Month: December 2015

Manager time vs Maker time

Mostly things go better when you don’t interrupt.

Managers and Makers (people who actually get real work done) work in fundamentally different ways.  I was going to spend time explaining this in detail, but Paul Graham has already done it better than I could.  Go and read that, and then come back.

TL;DR Makers mostly work doing deep thinking in large blocks of time.  Most manager work requires broad thinking in small blocks of time.  Don’t forget that your people work different, and to be effective, you need to allow for that.  As a manager, there are two things that you can do to help.

  • Stop interrupting them!
  • Prevent other people from interrupting them!

Some straightforward things that you can try (I’ve tried or seen all of these with various effects).

  • Meetings only at start of day or just before/after lunch.  (Easy and obvious!)
  • “No morning meetings.”  (Our team have a stand-up first thing, and then I try and prevent other meetings before lunch).
  • “No meeting Thursdays”  (One day a week that your team refuses to do meetings.  You can really get stuff done.  Publicise widely what day you’re not available.)
  • “Cans on; can’t disturb.”  Headphones on – no interruptions.  If you want to interrupt someone on my team with headphones on, you have to come past me first.

Whether you’re a manager or a maker, I recommend trying one or more of these out, or invent your own.  People might grumble to start with, but the actual cost (beyond a little bit of thought up front) is very low, and the benefits high.



Book: 12 Days of Christmas

A salutory lesson on testing

This post is really little more than a chance to link to a favourite book.  But this book also serves as a reminder that it doesn’t matter how closely you explore conformance to some specification or intent, it is ultimately the utility to and happiness of the customer that matters.  If you have a spare five minutes,  enjoy.  Happy Christmas.


Testers don’t break things


I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.

I’m a tester; I break things.  I’ve heard and said it many, many times.  It’s the standard way people describe testing.  Quite apart from making testing sound like a simple, easy job (worthy of a blog post in and of itself), it’s a dangerous terminology.

It suggests that the product is ok, until the testers have their wicked way with it – that the testers are malicious little buggers who try to make the product do things it’s not meant to, and then make it fall over.  The very terminology leads to fallacies of thought:

  • Developers can think that they’ve passed the product to test, good to ship.
  • Managers can think that because the testers haven’t broken the product, it’s good to ship.
  • Everyone can think that the testers have stopped the product shipping successfully.
  • Bugs get rejected, because people think that no true user would do that. 

In reality, the product given to the testers is not good.   It’s given to them already broken; a haunted house with booby traps galore.  The testers aren’t rampaging lunatics with sledge-hammers; they’re the housing inspectors sent to find those traps before the general public are allowed in.  Except that software products are a lot more complicated and much less easily perfected than a house,  so there are a lot more dark holes for the bugs to lurk and deciding where and how to shine the torches around to light them up is slower and more complicated.

So, I’m going to try and change my default language.  I’m a tester.  I investigate things.  In my vicinity, stones get turned over and creepy crawlies come to light.  When there might be a can of worms around, I’m the one wielding the tin-opener.  But I no longer claim to break things.

[1] Picture of the Joker, by arthurforzus on deviantart.  I don’t know him; I was just looking for pictures of the Joker with appropriate permissions and thought it was rather good.





Testing, Risk and Quality in The Martian

A Martian demonstrating risk


Thinking about testing conflict depicted in The Martian made me think a bit closer about the consequences of defining quality as value to someone who matters.

I recently watched The Martian.  At one point, NASA are trying to launch a space probe in a hurry – and cut 10 days of launch site testing having established that historically there’s only been a  1/20 chance of finding an issue during that tesing.  It was unusual to see a film actually covering the concept of “How do we minimise risk with the resources that we have?” rather than just having established process vs a maverick.

It was also an interesting scene (and film) in that having decided to launch a resuce mission (I’ll leave aside the rationality behind that for this post) the film draws out in several places the contrast between the logically optimal strategy (maximising the chances of rescuing a stranded astronaut) and the socially acceptable strategy (minimising the damage to NASA’s public reputation and future spaceflight if something goes wrong with that rescue mission).  As a specific example, the choice above to dodge some testing was a great logical way to effectively save time at a 5% risk cost, which could then be spent more effectively elsewhere to reduce the risk by more than that.  The problem was that specifically choosing not to do some testing that you might otherwise have done is hard to explain away if things go wrong – when 20/20 hindsight suggests that was the wrong call.

Most of us see that as a conflict between the “right thing to do” and some stupid politics.  However, looking further…

If the goal of some process is to maximise the quality of something, and we define quality using the standard “value to someone who matters”, then the above conflict is simply that we have multiple people who matter with different values.  That means there’s not a “right” and “wrong” argument above – maximising quality means making a compromise and balancing the different “values”.

And that matches up with what we see in software development.  We run QA phases and focus on mainline install processes, not to optimise for globally reduced risk – we could spend that time finding and fixing more other bugs – but  because the customer disproportionately values “things working at first”, and “lack of regressions”.  While it might not seem like we’re optimising for quality, we are – it’s that quality is defined by value to people that matter, and their views of quality may be different to ours or expressed in different ways.