Saturday, December 28, 2013

Are you exploring?

The following is a write up of a talk I gave at the Christmas Wellington Test Professionals Network ...

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably have noticed I have a deep passion in history, which comes across in the sheer volume of history related facts that I retweet.  I'm not alone in this passion, as indeed my son shares the same interest.  He loves to read about it, to visit exhibits, but most of all to “experience” it.

He’s sometimes a bit disappointed with moving to New Zealand – England after all has history going back thousands of years, there are battlefields galore, and sites dating back to Roman or Norman times.  New Zealand in contrast was only colonised a few hundred years ago by Maori pioneers, with colonial Britain arriving in the 19th Century.

But when he heard that there was a World War II bunker at Baring Hill, near where we live in Wainuiomata, he knew he wanted to visit it.  We knew it was there, there’s a basic website warning us it’s a moderately difficult walk.  However there's no real information on the bunker itself, and Google doesn’t really provide us with much more to go on.

England itself is filled with remnants of fortifications thrown together to defend the country in a war that (thankfully) never came.  Likewise the Baring Hill bunker doesn't exist in history books because no documented history ever happened there, and yet it still existed in some form never the less.

This meant we just simply didn't know what to expect.  We still had images in our mind from our educated guesses.  We knew there was a lot of fear during World War II of invasion from Japan, and looking at a map, the position would overlook Wellington's harbour.  Thus we expected,
•    it to be the site of a giant fortification like those used by Germany to make “Fortress Europe”.
•    it was probably the site of a gun station – we didn't expect to see a cannon still there, but maybe some fixtures / turntable to show it was once there.
•    soldiers (maybe some form of home guard) would drive to the bunker to “do a shift” and then return home at the end of it

In other words, something a bit like this,

Our expectations

All the information we had to go on ...

Thursday, December 19, 2013

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas ...

Last year I published on LeanPub the short story The Elf Who Learned How To Test.

Not only did it get a great reception, but it was a lot of fun to write.  So much fun in fact that after Christmas, I realised there were a lot more tales I wanted to tell at the North Pole.

If you've only read the one story (the first version), I do encourage you to download again in time for Christmas.

Of course as ever, this book was a free resource for the testing community, but it's Christmas, and a time to typically to be thankful for what we have, and try and help others.  Another important thing behind The Elf Who Learned How To Test was as a fundraiser for Starship Kids Hospital.  It's a worthy cause that helps families dealing with caring for sick children - I encourage you to donate - even just a dollar or two.  Every bit helps.  You can donate here.

And of course, I wish you all the best for this upcoming Christmas, and for a great start to 2014!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Mental Health 107 - Finding support ...

Whether you suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar, stress, or any of the many other conditions that impinge mental happiness, it’s not the end.  I can assure you, there will be good times again.

As I've said, an important trait to getting through is knowing when you've been through a similar phase, and that you can “get through it again”.  It’s a maturity which comes with experience and perspective of your condition.  I myself have always found A Beautiful Mind inspirational for the part where Russell Crow as John Nash notices something about his mental condition (his hallucinations don't age), and uses it to realise and battle his difficulties.

This week I was at a Whirlwind Men event and talking to other members of our Kapiti group who are at different stages on their road to mental wellness.  For myself, like John Nash I’d learned over the years to apply a scientific method to my mental state – trying to log down moods and feelings, and question why I felt them, cross checking it with what I'd done that day.

“Mentally checking in” or discussing how you feel about your current state of mind – is where events like Whirlwind Men can be useful, and I've used the Wellington Balance Group for people with bipolar, depression or anxiety to do much the same when I've felt myself under stress.

A system recommended by a lot of people at the groups I've been a part of is the WRAP Wellness Recovery Action Plan.  This is similar to the approach I take – recording how you feel, and also saying “on days when I feel down, I need to make sure I'm getting out and exercising and eating healthily, not junk comfort food” or “on weeks when I feel stressed, I need to be able to clear at least one whole day just for myself, with no to-do lists”.

In the end, a lot of coping comes down to marshalling your resources,

Close Support

Close support from friends and family is just such an incredibly important lifeline, I can’t understate it.  You don’t have to have the support from your entire family – some people who “get it” better than others, and can be mature about it.  But having just one person you can talk to and say “I’m just feeling a bit down today because of …” helps.  And it’s okay to say you’re down – it doesn't mean you need meds or to be carted to a care institute for feeling down, only if the frequency and intensity are too severe.

And let’s be frank – people can be upset or sad without having mental issues.  If you miss out on a promotion, your car has been vandalised, or you’re going through a break up – you’re going to “feel down”.  To an extent that’s natural.  But for some people, this can be triggers to much bigger issues, and they don’t bounce back from them.  Richard who ended up off for 3 months after attending a funeral is an example of this.

One thing I would suggest though is that if you do open to friends and family about your feelings when you’re depressed, it’s important that you also show them the “other side of the coin”.  Like the news we can overtalk about the “bad stuff” in our life, and forget to say when we've come out of the woods a bit.

It’s also so essential to keep the relationship intact.  I've a friend in Wellington who has been going through an intense and emotional breakup, and we've been talking and meeting up a lot.  But then about 3 weeks ago, they seemed to “vanish”, not appearing at events and not answering texts.  I was concerned they were in the pits of depression, and wondering to just turn up uninvited – then found out that simply they’d met another person, starting dating and “life was good again”.  But didn't think to mention.

Although usually a patient person, I was somewhat annoyed at this - this individual is very good at telling me when something goes wrong, but less so about the good stuff.  But the lesson is key, if you are “sharing the rough” of your life with someone, make sure you’re also “sharing the smooth”.

Professional Help

Close support is wonderful for getting through the day-to-day, but my friend Ryan Edwards reminded me this week that every so often it “always helps to keep yourself on track by making visits to trusted experts” such as the doctor.  They can talk to you about what might be up with you – for myself I found getting a diagnosis such as “post-traumatic stress” helped me because it allowed me to investigate about the condition, read up, understand it, find out ways other people used to limit it and cope.

However many people worry about being treated as labels, where in truth each mental health sufferer although having some common traits will have some areas which are unique to them.  For example, I might have had post-traumatic stress, but the events that caused it were very unique to me.

It’s really important you build a relationship with your doctor, you need to trust them.  Try and find one you like, and then always use them – don’t talk about these kind of things which “whatever doctor’s available”.

I know many people who feel dread going to the doctors, that they’re just going to be lectured to.  Most doctors aren't like that.  If you do find your doctor feels like that, it’s worth trying another, or even saying “I don’t feel comfortable talking to you about my mental health, is there someone else I can talk to?”.  You are often well within your rights to.

Your doctor might suggest things like medication or counselling.  My advice would be to neither say “yes” or “no” right away, but to discuss it, what they would mean, how would it help.  A good doctor is making a suggestion, putting an option on the table, and you really need to explore it together.  Many people call this a “partnership” between yourself and your doctor to review and try out options to help you.

Peer Groups

This is where I believe a “diagnosis” or “label” can help.  Because you can seek out like-minded support groups.

I'm a part of Whirlwind, which has regular meetings (about 4 a year) of men who are going through various challenges.  It’s a forum for men to just be open about their feelings, to share stories, experience, pains.  It’s a great support group, and I have to drive over an hour to attend from where I live, but it’s always worth it.

Likewise I've used the Wellington Balance group which is a monthly circle where you can “check in” with a group of peers about how your month has gone, the challenges you've had, and how it’s left you feeling.  It’s a powerful thing to be able to be open with people who “just get it” because they’re in a similar boat to you, and to know you’re not alone.

