Life’s a Team Game

When I first starting working as the dedicated tester in my current team it was a “waterfall” to testing operation. I called this out quite a few times, and, it was acknowledged we were doing this quite a lot. There is, however, a vast chasm between recognising a behaviour and changing that behaviour. As frustrating as that might be, it’s reality. People take time to change the way they operate.

The first thing that had me hoping change could happen was that the team acknowledged we could develop better habits around testing. That’s a really great thing. There are a bunch of Developers in the team and they could have easily decided that it was all too hard. They could have given lip service to idea and just ploughed on with no real intention to change.

Having said that we needed better habits around testing in the team, that didn’t exclude me. I needed to be come more alert to opportunities, ways to show the value of testing. If I was asking other to commit to change then I had to support that with a willingness to try things that might be different to ideas I had. I needed to be available to discuss ideas and I had to be very open to sharing my ideas on testing (stopping me talking about them is probably a bigger task). Not least, I needed to stay sharp during discussions of a more technical nature (that’s not something that comes naturally to me). I wanted to be able to add value in this space. I wanted to have the Developers value my input and not just ask me because it was expected they would ask.

There were four key points I wanted to occur for every story.

  • Kickoff
  • Collaboration
  • Walk through
  • Test review

When I say “occur” I really mean for them to be considered and discussed. In some contexts it might be perfectly fine to say “hey we can skip this” but let’s at least have the conversation and understand what not doing something might mean in terms of risk. These were also the things that I believed would help us make other touch points regular occurrences.

  1. Kickoff – a walk through of the story with the Developer, Business Analyst, Product Owner and Tester. Establishing our understanding of the story, any risks, things that we could investigate further, ambiguities not seen previously, possible impacts outside the immediate scope of the card. In short anything relevant to the story.
  2. Collaboration – this is reminder to us all to talk to each other during coding of the story. Talk about blockages, surprises, things we misunderstood at kickoff, coding implications, things that I might want to investigate to help the Developer, things I might want to look at or investigate to improve my understanding of what we were doing. This collaboration aspect extends to any stakeholder who has useful information or needs to be kept informed.
  3. Walk through – a demonstration, by the Developer, that the acceptance criteria (as a minimum) have been delivered. Generally attended by the story Tester and the Product Owner these can be quite deep sessions, even though duration is generally quite short. As a group we have rejected stories at walk through because we have seen problems in the way the story was expressed. This is a serious step in maintaining quality.
  4. Test review – When I’m testing I talk to people inside, and external to, our scrum team. I love to use peoples different knowledge levels and perspectives to create test ideas I might never develop on my own. This step is a reminder (to me more than anyone else) to have conversations about what I found when I think I might have tested enough. Are there other things worth probing based on my results? The context of the story determines how wide I go with chasing stakeholders.

The early sprints of moving into this new territory was hit and miss. Old habits die hard. Developers would take stories and the story kick off would be missed. The first feedback I would get was at the walk through prior to testing of code. As a team we were forgetting about the opportunities we wanted to create (to be fair there was more than just this change going on at the time). As individuals we were following old habits more than creating new ones. At times it seemed like a “path to nowhere”, but reflecting on how hard it is to change personal habits, let alone those of many people, reassured me that it was, given the quality of my team mates, just a matter of perseverance.

I was sitting, just thinking one day about the above 4 points and the “hit and miss” nature of the venture. I was as hit and miss as anyone else in the team so, even with expressed desire, the change was “slipping and sliding” more than driving forward. Maybe it was the number 4, I’m really not sure now, but the idea of creating a game and setting it on a baseball field came to mind. I whipped up a very basic outline and spoke to the team BA about the concept.


The initial plan was to add some color, name the bases, print it out, put it up. It didn’t quite happen that way. Our team Delivery Lead asked if she could maybe “expand it a little”. Seemed like a good idea, turns out it was. Here’s what happened:


Now we really did have a game board.

For the first couple of sprints or game was attached to a wall. Unfortunately the wall and our stand up were too far apart. We never really talked to the game board. Then we decided to take it off the wall and attach it to a piece of board. It is now portable and comes to stand up with the team.

We are really just getting used to using this as part of our tool set but it has produced some useful conversations. We are yet to set rules around this. When we do I’m sure they’ll increase the usefulness, fun and feeling of it being a game. One of the things we have discussed is our ability to change those bases to whatever points we feel the team needs to focus on to build better habits and outcomes.

I really like what has happened to get to this point. I had an idea that would not have had the end product appeal without other input. In reality it probably would have just withered and died. Multiple ideas from team mates made the idea into something I want to interact with, something far superior to my initial thinking. We have already seen some early signs of usefulness but, as a team, will develop the idea further (because that’s the nature of the team I work with).

I’m really hoping that in a few months I can blog again on this, our wins, our failures and how we tweaked the game to make it more useful. I also hope I can talk about how it was useful, what we learned from using the game. But then, maybe in a couple of months I’ll blog about how it wasn’t useful and why. Either way we will have learnt some really useful things about how we work as a team.

As always, thanks for dropping by. If you’ve done something similar please drop me a note and share your story.



The Standard you walk past…..

This is the last blog I’ll write that focuses on my previous employer. My last blog spoke about testing experiences with my current employer, Travelport Locomote. I plan for future blogs to build on that focus. I’ve been contemplating this blog for some time, vacillating between writing it and walking away, leaving it unsaid. Ultimately, as you can see, I decided to write. This blog owes much to Nat Dudley and her blog Recovering from a toxic job. I shared this article with others and found out just how widespread this issue really is.

“And I need everyone of you to support me in achieving this. The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us, but especially those, who by their rank, have a leadership role.” – Lieutenant General David Lindsay Morrison AOAddress at the International Women’s Day Conference (2013)

Some background:

I worked for at my last employer for a little over 18 years. The first stay was a little over 13 years. I joined a consultancy as a Senior Test Consultant, a stay that lasted 6 months. The consultancy company was a soulless and cold place. It was about bodies and resources, not people. I left the consultancy and effectively went back to my old job. They had yet to find a suitable candidate and the move back came with a pay rise. Maybe that was an early omen. To be honest, at that point in time, the company had some issues but I wouldn’t classify toxic culture as one of them.

