Category Archives: Books

Publishing my first testing book, “An Exploration of Testers”

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been working on a testing book for the last year-or-so. With more free time since leaving full-time employment back in August, I’m delighted to have now published my first e-book on testing, called An Exploration of Testers.

The book is formed of contributions from various testers around the world, with seventeen contributions in the first edition. Each tester answered the same set of eleven questions designed to tease out testing, career and life lessons. I was humbled by how much time and effort went into the contributions and also by how willing the community was to engage with the project, with almost every tester I invited to contribute then committing to doing so. A number of contributions will be added in the coming months (and additional versions of the book are free after your initial purchase, so don’t be afraid to buy now!).

My experience of using LeanPub as the publishing platform has been generally very good. When I was researching ways to self-publish, LeanPub seemed to get good reviews and it was free to try so I gave it a go, then ended up sticking with it. I’m still on the free plan and it suffices for now for this project. The platform makes most aspects of creating, publishing and selling a book really straightforward and the markdown language used for writing the manuscript is easy to learn (though sometimes comes with frustrating limitations on the control of layout). I would recommend LeanPub to others looking to write their first book.

At the very start of the project, I decided that any proceeds from sales of the book would be ploughed back into the testing community and this fact seemed to encourage participation in the project. I will be transparent about the money received from book sales (with the only expenses being those taken by LeanPub as the publishing & sales platform) and also where I decide to invest it back into our community. It seems only fair to give back to the community that has been so generous to me over the years and also generated the content for the book.

For more details and to buy a copy, please visit https://leanpub.com/anexplorationoftesters

Solitude

One of the joys of reading is the books you come across by accident. Reading a couple of Tim Wu’s excellent books (viz. “The Attention Merchants” and “The Master Switch”) led me to books on solitude, including “Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World” by Michael Harris.

https://www.amazon.com/Solitude-Pursuit-Singular-Crowded-World/dp/B06ZYXJH8V

It seemed timely to read on this topic, as I’ve been implementing a “digital declutter” after recently reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I’m fortunate to live in a beautiful and peaceful location so I’m being much more mindful of making the most of the spot to deliberate separate myself from technology sometimes and take in the simple pleasures of time spent watching the ocean and listening to the birds.

The inspiration for writing “Solitude” came from the author reading about Dr Edith Bone. Hers is a remarkable story (and worth reading about in itself) of seven years spent in solitary confinement.

A little reading – and a hero in Dr. Bone – had turned malaise into a mission. I wanted to become acquainted again with the still night, with my own hapless daydreaming, with the bare self I had (for how long?) been running from. I kept asking myself: why I am so afraid of my own quiet company? This book is the closest I’ve come to an answer.

Aligning closely with Wu’s work, Harris discusses the rise of social media and the “connectedness” it was designed to create. But we all know by now that the “likes” and sharing are highly addictive, triggering small but frequent dopamine hits. This has had a devastating impact on our ability to find solitude:

We’re given opportunities to practise being alone every day, almost every hour. Go on a drive. Sit on a lawn. Stick your phone in a drawer. Once we start looking, we find solitude is always just below the surface of things. I thought at first that solitude was a lost art. Now I know that’s too pretty a term, too soft a metaphor.

Solitude has become a resource.

Like all resources, it can be harvested and hoarded, taken up by powerful forces without permission or inquiry, and then transformed into private wealth, until the fields of empty space we once took for granted first dwindle, then disappear.

Harris goes on to ask the question: what is solitude for? He comes up with three answers: the formulation of fresh ideas, self-knowledge, and (paradoxically) bonding with others.

Taken together, these three ingredients build a rich interior life. It turns out that merely escaping crowds was never the point of solitude at all: rather, solitude is a resource – an ecological niche – inside of which these benefits can be reaped. And so it matters enormously when that resource is under attack.

Our modern, hyperconnected, “always on” world sees solitude under constant threat and it takes a determined effort to find it in our lives:

Our online crowds are so insistent, so omnipresent, that we must now actively elbow out the forces that encroach on solitude’s borders, or else forfeit to them a large portion of our mental landscape.

It turns out that some research has already been done around daydreaming. MRI scanning reveals that daydreaming “constitutes an intense and heterogeneous set of brain functions” and:

…this industrious activity plays out while the conscious mind remains utterly unaware of the work – so our thoughts (sometimes really great thoughts) emerge without our anticipation or understanding. They emerge from the blue. Daydreaming thoughts may look like “pointless fantasizing” or “complex planning” or “the generation of creative ideas”. But, whatever their utility, they arrive unbidden.

Einstein believed that “the daydreaming mind’s ability to link things is, in fact, our only path toward fresh ideas.” Harris describes his own attempts to daydream during a three-hour wander and he says of this experience:

I start to see time-devouring apps like Candy Crush as pacifiers for a culture unwilling or unable to experience a finer, adult form of leisure. We believed those who told us that the devil loves idle hands. And so we gave our hands over for safekeeping. We long for constant proof of our effectiveness, our accomplishments. And perhaps it’s this longing for proof, for glittering external validation, that makes our solitude so vulnerable to those who would harvest it.

The addictive nature of social media (see ludic loops) has seen us giving up what few moments of spare time we have:

To a media baron looking for short-term profits, a daydreaming mind must look like an awful waste. All that time and attention left to wander, directionless! Making use of the blank spaces in a person’s life – draining the well of reverie – has become one of the missions of modernity.

But we do need to break out of this cycle and, bizarrely, doing so is seen as an odd and disruptive thing to do (e.g. I see the disbelief every time I mention to someone that I’m not, and never have been, “on Facebook”):

Choosing a mental solitude, then, is a disruptive act, a true sabotage of the schemes of ludic loop engineers and social media barons. Choosing solitude is a gorgeous waste.

Harris then discusses how we’ve all become part of the crowd and true marks of individualism are being eroded as a result:

…today we need to safeguard our inner weirdo, seal it off and protect it from being buffeted. Learn an old torch song that nobody knows; read a musty out-of-print detective novel; photograph a honey-perfect sunset and show it to no-one. We may need to build new and stronger weirdo cocoons, in which to entertain our private selves. Beyond the sharing, the commenting, the constant thumbs-upping, beyond all that distracting gilt, there are stranger things to be loved.

