Where Worlds Collide: Integrate New Perspectives into Your Testing

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Summary:
Rick Scott often writes about the lines that connect the dots between schools of philosophy and software testing. In this article, he shares some tips for seeking out your own new perspectives and introducing them into your testing work.

Philosophy is one of the driving forces that make me tick, and I certainly think it's both a useful tool for everyone and a worthwhile pursuit in itself. I considered winding up this series of articles with a practical guide on how to bring more philosophy into your testing. However, I know that it doesn't resonate with everybody in quite the same way as it does with me. Some people instead find their joy in art, music, anthropology, or any of dozens of other disciplines.

Moreover, as I did my research for this series of articles, one of the things that struck me was the number of different non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields that people leverage for insight into testing. I think we need more of this. I would like to see more people apply their experiences in the arts and social sciences to software testing and development.

The fact that we've labeled software development as "computer science" and "software engineering" tends to limit how we think about it. When we consider approaches to take to a programming or testing problem, we mentally narrow the scope of the ideas we consider to ones that seem technical in nature. By no means do I mean to discount the pivotal roles that these disciplines play in our field. But software development is still a very young field of endeavor that we understand very imperfectly. By steering ourselves away from notions that don't fit our preconceptions of what the field is like, we are likely closing our minds to innovative and possibly even revolutionary ideas.

We often hear creating software likened to building a bridge or a house. I think these metaphors are popular not because they are accurate but because they are reassuring. By classifying programming under the mantle of science or engineering, we hope to make the process of software development perfectly predictable—to make the outcome of every project known at the outset with scientific precision. In doing so, we disregard the fact that progress in science is often non-linear and that cost overruns are a common feature of civil engineering projects as well.

If we dispense with this point of view, then, from what other fields of inquiry does this let us draw insight? In my opinion, the most interesting testing frontiers sit at the intersections of testing and other disciplines, especially those disciplines that engage with our being human, like the humanities and the social sciences. Since testing is a mental activity, psychology is an obvious candidate for insight into how we can test more effectively. Sociology provides tools with which to examine how users, communities, and software teams interact. Realizing that it's not possible to prevent attacks completely, organizations increasingly base their computer security around an economic model—i.e., forcing attackers to spend too much money and effort on a successful attack to make the payoff worth their while. Finally, many people have drawn a link between the creation of software and the tools and methods of older creative disciplines, like music, writing, and the visual arts.

The notion of drawing on non-STEM disciplines may sound far-fetched, but many well-known software professionals have already embraced it. For instance, Adam Goucher nominated Steal Like An Artist as his testing book of 2012 in a blog post in which he exhorts the value of reading non-testing books to become a better tester. Chris McMahon argues that creating software is an act of performance , not of engineering. Marlena Compton draws parallels between critiquing art and testing software , as well as between communicating the behavior of a piece of

User Comments

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LIsa Crispin's picture
LIsa Crispin

I've read some of the articles/posts you cite. I started my software career with an entire department made up of people who majored in something besides "STEM"-related fields. Four of them had PhDs in music and played the tuba! It was clear to me that developing software is a creative activity. A couple years back, the NY Times printed an article about how programming was a left-brained thing, and I fired off a letter to the editor rebutting that - they actually printed it, which was cool. Thanks for reiterating that we have to learn from many fields. I'm reading a book right now that gets into some philosophy, and what it teaches me about human nature is quite helpful!

June 26, 2012 - 3:22pm

About the author

Rick Scott's picture Rick Scott

Rick Scott is a Canadian philosopher-geek who's profoundly interested in how we can collaborate to make technology work better for everyone. He's an incorrigible idealist, an open source contributor, and a staunch believer in testing, universal access, and the hacker ethic. When he's not in front of a computer, you'll find him out on the hiking trails, in the kitchen turning out cupcakes, or cleaning up his viola technique in the basement.

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