Cem Kaner: Testing Checklists = Good / Testing Scripts = Bad?

I highly recommend this presentation by Cem Kaner (available here as a pdf download of slides). It is provocative, funny, and insightful. In it, Cem Kaner makes a strong case for using checklists (and mercilessly derides many aspects of using completely scripted tests). Cem Kaner, as I suspect most people reading this already know, is one of the leading lights of software testing education. He is a professor of computer sciences at Florida Institute of Technology and has contributed enormously to software testing education by writing Testing Computer Software “the best selling software testing book of all time,” founding the Center for Software Testing Education & Research, and making an excellent free course available online for Black Box Software Testing. <Trivia: Cem Kaner is one of two people I know about who work in the software testing today that have a law degree; the other person is me. After graduating from the University of Virginia Law School, I worked as a lawyer in London and Hong Kong for a large global firm before coming to my senses and realizing my interests, happiness and competence lay elsewhere>.

Here are a couple of my favorite slides from the presentation.

My own belief is that the presentation is very good and makes the points it wants to quite well. If I have a minor quibble with it, it is that in doing such a good job at laying out the case for checklists and against scripted testing, the presentation – almost by definition/design – does not go into as much detail as I would personally like to see about a topic that I think is extremely important and not written about enough; namely, how practitioners should use an approach that blends the advantages of scripted tests (that can generate some of the huge efficiency benefits of combinatorial testing methods for example) and checklist-based Exploratory Testing (which have the advantages pointed out so well in the presentation). A “both / and” option is not only possible; it is desirable.

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Credit for bringing this presentation to my attention: Michael Bolton (the testing expert, of course, not the singer, [ {— “Office Space” video snippet] , posted a link to this presentation. Thanks again, Michael. Your enthusiastic recommendation to pick up boxed sets of the BBC show Connections was also excellent as well; the presenter of Connections is like a slightly tipsy genius with ADHD who possesses incredible grasp of history, an encyclopedic knowledge of quirky scientific developments and a gift for story-telling. I like how your mind works.

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“I feel honored…”

There are some phrases in English that, as often as not, come off sounding obligatory and/or insincere. The phrase “I’m honored…” comes to mind (particularly if someone is accepting an award in front of a room full of people).

Be that as it may, I genuinely felt really honored last night and again today by a couple comments James Bach has said about me, including these:

Here’s the quick background: (1) James knows much more about software testing than I do and I respect his views a lot. (2) He has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly and pretty bluntly telling people he doesn’t respect them if he doesn’t respect the content of their views. (3) in addition to his extremely broad expertise on “testing in general” James, like Michael Bolton, knows a lot about pairwise and combinatorial testing methods and how to use them. (4) I firmly (and passionately) believe that pairwise and combinatorial testing methods are (a) dramatically under-appreciated, and (b) dramatically under-utilized. (5) James has published a very good and well-reasoned article about some of the limitations of pairwise testing methods that I wanted to talk to him about. (6) I co-wrote an article that IEEE Computer recently published about Combinatorial Testing that I wanted to discuss with him. (7) James and I have been at the STP Conference in Boston over the past few days. (8) I reached out to him and asked to meet at the conference to talk about pairwise and combinatorial testing methods and share with him my findings that – in the dozens of projects I’ve been involved with that have compared testers efficiency and effectiveness – I’ve routinely seen defects found per tester hour more than double. (9) I was interested in getting his insights into where are these methods most applicable? Least applicable? What have his experiences been in teaching combinatorial testing methods to students, etc.

In short, frankly, my goals in meeting with him were to: (a) meet someone new, interesting and knowledgeable and learn as much as could and try to understand from his experiences, his impressive critical thinking and his questioning nature, and (b) avoid tripping up with sloppy reasoning (when unapologetically expressing the reasons I feel combinatorial testing methods are dramatically under-appreciated by the software testing community) in front of someone who (i) can smell BS a mile away, and (ii) doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

I learned a lot, heard some fantastic war stories and heard his excellent counter-examples that disproved a couple of the generalizations I was making (but didn’t dampen my unshaken assertions that combinatorial testing methods are wildly under-utilized by the software testing community). I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Moving forward, as a result of our meeting, I will go through an exercise which will make me more effective (namely carefully thinking through and enumerating all of the assumptions behind my statements like: “I’ve measured the effectiveness of testers dozens of times – trying to control external variables as much as reasonably possible – and I’m consistently seeing more than twice as many defects per tester hour when testers adopt pairwise/combinatorial testing methods.”

His complement last night was private so I won’t share it but it ranks up there in my all time favorite complements I’ve ever received. I’m honored. Thanks James.

Efficient and Effective Test Design

I enjoyed talking about efficient and effective combination testing strategies (and highlights of a recent empirical study) at yesterday’s TISQA meeting together with Lester Bostic of Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina, who shared his team’s experiences of adopting a combinatorial testing approach.  It addresses how tools like Hexawise can help software testers quickly identify the test cases they should execute to find as many defects as possible with as few tests as possible.  I wanted to share it now; once I have more time, I will comment on it and highlight some of the good questions, comments, discussion points, and tester experiences that were raised by the attendees.

The presentation focused on combinatorial testing techniques, such as pairwise testing, orthogonal array-based testing methods, and more thorough combination testing strategies (capable of identifying all defects that could be captured by, say, any possible combination of three or four “things” that you’ve decided to test for (regardless of whether those “things” include features configurations or equivalence class of data or type of user a mix of each).

The middle of the presentation also highlights empirical evidence that shows this method of identifying test cases often has an enormous impact on how quickly software testers are able to identify defects; citing the IEEE Computer article I co-wrote last month on Combinatorial Testing, this approach – on average – led to more than twice as many defects found per tester hour.

The final section of the presentation was delivered by Lester Bostic of Blue Cross Blue Shield and addresses his lessons learned.  Lester used Hexawise to reduce 1,356,136,048,589,996,428,428,909,447,344,392,489,476,985,674,792,960 possible tests (that would have been necessary to achieve comprehensive testing of the application he was testing) to only 220 tests that proved to be extremely effective at identifying defects.  <Side note: No, that absurdly large number with 51 digits after the “1” is not a typo;  it makes me smile every time I see it>.

Comments and questions are welcome.