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Join our Panel Discussion: Engineering Quality in Your Stakeholders’ Point of View

I’m having a virtual panel discussion on April 9th with Venkat Ramakrishnan of Ministry of Testing Bangalore. We’re going to talk about quality engineering, specifically about quality as perceived by the stakeholders of the product or service. Follow the link to register – or read on if you want to know a little more!

Here’s an exercise for you in two simple steps:

1) Think about the project or system you’re working on. 2) Then try to put yourself in your users’ shoes and say this out loud:

The test of the system is the satisfaction it gives me. There isn’t any other test!”

Do you feel worried, happy, hopeful, or confident? All three?

I recently worked on a project where we drew a definition of quality as a three layer pyramid. In the middle we put what we knew important about the system: The calculations, decisions, and processes it was implementing had to be correct and follow the rules defined for the domain in which the system was to be implemented.

Below that level we elaborated the many requirements for the system from its specifications.

That’s quality, you might say, and that was in fact our first intuitive reaction: If the system is correct, adhere to requirements and rules, then that would mean that the system is of good quality.

Of course there would be other important things too: Usability for example. But usability would be consequential of correctness since users are important for correctness as they are inputting data into the system, and otherwise using the system.

However, we thought a little more about that, and then we decided to put something else on top of all the correctness and requirements: We put “Happy Users” on top of the pyramid. Everyone in the project wanted happy users, and it was clearly more than a mission. “Happy users” is a quality of the system.

This took some courage as making users happy is really difficult. Robert Pirsig defined quality as the event in which the subject realizes the object. Put in daily langauge terms what he meant was that quality is cognitive, relative, even emotional, and that quality is something you experience and probably even feel, it in a moment working with a product.

Quality is thus not in the product in itself, but something that happens.

Will correctness make a user happy? I sure hope so! But I know from myself that sometimes I’m not happy with correctness. I can become frustrated when people follow rules. Yes, you read me right.

For example I remember the times when I have received a parking fine because I did not notice the parking rules in the area where I was parking. My first reaction has always been anger against the meter man, then anger against the person who hid the sign, and finally anger directed against those who made the rules, put the signs up where I did not notice them, and hired the meter man to issue the fines.

Pirsig also said:

The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.

He was talking about a motorcycle, but it applies more or less universally, I think. The final test is in the satisfaction.

Satisfaction and happiness depends on a lot more than corretness. It depends on things like implementation, clarity, communication, reflection, and education. Just to name a few things that comes to my mind when I think about what helps me when I’m trying to make myself happy about something. For example being accepting that I got myself a parking fine. What are my feelings? Why might I feel them? What can I do? (Probably nothing except paying and moving on with other, more important things in life.)

So think of the motorcycle as a metaphor for the system you’re working on and then try to relate to the following two statements: The test of the system is the satisfaction it gives the users and stakeholders. There isn’t any other test.

Please join Venkat and I to discuss if there are ways to engineer happy stakeholders in software systems, and what the role of testing might be in this.

Registration for the event is necessary. Please go here:

Quality Engineering In Action: A Panel Discussion

Friday, Apr 9, 2021, 5:00 PM

Online event

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Please note: RSVPing here is not sufficient. You need to register at the following link to attend this free event: About the talk: “Achieving superior Quality has been focus of organizations for decades. A lot of methodologies and processes have been designed in the past, and have been followed to a…

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Blog posts in English

Quality and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert F. Pirsigs “Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance” is a classic about the authors’ motorcycle trip across North America with his son and two friends. It is also, however a philosophical dissertation about quality.

The trip through the changing landscapes during which he experiences and rediscovers himself, and heals his relation to his son is a strong and fascinating story. I’m an avid cyclist and I can deeply relate to the value of riding through landscapes, and letting the changing landscapes shape both thinking and reflection. This part of the book has a function too, however, as it serves as underpinnings for his dissertation. The book is fascinating and beautiful.

The motorcycle plays an important role in the book being a piece of technology that requires constant care and maintenance. But the motorcylce is also a medium.

Thanks to technology, we can experience ourselves in new ways. It’s fair to say that technology extends us. Pirsig rides and maintains his motorcycle, but the motorcycle also physically drives his thoughts and reflections, and eventually helps him heal himself. The motorcycle is thus both an object which Pirsig is working with, and a subject working back on him.

Pirsig identify two different views on things like motorcycles: First is the classic view, rooted in Socratic thinking, where things are understood by their components and individual elements. Second is a romantic view where the emotions and experiences are allowed to stand alone.

Through the first view on things the motorcycle can be maintained and tuned, the trip can be planned and executed, and the relation to his son and himself can be explored. But it is only through the second view that he can really understand what the motorcycle, landscape, and relations are in themselves. The two views are complementary.