Fast forward three years. The part of the company I worked for had a change of owner. Three months later, our new owners, on a cost cutting drive (margin is king, apparently) slashed a bit more than 30% of staff globally. We lost a lot of good people in Melbourne. We also had a change in leadership. Initially I had high hopes as I thought the new leadership would back our recent journey to agility. The feeling amongst most people on the development floor was that we were slowly moving to better WRONG.

At this time, I was the most senior amongst the test group, officially “Principal QA” (a title that I would have changed to include Tester).  Staff changes through resignation and redundancy meant I was now reporting directly to the new Manager, who was “running the show” in Melbourne. Let’s call him “Mr X” The first six months of this relationship was, well, odd. I was asked to be an agile evangelist. I was cool with this, I was doing it anyway. In our weekly catch ups it was clear that what I was being asked to do was at odds with X’s desired path and his preferred mode of management (which includes the word micro). We had a bunch of chats where he was clearly not across what moving to agility really meant for our operations. Xs’ manager was, if anything, even less understanding (he wanted to “cherry pick” from the manifesto principles).

Let’s leap forward six months. At our weekly catch up I got the comment (command) “you need to be more pragmatic. Stop talking about this agile stuff and upsetting people”. Say what? I blogged previously on this episode (here). I should have taken the hint and rapidly sought an exit. I didn’t, my bad. Here’s a few highlights across the remaining time up to my resignation.

  • I was excluded from any leadership group meetings. The testing group, as a whole, lost representation at meetings
  • A demand that the team I was in working provide 70 days of free labour to make up for unpaid work delivered to a client. Management had approved the work but backed off when they realised it came at a cost of 70 days. It then became an “unauthorised promise” made by the team.
  • A new tester into the company was to spend some time with me “learning the ropes”. He was moved well away from me. I had been branded with having a bad attitude for not simply agreeing, without question, with every management decision (I have inserted an extract of my e-mail response)
  • The company spent money on a pool table for staff. It did more to boost morale than anything else that had been tried (not that much had been tried). X complained that “my request for software gets declined but they buy that table”
  • Responsibility for creating testing opportunities and initiatives was placed in the hands of a Developer in Bangkok, while this work was specifically part of my role. However it enabled X to impose his will on test direction. It enabled him to silently deliver directives.
  • An e-mail was issued to the wider test group. “Tell us about your three pain points”. I responded to the group with one ” We continue to approach improving testing in a superficial and disjointed way.”. That response earned a strong censure from X via e-mail (See below). A follow up ambush meeting followed where X and his Manager issued a formal “friendly warning” that next time it would be an official HR performance warning. Turns out the real problem here was responding back to the audience (that bit got mentioned a few times) rather than keeping it secret. Yikes!!


That is but a small sample I could cite more but I’m sure you get the idea. That last meeting lifted my motivation to get out to new highs. I moved from tepid attempts to having a red hot go. I could not operate in such a poisonous environment that held no promise of improvement. I was often asked by colleagues why I still cared, while no one else on the floor did (maybe I’m just stubborn, maybe caring is important). My “care factor” was given a new assignment. Within 4 weeks of the “friendly warning” I had signed a contract with a new employer. I was ecstatic.

The first few weeks at my new job were great. People were friendly and welcoming. I felt at home, like I belonged – even in the first few hours of my first day. At lunch on my first day I sent a text to my Wife – “So happy, this is where I belong” My enthusiasm was back. I had freedom, people wanted to know my thoughts, how I could help. People trusted me and there was zero micromanagement. It was just everything I wanted, and then it wasn’t. A few ideas met a little resistance and that triggered old habits and feelings from my previous job. I didn’t realise this was a “toxic hangover”. I started to wonder if I could do the job I was hired to do. I thought I worked well with people, maybe I didn’t. My confidence plummeted and I briefly considered moving on from the best job and workplace I have ever been a part of. I even considered moving away from testing as a career. I was languishing, doing stuff but not leading, not being “me” in the way I wanted to, and knew, I could be “me”. This is where being in a supportive and caring environment matters.

Our agile coach invited me to chat over coffee. There were some direct questions, there were answers. There was plenty of empathy and understanding from the coach. Then it was pointed out that I was making a choice and my choice seemed to be to focus on blockers rather than moving forwards. “You’re making a choice” resonated with me. It has ever since Michael Bolton spoke about this at a training session I attended. I realised I was letting the past crush me. It didn’t have to be about blockers and being beaten down. I could just as easily choose to do something else, so I did. This was what we agreed to call “a gentle ass kicking” but it was done for all the right reasons and with great care. When I left that meeting it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, my head was much clearer, my mood brighter.

Not long after that coaching session, I read Nat’s blog. It helped, a lot. I followed up a little later by having a chat with our People and Culture leader. That helped me understand the whole “toxic hangover” concept a little more. Nat’s description of the post toxic culture impact is very accurate based on my experience and stories from some of my colleagues.

Pink Floyd sings about being “Comfortably Numb”.

Now I’ve got that feeling once again
I can’t explain you would not understand
This is not how I am
I have become comfortably numb

I think survival for any length of time in toxic work environments requires you to become “Uncomfortably Numb”. You know that story about putting a frog in a pot of water and slowly heating the water. The frog gets used to the rising heat until it’s too late and it’s dead. That’s a toxic work culture. Another way I have thought about this is in terms of a behavioral science concept – learned helplessness. Get pounded enough and you just accept it and stop reacting, you become uncaring about the abuse. It leaves scars.

Now, finally, the place that I thought was everything I wanted, is that place. It wasn’t an overnight transformation, it took work and there were a few “wobbly” moments, but change happened. Not because it has changed but because the people there have helped me change. Genuine care and respect, amongst all people that I work with, will do that I guess. That veneer of toxic varnish that inevitably covers you, an unconscious form of protection that you build, has cracked and peeled away. I have been feeling energised, imaginative and involved. I’m back to loving what I’m doing and helping the people I work with understand what I do and how we can help each other. This is what a workplace should be.