Here is another example where Google can be your friend, there might be a group in your area, just try “depression support group”, and see where it takes you.  By the way, I should point out it's quite normal to feel very nervous going to any one of these events - I was close to bottling out of my first Whirlwind day, and often people on their first visit tell a similar story, but also of how glad they are that they didn't give in to the nerves.

Online Support

There is a lot of online support out there for people with depression or anxiety – often explaining about the condition that affects you, and suggesting thing you can do to help yourself.

  • The NZ Depression Helpline is particularly good (and yes, you can access this outside of New Zealand).
  • More youth orientated is the Lowdown, which I've explored and also found a really good resource I refer people to.
  • I obviously cannot recommend the Whirlwind site or Martin Sloman enough.

These are just a few sites I recommend, but once again here, Google is your friend.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Mental Health 106 - How do you talk to a friend who has depression?

How do you deal with a friend who has depression?  There are no easy answers, and it can feel like a minefield with no "safe" path at times.  I've known a few people who've had depression – and I'm lying if I say I always deal well with them.  Sometimes you click with someone who has depression, and sometimes it’s just impossible.  The later has happened to me a couple of times, and feels like I've failed that individual, but still ...

When I talked about Pip and her revelation about not only her dad’s terminal illness, but the unpleasant nature of her relationship with him, I talked about feeling over my head.  But the important thing to do is to really not bale out and abandon your friend, but do the best you can.  Your friend needs someone who is patient and understanding.  Even if they’re going to a counsellor, they need support outside of that.

A friend of mine from school lost her baby in the final phases of pregnancy in the last year, and that was dreadful.  But she told me what made a bad situation unbearable was that everyone didn't know what to say to her anymore, so people started avoiding her.  She felt a social leper at what was already the lowest time of her life.

For myself when dealing with someone like that, I tend to try and say something – and learned if you are going to give in to paralysis because you can’t find the “right words”, you’re going to be silent an awful amount of the time.  The important thing is you make an effort and try and say something, but most of all you listen.

As I've said, I've had depression – and people tried to be kind and nice and friendly to me.  But to be honest I was in such a bad place the time, I was just hurtful back to them.  And I feel mean about that now, but also understand it was out of my control a little at the time.  To be honest, sometimes when you’re depressed, as dumb as it sounds, you just want to push everyone away.  Even the people who want to help.

For myself depression was the reason I behaved that way, but it’s not an excuse or get out of jail card.  When I dealt with it, I did my best to rebuild those relationships that had been damaged.  But I was so thankful for those people in my life that I couldn't keep away.  And yes - I did apologise for my behaviour.

When you try to deal with someone with depression – you have to have patience.  You have to understand to an extent that some of what comes out of their mouth is their depression talking, not the person you know to be your friend.  And that’s hard.

Sometimes they’ll snap at you, and you need to back off a bit.  Sometimes they’ll ask you to just leave them alone, and sometimes you have to.  Give them time, give them space, but don’t be too proud to come back, because they’re hurting, and despite what they might say, they need you.

Being friends with someone who has depression is hard – I think to get through it you need to be really good friends.  Because the depression will test it to it’s limits believe me.  I think I'm learning I can’t just “be there” for a comrade who is a fellow sufferer who I only vaguely know in passing – there has to be the cement of genuine friendship prior to depression hitting, because it just won’t last otherwise.

The New Zealand depression website has some great advice for do’s and don’t for supporting a friend with depression, and I'm going to repeat them here,


  • Spend time with them
  • Listen rather than talk – let them tell you how it is for them
  • Learn about depression - how it is treated and what you can do to help recovery
  • See yourself as part of their support team
  • Understand how depression is affecting their daily life
  • Help the person to recognise and find ways of dealing with things that are worrying them
  • Help and encourage them to lead a healthy life, to exercise and to do things they enjoy
  • Support and encourage them to keep getting whatever support or treatment is offered
  • Take any thoughts of suicide seriously – it’s okay to talk about it. Don’t leave someone alone if they feel unsafe. Contact a health care provider or a crisis phone line.


  • Tell them to 'snap out of it' or 'harden up'. People cannot 'will' themselves better from moderate or severe depression
  • Encourage excess alcohol and drug use as a coping strategy - it can make things worse
  • Avoid them – they already feel isolated and this can make their depression worse
  • Assume the problem will just go away
  • Judge or criticise them for what they’re going through
  • Lose hope - they need you to believe they will get through this
  • Give unhelpful advice – for example, 'just think of people who are worse off’.

And of course, support doesn't just end when they seem to be back to normality.  With Richard, who worked for me, I would do regular catch ups with him to find out how things were going with him.  The idea was to check in on his mental health so I could ask him “do you think you need to go the doctor again?” if he was having problems.

He did indeed have a couple of wobbles as you’d expect – but he told me he found it useful to have someone within work to “talk about this stuff” to, and to sound out his emotional state.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Mental Health 105 - "I regret to inform you". The suicide bombshell.

It’s the worst email you can get in the morning, “I regret to inform you that our colleague and friend Nicholas passed away in the night”.

I've received this kind of email twice, and at the time you have no idea what has happened.  But sadly a few months later the rumours go around that Nicholas did no “pass away” peacefully.  I myself was temping in IT support at the time of one of those emails, and had to reclaim the machine of the deceased, going through files in his account and hard disk, deciding any work related ones.  Unfortunately for a number of files that meant opening, quickly visually scanning the contents, and moving anything that could be important to a shared drive.

I found it unnerving to go through his things, and really didn't want to delve into his private life.  But all the same, it became apparent even from my quick visual scanning of documents that he'd written a lot of letters to lawyers, going through divorce and custody hell.  Nicholas (not his real name) had been going through a difficult time, and few of us at work would have guessed.

Even now, it feels unfair, even under the shield anonymity to reveal this about him.  However these details did eventually come out during the inquest into his death many months later.

This isn't my only brush with suicide.  I've written previously about my friend Violet, and the effect her life and her death had on me.  There I wanted to celebrate her life, and to talk about how I dealt with mourning her loss.

There were some details I omitted though – I’d mentioned that Violet had issues with mental health which had seen her committed for a period of time, as well as a previous failed suicide attempts.  Ironically she was the first peer mental health sufferer who I formed an open friendship with, and she was severely influential in my life.  I learned that fellow sufferers can get a great deal of support by sharing their troubles with someone else who “gets it”.  This picture, like no other reflect my friendship with her,

Those conversations over the years of our friendship really turned my life around – because I could talk through things with her that it was difficult to talk to anyone else about, without judgement.

Sadly though in 2010 her life started to spiral – she was on a new medication system which she was finding difficult to find balance on.  Unfortunately people have to occasionally change their meds, and as Violet was on a combination of pills for various difficulties she had, there could be complex side effects that could cause whole weeks wiped out in a “zombie” state as she adjusted.  She’d also spent years waiting for a free slot with a specialist therapist to try and deal with some of the issues and reduce her medication dependence.

In hindsight we’d talked about her stints in mental institutions, and she’d ominously said that she’d never go back there.  Her landlord started motions to (illegally) evict her, something which is a difficult trial for someone with her level of anxiety, for which your flat is your only “safe” area.

One day she went quiet.  People phoned, but there was no reply.  The next day, the Police battered down the door, and found her dead on her bed surrounded by empty packets of medication.  It took months to get information – I was told her blood toxicology results were inconclusive.  She had alcohol and elevated levels of medication.  Coroner eventually erred on the side of accidental over deliberate overdose, but given the circumstances, I've always been in doubt.