Harris explores the impact that technologies like Google Maps have had on our ability to truly lose ourselves and wander freely in nature, activities that have historically yielded great insights but are much more difficult to achieve in our hyper-connected and increasingly urban lives. He goes on to look at reading and writing – and the socialization of those activities. Proust once defined reading as “that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude” but even this is under threat:

But that solitary reading experience is now endangered, and so is the empathy it fosters. Our stories are going social. We can assume that, in thirty years, readers and writers will use platform technologies to constantly interact with and shape each other, for better or worse. Authors will enlist crowd-sourcing and artificial intelligence to help them write their stories.

In his final chapter, Harris tells the story of his seven-day experience of solitude in a cabin in the woods, offline and alone:

Near the end of this lonely week my thoughts stop floating so much and return to the problem of solitude in a digital culture. Only now, out on the meditative trail I’ve been hiking before and after my crackers-and-apple lunch, I’m thinking about it differently, more expansively. Things here call for wide lenses.

From this dirt vantage, all that clicking and sharing and liking and posting looks like a pile of iron shackles. We are the ones creating the content, yet we’re never compensated with anything but the tremulous, fast-evaporating pleasures that social grooming delivers. Validation and self-expression, we are told, are far greater prizes than the measly cash that flows upward to platform owners…. [these] systems we live by can expropriate no value from solitude, and so they abhor it.

I enjoyed reading this book, it’s written in a very approachable style with many personal anecdotes (which you may or may not find interesting in themselves). I took this read as a reminder to make room for “daydreaming”, be that looking out over the ocean or simply not pulling out my phone during a short tram ride. Nicholas Carr says it well in the Foreword of the book:

Solitude is refreshing. It strengthens memory, sharpens awareness, and spurs creativity. It makes us calmer, more attentive, clearer headed. Most important of all, it relieves the pressure of conformity. It gives us the space we need to discover the deepest sources of passion, enjoyment, and fulfillment in our lives. Being alone frees us to be ourselves – and that makes us better company when we rejoin the crowd.

I also recently read another book on the same topic, but given a much more serious treatment by Raymond Kethledge & Mike Erwin, in the shape of “Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude” – I highly recommend this book.

On AI

I’ve read a number of books on similar topics this year around artificial intelligence, machine learning, algorithms, etc. Coming to this topic with little in the way of prior knowledge, I feel like I’ve learned a great deal.

Our increasing reliance on decisions made my machines instead of humans is having significant – and sometimes truly frightening – consequences. Despite the supposed objectivity of algorithmic decision making, there is plenty of evidence of human biases encoded into these algorithms and the proprietary nature of some of these systems means that many are left powerless in their search for explanations about the decisions made by these algorithms.

Each of these books tackles the subject from a different perspective and I recommend them all:

It feels like “AI in testing” is becoming a thing, with my feeds populated with articles, blog posts and ads about the increasingly large role AI is playing or will play in software testing. It strikes me that we would be wise to learn from the mistakes discussed in these books in terms of trying to fully replace human decision making in testing with those made by machines. The biases encoded into these algorithms should also be acknowledged – it seems likely that confirmatory biases will be present in terms of testing and we neglect the power of human ingenuity and exploration at our peril when it comes to delivering software that both solves problems for and makes sense to (dare I say “delights”) our customers.

“Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” (David Epstein)

I’m a sucker for the airport bookshop and I’ve blogged before on books acquired from these venerable establishments. On a recent trip to the US, a book stood out to me as I browsed, because of its subtitle: “Why generalists triumph in a specialized world”. It immediately triggered memory of the “generalizing specialists” idea that seemed so popular in the agile community maybe ten years ago (but hasn’t been so hot recently, at least not in what I’ve been reading around agile). And so it was that Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein accompanied me on my travels, giving me a fascinating read along the way.

David’s opening gambit is a comparison of the journeys of two well-known sportsmen, viz. Roger Federer and Tiger Woods. While Woods was singularly focused on becoming excellent at golf from a very young age, Federer tried many different sports before eventually becoming the best male tennis player the world has ever seen. While Woods went for early specialization, Federer opted for breadth and a range of sports before realizing where he truly wanted to specialize and excel. David notes:

The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization. While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases – and technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual sees only a small part – we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.

Chapter 1 – “The Cult of the Head Start” – uses the example of chess grand masters, similarly to golf, where early specialization works well. David makes an interesting observation here around AI, a topic which seems to be finding its way into more and more conversations in software testing, and the last line of this quote from this chapter applies well to the very real challenges involved in thinking about AI as a replacement for human testers in my opinion:

The progress of AI in the closed and orderly world of chess, with instant feedback and bottomless data, has been exponential. In the rule-bound but messier world of driving, AI has made tremendous progress, but challenges remain. In a truly open-world problem devoid of rigid rules and reams of perfect historical data, AI has been disastrous. IBM’s Watson destroyed at Jeopardy! and was subsequently pitched as a revolution in cancer care, where it flopped so spectacularly that several AI experts told me they worried its reputation would taint AI research in health-related fields. As one oncologist put it, “The difference between winning at Jeopardy! and curing all cancer is that we know the answer to Jeopardy! questions.” With cancer, we’re still working on posing the right questions in the first place.

In Chapter 2 – “How the Wicked World Was Made” – David shares some interesting stories around IQ testing and notes that:

…society, and particularly higher education, has responded to the broadening of the mind by pushing specialization, rather than focusing early training on conceptual, transferable knowledge.

I see the same pattern in software testing, with people choosing to specialize in one particular automation tool over learning more broadly about good testing, risk analysis, critical thinking and so on, skills that could be applied more generally (and are also less prone to redundancy as technology changes). In closing out the chapter, David makes the following observation which again rings very true in testing:

The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.

A fascinating – and new to me – story about early Venetian music opens Chapter 3 – “When Less of the Same Is More”. In discussing how musicians learn and apply across genres, his conclusion again makes for poignant reading for testers especially those with a desire to become excellent exploratory testers:

[This] is in line with a classic research finding that is not specific to music: breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.

Chapter 4’s title is a nod to Daniel Kahneman, “Learning, Fast and Slow”, and looks at the difficulty of teaching and training to make it more broadly applicable than the case directly under instruction, using examples from maths students and naval officers:

Knowledge with enduring utility must be very flexible, composed of mental schemes that can be matched to new problems. The virtual naval officers in the air defense simulation and the math students who engaged in interleaved practice were learning to recognize deep structural similarities in types of problems. They could not rely on the same type of problem repeating, so they had to identify underlying conceptual connections in simulated battle threats, or math problems, that had never actually been seen before. They then matched a strategy to each new problem. When a knowledge structure is so flexible that it can be applied effectively even in new domains or extremely novel situations, it is called “far transfer.”