Technology has evolved since Pirsig published his book 46 years ago. Both in the classic and romantic views modern information technology extends and affects us in ways that technology could’nt in the 60’s. Also, modern information technology is highly dynamic. While a motorcycle is a machine requiring materials and tools, and it takes time to perform even the simplest maintainenance job, a software system is pure design and can be changed in a moment.

People (like myself) working with software and IT systems often talk about quality as something that is built in: Cast in metal. Welded or painted on. Written in the code. Configured.

It’s not totally wrong, of course, but it reflects a purely classical view where technology is understood by breaking it down and analyzing it, and we assume that’s it: Once we’ve assembled the components, the job is over. This view is wrong. Systems theory, for example, teaches us that: Quality, in systems theory, is an emergent property.

Pirsig starts out personally favoring the classic perspective, but as he drives through the landscape he understands there’s also the alternative romantic view, and that it is just as valid. This, I think, is what leads him to start searching for a joining factor between the two perspectives.

Quality is an event in which the subject realizes the object, he says. Pirsig then concludes there is Zen at the core.

I read Pirsigs book during the first lockdown. I’m not sure I allowed myself to be completely absorbed by the book as I found the whole lockdown- and Covid-situation quite stressful. I’m looking forward to rereading one day.

However the book kept me thinking and has opened my mind to a deeper understanding of the nature of Quality.

Pirsig finds Zen at the core of quality. I think that might reflect his classical preference: There has to be an inner component, an object from which Quality emerges.

I think he should have been more careful identifying and naming it. At the core of Quality there could just as well be no object, only a subject.

After all, our very existence and personal abilities to do things like judging, deciding, acting, speaking, and even to think and reflect, seem to prove that there is something about us as humans that doesn’t necessarily need a name to be recognized, but still allow us to experience concepts like Quality as real and true to us. Putting Zen at the core of quality is a somewhat speculative theory.

But that’s just a minor objection about the book. I really enjoyed reading it and having my thoughts stimulated. I even wrote a poem in my diary after finishing it. This is an edited version:


It is sensibly comprehensible but objectively slippery

Did I find it?
Did I recognize it?
Did I shape it?
Or did I prove it?

Quality is the event in which
the subject realizes
the object.
I realize that.

Returning and revisiting
over prairies and mountains
through rain and snow always
anticipating, planning, solving,
predicting, projecting, caring.

Expectation turns into experience
A priori becomes a posteori
Time passes and in hindsight it is
dissapointingly often
encouraging sometimes
more complicated.

Indivisable, tacit, not now, here, there
A Never
A Scene
Where stories will never play and events never unfold.

Did I prove it?
Or did it prove me?
Uncontrollable and undivisable
Acceptable and passionable.

Quality is that
Which sets me responsibly free.

Blog posts in English

Don't Panic, but 2020 will be a Tough Year for Conferences

COVID-19 coronavirus is spreading. We will probably all need to change behaviour over the coming months to ensure it’s kept under control. This unfortunately means it will be a tough year for conferences of all kinds. We’re already seeing cancellations. The question is for how long this will go on?
Grady Booch tweeted this piece of great Texan humor:
I have personally been very much in doubt what to mean about the Corona virus. The But friday, the Danish government has adviced all events of more than 1000 people to be cancelled. My son is a big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest so we had tickets for the big show in Copenhagen. It wasn’t cancelled, but was broadcast without any audience. It was a strange experience to watch, and we are sad we missed the live show. It would have been so much fun. And it’s not only Denmark. Italy is shutting down schools. Friends coming home from Japan are to stay two weeks in quarantine. Are governments panicking? Or are they – as some seem to suggest – conspiring on to make people to panic (put your tin foil hat on)?
The World Health Organization (WHO) is very clear in its message:

The fight against rumours and misinformation is a vital part of the battle against this virus. We rely on you to make sure people have accurate information about the threat they face, and how to protect themselves and others. […] This is not a drill. This is not the time to give up. This is not a time for excuses. This is a time for pulling out all the stops.

(Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general on March 5th).
So what will we be facing?
In this country, Søren Brostrøm, director of the Danish Health Autority, spends a lot of time explaining things on TV. Yesterday he tweeted an article from The Lancet discussing  “How will country-based mitigation measures influence the course of the COVID-19 epidemic?” It’s a long article that probably requires a bit of understanding of epidomology to fully grasp. I’m no expert, but I get this:

  • We can have an uncontrolled epidemic that will affect a lot of people during the coming few months. This is what will happen if no actions are taken against the epidemic, i.e. if we go-on with life as usual.
  • If governments implement interventions that cause us to socially distance more from each other, the situation can be kept better controlled.
  • Severe interventions like those implemented in Wuhan can probably stop the epidemic, but is that realistic? It will hurt the economy severely, and the virus might resurge when the restrictions are eventually lifted.

