed for the next part of the meetup. This part was led by Paul Holland and Michael Bolton, who ran one of the exercises from the Rapid Software Testing (RST) class with the entire group. I’ve been lucky enough to attend RST twice and had already seen their chosen exercise before, so I chose to observe rather than participate.

The exercise was the so-called Wason Selection Task, by cognitive psychologist Peter Wason. This seemingly simple puzzle occupied the next 40-minutes or so and made for a great group exercise. It was interesting to watch people fall into the traps along the way and also to see Paul & Michael drawing the testing-related learnings from it along the way. If you haven’t seen this puzzle before, go try it!

Paul Holland fields questions for the panel of Eric, Ilari, Aaron and Goranka  Paul Holland and the Wason selection task

The meetup wrapped up at around 8.30pm and it was great to see a bunch of such passionate and engaged testers in the one room, a good experience at my first Sydney Testers event!

Resources

Sydney Testers Twitter handle: @SydneyTesters

Sydney Testers meetup site website: https://www.meetup.com/Sydney-Testers/

Testers, how good is your waggle dance?

Since returning from Europe, I’ve been enjoying a new commuting option in the shape of a ferry service across the bay and this relaxing 90-minute trip is proving to be a great alternative to my only previous option of a 30km drive plus one-hour train journey.

Cruising to Melbourne in this way has opened up some more time for reading and I’m just finishing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

The book explores a simple idea: “large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, now matter how brilliant – better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.”

It’s enjoyable stuff and, of course, I can’t help but draw connections between some of its content and software testing.

The following paragraphs from the book describe how bees go about finding good food sources for their hive (emphasis is mine):

Bees are remarkably efficient at finding food. According to Thomas Seeley, author of “The Wisdom of the Hive”, a typical bee colony can search six or more kilometres from the hive, and if there is a flower patch within two kilometres of the hive, the bees have a better-than half chance of finding it. How do the bees do this? They don’t sit around and have a collective discussion about where foragers should go. Instead, the hive sends out a host of scout bees to search the surrounding area. When a scout bee has found a nectar source that seems strong, he comes back and does a waggle dance, the intensity of which is shaped, in some way, by the excellence of the nectar supply at the site. The waggle dance attracts other forager bees, which follow the first forager, while foragers who have found less-good sites attract fewer followers and, in some cases, eventually abandon their sites entirely. The result is that bee foragers end up distributing themselves across different nectar sources in an almost perfect fashion, meaning that they get as much food as possible relative to the time and energy they put into searching. It is a collectively brilliant solution to the colony’s food problem.

What’s important, though, is the way the colony gets to that collectively intelligent solution. It does not get there by first rationally considering all the alternatives and then determining an ideal foraging pattern. It can’t do this, because it doesn’t have any idea what the possible alternatives – that is, where the different flower patches – are. So instead, it sends out scouts in many different directions and trusts that at least one of them will find the best patch, return, and do a good dance so that the hive will know where the food source is.

I immediately saw similarities with exploratory testing when I read this.

When we’re looking to identify interesting or risky areas of a product under test, our initial charters are quite loose, since we don’t necessarily have a good idea of where to look yet. Debriefing our sessions gives us the chance to narrow in on where to look next or where to return to as fertile ground for finding interesting information about the product.

So, as a tester returning information to your team, how good is your waggle dance?

(The Wisdom of Crowds is an interesting read – and not just for the story of the waggle dance!)