Whether Violet was or wasn't a statistic, suicide is unfortunately something that does go on.  In New Zealand, suicide kills more people than road traffic accidents (almost twice the number) – and almost 75% of those who die are male.  That is an alarming number – it’s the single preventable cause of death in men 16-40.  It’s a chilling statistic.

Last year I was lucky enough to attend the Whirlwind Workshop on men’s mental health on Kapiti.  Whirlwind is an initiative to promote men’s mental health, and provide a network to both support and discuss issues frankly.  I'm pleased to say that Qual IT, one of New Zealand's premier IT test consultancies are amongst their sponsors – it’s nice to see an IT company involved in this, as going around the support groups in Wellington, I've seen an alarming number of our industry as end users of these kinds of services, and their tale is often all too the same.  Project managers and programmers who pushed themselves, until something broke, with the some finally seeing a doctor for help, or eventually ending up in care for a limited time.

Yet they are still the lucky ones – for some, their problems, and the dark places they inhabit just feel too overwhelming.  Martin Sloman of Whirlwind sums it up when he says it’s a difficult thing for many men to admit they need help, “men are very bad at coming forward and embracing this kind of challenge … it’s unblokey”, and yet this attitude of shame is leading people to feel it’s easier to end their life than to live with the shame of a badge like “depression”.

Problems in life can feel daunting – but in life as in IT, we know that breaking complexity down, you can work on it a piece at a time.  Problems can be dealt with, support can be got, but death is so huge and permanent and "unfixable".

Nicholas’s suicide ended the custody battle with his wife – but it left a gaping hole in the life of his children.  Something could have been settled and negotiated.  But instead his children are left trying to understand why he did this, and why they’ll never see their father again.

As I said about Violet, before the inquest  I would spend alternate days so upset she was dead, or feeling so incredibly peeved she did this.

If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, I really encourage you to talk to someone – pick up the phone.  A good place to start is the Samaritans – most countries have a branch somewhere.  If that doesn’t help, just type the words “suicide hotline” into Google, and see what your local options are.

Don’t think you’re too weak, and don’t think it’s just you!

A powerful video - and worth watching ...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mental Health 104 - Depression, the powerful dog who sneaks up on us ...

About 10 years ago, I worked with a bright young man we’ll call Richard, who was reported to me.  One day, he didn't show for work, and we were told he was unwell.

It was 3 months before he appeared in work again, and we were all a bit concerned for him.  But Richard asked that we didn't enquire about what happened.  So we left it at that.

But then, 9 months later, he fell unwell again, and vanished again for a similar amount of time.  I just happened to be in the lift with a cleaner who was good friends with both myself and Richard, when she said to me “it’s a shame about Richard depression isn't it?”.

She looked shocked when I mentioned that Richard hadn't told me, but I mentioned how glad I was she’d told me.  I tried to be very gentle about it with Richard, but stumbled into a conversation on mental health, and talked a little about my own experiences.  It’s so important with people fighting this battle you don’t try and give glib solutions, but show real empathy.

Bit by bit over weeks of chatting I got some of the picture – it’s a story I've heard now from too many others.  The first year it’d happened it came out of the blue.  But the second time, there had been signs.  It’d started when he was at his aunt’s funeral and realised how she was one of the last of her generation.  It wasn't a crushing feeling, but he felt really down about it.

He thought he was being silly and would be okay, but those dark thoughts just grew and grew.  He didn't want to go the doctors because he thought it’d pass.  But then one day he realised he just couldn't get out of bed it was just impossible.

That might be difficult for anyone who has never felt that depressed to get, but this is a video which explains a lot about how people with depression can feel,

Looking at my own experiences, and talking openly with peers about them, I've come to a realisation of sorts.  As we get older we learn the rhythm of lows.  It’s a mixed blessing – but talk to someone who has suffered from any mental illness for some time, and they will tell you that the raft they cling to during the lows is that they've got through this before, and so they know deep down they can get through it again.

They also get better at noticing the early signs, and seeking help at that point.  This is important - notice early, take action before your depression has become unmanageable and large, and you're a good way to keeping yourself mentally healthy.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mental Health 103 - Counselling and roads to wellness

I cannot begin this piece without first thanking many people who have sent emails, Tweets and left comments of support for my previous piece.  It reaffirmed my belief that "this is something worth talking about", and I was moved how my tale had touched so many people in different ways.  For myself sharing it was an important water-shed, an affirmation that "these things happened to me - but I refuse to let them to continue to have power over me".

Oh, there's still a footprint remaining - but time and treatment have helped to reduce them.  For myself and many others, the road to wellness in this area was counselling, which is sometimes called therapy.  A lot of people have opinions about counselling – ironically, when challenged most people turn out never to have been in a session.  There is a lot of misinformation out there, not helped by clich├ęs we've all see in films, TV and the media.

The phrase that I hear the most is “I'm not going to have someone sit there whilst I tell them all about my life, just so they can judge me”.  As someone who not only been through counselling myself, but has friends who have also used the service, I would like to talk you through my experiences.

Let’s start with what it isn't …

  • Counsellors don’t sit there and judge you
  • Counsellors don’t treat you like a child and tell you how to live your life
  • Counsellors don’t go home and laugh about what you've told them with their friends
  • Going to counselling is not a sign of weakness
  • Going to counselling isn't even necessarily a sign you have a mental illness

Let’s try and clear some of that out of the way now – the media stereotype we're used to is one of some awful wet-behind-the-ears hippy who just tell us repeatedly “so how did that make you feel?”.  I have never met a counsellor like that.

Counselling is about exploring an aspect of your life that is uncomfortable and causes you distress.  Let's be blunt about this, to get benefit from the session, you need to feel you should be there because there is something in your life that's such a pain point that you want to address it.  The counsellor doesn't know anything about you but what you tell them – so in truth, you are firmly in the driving seat.

Most counsellors work by essentially guiding your through processes as you explore past events, your thought processes, how it affected you afterwards, and yes indeed – how it made you feel.

For myself – I can quite simply and clinically recite to others the bare bones versions of those events “I was sexually abused”, “I saw someone killed”, “we tried for a second child, but it didn't work out”.  But the fact is, it’s the whole “how did these things make me feel” that’s the clincher.  For each of those topics it’s complex and labyrinthine, and I got so used to avoiding thinking about them, I honestly never explored how they did make me feel.  Regarding the sexual abuse for instance we explored in counselling how it affected going through puberty and adolescence, my sexual discovery, my confidence, and my feeling in situations where I felt similarly dis-empowered.

An important part of the counselling relationship is it’s confidentiality.  Counselling is a professional career which takes it’s obligation to your welfare seriously.  In fact in my opinion, counselling cannot work unless you have a level of trust with the person you’re going to spend this time with.

There are limits though to even this confidentiality though that it's important to understand – counsellors will remind you at the start of your session that they are obliged to break this confidentiality only if they feel you are likely to harm yourself or others.  But even this makes some obvious sense, this is about your wellbeing after all.

For myself and the areas which have caused stress in my life, they are not subjects it’s easy to talk with others about.  Certainly not people I have a relationship with.  They are about discussing a certain level of insecurity and are certainly “heavy” subjects, which need to be dealt with sensitively, and perhaps not casually.