Qualitatively illustrated, it looks like this (copied from the article):
Note the month numbers. If we’re in month 1 now and the interventions currently being implemented work, we’ll be following the green curve and the epidemic will be under control, but continue for six months or more.
The researchers can’t predict how many will be infected, but I see some experts saying practically everyone will, though far from everyone will get sick.
We’re in a state of uncertainty, though. Doctors and experts are cautious to say much definite. There’s still a lot to be learnt about COVID-19.
For example data about the virus’ genome and mutations spreading across the globe can be tracked online from the NextStrain database.
More usefully, WHO is posting useful facts and advice daily on twitter.

WHO on conferences

I think conference organizers should carefully read this March 3rd announcement (PDF) from the WHO:

There is a risk that people attending your meeting or event might be unwittingly bringing the COVID-19 virus to the meeting. Others might be unknowingly exposed to COVID-19. While COVID-19 is a milddisease for most people, it can make some very ill.

I have personally already experienced a conference cancelled due to COVID-19. WHO says conference organizers should consider whether a meeting is needed.
Could the event be replaced by an online event? If no, then organizers have to be prepared: Pre-order sufficient supplies and materials, including tissues and hand sanitizer for all participants. Surgical masks should be available. Response plans should be developed in case someone at the meeting becomes ill.
We still have to build trust. As an icebreaker, the WHO suggests, participants and organizers should practice ways to say hello without touching. But the more boring precautions should be followed too: Regular hand-washing or use of an alcohol rub by all participants at the meeting of course. There should be tissues and closed bins to dispose of them in. And conferences will need space: Seats should be arranged so that participants are at least one meter apart.
It doesn’t even end with the event, WHO says: “If someone at the meeting or event was isolated as a suspected COVID-19 case, the organizer should let all participants know this. They should be advised to monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days and take their temperature twice a day.”

So what will all this mean for me?

I think many of us will want to avoid conferences this year. I’m not a smoker, but I’m male and 50, and I can’t consider myself out of risk of serious illness. But we all need to take it seriously, as even those who will get infected, but not ill, will spread the virus.
But conference organizers also need to take this seriously. This is not a drill.
I think most of us will be extra careful. Employers will probably be less inclined to approve people going to conferences. I love the sharing and learning at conferences, but I think we can sadly be certain that 2020 will be a tough year.
Updated 09.03.2020 with correct link to Lancet-article
Thanks to NIAD for this picture of a 3d printed CORONA virus model.

Blog posts in English

The Deep Rationality of Software Testing – EuroSTAR Best Paper award

Software is code, but stakeholders value working software. And software should not just work; it should work well: Have quality. Rational knowlege about quality requires testing.
Anders Dinsen, founder and owner of ASYM APS won the Best Paper Award at EuroSTAR 2019, Europe’s biggest software testing conference for his article on the Deep Rationality of Testing. The article was published as an e-book on January 20th 2020.
In the article, Anders Dinsen redefines software testing as a necessary and best practice in any development project. He starts with the bugs we can find in the code. Based on Kant’s philosophy, he then shows how the thinking, imagining, and rational tester (agnostic of titles) engage the team and educate people on how the software really works. The result is all about quality.
The ideas are based on Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. Kant is probably the greatest of all European philosophers, but has a reputation for being pedantic and difficult.
But we intuitively understand what he says: That knowing things always involves the complexity of experiencing and learning.
The article can be downloaded as a 50 page A5 e-book free of charge from EuroSTAR’s web site

Anders was awarded by the committee of the conference during the awards galla in the Zofin palace in Prague

EuroSTAR 2019 took place in wonderful Prague in the impressive Prague Convention Centre

Blog posts in English

The (new) skilled art of QA

Professor Reinhard Stelter of Copenhagen University has a book out titled The Art of Dialogue in Coaching; Towards Transformative Exchange.
I’ve found it seriously inspiring as the skills Stelter teaches enhance those everyday dialogues and conversations that’s becoming more and more important in modern testing, QA, and quality coaching. I’ll come back to that.
I have read Stelter in Danish before, but this book in English has new material that I wanted to dive into.
From the backcover:

In The Art of Dialogue in Coaching, Reinhard Stelter invites readers to engage in transformative end fruitful dialogues in everyday working life, and provides the theory and tools for them to be able to do so.