I think we face similar challenges in software testing. We’re usually testing something different from what we’ve tested before, we’re generally not testing the same thing over and over again (hopefully). Thinking about how we’ve faced similar testing challenges in the past and applying appropriate learnings from those to new testing situations is a key skill and helps us to develop our toolbox of ideas, strategies and other tools from which to draw when faced with a new situation. This “range” and ability to make conceptual connections is also very important in performing good risk analysis, another key testing skill.

In Chapter 5 – “Thinking Outside Experience” – David tells the story of Kepler and how he drew new information about astronomy by using analogies from very disparate areas, leading to his invention of astrophysics. He was a fastidious note taker too, just like a good tester:

Before he began his tortuous march of analogies toward reimagining the universe, Kepler had to get very confused on his homework. Unlike Galileo and Isaac Newton, he documented his confusion. “What matters to me,” Kepler wrote, “is not merely to impart to the reader what I have to say, but above all to convey to him the reasons, subterfuges, and lucky hazards which led to my discoveries.”

Chapter 6 – “The Trouble with Too Much Grit” – starts by telling the story of Van Gogh, noting:

It would be easy enough to cherry-pick stories of exceptional late developers overcoming the odds. But they aren’t exceptions by virtue of their late starts, and those late starts did not stack the odds against them. Their late starts were integral to their eventual success.

David also shares a story about a major retention issue experienced by a select part of the US Army, concluding:

In the industrial era, or the “company man era”…”firms were highly specialized,” with employees generally tackling the same suite of challenges repeatedly. Both the culture of the time – pensions were pervasive and job switching might be viewed as disloyal – and specialization were barriers to worker mobility outside of the company. Plus, there was little incentive for companies to recruit from outside when employees regularly faced kind learning environments, the type where repetitive experience alone leads to improvement. By the 1980s, corporate culture was changing. The knowledge economy created “overwhelming demand for…employees with talents for conceptualization and knowledge creation.” Broad conceptual skills now helped in an array of jobs, and suddenly control over career trajectory shifted from the employer, who looked inward at a ladder of opportunity, to the employee, who peered out at a vast web of possibility. In the private sector, an efficient talent market rapidly emerged as workers shuffled around in pursuit of match quality. [the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are – their abilities and proclivities] While the world changed, the Army stuck with the industrial-era ladder.

In Chapter 7 – “Flirting with Your Possible Selves” – David shares the amazing career story of Frances Hesselbein as an example of changing tack many times rather than choosing an early specialization and sticking with it, and the many successes it can yield along the journey. He cites:

[computational neuroscientist Ogo Ogas] uses the shorthand “standardization covenant” for the cultural notion that it is rational to trade a winding path of self-exploration for a rigid goal with a head start because it ensures stability. “The people we study who are fulfilled do pursue a long-term goal, but they only formulate it after a period of discovery,” he told me. “Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with getting a law or medical degree or PhD. But it’s actually riskier to make that commitment before you know how it fits you. And don’t consider the path fixed. People realize things about themselves halfway through medical school.” Charles Darwin for example.

Chapter 8 – “The Outsider Advantage” – talks about the benefits of bringing diverse skills and experiences to bear in problem solving:

[Alph] Bingham had noticed that established companies tended to approach problems with so-called local search, that is, using specialists from a single domain, and trying solutions that worked before. Meanwhile, his invitation to outsiders worked so well that it was spun off as an entirely different company. Named InnoCentive, it facilitates entities in any field acting as “seekers” paying to post “challenges” and rewards for outside “solvers.” A little more than one-third of challenges were completely solved, a remarkable portion given that InnoCentive selected for problems that had stumped the specialists who posted them. Along the way, InnoCentive realized it could help seekers tailor their posts to make a solution more likely. The trick: to frame the challenge so that it attracted a diverse array of solvers. The more likely a challenge was to appeal not just to scientists but also to attorneys and dentists and mechanics, the more likely it was to be solved.

Bingham calls it “outside-in” thinking: finding solutions in experiences far outside of focused training for the problem itself. History is littered with world-changing examples.

This sounds like the overused “think outside the box” concept, but there’s a lot of validity here, the fact is that InnoCentive works:

…as specialists become more narrowly focused, “the box” is more like Russian nesting dolls. Specialists divide into subspecialties, which soon divide into sub-subspecialties. Even if they get outside the small doll, they may get stuck inside the next, slightly larger one. 

In Chapter 9 – “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology” – David tells the fascinating story of Nintendo and how the Game Boy was such a huge success although built using older (“withered”) technology. Out of this story, he mentions the idea of “frogs” and “birds” from physicist and mathematician, Freeman Dyson:

…Dyson styled it this way: we need both focused frogs and visionary birds. “Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon,” Dyson wrote in 2009. “They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and only see the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.” As a mathematician, Dyson labeled himself a frog but contended, “It is stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper.” The world, he wrote, is both broad and deep. “We need birds and frogs working together to explore it.” Dyson’s concern was that science is increasingly overflowing with frogs, trained only in a narrow specialty and unable to change as science itself does. “This is a hazardous situation,” he warned, “for the young people and also for the future of science.”

I like this frog and bird analogy and can picture examples from working with teams where excellent testing arose from a combination of frogs and birds working together to produce the kind of product information neither would have provided alone.

David makes the observation that communication technology and our increasingly easy access to vast amounts of information is also playing a part in reducing our need for specialists:

…narrowly focused specialists in technical fields…are still absolutely critical, it’s just that their work is widely accessible, so fewer suffice

An interesting study on patents further reinforces the benefits of “range”:

In low-uncertainty domains, teams of specialists were more likely to author useful patents. In high-uncertainty domains – where the fruitful questions themselves were less obvious – teams that included individuals who had worked on a wide variety of technologies were more likely to make a splash. The higher the domain uncertainty, the more important it was to have a high-breadth team member… When the going got uncertain, breadth made the difference.

In Chapter 10 – “Fooled by Expertise” – David looks at how poorly “experts” are able to predict the future and talks about work from psychologist and political scientist, Philip Tetlock:

Tetlock conferred nicknames …that became famous throughout the psychology and intelligence-gathering communities: the narrow view hedgehogs, who “know one big thing” and the integrator foxes, who “know many little things.”

Hedgehog experts were deep but narrow. Some had spent their careers studying a single problem. Like [Paul[ Ehrlich and [Julian] Simon, they fashioned tidy theories of how the world works through the single lens of their specialty, and then bent every event to fit them. The hedgehogs, according to Tetlock, “toil devotedly” within one tradition of their specialty, “and reach for formulaic solutions to ill-defined problems.” Outcomes did not matter; they were proven right by both successes and failures, and burrowed further into their ideas. It made them outstanding at predicting the past, but dart-throwing chimps at predicting the future. The foxes, meanwhile, “draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradiction,” Tetlock wrote. Where hedgehogs represented narrowness, foxes ranged outside a single discipline or theory and embodied breadth.

