Demosthenes on Software Projects

Demosthenes
Demosthenes (probably)

One great thing about working where I do is the continual surprise of what my coworkers know and are keen to share and enthuse about.  Kudos to my colleague, Rob Day, who courtesy of his history (ancient and modern) degree recently distracted me with his favorite “thing to read when the project is going south”.

The context for this speech: it’s basically a pep-talk from Demosthenes to the Athenians getting them to rise up against Philip of Macedonia.  The section Rob pointed me to that resonated is as follows:

“For though the state of our affairs is in every way deplorable, and though much has been sacrificed, nevertheless it is possible, if you choose to do your duty, that all may yet be repaired.  And what I am going to say may perhaps seem a paradox, but it is true. The worst feature of the past is our best hope for the future. What, then, is that feature? It is that your affairs go wrong because you neglect every duty, great or small; since surely, if they were in this plight in spite of your doing all that was required, there would not be even a hope of improvement. But in fact it is your indifference and carelessness that Philip has conquered; your city he has not conquered.”

That’s quite a powerful message – and useful on any project.   When things aren’t going well, we have a tendency to (a) feel bad and (b) double-down and work harder on what we’re doing.  Demosthenes points out that if things really aren’t going well, that’s (probably) because we’re not doing the right things – and that’s a good thing and we should feel good about it, because if we were doing our best and we were in this position we’d be screwed.  So lets enthusiastically find out what we’re not doing well, and sort it out(tm).  That’s not an easy message to swallow, but the way Demosthenes puts it, it’s suprisingly positive, and his rhetoric rams it home in a rather uplifiting way.

For reference, translation of the whole text is here (or here if you prefer bite-sized chunks).  Go read some great oration!

 

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Book: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

SuperForeCasting

 

On the face of it, this book is an interesting read about predicting the future, how we humans tend to do it really badly (even those of us who’s job it is to do so), and an account of a set of people setting out to do better and how they approach that.  It’s a good book, and if any part of your job involves attempting to guess how something will pan out (for example, how long something might take) then it’s worth a read – both for advice on what and what not to do.

I accidentally ended up (re-)reading this in conjunction with another book, Black Box Thinking, and a lot of the rational-thinking advice overlaps heavily – for example on creating short feedback loops.  In addition, this book talks more precisely about being careful to measure yourself and (especially useful in the modern day) actively looking for information and sources of information that are new and different from that you have.

Light enough to be a pretty easy-going read.  Enough technical guts and applicable ideas to be useful and worthy of study and actions.  I recommend it.

Can I? vs Must I?

Mindset
Argh – Inconsistent   Capitals and tErrible  kerning!

This started out as a simple post contrasting differences in thought between a “developer” mindset and a “tester” mindset.  However, as I’ve thought further, I think there’s more to it.  This is a “Vague pondering” post, not an “Aha, here is a thing!” post.

Imagine you have something coming up.

  • It’s something that you want to do.  The brain is focussed on “Can I?” and is automatically supplying “good logical” reasons to do it, discarding or fixing problems that come up.
  • It’s something that you don’t want to do.  The brain is focussed on “Must I?” and is automatically supplying “good logical” reasons not to do it, suppressing or refactoring those arguments to avoid fixes from others.

At work we come across tasks that we do and don’t want to do, and a lot of work on “getting stuff done” is recognising that we have these two mindsets and using tricks to get ourselves out of the “Must I?” mindset and into the “Can I?”  There’s loads of good stuff out there on this and I’m not going to rehash all that.

Instead I realize that when testing (aka analysing and exploring something) you probably want to be asking both of these questions.

  • “Can I” is a great question to ask to get you places.  It focuses you on ways through and round problems, finding the narrow path through the minefield.  You’re harnessing your subconscious to let you get through areas and into new areas for fast exploration.
  • “Must I” is a great question to ask to find problems.  It lets you branch off the “what’s expected” beaten track and you’re harnessing your subconscious to dig your heels in, spot things looking hinky and being generally alert for any way to not do the thing you’re “meant” to be doing.

That second “Must I?” question is the key mindset to get into when testing something;  Not “Must I do this bit of testing work?”, but “I’m testing this area – must I investigate in this expected way?”  That’s an interesting dichotomy of head-states (positive about the task of investigating, negative about the thing you’re investingating).

There’s no literature that I can find out there about how to consciously get yourself into a “negative” headstate.  If anyone sees any or can point some my way, please do!  I’d be interested in trying it out.

 

More “Must read” testing books

NotABook
A book, not obviously about testing, but may be helpful for testers.

Just a quick one here.  There are a load of good books out there about testing – I’ve commented on a few on this blog.  However, the linked blog here lists 10 books that aren’t obviously about testing, but are helpful for testers.  I’ve read/studied 1, 2 and 8 and would recommend them, so I suspect the others are good too.