Professor Stelter has worked on transforming coaching from its instructive and directive roots in sports where the coach helps the coachee get from A to B, over the psychological focus on helping the individual removing mental blockings for her individual development, to a new and third level in which the asymmetry betwen coach and coachee is used to drive meaningful dialogues in which co-learning can take place.
Stelter has written the book in three parts, one on the theoretical basis of his work, another on meaning-making, values and narratives, and the third part on dialogue practices. The middle part seems to me to be the most important, but the two other parts contain interesting stuff too.
So why do I think skills for having good coaching dialogues would matters to testers?
As testers we’re really experts asking “why?”. I find a lot of good testing starts with that question. But just asking “why?” and testing isn’t coaching. However, I’m seeing the meaning behind the “why?” questions we ask change. It’s no longer only triggering our testers’s curiosity, but feeding something deeper.
What I’m seeing is that our why’s more and more are a help for our stakeholders, colleagues, team mates etc to grow their couriosity. This has always happened, of course, testing is inspiring, but I still see a change being needed so that we can more systematically and perhaps even strategically help them better understand their own situations in terms of quality and make wise decisions based on those understandings.
I’ll be talking about that at STPCon in Boston on September 25th, where I’ll be looking back on how testers probably learned to ask value based “why?” question from marketing to learn and identify the factors that makes users and customers feel that the products we test have value so we can test for these factors. But I’ll be looking also on the new “why?”, the one that triggers coaching instead of testing. .
To me, the need for the new “why?” is a reflection of how organizations are rapidly changing: We used to have IT as cost centres, smaller separate hiearchies in hierachical organizations. I’ve consulted for a few organizations like this since I started full time test consulting in 2003.
Today, organizations look more like this:
The DevOps movement is driving this transformation, I think: We increasingly network with people and processes, and have no hiearchies: Quality is owned by everyone. That correlates well with Danish management culture and the very low power-distance we have between managers and workers.
Therefore I’m shifting from asking my tester-“why?” questions and instead I’m asking why to help the team become just that: Expterts in what quality means to stakeholders, customers, and users.
This is actually a bit like what Henry Mintzberg, professor of management at Mc Gill calls “adhocracies,” a type of organization where business power is in the body of the organization, not centralized near the top.
Things are often more messy in the real world where we’re practicing testing. There are still hiearchies and a lot of goal keeping still needs to done around the world, but what’s interesting is that the development the importance of coaching more and more important, and therefore also makes the skill of having meaningful dialogues more important.
To facilitate work on that abstract thing we call quality, we need to coach people on finding out what quality is in the context in which they’re working. We can’t guarantee the effect of that work, there’s no direct quality assurance happening.
Stelter argues that modern generation coaching is rooted in situational ethics, where outcomes of our coaching are only hoped for, and work we do is not about pointing out what’s important to the individual. I’d say the same: Modern Quality Coaching is ultimately about helping the other person find meaning in her goals.
I have to admt something: All this is forcing me out of my comfort zone. It’s not a transformation I can do myself.
That’s why I read litterature on coaching, speak at, attend, and help organize conferences like Test Leadership Congress, STPCon, and EuroSTAR and in as many other ways as I can seek to establish communities of practice with peers in which we can coach each other to make the jump from the expert-role, to the co-learner’s role.
As a QA person, I still need to have a fairly good understanding of what quality is in the context, but as I’m more more hands-off with the product and the actual testing these days, I need a new search for meaing as a tester and test manager: Helping people in the team to find that bigger meaning behind their work and remain courious about the values they help create.
And that’s where Stelter has a strong message to us:

A search for meaning, which always involves a focus on values, is a search for a personal existential foundation and whatever makes our lives and our actions meaningful. […] I have expressed my disinclination to focus exclusively or excessively on specific goals or problems. […] Goals and objectives can lock a person into a particular societal discourse: this, ultimately, represents the polar opposite of the purpose of a good dialogue, which is to enable novel perspecitves. […] [p.43]

Stelter doesn’t exclude goals or problem solving. They are important and even foundational.
But his thinking is totally unlike what we often encounter in tech, where goals are in an iron triangle, about deliverying expected quality, on time, and on budget.
Instead he thinks of goals and objectives as possible outcomes by a series of human events with a particular effect and desired purpose, and actions oriented towards acthieving a specific actionable goal (Stelter suggests a goal to loose weight, but in our contexts, it could be about delivering a bug fix, feature, or user story to production.)
R. Stelter: The Art of Dialogue in Coaching, Towards Transformative Exchange. Routledge 2019.

