Monday, December 31, 2012

The New Year retrospective

If you are like most people in the world, as the clock ticks down to 12 on 31st December, you are probably preparing a couple of New Years Resolutions.

This in itself is no bad thing – we should be aiming to improve ourselves and what we can achieve each year.

Some of these resolutions will be about our fitness (especially post-Christmas), some will be about our personal life, and some our work life.

I like to thing really any resolution is about really wanting to address an area in life we feel we're not doing so well in. In order to do that we have to use the time coming up to 2013 looking back on the year.

We held a few retrospectives at work in 2012, and I found them overall positive experiences. We looked at the “positives” or what we'd done well, and also the “deltas” areas we need to improve in (notice we don't call them negatives, we are trying to positively look at changes we can make).

In the same way we need to look for those areas of change in our life, and decide to do practical ways that we can make change.

Back in March in the SoftwareMinefield, I was talking about people's resolutions, especially when it came to learning (a key subject in the book), and suggested whether in learning or elsewhere, the best kind of resolution was a SMART resolution …

Learning like diets is one of those things we often attempt to resolve to do more of. So like our New Year diets often involve "only eating salad and soup until Easter", our learning plans often go down the same "too ambitious" route ... "I'm going to read a book on software each week". Good luck on that!

Like any good plan, you need to have objectives, and they need to be SMART objectives. My version of SMART here being Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound.
  • Specific - what do you really want to learn about? Testing in general? Test automation? Agile testing? What channels are you expecting to use? Courses, books, magazines, forums, Twitter?
  • Measurable - how will you know if you've made progress? This one is tricky when it comes to learning, as short of "taking a test", it's difficult to do. But it's important that you feel you're making some form of progress. It might simply be that you find yourself reading articles regarding a topic, and finding yourself more comfortable with the arguments than a year ago.
  • Achievable - is it possible to achieve your learning goal with the resources you have? Do you need more to achieve your goal? If you are planning to read a specific book, do you own a copy yet, or can get it from the library? If you are trying to learn about a certain technology, can you get hold of a sample of the application to aid your study?
  • Realistic - as I've said, it's got to be realistic. Your friend John might be able to give up 2 hours every night for study, but you have family commitments, and you can't match that. What can you realistically commit? An hour a week? An hour a month? Be wary of making a rash overcommitment, but also make sure you are actually putting the time in.
  • Time-bound - you need to revisit your aims and objectives. Set yourself a realistic time-scale to achieve in, and re-review what you've achieved and your future direction after so long. You set yourself to learn about Test Automation, but after 6 months found yourself reading more about Exploratory Testing. Should you go back to trying to study about Test Automation, or continue with Exploratory Testing? Remember they're your goals, but if your aim was to learn more automation due to a drive at work in the field, maybe trying to refocus on Test Automation is something you need to do ...

So before you start making a resolution in the New Year countdown, ask yourself, how can it push you, and yet be sufficiently sustainable, so that you're not embarrassed come April when people ask you “well how did that work out for you?”.

Last year I famously talked in my New Year about “why Superman must die”, meaning to be effective at work I knew I needed to gauge my limits and know when I really needed to stop myself from trying to help someone, simply because I was taking on too much. It was a post which continuously challenged me, and I have to admit it I don't think I always got it right on that score.

I was much encouraged by emails from my friend Bernice Ruhland on the subject, but also by a wonderful talk by Johanna Rothman on “when to say yes, and when to say no”, which so moved me it led me to get in contact with her and thank for for it.

Yes 2012 has been an emotional journey at times, but I've built up some great friendships to see me through the rough parts ...

Friday, December 28, 2012

So you want to move abroad?

This year I have received a number of requests  via various channels from people who have learned I migrated to New Zealand, and want to know more information about what's involved. I'm happy to help or at least direct where I can, and have got to know some of them quite well in the process.

I myself several years ago was in the same boat, and really relied on the same goodwill to understand the journey I was about to put myself and my family through. But just as a future resource, I thought it might be useful to write up our families experiences.

My life before migration

I graduated from University in 1992, and I have always had the experience of having to “move to where there is work”. Part of it was an after effect of living through the Miners Strike of the 80s in Great Britain, where pockets of high unemployment came about, and the only choice for many was to uproot and move to where they could find work.

So I found myself taking quite the gypsy lifestyle,
  • working as a teacher in Keighley, Yorkshire
  • doing a Masters degree at the University of Essex in Colchester
  • doing a six month research post into laser holography at the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, Germany
  • doing a years research into Optoelectronic Monitoring at the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Liverpool (where I met my wife)
  • my first software job at TMSL in Weymouth (for 3 years)
  • moving to Farnborough, Hampshire to work for EDS and BAe for 10 years

Moving is painful. It means leaving behind friendships and often starting again. My wife who'd always lived in Liverpool, and whose whole family still lives in the same suburb, found the first few years living so far away from her family a difficult experience (and that was 200 miles, not half way around the world). It echoed my own experience when I lived in Germany – I found living so far away and not being able to just “drive home” very difficult, especially when coupled with culture shock about living in another country. However over time I adapted, which is a key and important thing to do.

All this was really important, because it said to both me and my wife that we could cope and adapt to change.  My experience in Germany showed me that I struggled when we were in an atmosphere where English wasn't spoken, and doing our homework on New Zealand based on some friends who had migrated from there, it seems an ideal candidate for us.

So you want to move abroad?

So this article will be threaded with warnings – and here come the first one. Migration is not an easy process or a “certain” process. It will take time, and importantly, it will cost you a lot of money. Moving abroad is not a cheap thing to do, and in New Zealand I don't know of any company that funds it for you (in case you were hoping).

One of the most important things is to be realistic about the reasons you are looking to move. We all feel a bit that “in our country we're being ripped off... life is so much easier in [insert name here] country”.

Well let me tell you right now, EVERYONE in every country feels that about pretty much every other country,
  • people look at America, and think “wow your supermarket and phones are so cheap”. But your average American is going “cripes the cost of healthcare in this country is ridiculous”.
  • people look at Australia and think “wow, look how much they earn compared to us”. But your average Australian (especially in Sydney) is thinking “good God, the size of my mortgage repayments”.
  • people look at New Zealand and think “wow the house prices are cheap”. But your average New Zealand is thinking “why is the milk and food we grow here more expensive here than when the same food is sold in the UK or Australia?”

The bottom line is, if you think another country has it easier than you, try and befriend someone who lives there and ask them what they love, and what they dislike. Try to see the whole picture.  In particular, if you meet someone from that country living in your own, ask them why they moved. Try and take off the rose coloured glasses and see it warts and all.  If you are not seeing problems with moving there, then I tell you that you are missing something.

If you are thinking a move to another country is going to solve all your problems, you are in for a nasty shock. Do your homework, read as much about this place as possible. Try and read up the local news and concerns. If you can, go and visit it to see it for yourself – however beware. I used to live in a seaside town most people would think “wow it would be nice to live there all year around”. But even being somewhere on holiday is vastly different to living there.

