The talk I should have presented to CAST 2013

Madison, Wisconsin. CAST 2013 has come to an end. The conference has been nothing short of brilliant. It’s impossible to ignore that the enthusiasm that the participants brought with them. The speakers and crowd interacted with contagious energy. Clever, courageous, beautiful people came together to share ideas on a schedule that left little time for food, and even less for sleep.

 

A theme dominated much of the conference: we must learn to advocate, and to argue. We must stand up for ourselves, and explain ourselves, to the public, to our employers, and to the world. The field needs it. We are the future of software testing. It’s impossible to feel anything but hope in the presence of so many bright people, with such passionate belief in the future.

 

Jon Bach spoke about his brother’s cry for outspoken advocates, for argument, and for someone to stand up and point to the elephant in the room. Many expressed their frustrations with the role of certification, and of “cookie cutter” testers performing menial tasks. Ilari Henrik Aegerter

pontificated on great failures of the past, and asked us if we were prepared to dodge the failures that could still be ahead of us. I questioned him with a half formed thought: Is our struggle about certification, or about pride and craftsmanship, in the face of an industry that would have us become identical, drab, and replaceable? Walking the streets of Madison later, that thought took seed. We stand haunted by familiar enemies: automation, standardization, outsourcing… replacement.

In the hallway, Matt Heusser asked, “Is software testing dead?”

 

The conference happened with the Capitol building as its backdrop. Not long ago the same austere visage stood over a different scene: this is where Wisconsin’s union movement died among protests and strikes. A few well-intentioned protesters still stand on the steps at noon, hoping to sing a Republican governor from office.

 

Everything is connected. The phantoms that haunt software testing are the same ones haunting so many other sectors; send the work overseas, replace the workers with machines, or turn a specialized trade to one that any easily replaced worker can do. Slap a certificate on them and they’re all the same.

 

The elephant in the room isn’t the one that Cindy Carless conjured in her discussion of the South African test context. Her metaphor placed those elephants in reserves, and turned software testers to wardens. From the crowd, someone asked “who are the poachers?”

Politics and economics are delicate subjects. They’re divisive topics, but topics we can not afford to ignore. We’re not the first industry to find ourselves faced with the threat of outsourcing, automation, and obsolescence. In the early days of the industrial revolution the craftsmen cried that they couldn’t be replaced by machines, that quality would suffer, and that the work would not be the same. The Luddites threw wrenches into the machines, and destroyed lathes and cogs. We’ve forgotten everything but their name. American manufacturing is a more recent loss. It was defended by advocates that claimed they were craftsman, that the same quality could never be had from cheap overseas labour. They rallied around their work as artisans, and a flag of nationalism. The jobs still left.

 

Two years ago I sat in front of a list of proposals from test vendors. The cheapest ones all promised automation or sat overseas. Some low cost American alternatives fell under reports of green card inquiries. A few Context Driven choices survived, most Canadian, defended obstinately by my claims that their quality and nationality should hold them above the rest. How often is that fight waged?

There’s nothing new about these problems. Software testing sits under familiar economic and political pressures. Some respond with meritocracy: we’re the best and the brightest, there will always be jobs for us. There’s a grain of truth to it. Many of us are supported, comfortable, and happy. We do it by having rare and specialized skills, or by becoming leaders, or managers, or consultants. We tell each other that if we continue to advocate and educate that we can transform the testing community, and change the kind of work that is done, and the kind of people that are hired.

 

It isn’t enough. Meritocratic only has room for those that jostle at the top of the pyramid. It leaves us building vendor lists for outsourcing, or supervising unstable work forces of the under paid and under educated. We tell each other that advocating and educating will change our workplaces, but ignore factors that place downward pressures on wages.

 

If we want every tester to be an artisan, skilled, passionate and educated, then we must acknowledge the political and economic climate of our profession. We claim to love and understand context: I’m proposing that it’s time for us to acknowledge automation, outsourcing, and austerity in their greater context. We’re not the only industry pushing back against them, and merit has never been enough to save the others.

I’m well aware of how divisive politics and economics can become. It’s a discussion that I think we need to have, and it’s the elephant standing between us when we shout about the need for more advocacy and education. If I’d said that at CAST I’m sure many would have argued and disagreed; I’d like to know what they’d have said.

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4 comments

  1. Ohh that quote from me is /begging/ for context. Here’s the 1,000 word version: http://www.softwaretestpro.com/Item/5352 The 100 word version is this: Between paired programming (higher quality out of the gate), the facebook effect (lowered bar for quality) and DevOps (quick rollback for errors) many people think traditional testing is an endangered species. How should we respond?

    Don’t get me wrong, man. I love testing. Like Geoff, I want to keep it vibrant and energetic – I just want to be cognizant of the waters we are swimming in.

    1. Thanks for the response. The link, information, and context are all helpful. I ruthlessly pulled your quote out of context, and am unrepentant for that.

  2. Interesting indeed – were you thinking of doing this at CAST? If you did this talk, what would your summary and conclusions be?

    One of my takeaways was there seemed to be quite a common theme amongst the talks – how to recruit, how to motivate, how to educate, what to educate on.

    Sorry we didnt get to meet in person, lets make sure it happens at CAST2014 – if not before

    1. No, the thoughts above were inspired by CAST. It wasn’t something that I’d given much thought to until then.

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