Blog posts in English

Happiness as a career choice

I woke up from a strange dream: A house was for sale. I was browsing pictures in the advertisement.
The pictures were strange though, some were paintings, others personal photos of the people who had lived and worked there. There was an atmosphere of lost battles for success, but they also showed people who had been serious about trying to achieve something despite their imperfections.
I think a lot about the outcomes of what I do. I evaluate my performance thinking about what I have achieved today testing, managing testing, and coaching quality. It’s part of the seriousness driving me.
But am I happy in my career?
I think the dream may have been inspired by a radio program about happiness which I listened to yesterday while doing the dishes and cleaning up after dinner.
They talked about two types of happiness:

  • One which is like water, a lovely experience, but often gone again as quickly as we suddenly feel it.
  • The other is about quality of life, which can even be measured qualitatively. It is more persistent.

Both, however, are difficult or even impossible to control. We desire them, but we cannot be sure about them.
Interestingly it seems to me they also talked about a third type of happiness, one which I’ll call “the choice of potential happiness”.
Thinking of my dream: What would my work life look like in a sales ad of what would remain of me with all my imperfections and half-failed attemtps to achieve persistent success?
Growing up, I learnt to be serious, giving sacrifices, but I also knew I should choose happiness. I’m not sure I’ve been successful all the time, but I try to remind myself now of the career choices I’ve made trying make myself (and others!) happy.
I think that’s what career choices should be about: People in tech are often very result-driven and work hard to see things happen at work because of us.
The flip side of this is that we are often also very critical about performances. But this blog is about career and making conscious choices, not about performance.
I recently talked to a friend about a difficult career choice she had to make. It seems to me that most career choices are fundamentally about balancing performance, achievements, and results on one side, and happiness at Work at the other:

  1. What could make me happy at work? Can I give feedback to someone which could improve the situation enough for me to be happy? Or should I accept that new job offer I got?
  2. Where am I heading as a person, what are the results I am trying to achieve at work and in my career? Am I working to my full potential?

Even at my 25th year in my career, I’m not done trying to find this balance.
I can achieve results, but promotions are often missed, results not credited, achievements not rewarded.
And I can seek happiness, but it doesn’t come with a warranty.
The people in my dream looked silly, but they had obviously worked to achieve happiness. Trying is a result too!

A silly thought: If happiness is like water, perhaps we can be like fish and try to swim our careers instead of controlling them. This fish made us happy cooking and eating it.

Blog posts in English

Systems safety: Could software end the world?

Nancy Leveson is professor of Aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. She is one of the worlds’ leading researchers on safety, a very serious researcher. I’m using some of the  techniques she has developed analyzing complex systems for safety. Her papers are often interesting, but the title of her latest paper blew my mind when I read it:
An Engineering Perspective on Avoiding Inadvertent Nuclear War.
I was born in 1969 and grew up during the cold war. One of the dangers we feared was that a mistake would happen, a bomb would detonate over Russia, Europe or the US, and uncontrolled retaliation would end the world. Dr. Strangelove, the movie, immortalized this scenario.
Take a deep breath if you watched the trailer above before reading on.
Leveson is not fearful. She has produced the paper for a workshop on systems and strategy stability and she looks back at why this horror scenario didn’t occur:

“The most successful complex systems in the past were simple and used rigorous, straightforward processes. Prevention of accidental detonation of nuclear bombs, for example, used a brilliant approach involving three positive measures […] and reliance on simple mechanical systems that could provide ultra-high assurance. Although there were a few incidents over a long period […] inadvertent detonation did not occur in those cases.”

The question she raises in her paper is whether we are still safe? Well, things are changing:

“The more recently introduced software-intensive systems have been much less reliable. […] More recently, our ability to provide highly trustworthy systems has been compromised by gratuitous complexity in their design and inadequate development and maintenance processes. For example, arguments are commonly made for using development approaches like X-treme Programming and Agile that eschew the specification of requirements before design begins.”

Yes, Leveson is a critic of the popular, modern development paradigms most of us has learned to love. Have we mistakenly stopped worrying?
I met her at a conference on STAMP/STPA in Iceland in 2017, and during a conversation which I was so fortunate to have with her in the lobby of the Iceland University she made herself very clear about her skepticisms towards Agile. But Agile is not the only problem:

“Providing high security is even more problematic. Again, only the most basic security techniques, such as providing an air gap to isolate critical systems, have been highly successful. The number of intrusions in today’s systems is appalling and unacceptable. Clearly what we are doing is not working.”

Leveson suggests a paradigm shift and suggests what the shift can look like. In the paper she discusses systems theory, and how approaches like those she describes in her 2010 book Engineering a Safer World can be useful.
The article can be downloaded in PDF from the MIT website Partnership for Systems Approaches to Safety and Security (PSASS).
I highly recommend anyone interested in software systems safety to read it and reflect on what dr. Leveson has to say
Dr. Leveson at Iceland University with myself and an Icelandic researcher on volcanic safety.

