Tuesday 4 October 2016

Providing value beyond bugs


I’ve had several experiences where I’ve worked on projects where a manager has proclaimed “we don’t need testers for this project, we’re not bothered about bugs”. When I started testing 6 years ago, I would have felt that this was wrong simply because “bugs” can take many forms. However nowadays I’ve come to realise that testers provide much more than “bugs”. I still find it incredibly difficult to explain this to people (particularly managers) though and it has only been through bad experiences that I’ve felt justified in arguing the case.

Why people might think they don’t need testing

I have now worked with several projects where I’ve been told that testing wasn’t required, the reasons have varied:
  • “This is an internal project and we’re not bothered about embarrassing bugs”
  • “This is a quick prototype and we want you to focus on more important projects”
  • “This isn’t the software you need to test, it’s just a library/tool/software we’ve bought so we don’t need you to look at it”
  • “This project is in its early stages so there is nothing for you to test yet”
It seems that people still see testing as simply being the bugs we report, and not only that, but sometimes people are only thinking of bugs in the popular sense - visually obvious and embarrassing bugs. They also seem to be making decisions regarding risk and priority with the information they have at the time.

Why did I think these projects would benefit from a tester?

Well I think the main reason is because I see testing differently, I don’t see my job as simply reporting bugs, but about telling the truth about software, about observing the people and processes that produce the software and trying to help those people to produce better software. In other words, I see testers as people dedicated to creative and critical thinking on a project.
  • Internal projects still need to ‘work’ right? Not to mention, do we really understand all of the kinds of bugs or risks up front about the project? Maybe the project is for internal use, but does it interact with external systems? What about the people and processes, do we not want to help them? Do we not want to track the progress of the project? Even internal projects have costs and implications if they are late or don’t fit the requirements.
  • Frequently quick prototypes prove to be quite useful, this is generally their purpose - to rapidly learn what is useful or valuable. Testers are great at rapid learning and especially learning what customers or end users find valuable or useful, so such information is invaluable when moving on to design the eventual fully-fledged product. Why not boost the success of your prototype by involving a tester to help focus the product on the learning as well as bring their skills in analysing the truth of what makes the prototype a success. Not to mention that prototypes tend to very quickly become the “finished product” without any re-design or re-development, it’s easy for people to assume it’s ready to change the usage from “concept” to “ready for mass use”. Involving a tester might help avoid this easy slide and highlight the risks.
  • Also, what if the projects we are testing affect your prototype? We won’t know that if we aren’t aware of your prototype, which means there is a risk that we could break your prototype if it depends on other projects.
  • Assuming other people’s software is well tested and perfect is an all too easy assumption. Then there is the question about whether it’s even compatible with your own software and the assumption that you understand what it does or how it exactly works.
  • Many bugs are caused by assumptions made at the design stage either because of ambiguous language, cognitive bias’ towards information or simply because we cannot think of everything. Does it not make sense to more cheaply catch and resolve these bugs at the design stage rather than finding them after we have spent time building a product?
I believe in all these cases and in any project, you can benefit greatly from involving a human being who dedicates their focus to critically analysing each piece of information and offering feedback. It’s not just about banging on keys or finding “bugs” in the language of computers, you can discover plenty of “bugs” in the language of humans.

Changing the tone from an argument to an invitation

Its draining to constantly have to argue to be included in meetings and projects and this can heavily affect my motivation at times. It’s much easier when I’m invited and do not need to convince people of my value. How to do this then? I think I’m still learning how to become better at this, but one obvious way is simply by becoming extremely knowledgeable about a project, its technology and the end users. By simply being able to answer many questions and provide this knowledge, you naturally become an oracle people refer to, which means you become invited to more meetings.

Take advantage of your opportunities to learn

What do I mean by opportunities? Well firstly, opportunities to become very knowledgeable can take many forms - for example, investigating bugs typically shows you the guts of a system and also provides information of why a system was built a particular way (otherwise how do you know its a “bug”?). Try to view everything as an opportunity to learn more and you may pick up and remember a lot more.

Now you’re in a design meeting, how do you prove your worth?

I also mean opportunities in terms of demonstrating your value in providing critical and creative feedback. It can be very easy to squander these, I’ve repeatedly been too critical, asking the wrong question at the wrong time and earning the ire of my colleagues for wasting time or dragging out discussions. This can lead to being left out of discussions for being disruptive and not constructive.
Another area I’m trying to learn to improve is catching myself when I react emotionally to something, I tend to blurt out a critical question when I see something wrong. Sometimes I should consider how to word my question better to come across as more inquisitive rather than criticising. Sometimes I should really ask the question later and not put people on the spot. However, as ever, such feelings can be heuristics and sometimes I am right to ask the question there and then, sometimes the emotion draws attention to important details. The main point here though is that you shouldn’t always let your emotions guide you.


Asking too many questions tends to make people feel they are being interrogated, and perhaps not feel trusted to do their jobs. For example, several times I’ve found myself invited to meetings about new projects that I’m not completely up to speed with and a discussion start with the participants assuming I know some things already. It’s too easy in these situations to criticise and say that they’re making a lot of assumptions, when really they established details in another meeting and you’re simply not aware. While this is something that needs to be resolved, by aggressively criticising them for this, they will get defensive and you potentially derail the meeting. It’s being aware of these situations and being critical at the right times that allows you to provide your value, being critical all the time feels counter-productive to me.

Asking questions rather than making declarations

I’ve caught myself declaring things in the past, which comes off as criticism of an individual or a statement of objective fact to argue about. I try to instead ask questions rather than make emotional statements, emphasising that I’m not criticising an individual or think something is bad. I guess in a way, this is a kind of “safety language”, to use the RST (Rapid Software Testing) phrase. For example;

Instead of:
“This isn’t a good idea, I don’t know why you’re suggesting that?”
I might try:
“I don’t mean to criticise you, but are we sure that X is a good idea?”

Instead of:
“These requirements are really ambiguous and unclear”
I might try:
“Apologies if this has already been covered, but could we clarify the requirements here? X and Y could be misinterpreted?”


I think to change the view on whether testers contribute more than just bugs, we have to show value in other ways. One way to do this is becoming an oracle of knowledge about a product, business or end users in general. This can then lead to further opportunities where we can provide value through our critical analysis skills. However, if we are not careful, we can deal more damage to this image than good if we are too disruptive.
I care a lot that my contribution to projects is valued and that I’m of service. I don’t want to waste people’s time and I want people to invite me because they appreciate my skills and knowledge. However, the nature of testing tends to be viewed as negative and sometimes I myself contribute to this negative view when I disrupt meetings with heavy handed criticism. Life is all about carefully balancing my critical feedback with self-criticism and also recognising opportunities and carefully not squandering them.


  1. Regards to the final questions and rephrasing, I'd personally disagree there. Use of the old conjunction 'but' isn't best imo. For the second one I don't think there's anything wrong. ;)

    1. Yeah, I can see what you mean. The "but" suggests I'm criticising anyway?
      I don't really need the conjunction there do I?