Try and draw up a list of thing you'd feel would be improved by moving abroad, together with the things you'd miss. Don't forget to try and factor in things like friends and family into that. Ask yourself, do the pros outweigh the cons?

If you have done all this, and you still think New Zealand is for you, then read on, and I will talk you through the the stages that await you.

Lets Move to New Zealand

From our own story, we made the decision to move in 2006, and finally moved in 2009. For many people at least a year between making the decision and finally arriving is a minimum. You're not going to just fill out an application and be on a plane 2 weeks later. This is the reality.

To move to New Zealand for many people is a two-stage process. To come into the country you need a Work Visa. But before you have done this, you need to have filled in your Expression Of Interest.

An Expression Of Interest is a form you submit to the New Zealand immigration office that expresses your interest in migrating to the country. As with most stages of the migration process, you need to pay to have your form filled in.

In it you detail your personal details and relevant experience, as well as confirm you have no criminal convictions. If you do have any criminal convictions or major health problem, it's going to get phenomenally difficult (if not impossible) for you to move here. The Expression Of Interest allocates points against certain traits like qualifications, experience, age, personal status to weigh your eligibility to come into New Zealand, and can be a stumbling block to many aspirations.

Once processed (which takes several weeks), you are given the details of your weighting. Some lucky people are told they can proceed straight to “applying for a Work Visa” which allows them to come to New Zealand and look for work right away. But for myself and many others we were told we were elligable for a Work Visa as long as we had a supporting job offer.

For either route, it's a mistake to believe at this point you can start packing your bags. The application for a Work Visa is a much longer process than an application for the Expression of Interest.

Needing A Job Offer

Well this is definitely a difficult path. The easiest and quickest method is to approach a few employment agencies, fly over to New Zealand (on a visiting visa) and do a few job interviews. But it is far from the cheapest.  Indeed because you've arrived on a visiting visa, even if successful you typically need to leave the country and re-enter with you Work Visa.

Talk to as many recruitment agencies as you can (Google is your friend here). Some might know some companies who will consider you based on phone and Skype interviews. But the harsh truth is many will not. It's important to tell them you have a successful Application Of Interest, and this does help.

Applying For A Work Visa

So you have all the conditions on your Expression Of Interest, including perhaps a job offer. So it's a done deal then?

Sadly no, far from it. There are still a considerable number of immigration hurdles to clear.

First of all you have to compile together a Work Visa application – which means another cheque to be processed. To support this you will need also have,
  • a medical for each member of your family performed by a private doctor approved by the New Zealand Immigration board. This will also include a chest X-ray, and you will have to cover the cost of this yourself.
  • a Police background check, which again you will have to pay for.
  • copies of any qualifications to be evaluated.

Once all this is forwarded on, its a process of typically at least 3 months before you're approved by your local New Zealand embassy. Sometimes you will be asked to provide more information or checks, which will cause additional delays to this timeframe (I did mention it wasn't going to be a quick process). As a word of caution, I've known friends who have encountered significant delays at this point (it took 6 months for us ourselves).  It's frustrating, but moving country is a big deal, and the immigration office have a duty to be thorough about who they are letting in the country.

You can help the whole process of the paperwork for the Application of Interest and Work Visa by hiring an immigration specialist to advocate on your behalf. These can be expensive, but it's worth shopping around – you won't want the cheapest, but there are some parties out there which in my opinion are out to fleece would be migrants (we encountered a couple ourselves).

Alas there was one such company I'd recommend but sadly they've recently closed their offices.

I hope this helps anyone thinking of moving abroad to get “the big picture” and really think about it.

From my own experience, moving to New Zealand has allowed me access to a different jobs market and to experience I simply feel I would not have got back in the UK. But it also was significantly for my son, who I thought would get more opportunities in New Zealand than back home in the UK. For this there have been personal trade-offs, mainly being so far from the rest of our extended family. It's hard at times, having to cope with the death of by close friend Violet whilst half a world away, and likewise my wife had to cope with the death of her father back in Liverpool.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Project Christmas: The Elf Who Learned How To Test

I have had a busy year, no doubt about it, with a lot published in magazines like Testing Planet, Testing Circus and Tea Time With Testers.  There has also been my book, The Software Minefield.

I've recently put together another much shorter book, which is free to download called The Elf Who Learned How To Test, of which I'm particularly proud (great I now sound like Q from James Bond).

The idea started a long time ago with a conversation with Rosie Sherry about the idea of "Imagine there's no testing" back in August.  And that's just what I did with the leap of imagination required.  I imagined Santa's Workshop where no-one tested, and children received substandard presents, and an elf who discovered how testing could add value.

I've been told by others in the testing community I'm a great storyteller.  Indeed in The Software Minefield, I mentioned I'm always telling war stories or parables.  What pleases me about The Elf Who Learned How To Test is that it's a tale not just for testers, but for their children as well.

I think as testers we sometimes are great at joining together as a community and sharing our stories.  But perhaps where we fail is sharing what we do, not just with others who aren't testing, but especially our children.  And my book works as essentially as a Testing Fairytale which can be shared with children, with some thinking activities at the back which I feel the children are likely to score as well in as the adults!

This year has seen me peeling back the mystique around testing for my 14 year old son, who has come in to see what we do.  I keep trying to talk to him about what I do and why I do it.  I try and develop him a sense of analytical thinking, especially in our common area-of-interest which is history.  Unsurprisingly he did well with the activities in the back (which do not have any "right answers", but as more about seeing how you can expand on the story, and how you interpret some things which are not said).

You can download the book here,

In addition, I did a video of me reading it for YouTube, but it turned out too big, so I've decided to put it up as a podcast, which can be accessed below,

This is all aimed at encouraging donations to a very worthwhile charity, Starship, which supports sick New Zealand children and their families.  I have been helping to support this charity through work, and if you'd like to support them as well, please give a one-off-donation below,

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Saga Of The Stone


The Saga of the Stone is a short story I wrote back in 1997 (although it's been revised a bit over the years).

To me it's a very personal story – because the events and people in it are real. It covers a series of events that happened to me when I was 20, which very nearly cost me my life. But that said, it's also a story I find inspirtational, as so much of what happened during that night echoes a lot of the trials we experience in life.

As I've said before in The Problems We Can't Fix, we will all go through periods of our life when we experience deep personal problems. When I went through such a patch in 1997, I decided to look back to the events of the Saga of the Stone and write about the life and death struggle.  It felt like a powerful metaphor for getting through any kind of problem.

I think we all have a Saga of the Stone story in some way in our past. I certainly feel inspired hearing the tales of a friend named Jess Bromley talk about hers.  Her story and mine remind me that life is a gift, and one of the huge tragedies in life is, it takes tragedy or near-tragedy to appreciate it.