Blog posts in English

Faked reality

The only real to me is intuition
I fake faking I see real as is
I realize realizing reality is not what I see
These simple truths relates me
And explains how truth is in relation
Not interaction
As interaction is illusion
Only relation is real
Intention too
They’re rich.
A blow of misused trust, and my mind is twisted
That’s all it takes
To turn intuition into illusion
If reality climbs back, I must reject it at first
Shameful of my sin, it’s easier to deny what I just did
To myself
To reality
To relation
To intention
To others
It takes courage to relate intuition to reality
Test the relations
The deeper relations too
It takes seriousness
Rejecting the fakes
Still, faking is real as
The only real to us is our intuitions
We fake faking we see real as is
We realize realizing reality is not what we see
This robot used to mount computer tape cartridges in tape drives. What was on the tapes. what did its camera see?

Blog posts in English

Be Serious About Your Testing – or Die

I meet up with the philosopher just outside the city wall of Copenhagen. To the left, the city rises behind it’s wall. To the right is open land. He lives out there, in the quiet fields just outside of the busy city.
“Why do you test?”, he asks me.
Testing is my job, my profession, and I tell him the story of how I made it into testing as a consultant more-or-less by accident, and then became passionate about it.
“But,” he says, “why are you serious about testing?”
I then tell him about how my curiosity drives me, and the information I gather, and how I communicate to people. Also, I learn new things by exploring products, which I like. It feels like science.
“Testing is about curiosity and knowledge,” I say. This I say almost as a declaration, without doubt. I feel certain.
“Let’s talk about your funeral,” he replies. “What will people say about you when you’re not there?”
For a moment I feel a void opening beyond me and fear my words can no longer hold me. I pull myself together, though.
“I want people to remember me for my passion for exploration, that I was motivated, skilled, critically thinking, a modern tester … I want to be known and remembered for that, and…”
The philosopher interrupts me:
“Those things are for people living merely aesthetic lives,” he says.
I look at him.
“I’m a motivated professional“, I reply, “I work with some of the best people in the world, people who are motivated like me, passionate about the things I’m passionate about: Testing, risk, exploration…”
The philosopher looks away. A horse cart passes us, and the strange feeling returns. Where am I? The place looks familiar, yet strange. What am I wearing? Not my usual clothes. The passenger in the horse cart stops the driver to exchange words with the philosopher about his latest publications. I’m eager to continue the conversation and demonstrate my passion and motivation, kill the nagging feeling of fragility and confusion. Finally, the philosopher turns away from the other man, and looks at me:
“Are you serious about your testing work. Or do you just want to be known?” I can’t figure out if the voice is his, or my own voice sounding in my mind.
I wake up with my heart ponding in my chest.