I have to be blunt – when I was at University in Liverpool, a friend in my drama group wanted to meet me early at a pub one night, before the rest of our group.  She then dropped a bombshell that her father had just been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour with months to live.  But she didn't know if she felt comfortable about that, or indeed even wanted to see him.  You see, he’d abused her for years, and she was terrified he was just manipulating her again like he’d done before.  I have to admit, I just felt completely out of my depth in this conversation.  Being the best friend I could do, literally all I could do was “try my best”.  But this wasn't an easy conversation at all, and it really worried me if I had given the best advice, or listened enough.  At the same time I admit I did really feel honoured that Pip felt comfortable enough to talk with me about this.  I just really didn't want to let her down.

This is why I think it’s a bit bullshit when people say “you don’t need counsellors, you just need friends who’ll listen”.  Counsellors are used to listening to such stories, and dealing with such conflicts on a daily basis – of course they’re going to be not only more comfortable, but be able to produce a better outcome for the person in need.

Typically a round of “primary care counselling” which deals/tackles a single aspect of life takes about 4-6 sessions.  I had to use counselling for typically 6 sessions for each of those life issues I've discussed.

As mentioned, trust in your counsellor is key.  I typically use my first session with a new counsellor to explain who I am, and a high level overview of what my problem is.  I use this session to really probe the counsellors behaviour.  At the end of it, I either say “see you next week”, or “I'm sorry, I'm really not feeling comfortable with you – is there any other counsellor I can use?”.  Twice before I've had really nice counsellors, but I've just not felt I could be open and truthful with them, and it that case, it’s better for both of you if you say so upfront.  Counselling will only work if you feel safe enough to be open.

Why not keep taking the pills?

A lot of people fear medication – there is sadly no “cure pill” out there, but medications of different types can really dull some of the effects of depression, moods swings or anxiety which can help people to function relatively normally.

For some people, the drugs work marvels, and they can stay on them the rest of their lives and live a full life.  For myself after our attempt of a second child and how moody the steroids treatment had made me, the medication allowed me to get my brain back on an even keel until I was ready to do without them again.  The counselling then helped me to just deal with all the frustrated emotions, and to not only come to terms with it, but remember I already had a child and rediscover my joy in life (that might sound dumb – but in all the frustration for a second child I swear we sometimes forgot).

But for many people like myself, some counselling can help to explore the emotional issues and really reduce their power, with a view to allowing us to cope without them.

I will leave the final words with a friend of mine, Martin Sloman who works as a counsellor in Kapiti Coast.  I asked him about his thoughts about when people talk about counsellors “sitting there in judgement of people”,

“Firstly all good Counsellors never judge. Secondly a good counsellor has empathy, usually at least in part because of their own awareness of life's difficulties. I see counselling more like personal development. You don't go to school or college because you are thick. You hope to come out better equipped to deal with your future.”

If you want to explore more about counselling, I really recommend having a look the the FAQs of both Martin's website, and that of the Massey University counselling service, which I think really help to answer some fundamental fears around counselling.

As mentioned in a previous posting, most companies do provide access to a counselling service, and in the UK, you can usually get a session for primary care counselling, although there can be a bit of a wait.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mental Health 102 - My experiences

There have been for me, three real difficult and traumatic events I've had to deal with that have caused periods of depression in what (for the first two) I'm told was post-traumatic stress.

Childhood Abuse …

As a pre-adolescent 10 year old, I was subject to a series of events, which I found incredibly distressing.  At the time, I couldn't come forward and talk about them, because I was so ashamed of what had been done to me, and felt guilty by association.  Later off I thought of them as possibly a form of ritual humiliation to “put me into my place” and I was just being an overly sensitive cry baby.

But I never really “got over it”.  I hated what had happened to me, how powerless and frightened I felt, even when I was no longer that dis-empowered 10 year old boy, I still felt like that inside.  I felt silly, but at 30 I ended up getting worse and worse flashbacks to event, that I ended up going to see a counsellor about it.  That’s where they gave it a name – “sexual abuse” – something I was uncomfortable with.  Something that I felt until then couldn't describe what happened to me, because things like that only happened to women.

I like many were touched by Justine’s account of a recent event of sexual abuse that had happened to her at a technical conference.  I felt such a strong flood of empathy there, and respect for the courage she took just in voicing what had happened.  I’d spent 20 years finding the courage to talk about what had happened, and even here, I can’t bring myself to discuss it in detail.  This of course is unusual for me, but indicates just how completely out of my comfort zone I am discussing it.

Many people say “she should have done X or Y”, but I got it.  The whole paralysis that happened to me, the fear of people knowing what they did to you, the shame associated with it because you feel you've let it happen to you – a shame which of course is totally unfair and unfounded.  And yet as unfair as it is you feel it.  You don’t need other people telling you “oh why didn't you handle it differently”, because in my case I’d spend 20 years asking myself just that.

What happened to me almost feels out of the pages of the Abu Ghraib prison.  Only I was a junior Scout, and it was inflicted by older Scouts, and perpetrated by Girl Guides for added humiliation.  It was done to bully me and keep me in line, with the follow up threat of what would happened if I told anyone.

I still feel physically sick when I see Girl Guides/Scouts.  A man my age with a phobia about Girl Guides should be hilarious shouldn't it?

To be honest, being able to see some humour I'm told (through therapy) is an important factor in my mental health.  My sense of humour, although off the scale weird (and gets me into trouble), is part of how I cope with a lot of things.  Humour allows us to escape and laugh at times when really all we want to do is wail.  To be frank - the sexual abuse isn't comic though, but the phobia it’s set up, I can see the funny side to that.

The problem with sexual abuse is it’s a crime unlike any other.  When I had my car stolen in 2010, within hours everyone knew about it.  It took me 20 years to talk about this – and then only in private.  It’s a crime where the victim feels tarnished and responsible – and a lot of therapy around it goes to the heart of that.  And it doesn't just happen to women – as this very powerful piece showed me …

Witnessing someone getting killed

This was probably a much harder event for me to deal with – which ironically meant I got help that much quicker.  Although again, not soon enough.

This is the problem with many traumatic events – they smoulder away in your mind and cause long term harm to us emotionally.

The day after I finished exams for my first degree, I travelled over to my brothers to (so the plan went) have a massive bro’s weekend of drink and dumb stuff.  He met me at the train station, and in the evening, walked back to his place.

As we went by a pub there was a large fight going on.  A gang had punched a man to the floor.  We were stunned, and too far away to do anything but witness.  On orders from one of the gang, someone in a car revved the engine, driving the car over the prone man, snapping his head back in one of those horrific moments that plays in your mind repeatedly for the rest of your mind.

It felt for a moment that everything went silent – then all hell broke loose.  People were yelling, screaming, crying.  We just ran – we felt terrified, vulnerable, confused – and we just wanted to run to somewhere that felt safe.

I just remember trying to put the kettle on when we got in, but couldn't because I was shaking so much.  We tried to tell one of my brothers flat mates what had happened.  But though the guy was really very calm and sensitive, we just started to cry.  It was so senseless.

In the end – we just found ourselves calling up our parents because we just didn't know what to do.  They were 40 miles away, but came to fetch us.  We were just a gibbering mess.  We were no use to the Police – we’d only seen a fraction of what was going on, we could describe the victim but no-one else.

For myself it was a difficult thing to “get over”.  For years I wondered if I could have stopped it.  I hated the feeling of being complicit by just being a spectator.  I hated that my instinct was to run.  I hated that I just cried and cried.