David’s observations on this later in the chapter reminded me of some testers I’ve worked with over the years who are unwilling to see beyond the binary “pass” or “fail” outcome of a test:

Beneath complexity, hedgehogs tend to see simple, deterministic rules of cause and effect framed by their area of expertise, like repeating patterns on a chessboard. Foxes see complexity in what others mistake for simple cause and effect. They understand that most cause and effect relationships are probabilistic, not deterministic. There are unknowns, and luck, and even when history apparently repeats, it does not do so precisely. They recognize that they are operating in the very definition of a wicked learning environment, where it can be very hard to learn, from either wins or losses.

Chapter 11 – “Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools” – starts off by telling the story of the Challenger space shuttle disaster and how, even though some people knew about the potential for the problem that caused the disaster, existing practices and culture within NASA got in the way of that knowledge being heard. The “Carter Racing” Harvard Business School case study mimics the Challenger disaster but the participants have to make a race/no race decision on whether to run a racing car with some known potential problems. Part of this story reminded very much of the infamous Dice Game so favoured by the context-driven testing community:

“Okay…here comes a quantitative question,” the professor says. “How many times did I say yesterday if you want additional information let me know?” Muffled gasps spread across the room. “Four times,” the professor answers himself. “Four times I said if you want additional information let me know.” Not one student asked for the missing data [they needed to make a good decision].

A fascinating story about the behaviour of firefighters in bushfire situations was very revealing, with many of those who perish being found weighed down with heavy equipment when they could have ditched their tools and probably run to safety:

Rather than adapting to unfamiliar situations, whether airline accidents or fire tragedies, [pyschologist and organizational behaviour expert Karl] Weick saw that experienced groups became rigid under pressure and “regress to what they know best.” They behaved like a collective hedgehog, bending an unfamiliar situation to a familiar comfort zone, as if trying to will it to become something they had actually experienced before. For wildland firefighters, their tools are what they know best. “Firefighting tools define the firefighter’s group membership, they are the firefighter’s reason for being deployed in the first place,” Weick wrote. “Given the central role of tools in defining the essence of a firefighter, it’s not surprising that dropping one’s tools creates an existential crisis.” As Maclean succinctly put it, “When a firefighter is told to drop his firefighting tools, he is told to forget he is a firefighter.”

This reminded me of some testers who hang on to test management tools or a particular automation tool as though it defines them and their work. We should be thinking more broadly and using tools to aid us, not define us:

There are fundamentals – scales and chords – that every member must overlearn, but those are just tools for sensemaking in a dynamic environment. There are no tools that cannot be dropped, reimagined, or repurposed in order to navigate an unfamiliar challenge. Even the most sacred tools. Even the tools so taken for granted they become invisible.

Chapter 12 – “Deliberate Amateurs” – wraps up the main content of the book. I love this idea:

They [amateurs] embrace what Max Delbruck, a Nobel laureate who studied the intersection of physics and biology, called “the principle of limited sloppiness.” Be careful not to be too careful, Delbruck warned, or you will unconsciously limit your exploration.

This note on the global financial crisis rings true in testing also, all too often we see testing compartmentalized and systemic issues go undetected:

While I was researching this book, an official with the US Securities and Exchange Commission learned I was writing about specialization and contacted me to make sure I knew that specialization had played a critical role in the 2008 global financial crisis. “Insurance regulators regulated insurance, bank regulators regulated banks, securities regulators regulated securities, and consumer regulators regulated consumers,” the official told me. “But the provision of credit goes across all those markets. So we specialized products, we specialized regulation, and the question is, ‘Who looks across those markets?’ The specialized approach to regulation missed systemic issues.”

We can also learn something from this observation about team structures, especially in the world of microservices and so on:

In professional networks that acted as fertile soil for successful groups, individuals moved easily between teams, crossing organizational and disciplinary boundaries and finding new collaborators. Networks that spawned unsuccessful teams, conversely, were broken into small, isolated clusters in which the same people collaborated over and over. Efficient and comfortable, perhaps, but apparently not a creative engine.

In his Conclusion, David offers some good advice:

Approach your personal voyage and projects like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, willing to learn and adjust as you go, and even to abandon a previous goal and change directions entirely should the need arise. Research on creators in domains from technological innovation to comic books shows that that a diverse group of specialists cannot fully replace the contributions of broad individuals. Even when you move on from an area of work or an entire domain, that experience is not wasted.

Finally, remember that there is nothing inherently wrong with specialization. We all specialize to one degree or another, at some point or other.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Range”. David’s easy writing style illustrated his points with good stories and examples, making this a very accessible and comprehensible book. There were many connections to what we see in the world of software testing, hopefully I’ve managed to illuminate some of these in this post.

This is recommended reading for anyone involved in technology and testers in particular I think will gain a lot of insights from reading this book. And, remember, “Be careful not to be too careful”!

“Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” (Greg McKeown)

After seeing several recommendations for the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, I borrowed a copy from the Melbourne Library Service recently – and then read the book from cover-to-cover over only a couple of sittings. This is a sign of how much I enjoyed reading it and the messages in the book resonated strongly with me, on both a personal and professional level. The parallels between what Greg McKeown writes about here and the Agile movement in software development are also (perhaps surprisingly) strong and this helped make the book even more contextually significant for me.

The fundamental idea here is “Less but better.”

The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better… Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at your highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

Greg argues that we have forgotten our ability to choose and feel compelled to “do it all” and say yes to everything:

The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away – it can only be forgotten… When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices – or even a function of our own past choices.

It’s all too easy in our busy, hyper-connected lives to think almost everything is essential and that the opportunities that come our way are almost equal. But the Essentialist thinks almost everything is non-essential and “distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many.”

Greg makes an important point about trade-offs, something again that it’s all too easy to forget and instead over-commit and try to do everything asked of us or take on all the opportunities coming our way:

Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking “What do I have to give up?”, they ask “What do I want to go big on?” The cumulative impact of this small change in thinking can be profound.

The trap of “busyness” leads us to not spend the time we should reflecting on what’s really important.

Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. But their exploration is not an end in itself. The purpose of their exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.

