From One Expert to Another: James Bach


In this installment of From One Expert to Another, Jon Bach uses a 20 Questions approach to interview his brother, James Bach, about his reputation, his work as a tester and consultant, his thoughts on the global testing community, and more.

My brother James and I are aficionados of exploratory testing. Call it “ad hoc testing” or “playing around,” but it’s the opposite of scripted testing the same way agile development is the opposite of waterfall development.

When we teach, James and I use the game Twenty Questions as an exploration example. When you play Twenty Questions, you have to discern what object one person is thinking by asking questions. You can’t know the questions in advance, so you ask each question as you go. That’s what exploration is—critical thinking and adaption to emerging context to discover something. 

For this interview, I gave James a script—twenty questions to answer with no feedback or follow-up from me. Notice that I purposefully left one of those scripted questions confusing by making up words, wondering how he’d react. After he sent his answers, we had a Skype conversation (another paradigm of exploration). 

1. Jon Bach: You're known for being contentious. You've also been known to publicly "flip the bit" on someone, writing them off as a waste of time. How do you decide which position to take when someone says something that provokes or annoys you? 

James Bach: Yes, I am contentious. It's a side-effect of caring about my work and about the testing field. I can be patient with fools, but not so much with the fools who pretend to be experts. 

Mostly, I "flip the bit" when I feel unable to control my temper except through total disengagement. I need to protect people from my temper, and I've learned to do that partly by not associating with raving idiots. 

2. Jon: When you introduce us when we do paired talks, you often say "I'm the one with hair, and Jon is the one with the capacity to love." Do you think everyone sees you this way—not only with hair, but as being incapable of love? 

James: Well, I'm told I have a reputation for being contentious, so I tease myself in public about that. 

You, however, are mister Teddy Tester Fuzzums, the most huggable test manager. Everyone loves you, or that's my impression. 

3. Jon: Why don't you go to conferences for programmers? Can you tell us something interesting about the last time you attended one? 

James: I go to conferences where I'm invited to speak. I'm rarely invited to speak at programmer conferences, but it does happen. I would like to go to such conferences, but I'm away from home so much that it's really painful to go to any event not absolutely required for my business. 

4. Jon: If soldy testing was not parafized, would you slow your dumbrage or increase it? 

James: I can answer this in several ways: 

  • Spellchecking: "If moldy testing was not purified, would you slow your umbrage or increase it?" In general, my umbrage is increased by moldy, unpurified testing, I would say.
  • Context-free Reply: "Whoa, slow down. First things first. Tell me about your project."
  • Ask Questions: "I'm sorry, I don't know of anything called 'soldy testing.' Do you mean solder testing? And, does 'parafized' mean 'covered in wax'?"
  • Deflection: "The real question is: What is your goal? What is your mission?" 

5. Jon: What was your last job interview like? 

James: My last interview for a regular job was being driven around Virginia while being fed nonsense and lies by the guy who hired me. I quit six months later and went independent. 

My last interview for a short-term gig was a conference call where I was asked questions about rapid testing and I ranted for an hour about it, doing my best to stop talking once in a while so that a new question could be asked. 

6. Jon: What do you think people mean when they say that an aim of testing is to achieve "complete coverage"? 

James: I think they mean they want to find every important bug, and they believe that to do that is a simple matter of glancing at the surface of their product and noticing the bugs politely waiting to be reported. 

It's fine to want to discover every important bug, but it's hardly a simple matter to do that. You don't fight crime by achieving "complete coverage" of a city with cameras or cops. You'll find some crime that way, but not all kinds of crime. Much crime, and many bugs, are more elusive than that. 

7. Jon: You and Cem Kaner were nominated with Jerry Weinberg for "Testing Luminary" not long ago. What does this tell you about the people who nominated you? 

James: It tells me that they must have been more a part of my community than the ISTQB or traditionalist or academic communities. In some communities, I'm totally unknown. In others, I'm reviled. But, among people I associate with and respect, Cem and Jerry are highly respected. 

8. Jon: What's been your proudest moment as a consultant? 

James: That would be the time I won a patent infringement lawsuit by using my super testing kung-fu kicks against a professor from Rice University, who was an insufferable arrogant snob. In your FACE, Rice University. 

