Saturday, March 28, 2015

Mental Health 109 - The long grief. Five years on ...

Today was an emotional day.  It's Violet's 40th birthday - but those who've read for a while will know my good friend Violet died 5 years ago.  I've written a lot about my early grief when she died, but with a lot of people around me going through their own journey, I want to move the story forward into the present day a little.

Violet's death at 35 is probably the hardest bombshell I've ever had to deal with.  It was death of someone I loved so very much at an age which to be honest was unfair.

That first week, it was like there was this extreme emotion trapped within me - it felt too big to be kept inside, and like I'd burst at the seems from it.  And yet I remember being so much more angry than sad.  So very angry.

Although no-one was to blame, it just felt she died too soon, and it wasn't fair or right or just.

Not being able to attend the funeral made things that much harder.  I held a brief ceremony myself, but it was difficult.  I didn't have many mutual friends, but I was really lucky to have a lady named Jenny Day who I could talk about her so much with.  And I did talk a lot.  But in a lot of ways I felt like I was going through this myself.

But most of all the grief lingered.  Every night, just going to sleep was a struggle, because your mind always drifted to her.  It felt like all the joy had been sucked out from life.

It was the common bonds of our friendship which were harder to go on alone.  I deleted all my Regina Spektor from my MP3 players, and I stopped watching Doctor Who.  Because these were things I'd shared with her, and now they just brought me such inconsolable pain.

Over Christmas, my son and I listened to the autobiography of Donald Malarkey, one of the famous Easy Company Parachutists.  The thing I most identified with was his tale of grief over losing his best friend, Skip Monk, and how that grief followed him around, never really leaving.

Looking back 5 years on, I'm often surprised how the grief is still there.  It's still very powerful and emotional, and yet it's a gentler grief.  Like feelings of melancholy over anguish.  I'm not a great believer in the afterlife or ghosts, but often it feels like she's just next to me, only slightly out of sight and out of reach.

They say "as long as you remember them, they're not really dead" - but I hate that cliche, although at the same time seeing some truth in it.  If you live your life like Violet lived, you are someone who is nurturing of others, someone who is passionate and makes a difference.  Though Violet has been long gone now, those changes in me that her love and her friendship brought about remain.  That's probably why she always feels so very close, especially when I'm most alone, because I do carry the best bit of her within my heart.

In on odd way, the hardest part of dealing with it is moving on.  You love your departed friend, but you don't want to turn your life into a devotion to her memory that you forget that you're still alive.  When you've lost such a close friend, you're afraid of making new friends, in part because you're worried you're just looking to replace them.  But also, because having lost one friend, you sometimes want to just withdraw into isolation so you never feel that pain again.

Life has been good though, and in my own way I've managed to move on - somehow I've picked up new friends, including best friends which fill some of the hole she left behind.  I still have grief - maybe I'll always have it, but somehow it's a less scary grief - one which seems to be capable of having great beauty concurrently with a gentle sadness.  And I think there will always be a place in my heart for the girl who will always be 35, and where she left her mark ...

She loved the watercolours of John William Waterhouse, and somehow in the haunting story of The Lady Of Shallot, there is something which powerfully resonates with the tale of my Violet.

Friday, March 27, 2015

How I learned to stop worrying, and embrace public speaking ...

When I was at school, public speaking in any form terrified me - and some people find that hard to believe now.

As part of a project, I've recorded a discussion into speaking (well doing is often more effective than just saying), do enjoy, and do let me have feedback if you enjoyed it!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Writing a kick-ass defect!

I was asked by a graduate tester about just what should go into a good defect report.  It's a really good question, and to my surprise, something I've never written about, although in a way whether we give defect reports in a written form, or a verbal form, thinking about the information you provide when reporting a defect part of the key role of a tester.  After all, if we're not able to tell someone else, that bug isn't going to go away any time soon!

Obviously, different project will have different defect templates.  However you're bound in your career to find places where you'll find none at all, so thinking about what you need to provide is a valuable skill.