The Saga of the Stone

Dedicated to the memory of Violet Wallbank,
a friend in dark places.

They say in life that the only certainties are death and taxes. Yet as children - if we’re lucky we grow up shielded from both.

We might hear about murders on the television or of elderly relatives who we never really knew ‘passing away’. But they’re, too distant there’s no sense of intimacy, and no sense of loss. But sooner or later death comes into our lives, taking someone close, and it leaves it’s mark on us.

For me in happened when I was 20 and studying at the University in Sheffield. It was nearly Christmas, the countdown to festivities had begun, which pretty much meant for all of us it was partytime! But before we planned to hit the local bars, I had to phone my parents at home, for the weekly catch up.

It was then a bombshell hit when my mother said to me, “I was told by Mable at church that one of your friends from school’s died”.

My seemed to catch in my throat as I managed to ask, “Who was it?”

She didn’t really say ... James somebody I think. I think you used to be friends in school. It was something to do with drugs. I expect it’ll be in the Burton Mail.”

After a slight silence we finished off our phone call, said our goodbyes and hung up I headed back to my room, the news circling around my head. James - it could only be James Taylor. At school he’d been my best friend, for a while when our fleeting interested had matched. But teenage friendships can be fickle, and as we moved on to Sixth Form Colleges and then University, our connection had become broken.

That was until just a few months ago we’d been both working the same crappy summer jobs at the local factory. He was a different man though at school and after he’d been a lively character ever ready for a fight or a drunken dare, and much admired by many of the girls for it. He was a guy brimming with confidence and humour. Yet the man I’d met that summer had been subdued and almost haunted.

Life was not going well for him he’d got into trouble at University, with him getting kicked off his course. His parents wouldn’t have him back at home. And now he was stuck trying to work at the local factory to make ends meet. But his woes didn’t end there. He’d just found out he’d managed to get his girlfriend pregnant, and just felt he didn’t know what to do, trying to talk the girl into taking an abortion.

He admitted he didn’t drink too much any more it’d got him in too much trouble, as he was always getting angry when he did. But he did do some drugs and could do me a deal if I ever needed some, he had a few “connections”.

Maybe my choice of words weren’t the best thought out I told him he needed to sort his life out, and that drugs are for losers. Alas the textbook “good kid” response to the “kid gone wrong”. But stupid words that offer no comfort or help. A few days later he was fired, though on the factory floor the reason behind that varied from his attitude to him caught stealing

And now he was dead. A friend, a school friend, my age, dead. This wasn’t the way I thought life worked death was something for the elderly or something that happened elsewhere. Not something in Burton-on-Trent.

Deep inside I couldn’t help wondering if there was something I could have said, or done that would have altered his terrible fate. Something better than condemning his mistakes.

Suddenly I didn’t feel like partying anymore.

The world seemed different - it was the last week of term before the Christmas break, and my hall of residence was decked in lights, tinsel and decorations. The students around me were dedicated to celebrating the season to the last of their allowance and beyond.

The thought went over and over again in my head “He’s dead?”.

I needed to speak to someone, to be with someone. I tried so many friends, but they were either gripped with the merriment of the season, or else feverishly slaving over assignments due in later that week. I felt utterly alone - a gulf away from the party folk and revellers.

The atmosphere of celebration was like some foul air to me, on which only I was retching. I grabbed a coat and headed out, away from all the laughter and cheers, the small talk and antics. It was a cold, frosty December night, and the chilling, sobering air offered some small portion of relief and clarity.

I started walking - but still from the lampposts and windows hung reminders that this was a season to be jolly and merry, not to lament the passing of friends. Without thinking, I caught a bus that would take me to the outskirts of the city, and watched from my seat as the crowed streets of Sheffield dissolved into the harsh emptiness of the Moors.

I got off the bus to be greeted by the silence of emptiness, and headed out, away from the mad city gripped fervently in celebration, away from those who would tell me to ‘cheer up and have a beer’, away ... where I could think, and, perhaps, find some answers.

A light chill mist hung in the darkness as I set off, following the isolated chain of electric lamps which led like some mythical ‘yellow brick road’ to darkness and oblivion. The world was silent but for the terrible humming of the lamps above which made the place seem that much more empty and eerie. Behind me the city lights bathed the horizon in an orange phosphorescent glow, like a mechanical sunrise. Back there shone people and houses and all their petty hopes and dreams, ahead lay the darkness and obscurity which was my destination.

It was a long walk, but did nothing to settle or calm me. I was resolved now in my mind as to my destination - to stand in utter darkness, beneath the naked sky and there, maybe, standing between the Earth below and the Heavens above, maybe there I would find some revelation or perspective, to find out why my friend was dead.

This was a walk I’d done many times before, but never in such darkness or such cold. The landscape, so beautiful and lush in the sunlight, seemed in this blackness like that of some haunted, shadow world. It was eerie, but it matched my mood so well, so much better than the dazzling, happy lights of the city. I walked on.

And then the lights ran out - the edge of civilisation, beyond the grip of the city whose orange glow raged on behind me was like a inferno swallowing the horizon. Here now to one side stretched a large reservoir, with a sign, battered and abused saying ‘Yorkshire Water’ and warning people not to contaminate the water. For a moment I fought back the childish urge to urinate in the lake - to leave a bad taste in the mouths of those who’d made me feel so alienated tonight, but it passed with a turning in the wind, and I renewed my attention to the road ahead, past the orange monochrome world, and entering dark shadows that waited ahead.

I looked back to see that last, lonely lamppost, its light reaching vainly out to me, like a lighthouse calling me back to the shores of civilisation and people. I took a deep breath that chilled me inside. The misty darkness was terrifying and unsettling now that I stood within it, and that last light seemed so warm and secure and open. But I had set my sights further afield, and swallowing my nerves with renewed resolve, I moved further into the darkness...

The darkness where it waited, as I knew it would. Aware as I was of it, my first sight of it still filled me with dread. Even in daylight it was unnerving, but swathed in the night it seemed more evil still.

At some point it had been a car, perhaps one which ferried children to school, carried shopping home and took families on holiday. But now, by some unknown twist of fate it lay here, nothing more than a burnt out wreck, a rust covered shell of an automobile, that reminded me all too much of a rusty medieval hanging cage where the corpses of men would be displayed as a warning to other travellers. I quickened my pace, faster, faster until the shadows and mist had swallowed it whole again, yet still I felt it watching me, and waiting.

I walked on, the reservoir on one side, a forest to the other, until at last the road unceremoniously ended and twisted off to the right to become a footpath through the trees. The frozen, muddy path creaked and scrunched under my feet ‘crunch crunch crunch’, and I stopped every so often, hearing something rustle in the woods to one side. I would gaze with the eerie feeling of being watched, staring into the still and silent trees, each time bracing for an attack from some swift, unseen assailant. But the only demons pursuing me were phantoms of my mind.

