Developing your testing using jokes

Why did the developer cross the road?  To get to the others’ ide.

Another in a somewhat sporadic series of “things you can do in your spare time that are fun and hone some of your testing skills.  This one comes from a session a year or two back at the Assurance Leadership Forum (formerly Test Management Forum) by James Thomas.

Joke creation flexes just those same skills you need for testing.  Logic, reasoning and deduction, lateral thinking, breaking assumptions, and that intuitive flare for spotting the edge of something that niggles and pulling at it until it unravels.

And it turns out, that James has now released an eBook which you can read here (don’t panic – it’s a 20 page PDF) that talks through and unpicks some of this far better than I could explain.  I recommend the read, and then giving creating some Jokes a go!


“Get Stuff Done” time



So I’ve found over time that while I’m pretty good at mopping up the easy tasks, and I’m pretty good at doing the fun tasks, I’m fine with doing the urgent tasks (even the un-fun ones), and the quick tasks are no problem either.  I’m even “OK” at doing the larger hard tasks.  But man oh man does my task list slowly fill up with the not-super-urgent-and-not-super-quick-low-grade-crappy tasks that only take 30 mins or so but I don’t want to do.

The only technique I’ve really found to get these done is a “Get it done” session.  I line up my backlog of tasks, get out my phone and a tally-pad – and see how many I can knock off in a pre-defined time.  Typically when I do one of these, two things happen.

  • I manage to get a load more items knocked off than I thought I could.  Turns out when I’m putting the effort into pushing myself rather than hating the work, I can get loads done.
  • The 2 hours rolls around so fast and I feel really productive and good afterwards. (Sorry colleagues who sit behind me and occasionally have to put up with me getting all excited and triumphal.)

I always kind of assumed that this was because I was a bit weird and childish, and then I read this blog post, which pretty much covers the same idea (on a larger scale).  So it’s not just me being weird and childish.   Work tasks, chores at home, whatever, I’d really recommend giving this a go.



How to win at RTS games

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Real Time Strategy (RTS) games typically have have a couple of different resources that you collect in some way, and you use those to build a bunch of buildings that let you make units to that let you go over the other side of the map and crush the other person.

Anyone used to DOTAs, FPSs, other games will pretty quickly pick up that different units have different useful abilities and that if you practice with them and use your units together, you’ll do better at fights, and beat other people’s army.  You’ll practice and beat some people who haven’t done as much practice as you.

And then you’ll start getting absolutely crushed by people who just built a big shed-load of stuff and told it all to go kill you.  Because until you’re in the top 10-15% of players of a particular game, you’ll get much better returns putting your effort into getting really efficient at creating your buildings and army and ending up with an army twice as big, than you will in squeezing a little extra damage out of each attack.   In RTS terms we talk about Macro (getting your economy going and building stuff – the big strategic stuff) and Micro (getting the most out of your individual units). And until you’re very, very good and can manage to do both very well, Macro >> Micro.

So what’s all this rambly stuff about computer games doing in a blog about testing and management?

Well the reason for the Macro vs Micro question at all is because there’s a hidden secret resource in all RTS games – the same hidden resource mechanic for any project that you’re managing – your time and focus.   And that same choice to focus on Micro vs Macro (and the same relative benefits) apply to projects too.

If you train yourself to put all your time and effort into adding a little bit of extra benefit to helping the people on your team do their jobs better, then you’re focusing on improving Micro.  (That’s not that you’re Micro-managing – but you’re focussing on individual tactical details.)  Your team will do better, and they and you will see it and feel better, because you’re delivering more.  Hurrah.

But you could be doing vastly better if you’re putting your time an energy into the Macro, letting everyone get on with their jobs – even when you could spend your time and effort coaching them a little bit extra – and instead focusing on making everything surrounding those jobs smooth and efficient.

In reality, we want to do both Micro and Macro, but if you’re not providing both, then Macro is probably a more important place to spend your time.


Voting. Back your kickstarter to make the country better for you.


So this post isn’t about testing or management.  It comes off the back of a few conversations with some late-teens about whether its worth bothering to vote.  Now I’m old and grumpy and definitely not cool (in fact I’m pretty sure that “cool” is not cool these days).  But there’s a snap general election happening in the UK, so if you’re going to spend a few minutes thinking about whether to vote or not, now is a good time – so I figure I’ll float some thoughts.

(Spoilers – I think that you voting is a good thing for you, but don’t do it because I say so, make your own mind up[1].)

As explained to me, there are two big reasons not to vote.

  • None of the options are any good.
  • My vote won’t make a difference anyway.

I’m actually going to poke at these in reverse order, because why not.

Lets look at kickstarter projects.  Let’s say there’s a kickstarter project up for a new card game about exploding kittens.  Your own personal pledge backing it is unlikely to make a difference as to whether it gets off the ground.  But if you think it’s worth it, and your mates do, then likely their mates will and so on, and if you all pitch in, then suddenly, BOOM there’s actually a game there out of nowhere.

Or not.  Maybe despite your best efforts, there just aren’t enough other people out there excited about kitten explosions to get to the funding needed, so nothing happens.  The beauty of kickstarter is that you’ve lost nothing – well technically you’ve lost the time you spent signing up and the time you spent reading about kitten explosion techniques and the time it took you to make your pledge.  But that’s it.

And interestingly, if a bunch of people show that they’re interested in card games that involve explosions, then people will think “that’s interesting – people like explosions in card games, and before too long there’ll be another one along.


Voting is pretty much like that.  Politicians create their campaigns (or kick starter projects in the above analogy) to try and coax people to choose their project.  And they do that by looking at which projects people funded in the past, and then trying to pitch a project that sounds like that.