I've written many defect reports, but I've also been a developer who's fixed them.  So I know what's helpful, and what's not.  Something I really encourage new testers to read is a humorous meme of supposed log book communications between pilots and ground crew.  The pilot is vague about the issues, so the ground crew are vague about their resolution back.  Don't let this happen to you!

As with most things - writing a great defect answers some very generic questions of What-How-Why-Where-When!

So let's start the ball rolling - you're using your companies new trial piece of software, and something just doesn't seem right about it.  Let's start defining it ...


In a nutshell, what is the problem?  This should be a real brief summary of what the problem is.

I like to think of it in terms of elevator pitches.  Imagine you've just got into the ground floor elevator with your project manager.  You get off at the 3rd floor, she gets off at the 4th.  And she asks you "hey, I heard you found a defect this morning?".

You have 3 floors, and about 20 seconds to summarise what you've encountered.  This is a real skill in summarising what you've found to a one sentence tag.  But believe me, defects like episodes of Friends are remembered as "the one with the...".

If you have a super and concise "what the problem is" summary, it probably belongs as your title.  That way, anyone reading through your defect system will go "ah".

Hint - when you go to talk to a developer about a defect you've logged, it's best not to quote just the number.  very few people remember bug 666.  That "the one where ..." summary will be the best way you have to job their memory!


Okay - you've summarised the problem.  But how did you cause it to happen?

The how is a way of "repeating your steps".  Ideally with a defect, you'll be able to repeat a series of steps, and repeat the unusual behaviour.

Repeatability of a defect is great.  But sometimes you just can't repeat the behaviour.  What then?  Well that's when you have to use your judgement - often depending on how much of an issue you think it was.  It's always worth talking through with a developer.

This is one of the reasons I like to use a screen recorder when I can, because it records exactly what I did and where the issues happened.  It is alright though to have defects that can't be repeated, but it's best to put on it "I'm not able to repeat".

Oh - and they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so never underestimate the power of a screenshot!


Why is this a problem?  For you to be raising this as an issue you must find there's something you don't like about what you've seen.

Sometimes it's very black and white, "the requirement says the page should display your account details, and instead it displays nothing".  Likewise, if you encountered a blue screen of death, you can be pretty sure that's not "as per design".

But sometimes you might raise a defect because there is something going on which doesn't feel right.  It bugs you (another word we use for defect).

Your description of why will lead you to another description of a defect which is important - it's severity.  Typically in projects there are more defects and oddities than time to fix.  So people tend to focus on the things which are causing the most pain.

Severity is how severe a problem something is.  If you're causing your machine to blue screen regularly, that's pretty severe, and going to impact what you can test.  If you have a spelling mistake, that's less of a problem, and certainly not going to impact your testing too much.  However as it doesn't take much of a spelling mistake to make a swear word (as the test manager who emailed me with a mispelled request for "defect counts" found out).  And although it's true to say we testers live to report these kind of defects, they can actually have a functional impact - if you have a system which generates an automated email which includes a swear word, it's likely some e-mail filters are going to put it in the junk pile!

Generally though - although there are grids and standards for defect severity, I've found you just tend to pick this up through experience.  In truth, if you get everything else right about your defect and leave the severity blank, most people can choose appropriately from the information you've provided.  But experience helps you to find tune this.

Where and When

When it comes to retracing your steps where it happened and when it happened helps.

Where - well just that.  You might have a couple of test environments, so it helps to know that.  If you're on a web application, the kind of browser (and version) usually helps.  And indeed the machine.  All this information goes double for mobile devices of course!

When can be handy too - sometimes it's known for someone to be doing a release to an environment, and forget to tell testing.  Shocking huh - but it does happen.  Or indeed it allows a developer to look through the logs around about that time to see if anything peculiar was going on in the logs.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Battle Of The Winshill Rec: And how it affects you as a tester ...

There are many shades of bullying - some so subtle, half the trap is that we don't even recognise or name it as such.

But at Abbott Beyne School, there was nothing subtle about the bullying I encountered as a young teen.  There was a gang who held Winshill in a grip of fear.  When they decided to pick on someone, they'd form a circle around them, and start to beat them up.  You were never attacked by the person in front of you - it was always a punch, a kick or a knee from behind.