Little did I know it as I walked on, but danger, lurked from another, unseen but very real direction.

Eventually, the forest petered out, and before me stretched the endless emptiness of the Moors. At last I was alone, standing on land untouched and twisted to mankind’s purposes, a timeless land. I stretched out my arms, breathing in the gloriously desolate air as if being resuscitated by the breath of God, and threw my head back to view the night sky - clouded as it was with only faint, isolated stars peering through the dark clouds.

The footpath - not really a path, but a worn track - snaked and staggered like a drunken man, until at last it came to a huge rock, at which point it seemed to fork off. I lay down on the rock, and looked into the sky. It felt peaceful - and there I felt an understanding of life pass into me.

What happened James?” I wondered in almost silent prayer. And although the clouds never parted to reveal a holy light, still within me a stirring calmness seemed to answer my thought - life goes on ... my life should go on.

I could have stayed there forever, but the cold rock chilled my back, so I got up, and contemplated going on. Two paths were in front of me - though I never remembered there being two when I’d done this route in daylight! But the one on the left looked the most familiar, and so I set off.

The moors were calming - much more serene than the reservoir road or the path through the forest. It felt open, tranquil, safe - nothing lurking unseen, nothing to be heard but the wind and the ‘crunch crunch crunch’ of frozen mud and grass beneath my feet.

Crunch kerplunk’. I realised in my romancing of the moors how careless I’d been. And how very stupid - stupid and complacent. My right foot had gone through ice and into a trapped puddle beneath, the chilled water numbing all feeling there.

This was no path, but a marsh with a thin icy crust that I was walking on. I pulled my foot out and turned around. My path, the twisting winding path of which I’d been so certain of was gone like a mirage. In the faint night light I had mistaken a series of scuffs in the grass for a safe path. It was no such thing. Now I had no idea where I was or even which direction to head back in.

Panic. How could I find my way again? The frozen marsh would be all around me - I’d been lucky or rather unlucky to get so far that the fork in the road was far out of sight. I knew roughly which direction the other path was.

If I could head to that - surely I couldn’t miss it - then I’d be able to find my way back again.

I walked a few steps ‘kerplunk’ went one foot into the freezing marshy water, a few more steps ‘kerplunk’ went the other. On and on it went - and then the ground gave way this time it was serious.

The ground had swallowed me to my waist. This must have been a frozen marsh, the water an icy shock to the lower part of my body - freezing, paralysing.

I grabbed the edge, and slowly, tentatively pulled myself out, the ice around groaning and creaking and threatening to cast me back. I lay for a moment out of the water - shivering and terrified.

Cautiously I stood up, half expecting the ground to swallow me up again - I had no idea which direction I was headed in anymore, no star constellations were visible and the city glow was invisible now, obscured by far off trees themselves too far in the dark to discern. I turned around and around frantically, but all directions looked the same - their end obscured by the darkness and the mist.

My heart pounded - both Hathersage and Sheffield were equally close I knew, though lay in opposite directions. There was only one thing to do - chose a direction and keep on until I found something, anything that would find my bearings, and then find the safest route to either haven.

It was slow progress, and one after the other I put each foot down tentatively, testing the ground before putting my weight upon it. My drenched jeans - what a stupid choice of clothing they were - clung heavy about my legs, and were starting to freeze up in the sub-zero temperatures.

Cold and in the dark I stumbled on and on and on.

I’d walked the Moors before many a time. I was drawn to them with their timelessness and rugged beauty. Here I felt my relationship problems, work problems, money problems all melt away into the landscape. Now too it didn’t matter that Claire didn’t like me, that Mark wasn’t speaking to me or that Prof. Combley was disappointed in my work.

Here all that mattered was that I find my way out and survive.

It seemed like forever, going on and on in vain - every so often slipping back into the frozen marsh which for all my new found caution threatened to swallow me whole.

The darkness and the mist played tricks before my eyes, forming vague outlines of the track that I so desperately wanted to discover. But they were only phantoms, each one dashing my spirits a little more, surely and certainly breaking me. My jeans had frozen solid now, like an unbreakable rigid plastic numbing my legs as I stumbled on, tearful, hopeless and so very alone.

At last in the nothingness of grass and marsh something different came out of the mist - a single stone, shaped like some ancient pagan altar, stood alone in this wilderness. Pitifully I clung onto the stone as a drowning man clutches some flotsam in the hope of staying afloat. I called aloud to God to help me - but no divine intervention followed. I was stranded, freezing on the one solid island in this sea of uncertain frozen marsh.

With my body worn out I shivered more and more violently. I was lost, with no hope of rescue on this freezing night, and I was going to die. The idea of death didn’t worry me, not at all. But not this way. Freezing to death would not be an easy slipping away from this mortal coil - no I could look forward to hours of violent shaking and shivering before that happened - it would be a long, cold and lonely death. I tried to make myself comfortable face down on that stone, hoping to sleep and speed up the process. How I wish that death would quickly and swiftly come to me...

And there, on that stone I died.

Perhaps not in body, but the boy who gave up on that stone slowly faded away. It was not God, it was not the ghost of James that had lured me to this point. Tragedy had struck in the loss of James, but I’d chosen the path that led me to this calamity.

It was in that moment of utter hopelessness - of settling down to the inevitable fate of death - that something had stirred within me. A new hope came upon me I would not give in, I would go on.

I got up. The stone I had clutched in desperation and certain death I now released in hope to find my way again. I felt something familiar about this place now I looked with eyes turned to survival rather than fading in death.

The ground further on had little grass, and was quite stony. I followed it until, at last, it gave way to a cliff edge. At last I was found again, for down there would be a road which would lead me to Hathersage I was sure. I followed the cliff edge along until it came at last to a point I knew to be a relatively gentle, downwards path, which, if I was right, I had been truly fortunate to stumble across. My luck at last was changing for the better!

I made my way down slowly, arms supporting me as my legs, one by one tested the ground. I inched down the slope, all too aware I had made enough rash mistakes for one lifetime this night.

At the bottom, a lonely road waited for me. It was deserted, not a single car moved along it. But I knew it and it would lead me where I needed to go.

My mind was racing. Ideally I’d have been headed back to Sheffield where I had a warm room waiting for me, but at least Hathersage was off the Moors, the beautiful and deadly Moors.

There was no way I would risk going back through them to Sheffield! But once I reached Hathersage what then? Throw myself at the mercy of the first house I came to? What would they care for some dumb walker who’d got himself into trouble? But I was alive and off the moors, and what ever it would take now to stay alive I’d do.

I walked into Hathersage, a quiet, deserted town at this time. I saw by the village clock it was 3 o’clock - almost 6 hours since I left, and how many of them lost and despairing on the lonely, savage Moors?