So vote.  If you get a groundswell of support – then you can make any campaign deliver.  Even if none of the mainstream candidates looks useful or like they’ll make a difference – find a candidate or party that matches up with roughly what you’d like to see.  Even if they don’t get in, the mainstream candidates will notice and try and find out what you’re interested in.   And so next time round there’ll be better looking choices[2].

And if you don’t vote.  Then those politicians setting up their campaigns next time, will be setting out all the juicy pledge bonuses for the people who do seem to care.  Because whether or not they actually care about you,  if you don’t vote, they don’t have to care about you, and they’ll be putting their efforts into someone else.


[1] In fact technically you not voting is good for me, unless you’re just like me and care about the same things I care about.  Life would be much easier (for me) if no one except me voted.

[2]Hopefully.  I’ll be honest, I’ve been old enough to vote in 5 general elections, and while in general this seems to roughly happen, sometimes it does seem like everything is just an absolute shambles.


Games for Testers: Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective


So I’m into board games (no – not monopoly, real boardgames) and this is my current favourite.  Actually anyone with a sciencey investigative mindset will love this game.  From now on, anyone who asks what could be fun or interesting about testing is likely to get a copy of this thrust in their face as this really embodies the fun of poking around and investigating a mystery until you understand it.

In short, you and your friends take on the role of the Baker Street Irregulars.  Holmes introduces you to a new case with some initial thoughts and leads, and then you’re on your own to explore London and track down information from a huge massive choose-your-own-adventure-style book.  Except there’s no “turn to page X or Y”.  You can go anywhere.  Where do you want to go?  What’s useful?  That’s for you to decide.  And you only stop when you want to.  At which point you go back to Holmes Study, answer a quiz (which you don’t get to see before you declare that you’re done) on what’s been going on  and then Holmes grandstands and explains the actual answer and how he worked it out (inevitably far faster than you – but the information was all there for you to see).

You win and lose as a group, and while you can play it alone, a group of 4-5 is great, because the game rewards knowledge, thinking, understanding and the sum of investigators thinking and riffing off each other is vastly better than the individuals.

For a longer and better (and slightly surreal in places) review of the guts of the game, try this.  It’s worth a watch.  Go on.  I’ll wait.

But this isn’t just a great game.  The things that make it fun are exactly the things at the core of testing.

  • At any point, you have control over what you do, where you go, what you decide to investigate, and you make the judgement of when you’re done understanding the world.  More (correct) understanding means more points at the end of the game.  But each extra test costs you a few points.  So the key mechanic is the judgement of when to stop, when to search wide, when to search deep.
  • It rewards diverse approaches, thinking laterally, and the ability to quickly create and abandon many hypotheses.
  • You’ll inevitably make a model of how the game works and make assumptions based on that – and then discover your model was broken.
  • Sometimes the problem is that you don’t know what you don’t know.  Sometimes you know exactly what you don’t know and the cleverness required is in constructing a way to find it.
  • While there’s one main mystery to be solved in each case, you can also uncover a whole load of other things (which get you more points).  There’s an unknown number of things to find – and some of them aren’t worth the time and effort required to find them.


If you buy this (hint: you should), here’s one steer that would have made our first case much better:  Just like in testing, going to too few places and getting the wrong answer is much worse than doing more digging and getting a right-er one.  Typically, investigating finds other interesting things (with bonus points) and the game has a lot of detail to enjoy, so its definitely worth going to more rather than fewer places.

Now go and have some fun.

Books: Lean In and Lean Out



I’ve just finished a couple of books and accompanying criticism.  Given the context of a recent events, it seems as good a point as any to write about them.  “Lean In” and “Lean Out” (actually Lean Out is a collection of essays).  Both are about dealing with sexism in tech.

Lean In, I found interesting.  A bunch of thoughts and examples where women miss out not through someone being explicitly openly sexist, but through a load of continual low-grade things that might bunch go under your radar where “things people do that we recognise as good development” tends to align much better with “things men do” than “things women do”.  A load of examples added to my mental list of  things to actively look for to help people (and also incidentally a bunch of things to look out for, to help anyone who has lower confidence).  Lean In isn’t a magic fix, but is definitely a useful read for anyone trying to work on the problem “The tech company where I work seems basically OK on gender, but I know about subconscious bias; I wonder what we can and should be doing better?”

Lean Out, was much more sporadically useful – which is reasonable to expect from a collection of essays.  The biggest thing I took away from it was that my prior assumption that most of tech is like where I work is apparently flawed…

I was reading these books in the context of worrying about improving a culture at work where we’re rationalist, try to treat everyone the same, but social norms and subconscious bias work against that.  “Lean in” provides good thoughts that help on that, working against the biases and over time creating a culture where those biases are fewer or don’t exist.

It seems that that’s not “normal” in at least a significant fraction of tech companies (from  what I’ve read it seems that this is especially true start-ups or companies that have grown fast from start-ups and not had time/effort put in to develop their culture).  In a company where the culture is be a bunch of total arseholes as described in several of the essays in Lean Out and in wider news recently, I can see and feel why it seems reasonable to be angry and shouty and go down the “don’t fix it – bail and start again” suggested by various of the Lean Out essays.  For the record, it shouldn’t be for “feminists” to hold arseholes to account.  They need to be held to account by any humanist.  It’s not (just) about not being sexist.  It’s about not being a dick.

That’s not to say, I’ve stopped worrying about how to improve our company culture (Just because we’re miles over the “Not being full of arseholes” bar, doesn’t mean we should get complacent!)  More, that Lean Out in particular helped me see and understand where some of the anger is coming from.