It took me years, and indeed counselling to accept those things.  I had frequent flashbacks, which actually got stronger as the years got on.  Initially I wanted to just move away from cities and those kinds of problems.  Ironically I looked to moving to Germany to just get away, and that would lead me to meet Beate Zschaepe, who is currently undergoing trial for her involvement in a string of racially motivated murders.  The fact that I was so scarred by seeing someone killed, but later was attracted to someone who was involved in murder, is almost a trauma point in itself

In a really tragic footnote whilst writing this article, I heard that Ian Fisher, my brother's flatmate who had been such an eye of calm on that terrible night, had been killed in a suicide bombing this month whilst he served in the British Army in Afghanistan.

Trying for a baby

My wife and I have a son – he was a happy accident.  One day, we were carried away, and forgot our birth control.  It was no big issue though – we both wanted children, the timing wasn't superb, but we were happy to go with it.

Two years later we decided to put away the birth control again, because we were ready to have another child.  After all, if we’d conceived from forgetting contraception just once, how hard was it going to be?

A year later - twelve months of failure - we were wondering what was going wrong.  Every month was the same cycle of trying, hoping, and then disappointment.  Friends kept telling us to just keep trying and something would happen.

In the end we went to the doctor about it, and both had to be referred to specialists with long waiting lists.  This meant scans for my wife, and me making emergency dashes of sperm samples to far off pathology labs (between set hours they were open for business, as the samples died off quickly outside of the body).

It turned out of be a little bit of both of us.  I was suffering from immobile sperm, and my wife from irregular ovulation.  She was put on fertility drugs to increase the number of eggs she’d ovulate each month, and I was put on a strong course of steroids which I was told would reduce my immune system, as my antibodies were attacking my own sperm, killing them.

The steroids did do their magic making my sperm function much better from pathology tests.  But there were side effects – the drugs (and possibly situation, it’s impossible to tell one from another) made me incredibly irritable and emotional, as well as causing large weight gain.  It was equally emotional in its own way for my wife.  Then add to this that the act of intercourse went from being one of emotional engagement between us, to one of obligation.  Yes, trying for a baby was killing our sex life.

After just under a year, we had to come off our drugs regimes.  It had been soul destroying.  The only option open from here was costly IVF, which we had to be blunt and admit we didn't have the money for.

I would like to say that I’d found work supportive, but over that one year I'd had 10 changes in team lead.  Originally I laid my cards on the table about what was going on, but it became increasingly humiliating.

For the first time in my life, I consulted with my doctor and admitted I was in a huge emotional low.  I went onto some anti-depressives, which helped me cope a lot, but alas had a side effect of even more weight gain.

People ask me what being on anti-depressives is like.  Some people wonder if it “robs you of your soul”.  Before taking them, I was in a very irate and wound up state, partly from my situation, the steroids effect and the lack of support from work (except for some close friends).

Most types of anti-depressives take a while to work – typically up to a month to build up in your system.  And I was lucky in only needed on a relatively low dose.  I remember a conversation with my doctor asking how I felt and my reply was “well things still go wrong in life, and they can hurt, but I don’t feel like I fall to pieces anymore when it happens, like I can cope and weather them”.

Again, long term counselling helped reduce my dependence on the anti-depressives, which I was on for about 18 months before slowly cutting them out.

In each of these trials, counselling helped me to move on … I will be talking about that in my next piece.

Mental Health 101 – The ultimate taboo

Back when I was closing in on my 100th post, I put on Twitter a list of potential future topics for blog posts.  The one I was surprised to see the appetite for was on the subject of mental health.

You see, I was pitching that topic thinking “maybe it’s just me”.

Mental health is a difficult subject to do, and do well.  It is in many ways the ultimate taboo.  By admitting that in the past I have ever had any problem in this area, I potentially run the risk of a future employer coming over this piece and viewing hiring me “as a risk”.  But I really hope we’re coming out of the dark ages here when we talk about attitudes to mental health.

Over this series of articles, I will be frank about my own experiences, and will also discuss those of friends that I've worked with, or know outside of work through various channels.  For these people, I’ll be using their experiences but under assumed names.  The only person I break this for is for my friend Violet, who died, and who was such a crusader for mental health, I know this'd have her blessing.

Make no mistake, these posts that follow are going to be a dark and explicit because of the nature of what’s being explored.  It will probably unsettle some people – but I'm putting this together for those people who need to know “it’s not just me”.  I have had too many people within the IT industry who thought it was.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Is that requirement 100% tested yet?

There are a lot of "test management" tools out there.  When you are testing a complex project with a lot of tightly defined requirements, they can be really useful to keep track of the spaghetti shaped mess.  When a requirement changes, you can work out which tests will be affected, and watch the change ripple down, and work out what you'll need to change.

When I worked on the Harrier mission computer, not surprisingly its behaviour was well thought out, and there were two phone-book-sized requirement documents covering every piece of functional behaviour in intense detail.  Our test management tool was a must to keep track of it all.  Add to this we were a team of 16 testers as well, it helped to divide up the work.

But it came at a cost - to work like this with requirements, scripted testing, etc typically we needed 18 months between releases.  But the system was so complex, and none of us were pilots, that our only oracle for working out what was going on were the sub-system design requirements.

The problem is though that many projects I've encountered since do not tend to have the same rigid waterfall approach.  This is hardly surprising - there are some fields you expect to be quite rigidly controlled - flight, medical, nuclear power plant are all applications you'd expect strongly defined behaviour in.

The issue I have with test management tools is how some people in the profession will see how well they work for a project like the Harrier mission computer, and try and use them on other projects in a different context.  And there they can often find the results are variable.

Most test management tools cover the spectrum of requirement -> plan -> defect.  They only work well if you have a strong footprint in all these areas.  You have to have business analysts using it to amend and author requirements.  Otherwise your test team will have a lot of data entry to do.  And if this is happening but your requirements keep changing - guess who it is who has to keep updating them in your system?

They also only make sense if your requirements are suitably "test driven" to be testable, that is they're not "vague statements".

Here I'm going to thrash out a test tool driven approach to testing a requirement vs a Context Driven approach, and we'll see which stands up the best in terms of coverage.  This is to show how painful, and misleading use of a test management tool can become if you're using it badly or on an unsuitable project.

Test Tool Approach

This is our requirement - LOG010,

  • At the login screen when the user enters a username and password, they are taken to their account page.

Sadly our tester is non-too experienced, and so creates the following test, LogTest01, which they then link to the requirement,

When a manager comes along, and checks in their test management tool and sees this ...

According to the test management tool, that looks like the testing for the Log On page is perfect - it's hard to argue with 100%  So hard in fact that many people will find it hard to actually ask the tester "what does 100% here mean?".

Indeed, if pressed I have heard many a tester claim that "the tests are as good as the detail in the requirements provided", and if there's any problem with the testing performed, it's source problem is that there isn't enough clarity in the requirements.  It's "not a testing problem, but a requirement problem".

Context Driven Approach

For the Context Driven School of Testing this statement of it being "not a testing problem, but a requirement problem", is no get out clause.  As professionals we will do the best we can with what we're given, and we'll use our skills to work beyond when we can.

In aContext Driven mentality, a software product is evaluated by "oracles" or "expectations of how the software should behave".  The most obvious one of these is requirements.  But other types of oracle can simply be "when I use a similar product it would behave like this".

Logging into a site is something we do every day, so unlike that tester, we should take what's in requirement LOG010, and work from and beyond it.  Yes, like in script LogTest01, we should have a test that,

  • When I log in with the correct username and password, I am taken to the account page.