The Illusion of Quality Assurance

When I first started testing my role description was Tester. In the numerous years that have rolled by since stumbling into the most satisfying phase of my career, I have been both Tester and QA. My previous role had me labelled Principal QA Analyst, my current role Senior Test Engineer. In official communication I will always use my current role title. Outside of that I’ll introduce my self as a tester. I’m proud of that title and what it means to me. I have, for a long time, rejected the QA title as being somewhat silly. Annoyingly it seems to be growing in popularity. More annoyingly it seems to me that those that are representing themselves as “QA” are also representing QA as more than, or superior to, testing. My problem is that when they describe “QA” they are describing what I model as credible, competent testing.

Is this representation of tester as QA now being driven by Agile? I don’t really have an answer to that question. I don’t think Agile was at the genesis of “QA mis-assignment” but based on what I heard at some testing based talks at LAST Conference, Agile is certainly fuelling the conflation of roles. I wont attribute the following to specific speakers but here’s a flavour of the commentary:

  • If you wait to test it’s too late to shift left
  • Testers are a gatekeeper of quality because of their mindset.
  • We are QAs, testers don’t do what we do. We make sure things are right.

The idea of a specific quality gatekeeper is completely contrary to the idea that the team is responsible for quality. In one session a question was written on a whiteboard “How would you test this?” Ten minutes later test was struck out and replaced with QA and the pronouncement “we do more than test, we QA”. In both presentations I questioned the QA over testing claim, how they assure quality. In neither case could the presenters actually explain it. The same hankering for QA is very evident on Linked in as well.

I work in a scrum team. My primary identified role is tester. Here’s an example of how things role in my world for a given story:

I attend grooming sessions. I question assumptions, I ask about how we can improve testability, I help get a focus on what mght be a risk, what we might not know. I work with my team mates to find potential problems as soon as possible. We make notes about things we might want to discuss or explore that are relevant to a story. So far no assurance but we do have a quality focus.

A developer picks up a story from the sprint backlog, a kick off is held. We discuss the story, do we have a common understanding of why we are doing this? Has anyone learnt anything between grooming and now that impacts our previous understanding? Do we need to investgate some uncertainties, are there previously missed ambiguities, do we know of recent system changes that might impact us? We go through a bunch of things, I’m not going to write about them all. Again, I’m involved, there is a quality focus, I’m not assuring a single thing.

The developer is coding while I check out some associated functionality. We became aware of a possible problem during kick off. Together we look for potential crossovers and impacts. We regather after a short while and discuss our findings. There is indeed a possible problem. We examine the nature of the problem and likelyhood. We decide the effort and risk of fixing outweighs the likelihood of it being encountered. If encountered we can actually deal with it pretty easily and the impact on a client is low. We have found a limitation, we can accept this and explain it to clients. This is good outcome. Lots of quality focus here, where’s the assurance. I’m not doing anything assurance role specfic.

The developer wants  to add some unti tests to our build checks. We discuss what would be useful and what wouldn’t. I suggest a scenario he had not considered, that gets added. That scenario suggests another, I raise the idea. We discuss. It appears that we have that covered by a couple of others. We decide the risk we were concerned about has been mitigated. As far as I can tell I’ve done quite a bit of testing on this story, no code yet. How can that be? If you’re a tester, and not a QA, then by the time you start testing it’s too late to shift left.  Are the QA believers selling a fallacy?

During the above process I’ve been thinking about how I might test the changes. I recently spent a few dollars an a whiteboard for my desk. Here’s my strategy:


The above represents discussions, things I’ve learnt playing with the software, possibilities based on observations, and, a little after I took this photo, I rejected some test ideas based on my discovery that a specific parameter setting meant the problem we were adressing could never happen within those test ideas. Of course that did kick off some other thinking that produced a couple of other ideas to consider. I shared the above photo with my team and the Support Manager who had a specific interest in this story. I was looking for someone to find a hole or two, feedback that would add more substance and bite. Equally they can respond with “looks good” or similar. I like the extra eyes and different ways of thinking engaging with my work. I feel like I’m testing. As a QA I’m probably doing a terrible job. What am I assuring here?

We execute the walkthrough. The developer demonstrates the changes. The Product Owner is cool with it and I can see that the acceptance criteria has been met. More to the point I can see that it has been met in one way,  one scenario. I have one more chat to the Developer. We spoke a lot about these changes, just looking for anything that might be important we haven’t discussed. Seems like we covered anything that sticks out as important. The developer is happy with my ideas around testing, thinks that it will give us a good chance of finding any important problems.

It’s now time to execute some testing of the code. In the perfect world I’d report our conversations and examination of the software were so good that it was bug free. In reality my first test highlighted a circumstance where the reported problem still existed. It was luck that I found it first test, it could have been a few tests in. I just happened to select the combination of inputs that would trigger finding the problem. The important thing is that collaboration and exploration created a level of information and an approach that meant this issue was destined to be found and then fixed. I also reflect on how we might have identified this earlier. I feel like that is testing,  pretty sure QA is sadly lacking from me.

I test, I am a tester. In doing my job, hopefully well, I get involved early. I challenge assumptions, I look for possible ommissions, uncertainties and the like. I don’t own this process, I am a part of it. I bring a certain set of skills, but then, so do the other people I work with. I work with people to help produce the best quality we can, not at the end, but throughout the cycle. I try to educate people on testing and have a genuine interest in learning what they do and how we can learn from each other. What I don’t do is assurance. I don’t guarantee anything. I don’t audit others, I don’t enforce or mandate specific practices, I’m not a gatekeeper. I suggest, I learn, I collaborate. Above all I work with people and we all contribute to building in quality as part of our professional commitment and accountability. I’m Quality Aware, I’m a Quality Advocate, I’m a Quality Assistant. I’m a tester, this is what I do.


A Moment for Reflection

On the 29th and 30th of June I attended LAST (Lean Agile Systems Thinking) Conference. The reason for my attendance was my first conference presentation. With Lee Hawkins (@therockertester) we presented our experiences of setting up the EPIC Testability Academy (ETA), running the classes and things we have learnt (aka, things we can do better). ETA is a software testing training course for people with autism.  I have written about this in an earlier blog Lee has also blogged You can also find more details at EPIC Recruit Assist and

Public speaking, at conferences, has not been a real focus of mine. The opportunity to co-present with Lee (who has a long history of conference speaking) and getting the spotlight onto EPIC Assist was an opportunity I was not going to let pass by. Preparing the talk and delivering it was a lot of fun. I guess it’s not that hard to tell the story if it is your experience. We have 2 requests to deliver this talk again and we are waiting to hear about a third.


