Tag Archives: Testability

The Blackest of Boxes

At a recent gig I was one of several veteran testers brought in to shore up a team that… I don’t want to say “lacked experience.” Probably the best description is that they were “insular.” They were basically re-inventing the wheel.

I had a number of discussions with the team’s manager and he seemed receptive to my suggestions, up to a point. Past that, though, all I heard was “We don’t do that.” When I first heard this my mind was suddenly struck with visions of Nomad, the robot from Star Trek, whose favorite thing to say was “Non sequitur. Your facts are uncoordinated.”

Don’t worry. While I was tempted to, I didn’t actually say it out loud.

Let me back up a little. The job involved testing a system that is sandwiched between two others–a digital scanner and a database. The system is designed to take the scanned information and process it so that the right data can be updated and stored, with a minimum of human intervention. That last part is key. Essentially most of what happens is supposed to be automatic and invisible to the end user. You trust that checks are in place such that any question about data integrity is flagged and presented to a human.

Testers, however, are not end users. This is a complicated system, with a lot of moving parts (metaphorically speaking). When erroneous data ends up in the database it’s not a simple matter to figure out where the problem lies. When I asked for tools to help the team “look under the hood” (for example, at the original OCR data or the API calls sent to the database) and eliminate much of the overhead involved with some of the tests, I was told “But we are User Acceptance Testing”, as if that were somehow an argument.

Worse, the tool was not being developed in-house. This meant that our interaction with the programmers was essentially non-existant. We’d toss our bugs over a high wall and they’d toss their fixes back over it. The team was actively discouraged from asking questions to programmers directly (the programmers were in another state, so obviously face-to-face communication was not possible, but even emails and phone calls were verboten).

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that it’s never a good idea to separate programmers and testers. It fosters an us-versus-them mentality instead of a healthy one where the testers are viewed as helping the programmers. It lengthens the lifespan of bugs since a programmer doesn’t have the option to walk over to a tester and ask to be shown the issue. Testers are deprived of the opportunity to learn important information about how the system is built–stuff that’s not at all apparent from the user interface, like snippets of code used in several unrelated places. A change to one area could break things elsewhere and the testers might otherwise never think to look there.

So, when I hear “We don’t do that” it strikes me as a cop out. It’s an abdication of responsibility. A non sequitur.

Share