The facts were on our side in that case, but still ... 

9. Jon: If the context-driven school were a brick-and-mortar university, what kinds of classes would it have? 

James: It depends! 

10. Jon: Out of all the countries in the world, which one has the most promising testing culture? 

James: My quick answer is Sweden. 

My deeper answer is I don't know about all the countries in the world. I just know about fifteen or sixteen of them. Besides, "promising" can mean different things. Of course, for me, promising means likely to innovate and develop in ways that I respect and adore. I'm opposed to stupid certification, so of course I'm going to avoid the land of TMap (Netherlands), where the shadows lie, and the land that produced the ISTQB (Germany). I'm also not going to highlight France, from whence I have not yet met a tester of any stripe. In general, I know nothing about countries that don't widely speak English, so there's a lot of bias here. 

I'm going with Sweden. Absolut! Bra! 

11. Jon: Back in 2003, you wrote a blog that apologized to India for underestimating their curiosity and passion. One of the reader comments was that there was no leader. Would you say they have one now, and, if so, what difference is that leader making? 

James: There isn't yet much leadership, but I would highlight Pradeep Soundararajan, Meeta Prakash, and Ajay Balamurugadas as three influential thinkers and doers. India is coming along. 

12. Jon: Is there anything you used to strongly believe when you were new to testing that you have rejected now? 

James: I used to believe in monolithic test teams—that everyone should have the same personality and the same skills on my teams. That meant everyone should be like me. Slowly, I had experiences that made me warmly appreciate people who do things I don't do and think things I don't think. Now, I believe in diversified test teams. 

13. Jon: If you won a million-dollar grant to study anything and publish a book about it, what would it be? 

James: I could write a book called An Experiment in Publishing Don Quixotein Wingding Font. This would take almost zero time and money. Then, I could spend the million on anything I want. 

But, what I would probably do is write a book about the joys of systems thinking. I'd also hire you to write it with me. We'd have a good year and a half before the money ran out. 

14. Jon: Context-driven methodology says that there are no best practices, only good practices in context. Have you ever found a practice that is good in any context? 

James: No, because I have a very good imagination and I take my work seriously. 

However, there are certainly practices that are good in any context I am likely to encounter in the normal course of my life. Informally, I treat certain practices as if they were always good. And yet, if pressed, I could tell you why and when they might be bad. 

15. Jon: In November 2005, you wrote, "I generally support certification programs that provide reasonable protection for consumers in an inefficient market, without posing an unreasonable burden to trade and innovation." What's an example of such a certification? 

James: Doctors, lawyers, airline pilots. 

16. Jon: Do you ever worry that you missed something important despite your best test approaches, ideas, and techniques? 

James: Yes, but my worry is no longer the sick, pit-of-the-stomach kind of worry. It's more like a nervous energy. 

When you learn how to test and you gain a lot of experience being fooled and recovering from that, you eventually find a stable emotional place within you that feels confident and powerful. Worry doesn't go away, but it no longer controls you. 

17. Jon: Who is the best debater you've ever faced? 

James: Cem Kaner, for sure. Jerry Weinberg is also very good. When I argue with myself, I try to imagine what they would say. 

18. Jon: What is the most common question you've been asked at testing talks you give? 

James: Probably "But, how can you manage this?" So many people seem to think that thinking for yourself is somehow unmanageable, despite the fact that all of us do it every day. 

19. Jon: Has there ever been a conference speaker that has made you want to stand and applaud? 

James: I felt that way about Elisabeth Hendrickson, when she did a thing on informal state-based testing, at PNSQC, some years back. She was finding bugs live on stage. 

And, back in 1979, I saw Buckminster Fuller speak. He was mesmerizing. 

20. Jon: If tomorrow were your last day on Earth, what would be your last tweet? 

James: That would depend on why I'm leaving Earth. For instance, if I were going on the trans-dimensional express to the Unicorn Planet, I might make a witty remark about unicorn culture. 

The problem with planning tweets for the last day on Earth is that so often you only know it was your last day on the next day. 

User Comments

1 comment
Robert Rose-Coutré's picture
Robert Rose-Coutré

This was a very entertaining interview. I agree that what one does on one's last day on earth depends on the context.

November 21, 2011 - 2:03pm

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