There was something else that happened while I was at LAST, I clocked up 6 months with my new employer, Travelport Locomote. I mention this because ETA has a story attached that highlights the difference between my former employer and my current one. I’m not going to mention the name of my previous employer. If you’re curious you can find it on my LinkedIn profile, it’s not exactly secret. Regardless, it was toxic, made so by poor and indifferent management. This is a company that talks about assigning resources rather than people. A complete lack of trust by management towards their resources (with the exception of a chosen few), and a “carrot and stick” approach where the stick was much more prevalent. Management liked to point fingers, lay blame and seek retribution (I’ve got some incredible stories) Management formed meeting groups that included only those that echoed back what they wanted to hear. These were “group think” meetings. I didn’t get invited to many, I tend not to “echo back”. I prefer to challenge and suggest ways things could be better. In such an environment it’s not a survival strategy. In another blog I’ll talk about how learning to cope in such a high level of toxicity impacts you, even when you leave. It’s not pleasant and it’s more widespread than it should be. I know more than a few people that have gone through similar.

About 6 months before resigning from my former employer the EPIC Testability Academy became “a thing”. Funding had been approved, we had a vision, we had a name and the name had been registered. I was really happy that we had got this far. As things had been going along and building I’d been talking to friends and colleagues about the progress. There was a lot of interest and I had been asked by a lot of them if I could talk on it for 5 or 10 minutes at a monthly meeting that everyone attended. It sounded cool, I was up for sharing the story and answering questions.

The workplace was very much “chain of command”. I mailed my manager with the idea of speaking (because it had to be formally raised). He forwarded the idea to his manager for approval. “His” manager was the Development manager and owner of the monthly meeting. A response came back with astounding speed. “No, it isn’t a charity we support. You can’t present on it”. Not withstanding he hadn’t asked (EPIC is a not for profit organisation, not a charity) and that we had previously raised money for a charity we didn’t officially support. So it was bit of authority assertion, a power play.  It felt pretty personal and it felt very petty. The response from colleagues when they found out was very supportive (and in some instances somewhat aggressive towards management thinking).

Let’s fast forward about 9 months. I’m at Travelport Locomote.  Many of my colleagues know that I am part of ETA. They have asked questions, chatted about what we do, been genuinely supportive. I mention that I will be presenting at LAST Conference. The interest and enthusiasm is enormous. I”m provided with 2 days to attend the conference. No need to hit my annual leave. Our Sales people get me a new Travelport Locomote T-shirt (proud to wear it). I’m asked if I can provide some photos from the presentation. When I do the photos are:

  • Tweeted out under our corporate twitter account
  • Put up on LinkedIn under our corporate account
  • Circulated internally with some really supportive comments and responses from workmates

Later this month Lee and I will be delivering our talk at my office. I’m really looking forward to this. It will be a thank you for the support from a great group of people that form an incredible and supportive company.

When I resigned from my previous employer I hoped, and really believed, I was going to somewhere much better. Six months on and the proof could not be clearer. I’m yet to see any sign of a stick and there is lots of support and encouragement from Management. It hasn’t been without struggles but I worked through those with company support. Toxic relationships linger, in damaging and near invisible ways. That’s a story for my next blog.





Change – This is going to be EPIC

As we move from 2016 to 2017 there are a couple of things that really excite me about 2017.

I start a new job with Travelport Locomote. This company produces software for corporate travel management. It’s a new domain for me, and that’s interesting. More than that, this is a company that believes that people matter, and acts that way. I’m looking forward to working with a new group of Testers and Developers. I’m excited about being given a role that will enable me to really utilise my teaching, coaching and mentoring skills. There’s a lot for me to learn, that’s really cool because I have a high degree of confidence that the people I’ll be working with will support that learning. We’ll help improve each other’s ability to produce a quality experience for our customers.

Across 2016 I have been working with Lee Hawkins (@therockertester) and EPIC Assist ( to produce an introduction to software testing. This training will be aimed at helping people that have Aspergers Syndrome. Together we are hoping to get people sufficiently skilled to find employment. Lee and I will be developing and delivering the course with, to steal from the Beatles, “a little help from our friends”. EPIC Assist are helping identify people to attend the training and are also seeking out employment opportunities. They are also funding costs such as a training room, training materials, snacks, etc.

In 2017 this work will come to life as the EPIC Testability Academy (ETA). I’ve had this idea bouncing around in my head for a while but needed to wait until I had bandwidth and a group to support the idea. EPIC Assist is the group and Lee is the bloke that put his hand up before I finished outlining the idea to him. Working with Lee, in  my experience, is incredibly easy. He is a very positive guy, humble and people focused. He’s also got a lot fo testing experience. William Elliott and Zach Zaborny, from EPIC, have been brilliant to work with, they are so positive and supportive. As a team we “clicked” from our first meeting.

Zach is an author. I highly recommend his book – Education of An Aspie: College Through My Eyes

For Lee and myself this is a “giving back to the community” initiative. We are providing all our time for free. While we make zero dollars through this initiative we expect we will learn plenty and have a lot of fun. Well-worn as this term might be, for us, it really is about community building. The people that come along to ETA will not have any previous exposure to software testing (although they more than likely test without knowing it). Initially we want to build some confidence and engagement. Finding bugs that are not too hard to detect would be useful. Of course, this needs to taper because “easy bugs” are one thing but reality is another and so we need to progressively ramp up the challenge and engage the type of thinking we want our students to embrace.

This is where we seek assistance. It would be an enormous help if you, or your friends, the people that make the testing community what it is, could contribute ideas around software that would be suitable for ETA. It can be alpha, beta, web based, hosted, local instal, anything really. If you would like to be part of ETA, even though you might be on the other side of the world, or this continent, the “welcome mat” is awaiting, the door open. You can contact me through the blog site message function with any ideas you might have. Anything you can provide will be really appreciated.

So that’s it folks. 2016 is rapidly drawing to a close. It’s been a year of some incredible highs (I’ve a learnt a lot and have developed some very strong friendships) and sad lows (deaths in the family).  As always time marches on. 2017 is looking exciting for me, I hope it brings the same sense of excitement to you.