However from use of similar websites, and implied (but not directly said) in that requirement are the following tests,

  • When I log in with an incorrect username and password, I am not logged in.
  • When I log in with a correct username but incorrect password, I am not logged in.
  • For security it might be best if the system not tell me if I've given a correct username but incorrect username.
  • If I try to log in with an incorrect password too many times, I would expect for security to be locked out of the account, even if I give the correct password.
  • I expect if locked out to be locked out for either a period of time, or until I contact some form of helpdesk.
  • I expect the use of upper/lower case not to be important when entering my username
  • I expect the use of upper/lower case to be important when entering my password
  • I expect my password to be obscured by asterisks
I ran this by one of my test team, and true to form, they also came out with,
  • Should I be able to copy to/from the password field?
  • The username/password is kept in the database, are there any wildcard characters in either field such as *, ', ", /n etc which will cause an issue when used as a username or password because of the way the code will interpret them?

Using the test tool driven model, we easily get 100% test coverage in a single test (or I would rather say "the illusion of 100%).  But with a Context Driven approach, we powerfully cover off a lot more behaviour in about 11 tests - but the Context Driven approach doesn't offer up percentages, it's more focused on a dialogue between the tester and manager to discuss what's been done.  The coverage certainly isn't 11 x 100%

The Context Driven approach certainly covers a lot more ground.  I know I'm probably being unfair to people who use test management tools - most testers I know would have added an "incorrect login" test as well (so maybe 2-3 tests).  But the truth is, the test management tool which is supposed to "make testing easy and visible" actually can often fog it up using a smokescreen of numbers, they particularly fail when you can't break requirements into "discreet testable statements".  It also subtly decides your testing strategy - because testers feel driven to provide enough tests to "make it 100% coverage".  It's possible to fix this by spending time breaking apart requirements into smaller test requirements - but this involves a lot of initial outlay that only pays off if the requirements aren't likely to change.

The Context Driven approach embraces the fact that it's often extremely difficult to achieve such perfection in requirements (unless perhaps you are in avionics and are biting the bullet of "this is going to take a lot of time").  More than anything it wants to challenge complacency (esp when you see the green 100% sign), and get testers focused on running as many tests as possible, over making assumptions.  Though perhaps trying to run the most compelling of tests first.

It's certainly something to think about - when you're feeling a bit complacent, and "well I've tested everything here", try and take a step back, ignore the numbers and requirements, and go with a gut feel.  Is there another test, coverage be damned, that you'd like to try?  You might be surprised.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The "Four Candles" guide to customer dialogue

When I was talking this week with another tester about how comedy can be an aid in learning, I immediately thought to the sketch below.  It was voted one of the funniest sketches of all time in a British poll, but I don't believe it's travelled well outside the country.

So I bring to you, The Two Ronnies in Four Candles ...

It's a great piece of comedy, but what has this got to do with building software?  A lot more than you would believe.

At it's heart, Four Candles is a comedy about miscommunication.  There are two perspectives to this sketch, either it's about a customer who comes into a hardware shop with a list of things that he clearly want, and finds himself increasingly bemused by a somewhat surely and agitated shopkeeper.  Or it's about a shopkeeper who finds himself frustrated by a customer who seems to be trying to be deliberately difficult, and evading any attempt to be specific.

Both points of view have some justification.

Of course within the world of software, this is where we have some empathy to this scenario.  How often have we either been supplying software to a customer, or else sending work outside of our organisation.  There is always a spectre of "how much information to supply", and no matter how much information you give or get, there is a potential for misinterpretation.  Which means software delivered which doesn't match someone's expectations of it.

This was one reason (in the early 2000s) I was pretty sure that outsourced work and distributed teams just could not work.  When everyone was located in a single office block (as my projects at the time were) when requirements were delivered in phone book sized monuments - even then I'd seen the potential for communication to fail, and what was being delivered to be less than ideal.

In our software delivery groups, we probably have more empathy with the shopkeeper than with the customer in the scenario above.  He's doing his best to deal with his customer, but he feels the customer isn't really helping him.

After being caught out over the "four candles" really being a request for "fork handles", the shopkeeper realises he'll need to ask for more information.  So when asked about "plugs", he asks for more information "what kind?", and is told "rubber, bathroom".  So he finds his box of sink plugs and asks for a size to be told he needs to supply a "13 amp" one ... that is an electrical one.

It goes on this way (hilariously), and the shopkeeper tries various tactics to try and get more information out of his customer, and thus evade a lot of needless effort (such as going up a stepladder to get a box for the wrong thing).

In the end, the shopkeeper tries to break the cycle, by asking for the list, because as it is, this is just not working, and he's becoming increasingly frustrated.  Reading through the list, he sees something, and decides at this point that it's time to walk away, and gets someone else to deal with his customer.  It turns out the item that caused the shopkeeper to decide to break the cycle was a request for "bill hooks" (bollocks - a UK swearword).

Getting out of customers what they really want is a tricky business.  But it's important though, you want happy customers, because generally happy customers equals successful business.  But also you want to save yourself wasted time when you can.  We've all been the shopkeeper who feels frustrated going back to get the box of letters from the top shelf for the "Ps".  And the customer trying to give clarification by just "repeating their ambiguous original request" doesn't help.

Like the shopkeeper we should try different tactics (clarification, getting the list from the customer etc) to try and break through the frustration.  But if we can't break through and make progress, as frustrating as it is, we have to be prepared to walk away and let someone else try.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

WEB103: In for the hunt ...

I've recently been going through the subject of browser comparability testing with one of my team, and this series have been some of the notes from these sessions.  The great thing about such coaching is it forces myself to take a good long look at the "whys" of things around this area, and learn something new myself!

So far we've taken a quick look at the history of web pages and how to get environments to actually test on.  Now comes the challenging part - what are we going to do?

Taking a pure black box approach, if we have 11 browser types and versions we need to test comparability on, then that means we have to run the same testing we've got planned 11 times, once on each browser, yes?  This is where such an approach becomes messy - testing is always under-the-gun, and such approaches just aren't going to work.  To have a valid strategy we need to think about how websites work (at a very basic level), the kind of issues we'd expect with browser incompatibility and go to where the risk is.

Web Basics

What follows is a really basic, "just enough" description of a web site, and how it works.

So, when you look at a page, your browser is provided information from a web server to create a page.  This information is in the form of html, which essentially forms of "downloadable program" of content for your browser.

What exists on your browser is completely independent of the web server at this point.  In fact, right now, disconnect your PC cable, or turn off your wi-fi.  You'll find that this web page just does not simply "vanish" if you do.  It exists on your machine, in it's browser, and won't disappear until you try and do something.

To get a good browser testing strategy, it helps to know what functionality is to do with what's on your browser, and what functionality exists on the part of the web server (and it's back end).  And that can be actually harder than you'd think.  As a user, most of our web experience is seamless between the two (black box).

But to be effective in browser testing, we need to be testing those features which are associated with the web pages rendering in the browser.  But the features which are driven from the web server and the back end we're less likely to need to test so frequently (the back end is the same back end, no matter the browser used).

Example - the good old login screen

I'm going to refer to Twitter functionality a lot here, as it's something you can take a look at and investigate with ease.  Let's consider the login page,

Here are some typical test scenarios you might explore

  • "Happy Day" - there's a Username field, a Password field, and a Sign in button.  When you enter the right username and password, you're logged in.
  • If you enter the right email and password, you're logged in.
  • If you enter the right email but the incorrect password, you're not logged in
  • If you enter the right username but the incorrect password, you're not logged in
  • If you enter the wrong username or password but the correct password, you're not logged in
  • If you enter the wrong password for an account 3 times, your account might be locked
  • If you enter the wrong password for an account 2 times, followed by the right you, you're logged in.  If you log out, enter the wrong password again, followed by the right one, you are logged in, and your account is not locked.