I found a public phone - thank God I had plenty of change, the first thing I’d done right this night! I called several taxi firms in Sheffield, getting their numbers off the back of my Student’s Union card, only to be told I was out of their region. I tried several local companies, but in this quiet village they had closed down for the night.

But I was not beaten - not yet.

I made my way towards the train station - I’d survived hours on the Moors, I was sure I could survive the remaining hours until the next train. I read the badly lit timetable, scrubbing away the ice which had formed on it’s surface, to find the next train would arrive at 6:50 am. Now if I could only get some shelter - like the public toilets and then remove these freezing jeans which were sapping my strength to move in, then things wouldn’t be so bad.

I tried the public toilets but found them locked - what kind of place locks it’s toilets up at night? My only chance of shelter was a bus stop, exposed as it was on one side. I huddled there, but the bitter wind blew right through. “So this is it?” I thought “reduced to living little better than a vagrant?”.

I wandered around not knowing what to do. Wanting to sort myself out, not rely of help. Keep moving, keep warm, and take that first train.

Wandering the church, I noticed there before me was the grave of Little John - the reason I’d first come to this village. He was something of a hero of mine tall, legendarily strong and I always thought of him as an unswervingly loyal right hand man. Several places claimed to be the burial place of Robin Hood, who I thought of as probably a vain and egotistical leader, but there lay a man who in my eyes was solid, dependable, loyal - all the things I felt a man should strive to be.

This was no time to give up, and I had no wish to join Little John in his final repose. I decided I needed help, and hoped I could rely on the Vicarage to lend me some aid. I rang the bell, once ... twice ... a light came on upstairs, and then another, and another, this time downstairs. Then the clanking, twisting creaking of a door lock.

My heart leapt into my mouth and I swallowed hard, terrified of being turned away, so ashamed to rely so heavily on the unknown compassion and charity of whoever stood behind that door at such an unsocial. Would they rant and rave about being woken at such an hour? I certainly would. The door slowly opened, and a grey haired head of a man looked cautiously, blearily around, his face both strict and compassionate in equal measure.

Can you help me?” I shivered pathetically, “I’ve had a bit of a walking accident.”

You’d better come in” he said matter-of-factly. I followed him into the wonderfully warm house. A quiet, gentle Alsation padded up to me, and stroking him I felt life return to my hands. Quietly, the old man looked over me. “You’d better get out of those clothes. Do you want a drink?”

Er ... y-yes please.”

He put the on the gas fire, and disappeared into another room. I cut open my frozen laces with a nail clipper in my pocket, and struggled out of my icy jeans which turned slowly malleable in the new found warmth, and sat there in front of the glorious heat, clutching that dog and shivering the deep-set cold out of me.

I looked around the room - there were shelves of neatly arranged books on Christianity and faith. He returned and offered me a steaming stoneware mug of coffee.

I’m Jeremy, the vicar for this Parish.” he softly informed me. “So what happened?”

So I told him my tale of my lost friend, and how my reaction had led me into such danger this night. He asked me about James, and about myself, and with the lifting of the cold and the emotional burden, life seemed to take shape once more. And after a while, he got up, saying “We’d better take you home.” He left the room to get changed from his pyjamas and dressing gown, and came back properly dressed, passing me a pair of jogging bottoms. “Try them on.” he said.

There was mainly silence in the warm car trip home, save the odd directions.

When at last he pulled up to my hall of residence and I said “Thanks ever so much”. It didn’t seem enough. He’d saved my life, never complaining once about being woken up at such an unearthly hour, and words seemed such a little thing in return. I owed him a great debt, and he wished for nothing in return. I watched him drive away, passing away into the mist before returning to my room, the Christmas decorations seeming less oppressive than they had been hours earlier.

I woke the next morning still shivering, and looked around my room as if looking at it for the first time. I had lost a friend last night, but in trying to deal with it, I’d looked death in the face myself. Something had changed. I was a little wiser, but not that much. I would still make mistakes, I knew that. But I had looked into the depths of despair and came out the other side. And to survive, sometimes I had to look to myself, and sometimes I knew I had to have to courage to ask for help. There was no shame in needing help I knew that now.

This is not a tale about heroics or a man’s triumphant battle against the elements. This is a tale about a friend who died, a stone which gave me hope, and a vicar who came to the rescue.

James is long gone now, Jeremy has moved to another parish (though I did get the chance to visit him again at a more reasonable hour that summer and thank him again) and I am forever growing into an older, wiser man. With the odd bend in the track along the way.

Life moves on, and death leaves friends behind us. But the stone remains - like a seat on Mount Olympus it looks out over the cliffs and to the countryside of Derbyshire. It hangs on the edge of all that is timeless and eternal. And it waits for me still.

I’ve visited it many times - that strange stone that broke me and re-forged me. And each time I look at what I have done with the extra life and wisdom I gained there, remembering the night when my petty problems faded away and only survival mattered.

I last visited it with my wife, and explained its significance and what happened there, sharing the tale of my struggle against insanity and the elements. And knowing its importance, she promised me that when I die, she would return my ashes there.

It gives me comfort to know that in death I will return to the place that gave me back my life and my hope. For I am a mortal man, and I now know death must someday come to me, as one by one it comes for so many others who I’ve known along the path of life.

But the stone remains. The stone remains forever.


The story you’ve just read was based on real events, with some name changes.

Over twenty years have now passed, and on each December 10th I remember it, and count my blessings as I’ve been given one more year of life. And it feels a wonderful gift, though I say this against the tragedy of a loss of a friend.

This much I know in my story there are two people having problems and asking for help. My friend James was in trouble, and my reaction was to point out his mistakes. However when I was in trouble, Jeremy the Vicar listened and offered help.

I realise now that people in trouble sometimes just need to be listened to, they’re all too aware sometimes of where they went wrong. And often the judgement from another is enough to terrify people from opening up and talking. Life sometimes seems too full of people willing to judge, but it’s the people who’re willing to listen who make the world a better place.

The last year has been a tough one for me, as I lost another close friend named Violet. And in some ways I’ve found myself going through some similar motions as in this story dealing with her loss. Though this time my grief didn’t take me on such a perilous path.

But grief makes us act in strange ways. Sometimes it can seem to others as if a kind of madness has gripped us. But to us, we’re trying to make sense of a strange and very personal loss. I know with Violet I was all too aware of complaining how unfair her death was. As if God was some football referee who if we complained to enough would reverse their decision, and bring you back your beloved friend.

But life can’t work like that, though in grief we wish it could.

Ironically Violet helped me so much with the writing of this story, and now sadly I’m finding I’m adding her name to it, in a way I could never have imagined at the time.

Grief takes us to strange and terrifying places. A lot of times we have to weather the path by ourselves. If this tale has a message, it’s that it’s okay when you’re lost to ask for help.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A tale of Bill and Jill

Over the weekend, we lost my great-aunt Jill – she was in her 80s, and thankfully suffered only a brief illness. 