Building Bridges

Many, many years ago I went to college and graduated as a teacher. I was going to say “became a teacher” but that would be wrong. College gives you a level of preparation to become a teacher but you don’t actually become one until you spend time in the classroom developing the requisite skills and flexibility.

Reasonably recently my wife completed a teaching degree. It was interesting to see how little the ideas and theories have advanced. I had the occasional giggle when my wife would talk about a new theory in teaching. I’d ask questions, discuss it a bit and then offer “I learnt that stuff, it’s just got a different name now”. Not that this phenomena is limited to the education industry.

I struggled remaining interested in much of my time at college. Teaching is an exciting career. Every day, every child, different challenges. College focused too much on theory for mine. The psychology was fascinating, not much else was. I’ve long held a view that an apprenticeship approach would be better for teachers. Learn by doing and experiencing. I suspect this approach would also retain those that really want to, and can, teach. For as long as I can remember getting your first teaching job has been more about academic achievement than desire to do a great job and a love of the profession. I know too many Teachers that “fell into” a teaching job and have just stayed on, not a lot of passion. I also know Teachers that are brimming with passion and desire to “do right” by their students. Again, this is not something that is restricted to the education industry.

The reason I’m writing this blog is not to reminisce about a former job and studies of old. Rather it is to talk about something a lecturer said that has never left me. Moreover it has been an enormous help and guided me when working with others. I honestly wish I could remember the name of the lecturer so I could attribute, but I don’t. Maybe he borrowed it from someone else in the same way.

“When you teach, bridge from the known to the unknown”

Having set this up I guess I need to explain why this is meaningful to me. Across my years in IT I have been a learner and a teacher. Often at the same time. I don’t “fly my own flag” very often, I prefer to let people make their own judgements based on what they have seen me do. Having said that I’m pretty capable when it comes to teaching, coaching and mentoring people (I see each of these three as different activities). I know when to be more and less directive. I know how to guide people to discovery and get an enormous buzz out of people suddenly “getting it”. Back in my days as a primary school teacher we called them “magic moments”. Those moments when you can “see the light bulb illuminate”. I don’t have a lot of formal certification (beyond graduating college) but I have a lot of skill built up by doing, driven by a passion to help people get better at what they are doing.

When I work with people, and they are new to what I am going to work on with them, the first thing I do is gain an understanding of what they know that is relevant to the task at hand. Sometimes you need to dig deep, sometimes not, but this is important. The first thing I get here is trust then engagement (and I think that is the order in which it occurs) . I’m not dumping stuff on them and expecting them to keep up. I’m building an understanding and, usually along the way, increasing their feelings of safety. So in finding the “known” I also find their comfort zone. The comfort zone is important. People feel safe there, they understand the territory, it’s demands and how to react. The “known” side of the bridge is the comfort zone.

It’s important to know where someone “is at” if you want to take them somewhere and have them enjoy the journey. If they know very little that is relevant, or to put it another way, their comfort zone is small, that’s an important detail if you want to avoid over stressing your student.Once you know what to link to you can start constructing the bridge that will lead to new understandings, new skills, new capabilities. Every session I run with people starts with establishing where they “are at”. This is really important to establish what might not have been clearly understood in a previous session or sessions. Always offer “revisit” options.

So you’ve made a link, you’ve got initial buy in and enthusiasm, the journey starts. Think about how great bridges are built. Slowly, carefully, “one plank at a time”. All those little planks build spans. Eventually the spans join up and we have a bridge. Don’t rush, allow time to develop understanding, practice, failure and learning, deep learning when appropriate. Rushing through the building phase may leave you with a bridge that is shoddy, useful only for a short time, if it all, and one that is prone to crack and fall apart with minimal pressure. That’s just wasted effort and setting people up for failure and misery.

I hope I haven’t made teaching and coaching sound easy, that would be wrong. You need to make decisions about where to start, how fast you can build that bridge. There are ways to do that but none are foolproof. Ultimately, as the teacher or coach, you need to make decisions and revise those decisions based on feedback.

In my experience I have met many people that claim they can teach and coach. Maybe they can. I know for sure though that I have heard many more people make these claims than I have seen “build a bridge”.

Late note:

I drafted this blog a little while back. It has been sitting around waiting for me to come back and complete it. During my “muddling around” phase the following appeared in my twitter feed


A graphic was included with this tweet I have inserted a copy below. The timing of this was incredible and I love that it is based on the same analogy as my blog.


Thanks for dropping by.



Testing and Life Collide

I often hear how testing is part of life. I even use that, or related references, myself. Over the past few days I’ve been able to observe life and testing intersecting in a setting that is not part of my “everyday life”. This story starts at 12:30am, Saturday morning. My Wife wakes me up complaining of pain that is radiating into her chest. It is a heavy pain. We have a local service where we can phone a doctor for an after hours visit. This is proposed, I decide not.

Heuristic – this could be a heart attack. I can’t guess here. Criticality is high, the consequences of a bad call could be extreme. Therefore an unknown wait time for a doctor is pushed to one side.

I place a call, an ambulance is dispatched. Now I’m being coached by the dispatcher. Suddenly I’m part of a team. I’m being asked questions, I’m providing responses. Then I’m rummaging through our drugs cabinet looking for asprin. It strikes me that I’m suddenly part of a new team, we are, for all intents and purposes, pair testing. We are not sitting in the same location but we are working together, looking for signs that might give specific clues about what is going on.

Models – the dispatcher is building a model through our convesation, looking for certain key attributes of a problem. There were some indicators that this was not a heart attack but, at no time, was it dismissed. The possibility remained until proven otherwise through evidence. 

The Paramedics that came to our place were incredible. One immediately went to my wife, the other stayed slightly distant. The one that went to my wife worked patiently and methodically through a list of questions. Blood pressure taken, pads attached and heart monitor engaged. Drugs for pain relief. Thinking back on this the Paramedics teamwork reminded me of airline pilots. One flying the aircraft, the other controlling communications but always as a team. When you are asking questions, hooking up machines you can’t really observe, but your buddy standing off a little can. This is important information that can be shared to benefit your patient. This reminded me of the notion of critical distance and its importance.

