How Operation Plowshare is Only Partially a Good Analogy for the 'Full Automation' Extremists


Back in the sixties, some military dickheads had a good idea. Why not use atomic bombs for engineering purposes? Let’s bomb ourselves a harbor. Let’s get rid of that nasty mountain. Or why not just build a new canal between the pacific and the caribbean sea?

One bomb after the other planted in a row and - hey - he he, it’s automated and we need to do nothing else but pull the trigger. A good name had to be found and what would be more obvious to choose from for the god fearing good Americans than the holy scripture?

"And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" - Somewhere in the Bible

And that is how Operation Plowshare was born to henceforth bring the blessings of the modern age to mankind. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Only that quite obviously there are some shortcomings to this kind of project. Radiation might leave the harbor useless, the costs could rise to astronomic proportions. They did not care about things like that and so the project died a silent death somewhere in the seventies.

Just recently I overheard some snippets of a conversation in the cubicle next to mine: “Yeah, just give me the coverage”, “No, I am only interested in the automation part”, and the best of all: “I don’t care”. You don’t care? Really?

Does that sound like Operation Plowshare?

It is the same mindset that takes one advantage (creating a hole quickly/executing a test suite rapidly and repeatedly) and completely disregards any shortcomings (radiation wasteland/untested wasteland). The ‘full automation’ extremists probably might not even have a good mental model of what ‘full’ or ‘complete’ means. Just do it for the sake of it because it is ‘engineering’, right?

But the analogy is only partially valid. Unlike nuking ourselves some harbors, test automation has value. It does have huge value, actually, if it is applied for the right purpose. In some cases, it is enormously helpful for regression testing, but it does not give any ‘guarantee’ for not having messed up.

Automation checks things, and it checks only what has been thought of and might (or might not) catch anticipated bugs. It is a lightweight insurance ticket for a part of the system. And in its execution it is fast (not so much for its development, though). That’s all.

Is it somewhere rooted in the western thinking style that we seem to insist on opposing binary categorization for concepts and ideas? It is either or, not both. It is complete nonsense to think of automation and manual sapient testing as being opposites. They are not.

So, let’s not be military dickheads and instead apply each test automation and manual sapient testing where it is most suitable. Maybe sometimes in the future, the ‘let’s automate the hell out of it’-idea also dies a silent death, much like Operation Plowshare did.