Usually in a system that "logs you in", the functionality that decides from the account and password detail you've provided if you will either be logged in, not logged in, or your account locked all lives in the "web server" side of the system equation (ie, not in the browser part).

So for each browser you'd probably want to see the "Happy Day" path - looking at the page, and the basic flow through.  There is also a case you might want to see the "incorrect login" and "account locked" messages at least once.

But all the validation rules listed above you expect to reside server-side.  Which means you probably need to run them at least once if you can, but not for every browser - this might be a good assumption to make, write down and "make visible" to see if someone technical architect-y disagrees.  This doesn't mean it might not be worth running these tests again in different browsers anyway if you have time, but it means it looks to be "low risk" for browser issues.

So what kind of issues should you be expecting?

Back in WEB101, I talked about an web application I originally wrote which didn't cope well in IE.

In Netscape, it looked like this,

But in IE, all the labels got stuck in a corner, like this,

In web testing, we expect that there will be something in the html that the browser won't handle well, and hence interpret badly.

So for example - in the Twitter login example, we might be missing the fields for our username, password or the sign in button.  Those kind of details are cosmetic defects yes?  Oh .... except if these things are missing or hidden, we can't supply our username, password and select to login (you can see how it makes an issue a lot more functional).  It makes our whole system unusable on the browsers.

The kind of issues we'd expect could go wrong with a browser, are roughly,

  • missing/hidden fields and buttons - high impact
  • script code for items such as drop down menus might not work - high impact
  • buttons out of alignment / text out of alignment - low impact

What behaviour is browser side?

We took an educated guess with the login example that everything about validation was web side.

I find the following rules of thumb useful for investigating which behaviours which are browser side.  First of all, as mentioned above, everything you see on a page, has the potential to be browser specific (so use your eyeballs).

But secondly, for behaviour and functionality, try this - unplug your machine from the internet (physically or by turning off the wi-fi).  Anything you can do on that page that doesn't end in an error like below, indicates functionality which is browser side over web server side,

Lets take a look at signing up for a Twitter account ...

I opened the page, then turned off my wi-fi.  Let's work through a few of these fields ...

Full name - we can enter anything, and it validates if it looks like a real name - all browser side functinality.

Email address - we can enter any text we like, so that's browser side.  But it goes into a circular loop trying to validate the email address (I suspect to see if it's been used) - so that behaviour is in the web server.

Create a password - we can enter text, and it coaches over whether it thinks the password is long enough or secure.  All this seems browser based.

Choose your username - as with email, you can enter information, but it gets hung up validating.  I think this again checks for uniqueness, and the validation is at the web server end.

Experimenting in this manner allows you to made educated guesses at the kind of behaviour on a page that's browser based, and hence worth revisiting for different browsers when time allows.  This gives you an educated guess at the areas of greatest risk in terms of browser compatibility.  It's not infallible, but it gives you a decent rule of thumb to have conversations about what you think needs retesting a lot, and what needs less retesting with the rest of the team.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Opinion: Keith Klain and the ISTQB petition

For a while now, Keith Klain has asked me to sign his petition to the ISTQB.

His petition asks of the ISTQB, the following,

As a public service to the people who have taken the ISTQB Foundation level exam, I wish to add my name to those appealing to their board of directors for answers to the following questions: 

1) Have there ever been issues with the ISTQB Foundation exam reliability coefficient reviewed by your exam consultants Kryterion? 

2) Have the reliability co-efficients consistently shown, since the inception of the ISTQB's certification program, that results on the certification exams accurately measure the testers' knowledge of the syllabi? 

3) Have there ever been any other issues with the validity of the exams? 

4) How often do those external reviews take place? 

5) Are the results of Kryterion's (or a third party's) independent evaluations publicly available?

I have found the question of whether or not to sign this petition has split me like no other issue of late.  People who know me well also know that I have a bit of a radical past - signing petitions and even protesting are things I've a history of.  At University I petition, marched, sat in, occupied.  I would like to think I still have that level of passion even in middle age.

My dilemma though is that although I'm not a huge fan of the ISTQB, I'm not going to just sign anything that's "anti-ISTQB".  My personal issues with the ISTQB, their syllabus and how they measure "good enough" are specific points.

I strongly believe that an organisation like the ISTQB which claims to be non-profit and which also claims to be championing the testing profession should be accountable to queries from the testing community.  It's like asking a famine aid charity "how much of every dollar I give actually make it into food for Africa".  You should have a right to a certain level of transparency.

However my issue was with the questions themselves.  I know the areas I find myself not really seeing eye-to-eye with the ISTQB, and these questions didn't seem to cover that ground at all.  Truth is I didn't really understand what the questions were driving at.  I couldn't sign up to a petition "just because it was anti-ISTQB", and neither do I believe should you.

When at University I petitioned or marched or occupied, I knew why the principles being put down mattered (okay, occasionally it was to impress a girl ...).  If I can't explain and champion the principles on a petition, I really can't sign it, and that's why I didn't.  As someone who is sympathetic to the Context Driven School of Testing, I'm not going to sign a petition just to "flip the bird to the system", and neither am I going to do that because of peer pressure.

So thankfully this week, I managed via Twitter to really discuss why this petition was so important to Keith, and ultimately, to me and every tester on the planet.  It wasn't just about the questions in the petition, it was about the context of the questions, something you might miss from the questionnaire itself, but is more clear here in Keith's open letter to the ISQTB.

The root cause of the petition comes from Keith (who is a Context Driven Tester) discussing ISTQB exams with Rex Black, who is a member of the board, and past president of ISTQB.  Oh and he just happens to provide a lot of training courses on the many levels of ISTQB (which some might say is a vested interest - much like for example making the Chairman of BP the Secretary of State for the Environment).

Rex's comment around the ISTQB exams was that for the American board, the exams have professional exam consultants work with them, and the exams "though not perfect" were "constantly perfected" (whatever that means - but wouldn't elaborate).  He claimed that he could not comment beyond that due to non-disclosure agreements (which some might say is convenient).  He has declined further comment, saying pretty much that that is all we need to know.

Keith sees Rex's comments as a smokescreen - they don't really give much information or satisfactory answer.  And remember this is from a board which champions overly detailed measurement and metrics as the way to do any task.

Keith's petition therefore is about "digging for truth".  Rex is telling us that the exams are independently analysed, but that data is only shared secretly within the board.  But they can tell us on behalf of this independent group how great they are.  This reminds me of the kind of science and statistical analysis you see used to misrepresent and mislead in TV ads, especially (shudder) infomercials.

This is not how you see scientists behave in New Scientist, or at conference.  Galileo, Newton, Einstein showed their proofs and data to the world, and risked  ridicule and backlash.  They do not go "we have amazing data to prove this, which we can't tell you, but you have to just take our word on how awesome we are".

Discussing this with Keith, he convinced me how this was important to have this data, and the questions are about being able to peek into this (without infringing anyone's confidentiality).  The whole case of the ISTQB validity from Rex Black (who is a high up person in the ISTQB scheme of things), rests on these exams being independently validated and (in his roundabout way of razzle-dazzle) as perfect as a multi-choice exam can get.

But people who aren't in the inner circle aren't allowed to know details, they just have to have faith.  This reeks of the kind of leadership you get in a cult.  And this is why it's in everyone's interest - both CDT testers and testers who stand by ISTQB to sign this petition.  Not to have a go at ISTQB, but to support the level of transparency that an organisation like this needs to champion with the community it claims to represent.