My wife and I received a “report” from the Paramedics. “We don’t think this is a heart attack but we can’t be completely sure. We suggest we take you to a hospital with a cardiac unit”

Through all this I failed to observe any detailed lists (Paramedic “test cases”) but I did observe lots of discussion, cross checking of ideas, checklists and medical attention. Each question was an experiment designed to reveal new information and a better understanding. We also got useful, easy to understand feedback (we could think of this as a test report) that gave us information upon which we could make choices.  Risk assessment activities and  risk mitigation options were quite evident.

The decision to go to hospital wasn’t a difficult one. What followed was a night in a major hospitals emergency department and a battery of tests. The handover in this situation, from Paramedics to Hospital, is interesting. Short, sharp, focussed, clear. The essential facts. History of the situation and what treatment has been given. It’s clear this has been done before but it is also clear that this process is about passing important information quickly so the patient can be given high quality care quickly. This process is lean.

The tests managed to rule out a heart attack but they were unable to identify the specific source of pain . I’m sure they had theories but access to tests that would assist diagnosis were not available at the time. We were issued with a letter to enable the other tests to be run two days later. We left the hospital knowing there was an undetected “bug” but, with a  belief that the issue was not life threatening.

Lots of tests and checks were run during our 8 hours in Emergency. It’s a good reminder that tests can be quite specific to highlighting specific problems. While heart problems were ruled out those same tests could not determine the actual problem. Determining the best tests for the context is critical to success. Makes me think about the execution of test cases “because we always run them” or similar reasons.

Let’s skip forward about 36 hours. We have another large hospital within 10 minutes of our house. We are sitting in its Emergency Department. The pain my wife has been suffering has escalated significantly. The yet to be diagnosed “bug” has made its presence known and its severity has increased. The Triage Nurse goes through a series of checks, establishes history. We are pushed through to a treatment room in no time at all. It’s familiar territory, questions from doctors and nurses, establishing vital statistics, ECG, blood tests.

Even though the previous trip to hospital ruled out heart problems the searing, intense pain pushing into the chest, has doctors re-exploring this as primary concern. Given the really serious nature of a heart attack, reconfirming that a heart attack is not in progress, makes sense. Let’s not anchor to previous results when things might have changed and there are indications to support having another look. In a busy, stressful environment it could be easy to bias your investigations.

After a while the possibility of heart attack is again ruled out. That’s a relief bit there is clearly something amiss. Inspite of a massive dose of painkillers (including morphine) the pain remains extreme. The focus now moves to a gastrointestinal related issue. The tests change accordingly. A CT scan is organised, and there it is, the gall bladder is in a mess. The doctors want further details, confirmation and a basis on which they can figure out the best way to attack the problem. An ultra sound provides more evidence, further details about the specifics of the problem.

Now that testing has revealed the “bug” the process switches to an evidence gathering phase. What information can we gather to give us the best means of solving the problem? What other issues might there be? What do we need to prepare for? How will we know when we have been successful? How quickly do we need to move to optimise outcomes for the patient?

It turns out that good practice in this context is gall bladder removal using “key hole” surgery. The real interesting bit is that the surgeons felt it would be a good idea to have a look around while operating just to make sure there were no other issues that might not have shown up in the scans (or perhaps were hinted but not highlighted). I know about exploratory surgery as an approach, I’ve just never thought about it when the “bug” has been identified. As it turned out they found an umbilical hernia and repaired that as well.

Keeping your mind open to possibilities, drawing on past experience, heuristics, models, talking to colleagues can lead to the discovery of “off script surprises”. We didn’t expect this approach but getting that hernia fixed delighted us and represents a lot of value.

I have no doubt that as I reflect more on what has happened that I will discover more parallels and even find ideas to experiment with in my work. I cannot help but see the benefits of teamwork and open, clear communication. There were no signs of panic or rush. There was a lot of questioning, critical thinking, exploring options and making decisions using various forms of feedback.  Many areas of software development seem to fight these becoming meaningful attributes. We really do need to examine and overcome the resistance. If hospitals operated like many software developers and spoke about these attributes but never really valued them….. I can’t imagine what the mortality rate might be.

What I saw in action looked a lot like Agile. Do doctors and nurses think of themselves as working in an agile manner or do they just do things that optimise quality of care and patient outcomes? Perhaps that is two ways of saying the same thing?

There are bad experiences and good experiences but each gives us the opportunity to take away things we can learn from.  I think I’ll be debriefing, and learning from, this one for a while.

Finally – the magnificent work of a group of surgeons and nurses meant that my wife returned home less than 24 hours after surgery. Recovery is on track and we are all grateful for the expertise that, for the most part, we take for granted.

The analogy that refuses to die

There are many pleasures being involved in software development. I’ve been involved as a Business Analyst, Support Desk Lead and a Tester. Working with smart people, working with people that are passionate about doing a good job, meeting with likeminded people that enjoying discussing how things could be better (and actually do things to try and make that “better” happen). Of all my favourite things though nothing beats hearing that analogy that equates software development work to manufacturing or building. It just never gets old (you’re picking up on sarcasm at this point – I hope). As far as I can tell the discussion always seems to pop up in relation to estimation (and/or cost) and is often accompanied by the “oh shit” panic of a project in a bit of trouble. You know the sort of scenario:

Manager: I don’t understand the estimates we give. When I ask for a house to be built I get given a price, the house gets built and delivered within the date timeframes.

You: They’ve built that house before, right? I mean you’re asking for a new house but that house has been built before for others. You’ve seen the house, been in a display model of it. You’re asking for a copy of something that exists.

Manager: I don’t get your point. We’ve built software before. Our software exists.

You: We build software because the software doesn’t exist. Our clients ask us to build something new into the existing system. They have neither seen or experienced that functionality before in our system, and neither have we. We are not comparing like for like when we discuss software creation and house building. Perhaps you could ask your builder to add a swimming pool to your lounge room when they are half way through the build.

……and so the discussion goes until the inevitable conclusion where the analogy lives to fight another day.