Death is always a time for reflection – and this time is no different. But I'd like to really take a moment to reflect back on her life, as she and her husband Bill influenced me in ways that only death gives us clarity on.

My uncle Bill was related to me on my mother's side. He was my grandfathers younger brother, born into a mining community in Stoke-on-Trent in the 20s. My grandfather is one of the smartest (and most stubborn) men I know, but Bill was academically brilliant, and was offered the opportunity to study at Oxford – almost unheard of for someone from the lower classes at that time. This study he achieved with some financial support from my grandfather.

There Bill met Jill, and they fell in love. But Jill was a spirited woman, and when he asked her to marry him, she turned him down, as she desperately wanted to do voluntary work overseas, and wasn't ready to settle down. She travelled to Africa, which she fell in love with, and did all sorts of educational work with the local tribe, becoming an “honorary chieftan” I'm told.

Bill meanwhile turned to teaching – and taught my father across town. When Jill returned from Africa, they ended up picking up from where they left off, becoming married. Their house was a fascinating place filled with relics from Africa such as tribal masks and a wooden case she'd used in her travels which she gifted to my parents.

They were regulars for our Christmases, which we'd spend at my grandparents. With them both being teachers, they'd arrive punctually at 11am on Christmas Day, and they were so entertaining. We never got toys, only books – typical teachers! I remember Bill being able to be quite funny and yet coerce us into doing things – asking one Christmas if we could find the “stealth function” our Starbird electronic (and noisy) spaceship toy. Such a comment could have irritated, but I remember finding it was funny, and played along. It's no wonder he became a headmaster.

Sadly though he died in his 50s when I was a young teen. It was a tragic death, that shocked us all. When I look back, I feel slightly robbed, as I cannot help think how much I would have loved to talk to him when I was older, when I was going through University, and when I went through teacher-training. I'd have liked that a lot.

Inevitably we saw less of Jill without Bill, but we did still see her. And my grandfather being the person he is kept tabs on his brother's wife, as often as possible. She was always family to him.

They left me with a legacy – I was inspired to give teaching a try because of them (although I didn't end up sticking with it), Jills tales of overseas made me want to try living abroad – which inspired me to take the opportunity to study in Jena, Germany and gave me enough of a taste for adventure to consider travelling from England to New Zealand.

But most of all they left me with a book. When I heard about her death, I immediately thought about a book I'd been given by them on Astronomy. As a child I was fascinated like so many with space and the stars. So they bought me a book on it – it was full of stories of the planets (although Voyager 2 hadn't gone to Jupiter yet), about Skylab and the Apollo program, about how stars worked. It was one of the last books Bill and Jill would give me.

I would read through it time and again, and it would inspire me, and fire my imagination. It fuelled a passion for science, and made me want to study Astronomy, which I eventually did at the University of Sheffield. But even though it became dated - there were later missions which gave more information and better pictures - I kept hold of it. I threw other books away but never this one.

At University I would read some pieces to refresh my mind on the basics, before opening my University books, and putting the mathematical framework around what I'd just read. As a teacher I would look to it to work out how to simplify the detailed concepts I knew so younger minds could digest.

But this weekend I realised that the reason I could never throw it away was the book had inspired me, and reminded me of two people who I loved in my own way.

It seems an odd and maybe failed epitaph for a couple to be summed up as “people who bought me a book”. But not if it's a book that changed your life, not if it's a book that inspired you.

Christmas is coming – do something amazing for someone, and buy them a book!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The last temptation of Pekka Marjamaki …

First off, this is all a bit of fun – so don't take too seriously (or consider me a Satan worshipper) ...

Last night Pekka Marjamaki was on Twitter talking about a Tarot reading he'd had done, and if anyone could interpret for him, so we caught up on Skype to discuss it.

I'm a follower of Jungian psychology, and I believe that inside of us is a subconscious that is trying to guide us as best as possible, and sometimes warn us. Unlike our conscious, our subconscious mind cannot talk to us in words, it lurks below our babbling thoughts and can only make itself aware to our conscious mind through dreams and feelings. Sometimes the subconscious should be followed, sometimes rejected – but as often as possible it needs to be understood.

For me, Tarot is one method I'll use to try and check my subconscious, it's part of my toolbox. I don't believe Tarot predicts the future – but I do feel it allows me to read minds, more specifically my own. This isn't magic, this is psychology. But it's still useful.

To me it works like this – a Tarot card is loaded pictorially with very rich and often complex symbolism. When you look at a card within the context of a reading, there will be an initial reaction to it, that reaction is the whole point. It reveals something to you, if you listen to your own mind.

And so when Pekka told me about the cards, I looked up a picture of each card on Google images, and stuck with the reaction I got from that image. Hence when I say this is Pekka's reading, in truth it's more accurately a reading of myself than Pekka.

Pekka explained that he'd asked for a reading about his software testing career, and three cards had been chosen – past, present and future (which provide the context). Put the cards together with my reactions and intuition and it tells a story … this is what we pieced together …

Past – The Priestess

To me, this card really triggers the ideas of learning and being mentored. The Priestess is an enlightened soul, but she's also a keeper of ritual. If you look, she's following instructions from a “Holy Book”. The book guides and enlightens if read with wisdom. But it also can enslave and control withing a prison of conformity we're not allowed to challenge.

This to be really talks volumes about many of our pasts in testing. We learn the secrets of testing, but testing can become an instruction manual – you know, just follow the script in the Holy Book.  For a good few testers, this is all it becomes, slavish routine.

Present – The Magician

Whereas the Priestess follows the book of instruction, the Magician in this picture feels different. This feels like an individual who is in tune with the nature of things. The scroll in his hand is not something he's slavishly followed. It's knowledge he's gained with his own insight, it belongs to him, but he rules that piece of paper and its contents, not the other way around.

This does feel, especially in the context of it's position in the present like someone who has evolved. They have listened to the Holy Book as a Priestess, and they've taken the next step. They don't need the book anymore, they've taken that knowledge, and become attuned to the nature of testing. It is this enlightenment from within and from their observations which now guides them.

In many ways they have become a thought leader.

Future – The Devil

This is a complex one, but as you'd expect, The Devil denotes temptation.

If you look back to the present where The Magician denotes a thought leader, this denotes all the ways we can fall from the path. Perhaps its a desire to in some way “sell out” about testing - not because we want to, but because either there's something to gain, or perhaps because championing testing can feel too hard at times.  We might know how testing works, but go along with following a test strategy as outlined by someone else, even though we know it won't work.

Elisabeth Hendrickson's article Why I Won't Go Back was very much in my mind with this card (not surprising, I'd read it earlier that day). And in it she talked about how sometimes under pressure as testers we'll go along with Cover-Your-Ass activities on projects, which we know won't help the project, and deliver little real value. But we do them out of fear or because we feel it's expected, and somehow we feel our performance and contribution will be seen better if we follow what non-testers expect.  The one that came to mind for both myself and Pekka was “following an ISTQB policy, when we see little real value in it”.