The topic of sleep comes next and this seems to be a hot topic right now. A non-Essentialist thinks “One hour less of sleep equals one more hour of productivity” while the Essentialist thinks “One more hour of sleep equals several more hours of  much higher productivity.” This protection of the asset that is sleep is increasingly being demonstrated as important, not only for productivity but also for mental health.

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.

Prioritizing which opportunities to take on is a challenge for many of us, I’ve certainly taken on too much at times. Greg’s advice when selecting opportunities is simple:

If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no

Of course, actually saying “no” can be difficult and a non-Essentialist will avoid doing so  to avoid feeling social awkwardness and pressure, instead saying “yes” to everything. An Essentialist, meanwhile, “dares to say no firmly, resolutely and gracefully and says “yes” only to things that really matter.” This feels like great advice and thankfully Greg offers a few tips for how to say “no” gracefully:

  • Separate the decision from the relationship
  • Saying “no” gracefully doesn’t have to mean using the word no
  • Focus on the trade-off
  • Remind yourself that everyone is selling something
  • Make your peace with the fact that saying “no” often requires trading popularity for respect
  • Remember that a clear “no” can be more graceful than a vague  or non-committal “yes”

The section on subtracting (removing obstacles to bring forth more) resonated strongly with my experiences in software development:

Essentialists don’t default to Band-Aid solutions. Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress. They ask “What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?” While the non-Essentialist is busy applying more and more pressure and piling on more and more solutions, the Essentialist simply makes a one-time investment in removing obstacles. This approach goes beyond just solving problems, it’s a method of reducing your efforts to maximize your results.

Similarly when looking at progress, there are obvious similarities with the way agile teams think and work:

A non-Essentialist starts with a big goal and gets small results and they go for the flashiest wins. An Essentialist starts small and gets big results and they celebrate small acts of progress.

The benefits of routine are also highlighted, for “without routine, the pull of non-essential distractions will overpower us” and I see the value in the routines of Scrum, for example, as a way of keeping distractions at bay and helping team execution appear more effortless.

This relatively short book is packed with great stories and useful takeaways. As we all lead more connected and busy lives where the division between work and not-work has become so blurred for so many of us, the ideas in this book are practical ways to help focus on what really matters. I’m certainly motivated to now focus more on a smaller number of projects especially outside of work, a decision I’d already taken before reading this book but reading it also validated that decision as well as providing me with good ways of dealing with whatever opportunities may arise and truly prioritizing the ones that matter.

“Turn the Ship Around!” (L. David Marquet)

After seeing a number of positive reviews and recommendations for this book, I asked the Melbourne Library Service to procure a copy – they agreed and I’ve recently enjoyed reading the fruits of their investment.

Marquet is a former nuclear submarine commander and the book details his moves to change the leadership on a poorly-performing submarine from leader-follower to what he calls “leader-leader”.

He starts out by describing what leadership meant in the (US) Navy, quoting from the “Naval Academy leadership book”:

Leadership is the art, science, or gift by which a person is enabled or privileged to direct the thoughts, plans, and actions of others in such a manner as to obtain and command their obedience, their confidence, their respect, and their loyal co-operation

As he points out “leadership in the Navy, and in most organizations, is about controlling people. It divides the world into two groups of people: leaders and followers.” His solution to the leader-follower pattern is the leader-leader model:

The leader-leader structure is fundamentally different from the leader-follower structure. At its core is the belief that we can all be leaders and, in fact, it’s best when we are all leaders. Leadership is not some mystical quality that some possess and others do not. As humans, we all have what it takes, and we all need to use our leadership abilities in every aspect of our work life.

The leader-leader model not only achieves great improvements in effectiveness and morale, but also makes the organization stronger. Most critically, these improvements are enduring, decoupled from the leader’s personality and presence. Leader-leader structures are significantly more resilient, and they do not rely on the designated leader always being right. Further, leader-leader structures spawn additional leaders throughout the organization naturally. It can’t be stopped.

Marquet details his journey of building the leader-leader model during his time turning around the flagging fortunes of the Sante Fe submarine. His passion, guts and honesty in making the changes he did shine through the narrative and results in a really simple but powerful model for changing the way we view leadership in organizations.

He argues that “the core of the leader-leader model is giving employees control over what they work on and how they work. It means letting them make meaningful decisions. The two enabling pillars are competency and clarity.”

One of the first things Marquet noticed on joining the Santa Fe was their focus on avoiding mistakes:

What happened with Santa Fe…was that the crew was becoming gun-shy about making mistakes. The best way not to make a mistake is not to do anything or make any decisions. It dawned on me the day I assumed command that focusing on avoiding errors is helpful for understanding the mechanics of procedures and detecting impending major problems before they occur, but it is a debilitating approach when adopted as the objective of an organization.

This observation led to his first mechanism for clarity: achieve excellence, don’t just avoid errors.

His discovery of the processes around signing off sailor’s leave led to his first mechanism for control: find the genetic code for control and rewrite it:

The first step in changing the genetic code of any organization or system is delegating control, or decision-making authority, as much as is comfortable, and then adding a pinch more. This isn’t an empowerment “program”. It’s changing the way the organization controls decisions in an enduring, personal way.

I like this idea of “Don’t move information to authority, move authority to information” in this area too.

The next control mechanism Marquet came up with was: act your way to new thinking:

When you’re trying to change employees’ behaviours, you have basically two approaches to choose from: change your own thinking and hope this leads to new behaviour, or change your behaviour and hope this leads to new thinking. On board Sante Fe, the officers and I did the latter, acting our way to new thinking.

The next control mechanism rings very true in software development, especially when adopting agile practices: have short early conversations to get efficient work:

Supervisors needed to recognize that the demand for perfect products the first time they see them results in significant waste and frustration throughout the entire organization. Even a thirty-second check early on could save your people numerous hours of work… a well-meaning yet erroneous translation of intent [could result] in a significant waste of resources.

In his mission to turn passive followers into active leaders, a “minor trick of language” turned into an effective means of control: use “I intend to…” Marquet would “avoid giving orders. Officers would state their intentions with “I intend to…” and I would say “Very well”. Then each man would execute his plan.” It turned out that this simple change “profoundly shifted ownership of the plan to the officers.”

Another control mechanism follows: resist the urge to provide solutions. This is a really hard habit to break and I’ve been working on this personally during my coaching and mentoring activities. I can see how it breaks down the leader-follower mentality, but it takes a deliberate effort to stop yourself from stepping in and solutionifying!

Marquet’s next control mechanism is: eliminating top-down monitoring systems:

Supervisors frequently bemoan the “lack of ownership” in their employees. When I observe what they do and what practices they have in their organization, I can see how they defeat any attempt to build ownership.