One sleepless night, about a month ago, I picked up my tablet and found one of Søren Kierkegaard’s books on Google. The one I found was published in 1845 and contained three discourses for imagined occasions. I’ll prefer to call them talks. One of the three is a talk for an imagined funeral, and the subject of the talk is seriousness. Kierkegaard is known for walking Copenhagen and talking to people, and in my imagined dream above, it was him, I met, walking the outskirts of the City as it was about 170 years ago (the walls were since removed, and the city has expanded into the open lands around it).
Kierkegaard was Danish and wrote in Danish. The Danish word for seriousness is alvor. It is pronounced ál-vór and the origins of the word can be traced to old German “alawari” meaning “all true”, “friendly”, “willing”. The individual syllables in the Danish word have meanings: “All ours”. Alvor is more than attitude, there’s really a lot of value in that word.
I’m a free lance consultant, and a successful one. I’ve worked with software testing and test management for 15 years. I’m skilled, valued, and motivated.
A recent brain storm on testing lead me to think what testing can do, and I came up with these: Goal-keeping, learning, proving, checking, validating, exploring, researching, verifying, learning, teaching, educating. (Thanks to Ash Coleman for inspiring this.)
But testing is strange: Dijkstra said that the only thing testing can prove is the presence of a bug, not it’s absence. So how can we keep a goal, prove or educate anything? Am I wrong, or could testing be more than what Dijkstra said? The word alvor and even the English serious to me contain and indication that it can, at least when trying to understand it the way Kierkegaard did.
Søren Kierkegaard says seriousness is not in the subject, attitude, power or anything else that’s explicit or aesthetic. Beauty is our business, Dijkstra said, but Kierkegaard would disregard beauty as serious business, as beauty was to him just an external thing, and what mattered to him was the tacit, internal and relational. Seriousness, to Kierkegaard, can be thought of as a mental state, and we can be serious making a choice, but it is still something that is related to ourselves and the relations we have with others.
Let me try to reframe what I learned reading Kierkegaard’s funeral talk that sleepless night by putting it into a modern context:
The retrospective
Not all testing is done in sprints, but a lot of modern testing is, and I’d like you to think of a sprint you took part in.
You probably remember some things and have forgotten a lot. My guess is that as of right now, you – as I do when I think back on one – remember certain events like the demo, bugs that were found, and probably more likely the bugs and problems people at the demo pointed out that you had missed.
Thinking back on the sprint, however, is not seriousness. Kierkegaard is clear: It’s only emotion!
Therefore, now I want you to instead think of the sprint you are in now: It doesn’t matter if there’s just a few hours left of it, or several weeks. The sprint is the present, now.
Seriousness, in the way Kierkegaard wants us to think about it is in experiencing time running out as the days until the end of the sprint counts down to 0.
We need to make important choices before it’s too late.
Otherwise, the sprint will end, and after that, all we’ll be left with is emotion about the mistakes we made and shouldn’t repeat.
There’s a further level to this, though.
In death, Kierkegaard says, everyone is equal. Now, this sounds dramatic, but there’s a link to the sprint: In the sprint, we had roles, but after the sprint the roles are just part of history. Death is where nothing happens. Time becomes meaningless to the dead, just as it’s meaningless to the sprint that has ended. Time doesn’t matter to us talking about the sprint that has ended, in fact, time easily becomes a reconstructed illusion, as we try to remember the order of things that happened in the sprint.
Kierkegaard’s point, I think, is that the image we build, our power and influence, number of Twitter followers, likes we got on Instagram, job offers we have received, etc … all those things have nothing to do with seriousness. They are just emotions.
Seriousness is in choosing to be present right now and to care about what we do and especially about how others will experience it after we’re gone.
Reading Kierkegaard made me tired. I eventually fell asleep without finishing his talk.
I feel I’m sometimes trying too much to be serious. I can be anxious, and can’t relax. That can make me feel important, but I must be careful: It’s not seriousness. It’s a dangerous state of mind, and I will often end up sleepless, and probably bug others with my overdosed seriousness worrying about details that don’t matter.
So I can be serious, but I still needs rest, breaks, time away, time for doing nothing, even time to be foolish, childish, silly. Happy.
I become serious by choosing myself in social interaction with those to whom my work matter: Teams, colleagues, managers, stakeholders, users. Seriousness is no longer seriousness when it becomes an ego-trip, a battle with colleagues and stake holders. Seriousness, to be what it promises to be in the Danish word “alvor” or the old German “allawari”, is all ours.
I discussed an early draft of this essay with Damian Synadinos.
He has an interesting point on death as he reminds us in his talks on “improv(e) your testing” to contemplate death.
Damian talks about these two phrases in improv: Killing on stage versus dying on stage. He is serious about improv, which he trained for years and used to perform professionally.
What he says, I think, is this: Improv that dies on stage ends with no laughs, no emotions, no narrative. You want to kill on stage. Not literally, of course, but not only emotionally either.
A couple of years ago, Damian and I crazed out to a live band playing AC/DC-songs at Let’s Test 2016 in Stockholm. They sang this:
Shoot to Thrill,
Play to Kill…
I understand Damian this way:
Be serious about the testing you’re doing, contemplate death, and set out to create a meaningful testing event. In other words:
Shoot to thrill
Play to kill;
Don’t let your testing die by your ego-trip.

Blog posts in English

Quality is…

In a recent post, Anne Marie Charrett discusses quality as an emergent property.
I see quality as a term for value, and it is in itself complex. It can be read as being synonymous to aesthetics, beauty, and probably even to complexity, but it can also – as a term – refer to existential properties such as safety, existence, life etc: doing no harm is considered a fundamental quality in health care, for example. In the real, especially in the reality of projects, quality is indeed emergent: The product begins its life as an idea, we assemble the parts, and in the end the whole becomes something of greater value than the sum of the individual pieces.
But no matter how it emerges, quality, to me, is fundamentally tied to the human. We can define metrics for quality if we work hard, but even the best metrics will never be more true that the humans who relate to quality. This perspective can be debated, but as a premise for my work, I don’t want to engage in such a debate. Rather, I’m interested in debating how to make the human perspective operational in my work with quality and testing software systems.
And for that I have 12 models that can be applied, on three levels in four dimensions each.
I draw it like this (explanations follow, and yes, it’s a pyramid):