Both me and Pekka, found it an interesting conversation, and these themes (unsurprisingly) really resonated with both our experiences in testing. For me the card about the future really reinforces the responsibility we have when we become enlightened testers not to sell testing short, because it damages the whole community when we do.

Notice in the picture above - once we give into the Devil, it makes slaves of us all!

* For the record, no animals were sacrificed during this consultation.  However when I look at Pekka's current profile picture on Twitter, I do wonder what he's doing to that chicken ...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Oh brother ... it's change management ...

I was really pleased to get such positive feedback on my article yesterday on testing proposed changes before they hit production. But special mention has to go to the following insight from Simon Talks, who is not only my brother, but a very successful Change Manager who is based in Sheffield, England ...

Hey Bro!

There is considerable value in what we term the pre-production environment.

The pre-production environment for us follows all the restrictions of the production environment and devs have no access it (as they should with production!!!).

For changes planned for production there is always a dry run on pre-production and some testing is ran against the pre-production environment.

Far more changes fail in pre-production even if they run in the development and test environments, due to complications in parallel development that usually enable releases to work that wouldn't work in the production environment.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Testing the process of change ... lessons from HMS Invincible

Back in 2003 I worked for a company who provided the software used on the shipboard servers of the Royal Navy. The servers were used as an information network to share important documents between ships around the world. Surprisingly rather than all being top-secret intelligence, most of this was housekeeping. A naval ship essentially share many characteristics of an office, with a large number of people aboard who need to share information on activities, events, usage of disposables (you'd not be too pleased if your office ran out of coffee or toilet rolls), it is in many ways a floating community, and the Naval intranet allowed the organisation of many aspects of daily life.

I was a developer at the time, and following a course had been working (initially at home) on a Perl script which I got my managers permission to pitch to our customer. I'd written my application from scratch, but today we'd recognise many of it's attributes as a shipboard-Wiki (I called it the Generic Web Page, having never heard of Wikis at the time). It allowed sharing of information pages (which could be instantaneously modified by users with suitable permissions) between both personnel onboard ship as well as between other ship servers. Whereas before ships saved and exchanged information in document form (which took time to replicate on the Naval intranet), my ship-Wiki could be updated instantaneously.

The Navy were impressed. Although it was in their opinion not suitable for anything secure, it had a lot of potential uses due to it's speed over the document sharing method that was in use. They wanted to try it out in an upcoming NATO exercise onboard the UK flagship for the exercise, HMS Invincible.

Of course management was delighted to get such an enthusiastic customer response. But they had a fear – could I install my Generic Web Page application safely onboard the Invincible server? This was their dilemma … if I got this application working, it would be a huge statement about our companies can-do attitude. And if it worked well, we had all kinds of ideas to expand the product and provide more of these kinds of applications as a whole new line of work.

However if something should go wrong – then we risked knocking out the information sharing ability of the Royal Navy flagship in what was likely to be a billion dollar joint-forces exercise. The Royal Navy would look bad in front of it's NATO partners, and we would look unbelievably incompetent to our customer.

Risk and gain – all change has elements of both. What was decided, we took a replication of HMS Invincible onto a spare server, and we rolled our change on, we ran the server for a day. Then we rolled the change off, and checked we'd removed it.

We did this to develop a list of steps to apply the change, and to confirm we were drilled in it's use and application, but mostly to check and explore for any potential issues we might have. We wanted no room for error – so we did this in total of 4 times. Then on the 5th day, we used our steps on a completely different server to make sure there were no other potential surprises (unexpected configuration perhaps).

We produced a report, and our Naval adviser was satisfied we'd taken adequate precautions, so we were allowed to install on the HMS Invincible herself. That was quite an experience to get in the field and perform this change – amazing to be in the belly of such a grand titan. Did you know the ship has a small supermarket called the NAAFI inside that sells soft drinks, chocolate bars etc? Yes the ship has more people and shops than some villages I've lived in!

The installation was a success, and the software proved itself within the exercise. The Navy decided it wanted to develop that kind of capability, so the piece of work was extended to a much bigger program, although I didn't continue to develop on that project.

Testing the process of change

In testing we get quite used to our test environment – during the course of testing it undertakes so many changes and tweaks to get things right. Sometimes it's new builds (which are easy to track under configuration management), sometimes though there's a setting tweak that a developer tries which perhaps they made but forgot to write down.

At the end of testing, you produce an exit report which signs off that what is in your test environment has been checked, and seems acceptable for production.

But how do you confirm the change outlined for production will produce an environment which echoes the one you've signed off? For most releases to new systems, it's usually not a new build that's applied, but a series of changes just to modify elements of your applications and settings.

How can you test that your release team has all the changes needed for production? Well our enterprise on the HMS Invincible was a good start. Start with an environment under test which mirrors production, apply your changes, and test the end result as you would a production verification test. Then roll back, and confirm your changes have gone. Encourage the change team to repeat this process under as production-like conditions as possible (especially regarding timescales). Are any services interrupted during the change? Do any defects encountered during testing seem to come back (that is, you've missed a change somewhere)? Can you do the core, high value actions? Can you effortlessly roll back? Have you developed a definitive list of steps and actions that work every time?

It's amazing how many times we take for granted that what we sign off in our acceptance test environment will be delivered to production. Is your project making steps to ensure nothing's been missed?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Experiences in automation ... WeTestWorkshop

I have never lived anywhere quite like Wellington. The thing that constantly amazes me about this place is the sense of community amongst technical folk, aided by the various meetups which are organised by people who are passionate about their relative crafts.

I'm already a regular face at the AgileWelly events that are organised. I was thus noticably pleased when following KWST2, several testers decided we needed a more regular workshop, and thus the WeTest workshop was born.

This Thursday was the first event, sponsored by the consultancy I used to work for, Assurity. Katrina Edgar (the organiser behind the whole WeTest meetup) led with an experience report on the subject of test automation. It was a potentially tough crowd – about half the room were ex-developers turned testers, and 75% had experienced test automation in the last two years.

Katrina, like myself, was an ex-developer turned test automation specialist. She'd encountered 3 major projects so far in her career ...

On Project A, she was allowed to branch out into automation on a typically very manual task. She'd been given enough free reign to choose whether to automate or not. She used it to automate the very onerous task of setting up multiple configurations, which removed a lot of monotony from her tasks. The work was relatively low cost, and reaped high benefit. But that said, she felt just left to get on with in, and her automation was expressly that, HERS. It was never reviewed, and no-one else ever used.

Project B was more advanced. She came onboard and there was an automation framework already in place – a Jenkins machine which provided continuous integration tests using Selenium scripts. She felt where as Project A was more about “what are you testing” with the free reign on “how are you testing”, life here was quite the reverse. Everything was about “how can we test on Jenkins”.