Worse, if they’ve voiced their frustrations out loud, their employees perceive them as hypocritical and they lose credibility. Don’t preach and hope for ownership; implement mechanisms that actually give ownership… Eliminating top-down monitoring systems will do it for you. I’m not talking about eliminating data collection and measuring processes that simply report conditions without judgement. Those are important as they “make the invisible visible”. What you want to avoid are the systems whereby senior personnel are determining what junior personnel should be doing.

More control follows in the shape of: think out loud:

When I heard what my watch officers were thinking, it made it much easier for me to keep my mouth shut and let them execute their plans. It was generally when they were quiet and I didn’t know what they would do next that I was tempted to step in. Thinking out loud is essential for making the leap from leader-follower to leader-leader.

Regular inspections were part of Navy life and Marquet and his crew decided to “be open and invite outside criticism”, in a control mechanism he calls: embrace the inspectors.

Embrace the inspectors can be viewed as a mechanism to enhance competence, but I think it fits even better in the discussion of control because it allowed us not only to be better submariners but also to maintain control of our destiny.

[It] also turned out to be an incredibly powerful vehicle for learning. Whenever an inspection team was on board, I would hear crew members saying things like, “I’ve been having a problem with this. What have you seen other ships do to solve it?” Most inspection teams found this attitude remarkable.

While Marquet started off by pushing decision making and control to lower and lower levels in the organization, he found that control by itself was not enough and he also needed to bolster the technical competence of his crew if this approach was to be successful.

The first mechanism for competence he outlines is: take deliberate action. Following an incident where a circuit-breaker was mistakenly closed on the submarine, the idea of taking deliberate action arose following a postmortem:

“Well, he was just in auto. He didn’t engage his brain before he did what he did: he was just executing a procedure.”

I thought that was perspective. We discussed a mechanism for engaging your brain before acting. We decided that when operating a nuclear-powered submarine we wanted people to act deliberately, and we decided on “take deliberate action” as our mechanism. This meant prior to any action, the operator paused and vocalized and gestured toward what he was about to do, and only after taking a deliberate pause would he execute the action. Our intent was to eliminate those “automatic” mistakes. Since the goal of “take deliberate action” was to introduce deliberateness in the mind of the operator, it didn’t matter whether anyone was around or not. Deliberate actions were not performed for the benefit of an observer or an inspector. They weren’t for show.

This particular mechanism reminded me of the ideas in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” book.

The next competence mechanism is easy to relate to: we learn (everywhere, all the time). Embedding the idea that everyone in an organization needs to be constantly learning is a very good thing, be it in a military setting like Marquet’s or a software engineering setting. I actually think folks in IT are generally on board with this idea due to the high rate of change in technology, programming languages, etc. and the popularity of IT-related meetup groups, for example, are an indicator of a willingness to continue learning outside of the scope of the day-to-day in the office.

His next mechanism for competence is: don’t brief, certify.

A briefing is a passive activity for everyone except the briefer. Everyone else “is briefed”. There is no responsibility for preparation or study. It’s easy to just nod and say “ready” without full intellectual engagement. Furthermore, the sole responsibility in participating in a brief is to show up. Finally, a brief, as such, is not a decision point. The operation is going to happen and we are simply talking about it first.

We decided to do away with briefs. From that point on we would do certifications.

A certification is different from a brief in that during a certification, the person in charge of his team asks them questions. At the end of the certification, a decision is made whether or not the team is ready to perform the upcoming operation. If the team has not demonstrated the necessary knowledge during the certification, the operation should be postponed.

Another competence mechanism is presented next: continually and consistently repeat the same message:

Repeat the same message, day after day, meeting after meeting, event after event. Sounds redundant, repetitive, and boring. But what’s the alternative? Changing the message? That results in confusion and a lack of direction. I didn’t realize the degree to which old habits die hard, even when people are emotionally on board with the change.

This mechanism is one I’ve employed frequently in coaching testers around the world and it’s surprisingly effective (I say “surprising” since it surprised me that it is both necessary and valuable to do it).

Marquet’s last competence mechanism is: specifying goals, not methods. This arose from a fire drill in which the team members followed a prescribed response but failed to extinguish the fire within the safe time limit:

…[now] the crew was motivated to devise the best approach to putting out the fire. Once they were freed from following a prescribed way of doing things, they came up with many ingenious ways to shave seconds off our response time [to fires].

The problem with specifying the method along with the goal is one of diminished control. Provide your people with the objective and let them figure out the method.

Lovers of “best practices” please take note!

The third and final set of mechanisms Marquet introduces are around clarity:

As more decision-making authority is pushed down the chain of command, it becomes increasingly important that everyone throughout the organization understands what the organization is about. This is called clarity.

Clarity means people at all levels of an organization clearly and completely understand what the organization is about. This is needed because people in the organization make decisions against a set of criteria that includes what the organization is trying to accomplish. If clarity of purpose is misunderstood, then the criteria by which a decision is made will be skewed, and suboptimal decisions will be made.

His first mechanism for clarity is: building trust and taking care of your people:

It’s hard to find a leadership book that doesn’t encourage us to “take care of our people”. What I learned is this: Taking care of your people does not mean protecting them from the consequences of their own behaviour. That’s the path to irresponsibility. What it does mean is giving them every available tool and advantage to achieve their aims in life, beyond the specifics of the job. In some cases that meant further education; in other cases crewmen’s goals were incompatible with Navy life and they separated on good terms.

The next mechanism for clarity is: use your legacy for inspiration. This one helped to provide organizational clarity, explaining the “why” for the crewmen’s service:

Many organizations have inspiring early starts and somehow “lose their way” at some later point. I urge you to tap into the sense of purpose and urgency that developed during those early days or during some crisis. The trick is to find real ways to keep those alive as the organization grows. One of the easiest ways is simply to talk about them. Embed them into your guiding principles and use those words in efficiency reports and personnel awards.

Another mechanism for clarity comes next: use guiding principles for decision criteria.

Leaders like to hang a list of guiding principles on office walls for display, but often those principles don’t become part of the fabric of the organization. Not on Santa Fe. We did several things to reinforce these principles and make them real to the crew. For example, when we wrote awards or evaluations, we tried to couch behaviours in the language of these principles. “Petty Office M exhibited Courage and Openness when reporting…

Most of you have organizational principles. Go out and ask the first three people you see what they are. I was at one organization that proudly displayed its motto in Latin. I asked everyone I saw what it meant. The only one who knew was the CEO. That’s not good.