First order quality

Quality is something to someone, somewhere at some time. What is that something then composed of. Based on Ole Fogh Kirkeby’s “Greek Square” as described in his books on proptreptic value based coaching, Cynefin’s domains and Kant’s categories of terms, I think of quality as something on a compass disc with four corners:

  1. Quality as factual, obvious and true. Correctness is a quality in arithmetics, and subjecting a pupil to a number test with a number of addition assignnents allows us to evaluate how good she or he is adding numbers simply by comparing based on the fact that given a+b=c, given a, b being numbers of a known number system, c is a defined value. Sometimes, facts require more than algorithms, as in evaluating “North is that way”, but the principle is still the same, that a presupposition can be proven right or wrong given a concrete context of testing using someone, somewhere at some given time.
  2. Quality as relational, as when we for evaluate fairness and agreement with something or someone. Still in the context of someone in a given time and place, this kind of quality is relatively simple: We can ask the person, or we can put ourselves in her shoes, understand her, and evaluate for her. Agreement can probably always be evaluated mechanistically, but we still have to make sure that we know what to evaluate against: is it under our control, or a moving target? Fairness is more difficult, as even legislation needs to be interpreted in terms of both its written word, and its intention and ‘spirit’.
  3. Quality as an emergent, aesthetic, complex property is what we see in software Projects, especially if we look at the human values of the software. In that, people experience wealth of experiences existing on a continuum ranging from bad to good, ugly to beautiful.
  4. Finally, we sholdn’t rule out the safety aspect of quality. Even when we consider quality in the most personal and individualistic view, one that is rooted in a single persons’ experience with the product, we should not rule out the anxiety present: Will it destroy my idea (WordPress’s App deleted most of this blog post while I was editing it)? Will it destroy my day? Will it destroy me? As I mentioned above, a quality in healthcare is not harming patients. It’s fundamental, but it’s important, and a basis for ensuring that cure can emerge.

That was the first four models of quality. There are four more one level up:

Second order Quality

When I was a child, I played for my own sake. The quality of my play emerged, but it was personal. As I grew up, I began playing with others, and for them: At work, and as a parent, what I do is more serious: Part of growing up is learning to do things for others. Part of learning product engineering (which I did) is learning to engineer things for users.
The second level in the model is tied to the group of users, the team, an organization, the stakeholders etc. Quality is social here, but still bounded. But it can refer to the different domains in which the product has value: In the project, to sales, and to users. There are several ways to move to this level of abstraction, but we need to know what kind of abstract level we’re moving to for this to work.
My experience is that we can only move our thinking to this level if we know what we’re addressing. It doesn’t require absolute certainty, we can create props to represent users by describing them, or we can describe users in abstract terms. But there needs to be some kind of concrete knowledge available about the target of our idea of quality before we can talk rationally about quality at this levels.
But once we have that, we can start working with quality within the same Compass system of fundamental quality values I described above: Factual, relational, and emegergent quality, and safety. (Or as they are named in the Greek Square: The true, the just, the beautiful, and the good.)

Universal quality?

At the top of any pyramid is a smaller pyramid. In this case, this is where we move to the universal perspective, the quality that applies to everyone, everywhere, at all times. This would be God’s view on quality.
Factual qualities are often easy to work with, even at this level. Take math for example, which doesn’t depend on neither time, space or humans. Math is a thing in itself, it seems. Therefore it makes perfect sense to judge an attempt to solve an equation as universally good or bad depending on simple correctness:
2 + b = 4 <=> b = 3
The above is obviously incorrect and false.
It get’s much harder when we move further around in the value compass: Can we talk about good relations in a universal context? Is “the just” a universal thing? It’s not as easy as the above example, and I think this is where we really need to call in an expert who has done research in the quality of relations, or someone who knows about law and justice.
Even worse about emergence, complexity, aesthetics: Is there such a thing as universal beauty? I think there is research supporting this, but as a tester, I’ll skeptical about it: I’d rather test with a group of potential users, i.e. stay on the lower level, than employ rules for verifying aesthetic or emergent properties of a thing. Also, I would always suspect such rules are heuristic in nature, not universal.
Safety seems more obvious: Avoid chaos at all cost, and chaos is a reasonably well defined thing, I think, perhaps even mathematically.
But still: In the real it’s complicated. The Picture below is of the UN Building in New York. This is where universal rules for everyone on the earth are negotiated, but even those that have been decided on are often up for debate: We agree we want peace, but how? We agree we don’t want climate change, but at what cost, and who should do it? It’s hard, and as a tester, I want to avoid talking about this level, except as an abstract level I should avoid expressing myself too concretely about.
But that’s all right: I can say a lot of other things. Most of the quality pyramid is readily accessible in my work testing software and the relations real humans have with it.