Everyone was afraid of the Hawfield gang - but there was something they did to people that was far worse, and stripped them of even more.  They'd walk up to a group, but often just pick on one.   If you weren't the one being picked on, you'd just stand there and do nothing.  Too terrified to intervene even on the behalf of your friend or your brother.  Whether you were being kicked, or just watching, you felt robbed of your self-respect.  Powerless.

And then one day, someone decided they'd had enough.  It was a summer holiday, and everyone knew the gang spent most of the day at the Winshill Recreational Park "the Rec" holding court.  In those pre-cell phone days of the 1980s, the word spread like wildfire - if you'd ever been wronged by the Hawfield gang, be at the Rec at 3pm.

So there we were - me and my brother.  We'd both been caught the wrong side of this gang.  We had no idea if we'd be the only ones.  There were some nerves.  And then we arrived ... and we were far from alone.  In fact it turns out there were crowds at every entrance to the park.  It felt like the battle in Gladiator.

This gang had attacked me and my brother and countless others.  It was an age pre-bullying awareness.  And they'd made us feel weak, like no one cared, like we didn't matter.  Standing in that crowd is one of my brother's favourite memories of childhood.  Standing in that crowd we learned that contrary to what the Hawfield gang had tried to drum into us - we weren't alone, we weren't weak, we did matter.  It was a euphoric moment of clarity.

It was their turn to run - although they didn't get far.  I don't remember actually kicking anyone when they were down ... but I'm pretty sure I helped carry and dump them in the nearby stream.

It was a watershed moment - the gang was broken after that.  Some individual bullying did still go on, but the terror was gone.  And we'd done it ourselves.

There are of course some pretty terrible lessons you can take from this.  Perhaps that the answer to all societies ills is just to form a bigger gang and return to others what you've been dealt with?  Ironically that's just how some gangs start out ...

This weekend we had our companies first Test Camp - it was an amazing experience as testers from several cities within our company managed to share our experiences, network, discuss.  We gave feedback at the end of it, and one comment really blew me away "I no longer feel alone".

That comment took me back to the Battle Of The Winshill Rec.  We may be out of school, but there's a lot of that experience which we're still living out.

  • Peer pressure - hey all your fellow testers are doing scripting and metrics.  You don't want to be the odd one out do you?
  • Intimidation - let's face it, we're having schemes like ISTQB and ISO 29119 imposed on us.  We're called unprofessional if we oppose them.

If you have never read David Greenlees experience you need to.  This was where someone "representing ISTQB" wrote to his CEO over his public objections to the scheme, in an attempt to wreck his career.  Yes, that's the kind of bullying which can go on about having an opinion in testing.  Fortunately David seems to have a CEO who recognised this as the nonsense it was. 

The tyranny within testing is that there are forces and interests which seem to impose schemes and actions.  Some are well meaning but misguided, and others simply that certain parties have "an agenda".

The solution, much like the Battle Of Winshill Rec is that as testers we need to mobilise.  That means YOU, the person reading this post becoming more active in the testing community.  Consider it a challenge.

Back in the September issue of Testing Circus, to celebrate four years of the magazine, I talked about how helpful it had been in my first steps in writing.  But beyond that I laid the gauntlet for others to consider picking up their pen.  Consider writing something for a magazine.  Get active on Twitter.  Find allies online and in real life with whom you can have meaningful conversations about testing.  Sometimes you might not agree - but that's okay!  Try to find common ground where you can, but explore your differences.  That's how you learn!

Maybe after David Greenlees experience, that would be enough to make you really fearful?  However I will tell you that most companies love to have testers who are passionate about what they do - so long as they are professional, and do not talk openly about customers or those they work with.  I myself always try and anonymise events and data.  Push comes to shove - you can always use a handle/fake name.  Indeed it was because I was originally unsure of my companies reaction to my blogging, that I used the handle of TestSheepNZ over "Mike Talks, Tester For Hire".  But when my company found out - they loved the fact!