I’ve personally seen these working well within Quest – we have a set of Core Values and we refer to them regularly at all levels of the organization.

Another mechanism for clarity is: use immediate recognition to reinforce desired behaviours. I really like this one, it’s simple but easy to forget to do:

When I say immediate recognition, I mean immediate. Not thirty days. Not thirty minutes. Immediate.

Look at your structures for awards. Are they limited? Do they pit some of your employees against others? That structure will result in competition at the lowest level. If what you want is collaboration, then you are destroying it.

A mechanism for organizational clarity comes next: begin with the end in mind.

As you work with individuals in your organization to develop their vision for the future, it is crucial that you establish specific, measurable goals. These goals will help the individuals realize their ambitions. In addition, you as a mentor have to establish that you are sincerely interested in the problems of the person you are mentoring. By taking action to support the individual, you will prove that you are indeed working in their best interest and always keeping the end in mind.

His final mechanism for clarity is: encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience. He asks “Will your people follow an order that isn’t correct? Do you want obedience or effectiveness? Have you built a culture that embraces a questioning attitude?” Reinforcing that asking questions is a good idea is so important in what we do as software testers (I recently heard Nick Pass define “QA” as “Question Asker” during his talk at the TiCCA19 conference) and there are sometimes personality and cultural barriers to overcome in encouraging people to question (the latter I have much experience of while working with our teams in China).

In summary, Marquet’s set of mechanisms for Control, Competence and Clarity are as follows.

Control

  • Find the genetic code for control and rewrite it
  • Act your way to new thinking
  • Short, early conversations make efficient work
  • Use “I intend to…” to turn passive followers into active leaders
  • Resist the urge to provide solutions
  • Eliminate top-down monitoring systems
  • Think out loud (both superiors and sub-ordinates)
  • Embrace the inspectors

Competence

  • Take deliberate action
  • We learn (everywhere, all the time)
  • Don’t brief, certify
  • Continually and consistently repeat the message
  • Specify goals, not methods

Clarity

  • Achieve excellence, don’t just avoid errors
  • Build trust and take care of your people
  • Use your legacy for inspiration
  • Use guiding principles for decision criteria
  • Use immediate recognition to reinforce desired behaviours
  • Begin with the end in mind
  • Encourage a questioning attitude over blind obedience

There are so many useful takeaways in this book; it’s a short but engaging read and the direct applicability to the way we manage the people in software development projects is very clear – especially if you’re aiming for truly self-organizing agile teams!

I highly recommend reading Turn the Ship Around to anyone interested in genuinely empowering people in their teams.

“The Coaching Habit” (Michael Bungay Stanier)

In my job working with teams across various worldwide locations, I am often coaching testers and leaders on how to improve their testing. I also specifically mentor a number of testers in our office in China in a one-on-one setting. I really enjoy this aspect of my work and, in the interests of continuously improving, Michael Bungay Stanier’s best-seller The Coaching Habit seemed like a worthy addition to my library.

There are two big ideas in this book. The first is in the subtitle “Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever”, namely that as a coach, it’s important to learn to stop jumping in with advice and instead ask more questions. Michael acknowledges that this is not easy as we tend to naturally assume that responding with advice or solutions is what we’re meant to do: “…the seemingly simple behaviour change of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult”.

The second key idea is that just seven simple questions can help to break out of the cycle of advice giving and instead move to genuine coaching by seeking more from the person being coached and helping them learn for themselves. The bulk of the book (which is a short and easy read) is given over to detailing these seven questions:

  1. What’s on your mind?
  2. And what else?
  3. What’s the real challenge here for you?
  4. What do you want?
  5. How can I help?
  6. If you are saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?
  7. What was most useful for you?

The first question is a simple conversation starter and invites the person to share what’s actually important to them right now. The second question helps to stop us leaping to offer advice: “…even though we don’t really know what the issue is, or what’s going on for the person, we’re quite sure we’ve got the answer she needs.” Asking “And what else?” is “…often the simplest way to stay lazy and stay curious. It’s a self-management tool to keep your Advice Monster under restraints.” The author goes as far as suggesting that this second question is “the best coaching question in the world” and I immediately realized how effective this one will be in curbing what I hadn’t recognized was an inclination to jump in with advice before fully understanding the person’s concerns, context and actual problems. I also love this, erm, advice: “stop offering up advice with a question mark attached” (e.g. “Have you thought of…?”).

The third question – “What’s the real challenge here for you?” – acts as an excellent focusing question, especially if there are many issues/challenges exposed by the previous question. The fourth question – “What do you want?” – works as a clarifying question and I like the suggestion to also offer to share what you want when asking the other person this question.

The fifth question – “How can I help?” (or, more bluntly, “What do you want from me?”) – really cuts to the chase and is a potential saviour of falling back into our default helpful, action mode.

The penultimate question – “If you are saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?” – works to combat over-commitment. Most of us have said “yes” to additional work, knowing that it’s really over-committing and this is ultimately unsustainable. This very clear question helps to clarify priorities and helps people to only say “yes” to more important tasks, knowing they can ditch some other lower priority work in the process. (I can see this working well in sprint planning sessions too!)

The final question – “What was most useful for you?” – feels like a great way to capture feedback and learning from coaching interactions. (Again, I can see value in this question in more general meeting situations too.)

(Note that almost all of the questions are “What?” questions, deliberately contradicting the advice of “Why?” advocates such as Peter Senge and Simon Sinek.)

I particularly liked that each of the questions is supported by some science and there are also videos available to show how to put them into action.

I really enjoyed reading this short, easily digestible book and it’s packed full of great takeaways. The seven questions are already posted visibly at my workspaces to remind me to utilize them in my ongoing coaching and mentoring activities. I have already started to make use of the lessons from this little book right away, a very good indicator of the quality and usefulness of the content.

“A Practical Guide to Testing in DevOps” (Katrina Clokie)

I was excited to learn that well-known New Zealand tester, Katrina Clokie, had decided to write a book. Her popular blog, Katrina The Tester, already provided plenty of evidence of her ability to write clearly across a broad range of topics of interest to the testing community and so I had high expectations of her book, A Practical Guide to Testing in DevOps (released through Leanpub).