When we compare thought/knowledge work (software development) to the manufacturing or building analogy it is accepted, by many, as a flawed comparison. That we are comparing “apples and oranges”. We can’t compare thinking to a machine stamping out widgets. When we are doing this we are comparing, what I’ll call “determined repeatability”, to the creation of something new. “Determined repeatability” is possible because we have spent time developing approaches, formulas, processes and formed them into a chain that produces what we (more specifically, our clients) desire. We can continue to process these widgets infinitum (as long as market forces maintain a demand). But market forces can be fickle, so can resourcing inputs. What happens if one of these changes and our processing chain loses its “determined repeatability”? What if the widget needs an update with the addition of new attributes? I wonder, is there a useful analogy if we change the target area of the analogy focus? I think when we compare the creation of software to manufacturing a widget we miss that the widget required research and development. Before the widget there wasn’t a widget. Someone had to spend time and money creating it. Now that the widget requires new features the “cut and stamp” process is disrupted. We have lost “determined repeatability” In this phase we potentially have a useful analogy with software development. In this phase of manufacturing we see thought, iteration, experimentation, exploration, failure, learning and finally a product that can be produced “cookie cutter” fashion.

I like aviation, actually more than like. It mystifies me even though I have a basic understanding of the forces at work. I can (and sometimes do) spend hours watching the big birds take off and land. To me it is a graceful blend of man and nature working together (leaving aside the engine emissions debate). The Wright brothers famous flight was on December 17 1903. On April 2005, a jet that stretched further than the Wrights’ first flight, took its own first flight. In slightly under a century it is a mighty impressive demonstration of human endeavour. If you’re interested, you can buy an A380-800. The average list price for one of these is a cool USD432.6 MILLION. (Personally I’m thinking of spending on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. I can get 2 of those for the price of a single A380). I guess what I’m getting at here is that I can get a very sophisticated, highly technically complex aircraft for a known price and a known delivery date. As much as this sounds like it underplays the technology, at this point, the A380 is produced “cookie cutter” style, it’s a known quantity. When we compare software development to this, it “fails to fly”(pardon the pun).

Now let’s go back in time a bit the A380 does not exist. There are potential customers but the aircraft is not a reality. Let’s also remember this is not the first aircraft either. This is true for the Airbus company and a large and relatively thriving industry. You could be slightly flippant and say “they are just making a variation of what has been done before” (ever heard that before about software development – I have). There is no shortage of experience and knowledge but, and this is important, they are going to a place they have not gone before. This will be the largest commercial aircraft ever. Even if it wasn’t distinguishable on just that aspect it will be made with new age materials and technology. Some have been used before, some are new.

So how did it all go? You might know the answer, or have some knowledge of the situation, but in summary. Not so well. Let’s start with some headliners.

Originally scheduled for delivery in 2006, the aircraft’s entry into service was delayed by almost 2 years and the project was several billion dollars over budget.

There must have been some fascinating boardroom discussions as the project travelled along. I think it is worth re-iterating that this is a company that builds incredible aircraft, they employee knowledgeable, capable people. They have a history of building aircraft. They have a strong reputation. How could this go wrong?

At the heart of the problems were difficulties integrating the complex wiring system needed to operate the aircraft with the metal airframe through which the wiring needed to thread. With 530Km of wires, cables and wiring harnesses weave their way throughout the airframe.  With more than 100,000 wires and 40,300 connectors performing 1,150 separate functions, the Airbus A380 has the most complex electrical system Airbus had ever designed. As the first prototype (registration F-WWOW) was being built in Toulouse France, engineers began to realize that they had a problem. Wires and their harnesses had been manufactured to specification, but during installation the wires turned out to be too short. Even though the cables were at times just a few centimetres too short, in an aircraft you can’t simply tug a cable to make it fit.  As construction of the prototype continued Airbus management slowly came to the realization that the issue was not an isolated problem and that short wires was a pervasive issue throughout the design.

A single miscalculation. There were reasons behind the miscalculation (a chain of errors), but none the less, the impacts were really something. It also meant “back to the drawing board”, let’s examine and understand the failure, let’s find other ways to meet our objective. Who the hell saw that coming? The answer is nobody. If somebody had seen it coming it would have been prevented before it became a major problem.

I can’t prevent people wanting to make comparisons between software development and manufacturing or building. That’s beyond my control. What I can have some control over is my response. That response will now be to acknowledge there might be some validity but change the focus to the development phase, where there are similarities, and not the completed “cookie cutter” production cycle where there are few, if any, similarities. If you want to make a comparison between production line output and software development, then maybe we should be discussing the physical delivery of the completed code after completion of development. That just might be an equivalent analogy with stamping out widgets.

Thanks for dropping by


A big thank you to Lee Hawkins for his review and feedback

(@the rockertester,


It’s only words

I had a conversation today that many of you have probably had a t some time. Not necessarily this conversation but one that is a parallel experience.

I overheard a discussion that had a Tester talking to a new Developer in our company. The conversation included “we work with fixed scope projects”. That statement made my ears open up and my response centre kick into gear. So I challenged my colleague on his statement. His response – “we know what that means here, we use it in a general sense”. I couldn’t leave it here, I was still curious and also wondering if maybe I could make him think a little differently.

I ask “which of those words do we use in a general sense?”.  The response “Well you know, we all know what it means”. “I’m not sure I do. My understanding of fixed means it is locked down. My understanding of scope is what we intend to develop. To me that means our projects do not change scope, at all, from start to completion. Can you remember one of those?” It turns out my colleague really couldn’t recall a project fitting that profile. So I asked again why we would use language that doesn’t reflect reality. Again I get the response “but we all know what it really means”.

My colleague has a mortgage on his house (like most of us). I asked him if he was to fix his home loan rate would he see that as having a specific meaning or a generally understood meaning. Would he be OK if the bank decided to increase his interest rate above the fixed rate because they believed fixed was generally understood to mean the rate could move? Suddenly there is a change in the meaning of fixed, “No I wouldn’t be OK with that, it’s fixed”. “So does fixed have a different meaning between the two contexts?” I ask. “Not that I can think of” comes the response.


Then my colleague offers up the following. “So what we really have is current scope”. Mentally I punch the air. “Given that what we start with is not what we end up pushing out, current scope seems a fair description”. The conversation finishes but I can see my colleague tossing the conversation through his mind. I’m happy because I’ve challenged someone to think differently. My colleague might decide, after further thought, that I’m full of crap. He might decide to reconsider other “things we all know what it means”.  I hope he does but that’s his choice.

