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Friday, June 4, 2010

Craftspeople testers

An online forum I belong to is currently having a discussion about the “professional tester” and what that means.

As often happens to me, I find the question not quite framed to how I think. “Professional” is a word that has been fuzzed over time, from having a very precise application to wholesale acquisition by every coterie of white-collar workers who wanted more status—or, being charitable—to be taken seriously for their very real skills and (possible) contribution to society. Once, professionals were doctors and lawyers, and maybe engineers. Now, it’s apparently you, me, and Harry in the next cubicle who spends his days churning out code.

So I don’t find “professional” (tester or anything else) a useful label and I can’t be bothered wearing it. That’s as opposed to “professionalism”, which I think can perhaps still say something about a person’s conduct, ethics, and application of skill. “Craftsperson” is more interesting to me, as a concept, as a practice, and therefore as a possible handle.

My father was an engraver, a proud lifelong master practitioner of a highly skilled craft, and a constant explorer and learner of new skills. He was always practising, honing his skill. So I grew up with craft, and although I don’t remember my father ever articulating it this way, I learned the idea of craft as skill fuelled by love and integrity.

When I think about a “craftsperson tester” and what that means, I’m thinking about the career tester: the person who has chosen to stay with testing software for a living, however he or she got there. And I continually revise my definition of a good tester as I work on different projects and meet new people. I think there’s a great diversity in good testers that is too easily dismissed when we divide ourselves into “schools”, or even into communities of practice. I don’t do schools. The divisions—and divisiveness—practiced by some prominent testers (on both sides of the argument), bores me. I’ve said elsewhere that I’m not a card-carrying anything.

I’ve also said that I’m most in sympathy with the testers and thinkers in the Context Driven School. That remains true, in part because that’s where I see many craftsperson testers: people who, fuelled by love and integrity, continually strive to practice testing well, while growing themselves and the testing craft. And context is paramount to me.

But it’s not the only place I see craft. I see it also in what remains the mainstream: the big banks, the telecoms, and—yes—even among the ISEB-or-whatever-certified traditionalists who practice a pre-scripted form of testing they describe as “structured”. Although they’re often ignorant of other forms of testing, and uninterested in learning about them, many of these testers are highly skilled analysts and practitioners who are dedicated to testing software well. I’m working now with some excellent testers who practice testing during the working day and then go home and don’t think about it. Testing isn’t their life, and they don’t give a toss about the ferment of ideas and learning about testing that many of us constantly engage in.

But they’re good at what they do, dedicated to doing it well, and they hone their skills on the job. They teach and mentor others—on the job. I admire their thoughtfulness, skill, integrity and professionalism, and I certainly think of them as craftspeople. I enjoy working with them, and I count on them to do what’s needed on my project.

Of course, I know there are also bozos and seat-warmers among the traditionalists—large herds of them even, blighting the software and testing landscapes and giving us all a bad name (though not on my project!). But just because the good ones don’t fit my preferred model of craft, it’d be a big mistake to dismiss them.

I’m proud to work with craftspeople testers of all stripes.

With thanks to the members of Writing About Testing, whose discussion prompted this post.