If you’ve read any and have recommendations for which I should read first, let me know…

 

Book – Black Box Thinking

BlackBoxThinking
A source of feedback

Black box thinking is ostensibly a book about management (we read it in our managers’ book club) but really it’s a book about about testing.  The whole book is about setting out how to measure your results rationally (rather than rationalizing your results), setting yourself up to test and fail at what you do, how to approach failing in what you do and then learn from it.  In passing it explains clearly why we find testing really hard and why we’re so quick to believe that we’re actually really good at testing.  It may also make you feel more comfortable about flying and never want to go near a hospital again!

In really brief summary, if you want your organisation to truly get better, create short, clinical feedback loops, question the obvious things that you all know work really well, and  identify, enjoy, and reward failure (as long as it comes with learning).  But to get what it actually means to do that well, and the consequences for not doing it, you need to read the book.

I’d really recommend this book, not just to people trying to improve their testing skill, but to anyone interested in getting actually better at what they do.

2-4-6 – Humans are instinctively poor at testing

Flying_Scotsman
4-6-2 does not fit the pattern

Confirmation bias is a really big problem that stalks us when we attempt to test things, making us complacent about how good a job we’re doing.  I hadn’t realised how much of a problem it is until recently.

When playing testing games with friends and peers, and when teaching new grads about testing, I often use the dice game and the 2,4,6 Wason Rule Discovery problem.  (The youtube link embedded in the linked page covers the problem and confirmation bias better than I’d summarise here – if you don’t know about the problem, go and watch that.

The Rule Discovery problem in particular is a really good example of how confirmation bias affects us and gets in the way of testing.   Although subjects given this task typically expressed high confidence in their guesses, only ~20% of the subjects in Wason’s original experiment successfully guessed the real rule, and replications since then have continued to show success rates of around 20% [citation needed].

But I now think that the issue is worse than I thought…

When trying these games with my peers, one of the issues I regularly see is people (including myself) hampering themselves by being reluctant to be wrong or appear “stupid” in front of their peers.  And I’d always somewhat assumed that that was part of what drives/conflates with the symptoms we see that apparently involve confirmation bias.

About a month ago, however,  I was talking to some year 9s about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) careers.  As part of this, I played around with a couple of puzzles, including the dice game, and the 2,4,6 problem.  The year 9s were very bright and were also much less constrained with their ideas than most people I’d come across, and totally unashamed about “silly” ideas or being wrong.  However, they still had the same positive gluing onto trying to prove the rules they came up with rather than disproving them.

Which is a shame, because I’m reasonably good at noticing when I don’t want to embarrass myself, but it still takes me conscious effort to force myself to look for ways to prove that I’m wrong.

 

 

 

 

 

Ask A Manager

askamanager
Really handy blog

So when I started writing this blog, I envisaged that sometimes interesting questions would come up regarding people management, which I could write about.  And they do (people are way more interesting than computers).  However, most of the “this happened and I learned a thing” thoughts I have aren’t easy to safely anonymise – especially given the pretty small readership of this blog is mostly from my place of work (Hi folks!)

So instead, here’s the general advice I try and live by, and try and encourage in others.  It’s pretty simple, and is a good starting point for managers, managees and coworkers trying to cover any kind of problem or issue.

  1. Talk about the issue to people who can actually help close the issue down.  The number of issues I’ve encountered where “Bitch all about this issue in the pub or on one of our chat channels” was considered an acceptable replacement for dealing with it really surprised and shocked me, until I realised that I used to do exactly that.
  2. Initially assume good faith.  Differing viewpoint >> Partial Ignorance or Partial Incompetence >> Malice.  Even if you already think you know where the other person is,  be ready to discover that they’re back towards the “not-a-bad-person” end of the list.
  3. Bring your adult ego state to the conversation, and engage their adult.  If they bring their parent or child, then you can engage with that, but be aware that for any interesting issue, you won’t be able to close it out until your adults have engaged and accepted the next steps.  If this doesn’t make sense, read the first few chapters of Games People Play by Eric Berne.  Maybe someday I’ll try and post a summary, but I’ve tried and given up before.

I’ve said the advice above is simple.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy.  In particular, there are two problems that I keep bumping up against (with myself as much as with others).  Over the years I’ve converged on two blogs, which I recommend as they help with these.

  1. Being honest and adult.  Our brains tend to make stories that paint us as heroes, and we don’t like to see anything against that – which means having grown up conversations, assuming that the other person isn’t a total arsehole, maintaining your cool and adult engagement, etc. is really damn hard.  Ask a Manager is full of useful advice for how to approach issues sensibly and pitfalls to avoid, and if you look on there, probably the one you have (or a similar one) is covered already – probably from both sides!
  2. Talking to other people.  Especially where I work (software company full of geeks), actually talking to people, about issues, that involve conversations that might have tension in, can be daunting.  For this, I’ve found Captain Awkward useful.  It’s not specifically work related (though the “Work” section is large), but it contains lots of conversational starters – Captain Awkward calls them “scripts” – which are good ways to help break that initial barrier.

 

=== Edit 2017/10/08 – Fixed Ask A Manager link