When I do stuff like this I find it interesting. There are generally two kinds of reactions.

1 – this is cool, let’s discuss

2 – stop being so damned picky, you know what I mean

That second reaction annoys me a touch. If people want to take that path then it’s their choice. I’m all for choice so I’m not rallying against that. The annoyance is that “we all know what it means” causes endless problems in specifications. It causes needless error when people just assume a word means something because “it can only have one meaning”. There are ways and means of minimising this type of error, many seem adverse to listening  or reading attentively enough to enable questioning possible ambiguity or misconception. Perhaps others just don’t see this thinking and analysis as part of their job. Some years back I was leading a team of testers that really did not value the importance of clarifying statements, getting a deep rather than shallow understanding. I introduced a challenge – find ambiguities in the daily newspaper. We found some absolute classics, had a lot of fun doing it and reinforced how language can be quite deceptive. Suddenly (well not suddenly, over time) the group became better at finding areas of “weak understanding” because they were aware of what they might look like (we spoke about things other than ambiguity) and why they might be important.

It might “only be words” but those words carry meaning and they carry a cost.Not just dollars but reputation and client satisfaction.  Shallow understanding is easy “we all know that”, deep understanding requires work and effort, questioning, critical thinking. Anyone can paddle around in the shallow end. Be different.

Thanks for dropping by.


OK – well maybe it’s not

I’m lucky enough to work with a company that has always had a high cultural diversity amongst its people. I find it interesting how that diversity of backgrounds can influence and broaden thinking. Sometimes it directly influences through solution approaches, other times it is through story telling. I was born in Australia, English is my native language. I have tremendous respect for people who are fluent in multiple languages. I’ve tried learning other languages and really struggled. I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in Paris some years back. At that point I realised that I could learn another language if I had the right motivation. The reason I mention this is because many of the stories that get told are about learning English and trying to communicate as new arrivals. I love these stories because they are told with great enthusiasm and humour. There is always something to think about. A language I take for granted, it’s good sometimes to have a reminder that not everybody has that same grasp.

At work today a young lady I work with used the word “literally” several times. Just messing around I challenged each use of “literally”. While chatting about this it reminded me of a personal story. Many, many years ago I was at college studying to be a primary school teacher (primary school covers a child for the first 7 years of their formal education starting around age 5). Part of the student experience, indeed required professional development, is to go on teaching rounds. These are both exciting, and initially, just a tad nerve-wracking. I guess it is just like any new experience that has real meaning for you.

From memory this was my second teaching round in my first year. This was the first time we were given the opportunity to plan and take classes. It was limited to a handful of 30 minute sessions with feedback from the supervising teacher. At this point the teacher was always in the room with you to lend support if needed. I don’t remember my supervising teachers name (let’s call her Mrs Pleasant) but I do remember her, I can still see her face. She was from the era of teachers that were teaching when I was in primary school. She was very supportive, generous with feedback and able to deliver constructive criticism in a very non confronting way (I discovered on future teaching rounds that this lady possessed a rare skill). The school day closed, I was going home to finalise my preparation for the next days class and Mrs Pleasant says “don’t be alarmed but the school Principal sits in on student classes and he is going to sit in on yours tomorrow. He is very supportive but he doesn’t like the word OK”. I thank her for the heads up knowing that the troublesome “OK” rarely features in my vocabulary.

The Principal was pretty much from the same era as Mrs Pleasant. An old school gentleman. I didn’t see him a lot but I did enjoy our chats when we had them. It was only while thinking about this today that I realised how magnificent it is to find someone with that passion. He had been in the education system for more years than I’d been alive but he still wanted to see the “new blood” and provide input to their growth. That’s a rare and valuable passion, that, given a second chance, would have been better used. Sometimes opportunity slips past you and you just don’t realise it.

Back to the story….Next morning usual routines. We get to first break and my lesson is straight up after the break. I’m prepared and relaxed. So much so that I meander down to the staff room and grab a cup of tea and have a chat. While I’m there Mrs Pleasant comes up to me and provides a reminder “just remember to watch your use of OK”. I nod, smile and thank her. I go back to the classroom, we get the children back inside, the Principal arrives, I start my lesson. I’m amazed how relaxed I feel, I know the lesson plan well and what I want to achieve so am sure the preparation gave me confidence.

Now it gets weird. I noticed that I had said “OK”. I damn near never use that word and not in formal settings. I press on, let’s not use that again. Another “OK” pops out, what?? I think I might have caught one further utterance. Finally the lesson ends, I feel pretty good. The word that shall not be spoken popped out a couple of times but that’s alright (I hope). So the debrief starts. In short pretty good effort, here’s some things to be aware of, etc, etc. And then……”do you realise that you said OK 30 times?”. A this point I might have sought a place to hide, meekly mumbled some weird disclaimer or perhaps thought about lodging an application with the Guinness Book of Records. I do remember a massive feeling of disbelief.

So what the hell happened? It’s a lesson in people getting you to focus on what not to do rather than focusing on what you should do. Good coaches know this and use it when working with people. I remember attending several workshops held by Allan Parker (who is an excellent presenter, very entertaining) where he spoke about this phenomenon. If you focus on what not to do there is a strong chance you will do exactly what you don’t want to do. His example was your average weekend golfer. There is a lake on the left hand side of the fairway. The golfer tees up his golf ball and thinks “don’t go left, don’t go left”. He swings and during the follow through watches his golf ball sail left and make an impressive splash into the water. The pro golfer, in the same situation, tees up his ball, knows there is a lake to the left and then picks a target either centre or right side of the fairway. This golfer is focusing on what target to hit not what to avoid. No guarantees this one won’t mess up his swing and find the water but he has set himself up for success rather than failure avoidance.

How often, at work, do we “tee up the ball” and then focus on not going left? More than we should, I suspect, and possibly more than we know. If there is history of management pointing out errors and focusing on them what is our strategy? It’s hard to focus on a positive target when the message that is constantly running past you is about what you shouldn’t do. We can easily, and unknowingly, make avoiding error our primary driving goal. How de we call this out and change it? Well that’s a case by case consideration and probably another blog on strategy. For all that I’m pretty sure that focusing on “what not to do” is not OK.