Deep testing and “Deep Work” (Cal Newport)

I’ve just finished reading Deep Work by Cal Newport and I found it engaging, interesting and applicable. While reading it, there were many reminders for me of the work of Michael Bolton and James Bach around “deep testing”.

Cal defines “Deep Work” as:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

while “Shallow Work” is:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

He argues that:

In an age of network tools… knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative – constantly sending and receiving email messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking…get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.

I’m sure that anyone who has worked in an office environment in the IT industry over the last decade will agree that their time has been impacted by distractions and a larger proportion of the working day has become occupied by shallow work. As if open plan offices weren’t bad enough on their own, the constant stream of pulls on your attention from email, Slack and social media notifications has resulted in a very distracted state becoming the norm.

One of the key messages Cal delivers in the book is that deep work is rare, valuable and meaningful:

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

He makes the observation that, even in knowledge work, there is still a tendency to focus on “busyness”:

Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity; doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

I’ve seen this as a real problem for testers in many organizations. When there is poor understanding of what good testing looks like (the norm, unfortunately), it’s all too common for testers to be tracked and measured by test case counts, bug counts, etc. These proxies for productivity really are measures of busyness and not reflections of true value being added by the tester. There seems to be a new trend forming around “deployments to production” as being a useful measure of productivity, when really it’s more an indicator of busyness and often comes as a result of a lack of appetite for any type of pause along the pipeline for humans to meaningfully (and deeply!) interact with the software before it’s deployed. (I may blog separately on the “power of the pause” soon.)

On the subject of how much more meaningful deep work is, Cal refers to Dreyfus & Kelly’s All Things Shining book and its focus on craftsmanship:

A … potential for craftsmanship can be found in most skilled jobs in the information economy. Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright [as example from the Dreyfus & Kelly book] you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.

Cultivating craftsmanship is necessarily a deep task and therefore requires a commitment to deep work.

I have referred to software testing as a craft since I first heard it described as such by Michael Bolton during the RST course I attended back in 2007. Talking about testing in this way is important to me and, as Cal mentions, treating it as a craft that you can become skilled in and take pride in all helps to make life as a tester much more meaningful.

The second part of Cal’s book focuses on four rules to help achieve deep work in practice, viz. work deeply, embrace boredom, quit social media, and drain the shallows. I won’t go into detail on the rules here (in the interests of brevity and to encourage you to read the book for yourself to learn these practical tips), but this quote from the “drain the shallows” rule resonated strongly and feels like something we should all be trying to bring to the attention of the organizations we work with:

The shallow work that increasingly dominates the time and attention of knowledge workers is less vital than it often seems in the moment. For most businesses, if you eliminated significant amounts of this shallowness, their bottom line would likely remain unaffected. As as Jason Fried [co-founder of software company 37signals] discovered, if you not only eliminate shallow work, but also replace this recovered time with more of the deep alternative, not only will the business continue to function; it can become more successful.

Coming back to Cal’s definition of “deep work”:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

When I read this definition, it immediately brought to mind session-based test management (SBTM) in which timeboxed periods of uninterrupted testing are the unit of work. I’ve seen the huge difference that adoption of SBTM can make in terms of encouraging deeper testing and improving testing skills. Thinking about “deep testing”, Michael Bolton and James Bach have described it as follows:

Testing is deep to the degree that it has a probability of finding rare, subtle, or hidden problems that matter.

Deep testing requires substantial skill, effort, preparation, time, or tooling, and reliably and comprehensively fulfills its mission.

By contrast, shallow testing does not require much skill, effort, preparation, time, or tooling, and cannot reliably and comprehensively fulfill its mission.

Blog post https://www.developsense.com/blog/2017/03/deeper-testing-1-verify-and-challenge/ (Michael Bolton)

The parallels between Cal’s idea of “deep work” and Michael & James’s “deep testing” are clear. Being mindful of the difference between such deep testing and the more common shallow testing I see in many teams is important, as is the ability to clearly communicate this difference to stakeholders (especially when testing is squeezed under time pressures or being seen as optional in the frantic pace of continuous delivery environments).

I think “Deep Work” is a book worth reading for testers, not just for the parallels with deep testing I’ve tried to outline above but also for the useful tips around reducing distractions and freeing up your capacity for deeper work.

2 thoughts on “Deep testing and “Deep Work” (Cal Newport)

  1. Pingback: Five Blogs – 21 September 2021 – 5blogs

  2. Pingback: Testing Bits: 410 – September 12th – September 18th, 2021 | Testing Curator Blog

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