Based on this, I had found my voice on this issue, and found myself agreeing with Keith's stance, signing his petition - but typical me, I added a mini essay,

The choice to sign this petition is an individual one - but needs to be made for the right reasons.  I'm not going to tell you to sign it - just to think about the issues at play here - and to give you my opinion.  If you think I've got it wrong ... that's what the comments box is for!

Discussion and disagreement isn't wrong - in fact me and Keith had to disagree and question for a whole while before we saw eye-to-eye.  We're not drones, and we shouldn't be expected to act as such.  That means not bowing down to Rex Black telling you "what you need to know, for your own good" or Keith telling you "sign my petition".  Your opinion counts - whether towards Keith or to Rex, make it count.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

WEB102: Let loose the browsers!!!

So you're aware some cross-browser testing is required, and marketing have come back to you with an extensive list ... they'd like you to test,

  • IE 11 (when available), 10, 9, 8, 7
  • Chrome the last three versions
  • Firefox the last two versions
  • Safari just the latest version
  • Opera just the latest version

Cool - let testing commence!  Only ... it's not that simple.  There are some tools out there which will let you compare different versions of the same browser, and whilst better than nothing, they don't give you a full feel.

The most obvious issue is generally a computer has just a single version of a browser on your machine.  If you upgrade IE 10 to 11, it removes your version of IE 10!

Likewise things get complicated because IE 7 (for instance) doesn't easily install on a Windows 8 machine, and needs a lot of trickery to get working.  Likewise running IE 11 on an XP machine is never going to happen.  For all these things, the situation created by hacking the system to make it work is likely going to invalidate and erode some of your assumptions for your test.

It's not surprising then in such an environment, the idea of doing browser testing by installing different versions of browser then stripping them off your machine is non-too-popular.

What has taken off to aid browser compatibility are virtual machines.  A virtual machine allows you to emulate another (obviously less powerful) computer within your own.  It's run from a file which sets up everything about the machine, and means you can use your Windows 8 machine, but pretend to be a Windows 7, XP or (shudder) Vista machine.  It's also heaps cheaper (but not as much fun) as having a whole suite of reference machines of different build.  But then again, you can have dozens of them set up differently, running on one machine (though not concurrently obviously ... as "performance may vary").  If you have Apple hardware, you can pretend to be a Windows machine (but alas not the other way around).

Each virtual machine is a file which can be shared amongst testers (providing they have similar machines), and each one can be set up with the appropriate platform and browsers you want to test on.

This means once your suite is set up, all you need to do is run up the machine you want - no continuous install/uninstall.  You just keep and share a library of the machines, and boot up the one you need.  No needing multiple machines.  Another tester I was talking to told me with virtual machines, as long as you keep backups, you can try out crazy things and almost trash the machines trying different things (including editing registry settings), because you can just return to the original (unmodified) backup so easily if you really get into trouble.  It means you can test not just on different browsers, but represent different platforms as well.

Some of the most popular virtual machine tools at the moment belong to VMWare.  Check them out.

Obviously virtual machines aren't easy to set up, and need some tech buy in and support.  However they're an increasingly popular method of having different browsers and machines "to hand" when testing.

WEB101: Browsers - how in the Wild Wacky World did we get here?

Once upon a time, on the internet ...

It was 1991, and I was having a one-to-one tutorial with my cosmology lecturer, Professor Fred Combley, regarding a presentation on the Big Bang I was due to do in a few days.  Behind him was a VAX terminal that he'd left on, and I could just about make out the word CERN on the screen from where I sat.

If you had asked me back then what on that screen would revolutionise the world, I would have guessed it was some results from a collision experiment that would change our understanding of the Universe.  And I'd be wrong.

What was revolutionary what how the text had got onto the screen.  Professor Combley was one of a team of nuclear physicists which included Doctor Susan Cartwright (my other tutor who I'm still in contact with) from the University of Sheffield.  They were part of a huge network of physicists working on the Large Electron-Positron Collider in Geneva.  However being so geographically spaced, they needed something to help them to communicate and share information easier.

Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist and physicist who was working for CERN thought he had a solution.  It was to provide a series of interlinked hypertext documents defined in a language called HTML1.0.  These pages could be accessed via the internet using a program called a browser, which would render them onscreen.  In his quest to make sharing information easier, he invented the very medium you're reading this on, the world wide web.

The world wide web takes off ...

The usefulness of the world wide web soon became apparent, even outside of the world of physics.  It was a phenomenon which soon snowballed over the next 20 plus years as more and more people got involved on the world wide web.

As the world wide web took off, there were two factors which really complicated the life of the modern day tester ...

Factor 1: Everyone started to make browsers.

Originally it was Netscape, who built one the first browsers for UNIX machines.  They were soon followed Opera, then Internet Explorer ... more and more followed.

Mixed in with this, the different browsers treated HTML slightly differently.  In 2000 I worked on a naval intranet project where a page was designed to read a table of the days events, and show these events as items on a 24-hour clock.  The page looked beautiful in Netscape, but in Internet Explorer, which interpreted the screen co-ordinates differently for the events, it was ugly and messy.  We had to put conditional logic into the page to work out which browser it was one, and treat the two browsers completely differently.

Many companies decided that rather than keep up, their customers could only use Internet Explorer (IE) for their website, this didn't seem too much to ask when most people were on a Windows variant, and 90% of people used IE anyway.  But times have changed.  People have Apple and Linux machines now, and have drifted away from IE in increasing numbers.  And many potential customers have machines dating back a bit which don't even support the latest version of IE.

Upgrading the Windows license for your company is a big investment - many companies have so much software that works on a particular platform, that migrating is a major undertaking.  Back in 2009, I was consulting at a company where our machines were still running NT - and was asked if I could test on Google Chrome (it's uninstallable on NT, in case you wondered).

Factor 2: It was just too darn successful

Take a look at the first web page ever published ...

Today, it's barely recognisable as a web page.  Now take a look at a couple of more modern examples ...

When Tim Berners-Lee imagined the World Wide Web almost 25 years ago, modems worked at what we think of as dial-up speeds.  He couldn't imagine being able to stream a video at dial up speed.

As the web became more popular, people pushed the definition of a web page, and it evolved.  They started to include pictures, then audio and video as internet speeds increased.  From being a single page of information, they started to be broken down into panels as peoples monitors got bigger.

As this happened, HTML, the language which made browsers possible, evolved - it's now on version 5.  Java the programming language came about in 1995, and people started to embed some programming into the browser layer in Java, Perl and a variety of other scripting languages.

With what we're doing on browsers changing, naturally the browsers themselves are changing to evolve to this demand.  Hence can the website you're developing today still be effectively rendered by a browser that's a version or two behind?

And this is the dilemma for the modern business - do you want to only reach potential customers with the latest/recent browsers?  That's not a tester decision to make, it's not even a developer one.  It's one that marketing people need to provide guidance for.

Fortunately help is at hand ... there are lists out there that help making the decision.  This map here helps show the most popular browsers (but not by version) ...

Most websites, if you already have one, can monitor the traffic they receive.  This covers the page views I got this month by browser ...

And by Operating System ...

Most companies don't choose to service everyone, but to make sure they're covering their core users.

From those stats above, I can see for instance, there's a good case for checking my page content and how it looks on IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera.  That would cover about 94% of my audience with 5 browsers.

To my shame, I have to admit I've never checked it on Opera!  Ooops.