The book starts off with an overview of what DevOps is (and isn’t), along with some opening thoughts around where testing fits into a DevOps culture. The next couple of chapters compare and contrast testing in development with testing in production. While those of us who’ve been in software testing for a decade or more will have been schooled to think of testing in production as a huge “no no”, the move to DevOps (along with the new engineering around it that makes excellent alerting, monitoring and rollback possible) means we need to think differently. Katrina does a great job of balancing how testing can add value during development (highlighting the importance of automation but also the high value of human exploration) and what good testing in production also looks like. This was highly useful content for me and I liked the way she introduced the concepts of A/B testing, beta testing and monitoring in production as actually being “test practices” and the risk mitigation (“exposure control”) that can come from ideas such as staged rollouts and dark launching.

The next chapter focuses on test environments, looking at the way platforms have evolved and the use of infrastructure as code, configuration management, containers and cloud. Katrina offers advice on test practices around these environments and I liked the idea of testing the infrastructure as being a part of the overall test effort in a DevOps environment (and this was something I hadn’t read about anywhere else).

A highlight chapter for me comes next in the shape of seven industry examples. Real world examples are a good way to set context and there are a broad range of industries and project types reflected here. Each case study is short but focuses on just one aspect of their DevOps journey, e.g. A/B testing or using Docker.

Just when I thought this book had peaked in its content and usefulness, the final chapter – “Test Strategy in DevOps” – proved me wrong! There is some directly applicable material in here for anyone who is currently facing the challenge of defining test strategy in a DevOps environment. The section on rethinking the test pyramid is particularly noteworthy I think, presenting the idea of a “DevOps Bug Filter”, a simple graphical representation of the way in which bugs might find their way through our various levels of testing. This looks like a very simple but effective way to communicate around a test strategy in a DevOps environment and I certainly intend to make use of it!

In her preface, Katrina says:

This book is for testers who want to understand DevOps and what it means for their role. It’s also for people in other roles who want to know more about how testing fits into a DevOps model. I hope to encourage people to explore the opportunities for testing in DevOps, and to become curious about how they might approach quality in a different way.

She’s achieved this mission, but also so much more in my opinion. This book offers so much practical content, much of which I feel is applicable to a wide variety of software development projects and not just those “doing DevOps” – I actually see it as more of a manual for what software testing looks like in the modern world.

Katrina’s book is a steal at the suggested Leanpub price of $15 (and, to her credit, she is also making it available for free), a worthy new addition to the essential toolkit for anyone involved in software development and testing.

(A quick plug for the CASTx18 conference coming in Melbourne early in 2018 (for which I’m Program Chair), Katrina is both a keynote speaker and a tutorial presenter so this conference offers a great opportunity to hear more from her.)

“Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” (Carol S. Dweck)

The second of my recent airport bookshop purchases has made for an excellent read over the last week. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explores the influence that the way we think about our talents and abilities has on our success.

The key concept here is that of the “growth mindset”, as compared to a “fixed mindset”. A fixed mindset is “believing that your qualities are carved in stone… [and] creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over” while a growth mindset is “based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others…. [and] everyone can change and grow through application and experience”.  She notes that all of us have elements of both mindsets.

She notes that a “fixed mindset makes people into non-learners” and, while failure still can be painful with a growth mindset, “it doesn’t define you; it’s a problem to be faced, dealt with and learned from”. I liked this question as a way to think about growth vs. fixed mindsets: “Is success about learning – or proving you’re smart?”

The role of effort in the growth mindset is highlighted throughout the book:

The fixed mindset limits achievement. It fills people’s minds with interfering thoughts, it makes effort disagreeable, and it leads to inferior learning strategies. What’s more, it makes other people into judges instead of allies. Whether we’re talking about Darwin or college students, important achievements require clear focus, all-out effort, and a bottomless trunk full of strategies. Plus allies in learning. This is what the growth mindset gives people, and that’s why it helps their abilities grow and bear fruit.

It’s an interesting section of the book when Carol moves away from the individual to the organizational level:

Clearly the leader of an organization can hold a fixed or growth mindset, but can an organization as whole have a mindset? Can it have a pervasive belief that talent is just fixed or, instead, a pervasive belief that talent can be and should be developed in all employees? And, if so, what impact will this have on the organization and its employees?

She goes on to cite some research in this area:

People who work in growth-mindset organizations have far more trust in their company and a much greater sense of empowerment, ownership, and commitment… Those who worked in fixed-mindset companies, however, expressed greater interest in leaving their company for another… employees in the growth-mindset companies say that their organization supports (reasonable) risk-taking, innovation, and creativity… Employees in the fixed-mindset companies not only say that their companies are less likely to support them in risk-taking and innovation, they are also far more likely to agree that their organizations are rife with cutthroat or unethical behavior.

A reference to an excellent diagram by Nigel Holmes is a handy summary of the messages in this book:

Fixed compared to Growth mindset (thanks to Nigel Holmes)

This is a book with great messages and is of broad interest. Carol cites lots of research to back her claims and the book is made very readable thanks to the excellent examples from the business world, school, and sport.

Thinking about the book’s key message around the growth mindset in the context of software testing, it strikes me that much of the testing industry is actually stuck in a fixed mindset and the benefits of continuous learning and growth are not as valued as they could be. The idea of certifications in testing doesn’t help with this (although you could argue there is learning involved in attaining them), especially when you can take an exam to become an “Expert” level tester.

It’s personally very rewarding to be active in a part of the testing community that does genuinely value learning and growth (that’s the context-driven testing community) and where having “a bottomless trunk full of strategies [and] allies in learning” are the norm.

“Changing Times – Quality for Humans in a Digital Age” (Rich Rogers)

It’s always good to see someone from our community of software testers taking the plunge to write their first book, as Rich Rogers has recently done with “Changing Times – Quality for Humans in a Digital Age” (available in both paperback and electronic formats).

The book is written in an easy to read style, with a story about a journalist called Kim running throughout. Her daily engagements with technology – as both positive and negative experiences – are described as she goes about her work and personal life. The story line makes it very easy to relate to the topics and Rich follows each chapter of her story with an exploration of its themes around quality and technology. It is these regular dives into the quality aspects of Kim’s experiences that makes his narrative so engaging and easy to consume.

Rich uses a model called the “Three Dimensions of Quality” and illustrates each dimension again by reference to Kim’s experiences. The three dimensions are Desirable, Dependable and Durable and he identifies a number of aspects within each dimension for further exploration (for example, “Dependable” is broken down into accurate, available, clear, private, protected, reactive, stable and tolerant).

For testers, I think this is a worthwhile read as it draws everything back to thinking about quality. But the book makes for a very enjoyable read for a much broader audience, from those with no real experience of the “nuts and bolts” of producing IT systems to anyone with an interest in “quality” and how we can improve it in the software we help to build. Well done, Rich!