That's the way we face our own Battle Of Winshill Rec, and realise we as a community of professionals are not insignificant, have a voice and are a lot more empowered than we might be led to believe.

[But please - no flushing the head of your ISTQB tutor down the toilet ... however tempting]

Friday, March 13, 2015

Death comes for Pratchett

It's with absolute sadness I've just read this morning of the death of Terry Pratchett.

I was introduced to his writing through my brother.  That in itself was a minor miracle, as my brother wasn't really a big reader.  And yet he devoured Terry's books with an eager hunger.

To those who are unfamiliar with his work, it must seem a little odd.  Terry wrote mainly about fantasy - most are set on his Discworld, a flat world which is carried through space on the back of a giant turtle (although some people occasionally believe it to the spherical).

Certainly if you read the books in order, the first few feel more like your standard fantasy romp - with wizards and barbarian warriors.  But the more he wrote, but sharper his satire got, and the more the Discworld seemed to mirror our own culture in subtle ways.

An example of this is the Ankh-Morpork Fire Service which is mentioned several times.  Together with a warning about what happens when you pay people a rate according to the number of fires they put out.  With a reward system based upon "the more that burns, the more you earns", the Fire Service is said to have become filled with arsonists.

Another favourite is the "democracy" of Ankh Morpork which is "one man, one vote".  The dictator known as the Patrician alone is "the man" and he gets the only vote.

Key themes in his book have included

  • Cross cultural integration - many stories are told in the metropolis of Ankh Morpork, where humans are trying to live in relative harmony with dwarves and trolls.  Hint - it's considered suicide to talk into a dwarf bar and ask for a short.
  • Mob thinking - much like our world, people seem ready to follow like sheep pretty much anyone.  Especially if they have a glittering sword.  They're convinced that if a King returns, they'll make everything right.  Here "everything right" extends from sorting out the post office to stopping their husband snoring, according to who you ask.
  • Technology/magic gone amok - although a magical world, there is a certain logic to the Discworld.  As the books have progressed, they've introduced technology such as the Clacks.  Which is a kind of mobile phone technology using semaphore (people stand on street corners with a couple of paddles to send messages).  Often this has an impact on the world, in unexpected ways.

To me then, his writing has really encouraged a level of critical thinking about the world.  Much like the I, Robot series of Isaac Asimov - where there are 3 laws or robotics which can both remain true, but according to context bring out some weird behaviour in robots - I think some of his books are a must read for any tester just to challenge them, and to expand their minds.  Indeed, I have a new graduate on my team who is an avid fan, and not surprisingly they're shaping up to have the makings of a great tester.

Beyond just his writing though - I met him almost 21 years ago at a book signing in Birmingham with my brother.  It was actually quite quiet, and so we got to chat a bit with him.  I always fear meeting people I admire, because you're worried that in person they won't measure up.  But in fact in person he seemed wittier and had more charm about him than I'd imagined.

When he was diagnosed with Alzheimers in 2007 it just seemed too cruel.  He was such a sharp mind, and to know he faced losing that vital trait seemed doubly sad.  Having watched Alzheimers "dissolve" the personality of my beloved grandmother, it's a condition I would not wish on anyone or their family.  And yet, he used his remaining years to really champion about the condition, and talk about it in a series of documentaries as a taboo we'd rather not think about until it happens to us or someone we love.

The doom of his body living on whilst his mind had long since departed terrified him.  And he spoke openly about choosing euthanasia before his mind failed like that.

Ironically one of Terry's most famous characters was that of Death, who appeared in every book of his.  Described as an "anthropomorphic personification", it's a character who has a lot of charm.  He often comes into the real world to try and experience life (and has a horse named Binky), so he can better understand and get rapport with those he ferries to the afterlife.

Sadly, today Terry got to meet the real thing ...

Death trying to cover for the Discworlds Hogfather/Santa Claus - a fellow "anthropomorphic personification"

Sometimes there is that one picture which gets the mood of a story like this - and here it is.  Artist unknown.