The system had a Concordian front end to show whether tests had passed or not, and it was considered that if the test passed, it was “all good”. There were no follow-on manual tests, because it was believed “well our Selenium scripts test it all, don't they?”.

The problem was that the testing was highly technical, and to understand the script content, you had to be able to read Java. This meant not enough people did read through and understand the scripts and what they did. Testers would modify and make new scripts, but no-one ever reviewed them. So on the whole no-one could be sure whether these tests did test the core values of the project.

Project C echoed a lot of Project B. It was a similar system where everything had been done by automation. But it was a much older, legacy system, and all the original staff, and much of the expertise had moved on.

Thus the scripts were flaky, and needed a lot of maintenance by people who didn't really understand them all. A lot of time was spent fixing them, but no-one knew everything they did. But they'd always seemed to work before, so no-one wanted to tamper with them too much either.

Her experience report finished, the discussions around the room began. And this is where a peer-conference drastically differs from presentation-based events. It's much more interactive with many joining in, asking questions, sharing tales. Whereas in a presentation you walk out with on persons experience and ideas, at the end of a peer conference, you've had those ideas pooled together by everyone in the room.

Thus by the end of the 2 hours, we'd investigated and reached consensus in a way which was surprising to both myself and Katrina. In fact no-one could have predicted it – which is what can make these things so exciting. These were some of our take-homes by the end of the night …

Know why you are automating

Automation should be almost always about addressing a pain if you tried to do something manually. In particular it should use some strength of the computer against an area where a human being is much weaker and slower.

Here are some areas in which computer excel over humans, especially in a “testing” capacity (I will explain the use of quote marks later),
  • they are much faster
  • they can do the same task over and over again with no variance
  • always do exactly what they're told

On the flip side, this is what an experienced human being can do which computers can't,
  • does not need a script to start using the software
  • uses software in the same way as an end user (if a human is going to use your end-product, you need a human opinion on it during testing)
  • can investigate as they test
  • can notice things in software even if they're not on the checklist

To make efficient use of automation (and thus get a return of investment on the time you spend automating), you need to be addressing a pain point in your testing, and you need to be doing something in your automation that computers can do well (from the first list) rather than something that humans do well. It also needs to be doing something that you're likely to do again and again - so once scripted, it'll save you time every time it's run.

If you're Agile, and 3 days of every sprint is taken with your testers running repetitious regression tests on a mathematical function, this is the kind of pain point you can and should automate to free up some of those 3 days of testing effort.

Know what you should be automating

When test automation was first introduced in the 1990s there was a belief that many test departments should have suites of 100% automation. Experiences of the last decade have really challenged that idea.

Test automation has a place, but it's not the alpha and omega of testing. In fact many like Michael Bolton believe automation tools should be called automated checkers over automated testers (hence the quotation marks before).

The reason for this is an automated script can only check for what it's scripted to check for. It will never tell you if a screen flashes pink and yellow unless you tell it to check for that. It will never notice the kinds of things that a human tester will go “well is it supposed to be like that?” where something is not necessarily against a requirement, but not quite right either.

The cyborg tester

I've heard the concept of the cyborg tester before, and this is what started to come out from people's experience with automation. I believe I've heard it from people like James Bach and Ben Simo on Twitter – the idea is that testing isn't about doing testing all by humans, and not by doing testing all by machines.

The cyborg tester is a fusion of both man and machine, using both blended together to produce superior testing.

Automated checks are fast, repeatable, and if done right, anyone can push “play”. But they miss a lot of defects a tester would find. They are best used essentially for unit testing between building a piece of code and giving it to a human tester.

We've all had scenarios where developers have delivered new builds daily – when asked if it passed testing, you are greeted with “well it built” (which does not mean it passed any kind of test). The test team start to use it, and there are major issues, with elementary functionality failing. That means anywhere from a half day to a full day of testing is lost because we have a bad build, and no capacity in some systems to rollback to a previously working build.

How much better then to include those kind of smoke checks as part of the build process, and if the software doesn't pass those checks, it's not deployed? Such a policy follows the “test early” philosophy, and means manual testers are protected from bad builds which are so fundamentally flawed it would force them to down tools until addressed. [A working old build allows more investigation than a new, broken one]

Such a system is one of synergy, allowing testers to continue investigating on a previously stable build until a useful new build with basic core functionality can be delivered.

Automation TLC

As alluded to by Katrina, and in line with comments I've had from Janet Gregory, the automation you are doing needs to be clear and visible to the whole project. Everyone should be encouraged to look at what you are doing, review, and give feedback, especially as to whether or not it addresses business and technical needs enough.

How can you be sure your automation really addresses the core business values of your end-product? You need that feedback to target the important stuff, and cut away anything which doesn't add value (otherwise you waste time running it, you waste money maintaining it).

But more than that, many places will automate phase one of a project and like Katrinas Project B and C, will say, “we're done”. Automation isn't a “we're done” thing. Automation in an ongoing commitment.

Every time you make changes to your code base, you need to have someone looking at your automation scripts and going “does anything here need to change”. That's how you keep your automation working and relevant. If you develop for a year, and only then start to use the scripts again, you might have a nasty shock (much like Project C) where nothing seems to work any more. You might even be tempted to bin it all and start again. At this point, the automation which was there to remove your pain in testing, actually becomes your point of pain!

But more than just making sure you have resources to maintain scripts, you have to ensure your scripts are maintainable. In software code, good practices are to have commenting within code to say what each pieces intent is, peer reviews of code and to even have coding standards of things you should try to avoid (forever loops anyone?). Being an ex-developer myself, these are things I encourage in any test automation project. Going around the WeTest workshop, it became clear I was not alone.

When can we get time to automate?

This was the final question of the night I was involved in (alas I had to leave for a train at this point).

But the comment would be one many would be familiar with, “we're going to flat out with our manual testing, we're having trouble creating our base of automation scripts”.

It's tempting to think it's possible to go flat out on a project and also be able to do process improvement as you go along. Sure you can make small improvements. But to achieve significant benefits you need to allocate effort, because you need to concentrate on that task, not run it in spare time (for more on this subject read this article).

If you are finding you have too much testing to do, and find it harder and harder to achieve deadlines you need to go back to our first point, look for the areas of pain that are taking time, and see if automation will help. You might have to say to your Project Manager “look we need to pause for a bit to get some breathing room here” and perhaps extend timelines or investigate other options – it's possible development need to pause to do some cleanup themselves. But you don't need forever, you just need enough automation to ease your painpoints, and then enough resource to keep it maintained when needed.


A fantastic first meeting, and looking forward to future – thanks to all those who turned up and made this such a memorable workshop! I certainly came away with a lot to think about, and have enjoyed revisiting it here ...

The following photos are taken from the WeTest site ...