23 August, 2011

Schools of testing?

CAST 2011 hosted an interesting debate between Doug Hoffman and James Bach on the topic of schools of software testing. The question under discussion was not whether there are different schools of thought within the testing community or not, but rather whether naming the schools and associating people with them is a good - or really bad - idea.

The debate was energetic, and clearly provoked a strong reaction in a lot of the attendees, which was only expected. The core issue is of course if it is ok to categorize people without bothering with their opinion. Most people categorize others, but hate when they themselves are put in a category that they do not approve of, or think they should belong to. It is a very touchy subject.

Personally, I like it.

To me, the fact that someone is associated with a school of thought corresponds to me being provided with a table of contents of a book. Let me try to explain. If person A says to me "- Person B belongs to the XYZ school", it provides me with a limited amount of information about person B, just like browsing a table of contents tells me something, but not everything, about the book. Immediately - without having to read the whole book (i.e. without having to have a deep discussion with the person) - I get a rough idea of the contents (i.e. the person's views and ideas). The same way I do not mind being associated with a school, or associating myself with a school. I find it helpful because I do not have to explain my general views over and over again, I just need to state which school(s) I consider myself belonging to. Sometimes I will disagree when others associate me with a certain school, but  that on the other hand gives me valuable clues as to how I am perceived. And it might even make me change my behaviour.

However, I do assume that people are mature and intelligent enough to realize that a table of contents can be misleading, and in order to get the full story you actually have to read the book. You cannot know a person without having talked to them and having formed your own opinion.

I think the concept of schools of testing is helpful, and in all honesty - even if it was rejected people would still categorize each other 'secretly'. I would rather have it done openly so you at least can have a discussion.


  1. I don't mind the idea either, but.....who makes the categorization? What if one categorizes someone where they don't feel they belong (or want to be associated with)?

    Just another thought....The "Libra" in me is strong...I always have trouble because I see both sides very strongly.

  2. Reply to KingTermite:

    Well, one point I was trying to make is that everyone makes the categorization, whether it is silently in their head or very loudly in public. And keep in mind, just because you don't feel you belong in the category that you have been placed in, it doesn't mean that the categorization itself is wrong.

    I might not agree with how other people categorize me, but I must also accept that they might have a point. I'd like to believe people don't categorize each other out of spite.

    I think people have a built in aversion to the school concept because they make the connection school = categorization = judging = someone expresses a negative opinion about me. It can be positive and flattering too though.

    I feel obliged to end my comment by stating that I'm a firm believer in astronomy and a firm non-believer in astrology.

  3. Labels box people off and limit them. If I decide you belong to school XYZ and you actually belong to school 123, then not only have I limited our interactions, I have got you completely wrong and will never have an insight into your personal window, because I don't hang out with XYZers, mind you I have a lot in common with 123ers :-)

  4. Reply to Warrior:

    People label each other all the time.

    The disadvantage with associating a person with a certain school of testing is of course that the association could be wrong. However, to me the advantages still outweigh the disadvantages.

    If there are 100 people at a conference and I only have time to talk to 10 I have to make a selection. Using schools of testing as basis for that selection is definitely better than a random selection, even if the associations are wrong.

  5. Sounds like another interesting discussion I missed @ CAST by not being there :-/ Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

    About categorization, I agree that the label can be very useful, but there's a trap to be aware of: I'm worried about group think.

    A label and in particular the association of the label with particular charismatic persons in the community can encourage members of a 'school' to guard an established thinking of the 'school' instead of being open to innovation.

    It's about being skeptical and open at the same time!

  6. Reply to Anders:

    Interesting point about group think - I hadn't really thought about that. I think I see the danger more as a school of testing becoming a cult centerd around a person.

    Being sceptical is always important, especially for testers!

  7. I happened to stumble upon this blog just when I had similar thoughts on my mind (not because of CAST - I didn't go there). I agree that labelling is something we do anyway and that it comes from our need to limit the cognitive effort. It's easy and efficient most of the time. The darker side of it is the situation where the label's shadow is so dark (so the prejudice is strong) that people are looking no further. Being aware of that and continually fighting against that is what will make us open new doors.
    Another important aspect of schools is their innter atmosphere. The very definition of a "school" implies a closed group (which doesn't mean new members can't get in at all) that follows certain ideas or world views. Such premise creates the "us and them" situation which is probably difficult to avoid. So some sort of dichotomy is built into belonging to a school anyway. And there is nothing wrong about this until things don't get ugly.
    By ugly I mean making the members of a school strictly follow a doctrine imposed by the leader(s) of the school; not allowing to think in a different way; not allowing to CHALLENGE the leader(s); bashing other schools just because they are not one of "us"; considering your school the exclusive club which makes you dismiss any good things others may come up with...

    That's when belonging to a school becomes problematic. So I think it's up to every member of a school to be on guard and to be responsible for keeping the school open, letting it evolve and to meet the challenges not just dismiss them.

  8. Reply to Helena:

    Great comment! I think the most important thing is to keep discussing.