Second-Class Citizens III

I’m reading Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto. It’s a great little book. On thing I saw struck me enough to write about. Gatto quotes the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who had four questions he believed were key to education:

“What can I know?
Where may I hope?
What ought I to do?
What is Man?”

Gatto went on to write this:

“All of Kant’s questions must be grappled with before a useful curricula can be set up to reach the ends you wish. But if you duck this work, or are tricked into ceding it to an official establishment of specialists (or coerced into doing the same thing), it shouldn’t surprise you to find yourself and your children broken on the wheel of somebody else’s convenience, someone else’s priorities.”

Well, let’s look at those questions again and reframe them:

“What is our organizations larger goal – or mission?
How does the testing group fit in, support, and help accomplish that mission?
What are the problems? What are our risks? What risks matter?
What are our values? What tradeoffs can we make to get something we value and abandon something we do not?
How, then should we test?”

These are key questions for any testing group. But I can’t tell you how many times I have seen those questions abandoned, because they are “philosophy” or “not practical”, or simply ducked, or, perhaps worst of all – some “expert”, generally in a suit, answers the questions for us.

Some expert that has never even been in our office, never examined our software, never met our team members, is going to prescribe a solution.

Without examining the patient.

Let’s look again at how Gatto feels about that, shall we?

“All of Kant’s questions must be grappled with before a useful curricula can be set up to reach the ends you wish. But if you duck this work, or are tricked into ceding it to an official establishment of specialists (or coerced into doing the same thing), it shouldn’t surprise you to find yourself and your children broken on the wheel of somebody else’s convenience, someone else’s priorities.”

Among others, three common arguments for a standardized testing curriculum is that it allows us to stop re-inventing the wheel, it eliminates the bottom layer of ignorance from the craft, and it allows us all to use the same words for the same thing, so we can stop spending time arguing about definitions and get on with the work.

I believe the first argument, that a standard cirriculum would help us stop re-inventing the wheel, is nothing less than offering to help us duck the tough questions. That’s bad, my friends. And even if it could be done, are the testing challenges at Yahoo in 1997 the same ones that a big bank, telecom, or government institution will have? Somehow, that seems unlikely.

As for the second argument, it is appealing at first, I admit. But the real bottom layer of the craft – people so ignorant they don’t realize they are ignorant – is like any other craft – they believe the work is trivial, that anyone can do it, that it takes little or no training. Ask yourselves: Does a two-day course with completed certificate remove this cruft, or does it threaten to trivialize testing still more? Of the dozen+ test certifications currently in place, how many trivialize the work?

Perhaps it might be fair to say how many DON’T trivialize the work. I can think of a small minority: The Black-Box Software Testing Training offered by the Association for Software Testing is the first to come to mind, but it doesn’t promise to help you duck the tough work, or do it for you.

The third argument is the decreased communications friction from not having to say “when I say system test, I mean this.” This argument is strongest in my mind. It is a real benefit. That doesn’t mean you’re actually good at testing, but it does mean there will be a slight decrease in the operational cost of the work.

It’s just that, well, I know where I stand. And I value that benefit less than some of the other unintended consequences. I believe I listed tradeoffs in my questions above, right?

Ultimately, whatever you do, whatever you support, I’m not going to condemn you. I’m just trying to explain the dangers of letting someone else decide for you.

As an industry, we seem determined to complain that we are treated as second class citizens.

What do I think are the keys to getting first class?

Well, one place to start is the questions above.

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