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.


There Wouldn't Be any Fat People Left if the Machines finally Took over

image credit:

Recently I saw three enormously fat men standing close to each other and the feature that caught my eye was their huge bellies all three guys put on display for the world to see.

If they had moved a tiny bit closer, the bellies would have met with a gentle touch.

They did not do that but they were discussing stuff. They were chatting and telling jokes. In short: they were being human with all the pleasant properties as well as the flaws humans tend to have.

Test automation hasn’t got a belly at all. Neither does it crack jokes. Why should it? It would not be of any use. Test automation hasn’t got any humor but it is lighting fast and incredibly accurate.

It is kind of obvious: Humans and computers are different. Both are good at some things and have their shortcomings somewhere else.

You certainly know testers who say that test automation should not be considered at all for testing. They say that it does not help doing a tester’s job and by saying that they are - in my opinion - fundamentally wrong.

I am sometimes amazed by the inaccurate thinking of some people. Just because test automation cannot do some things it does not mean it cannot do anything. That’s like saying: “This car is useless, it cannot fly”.

What test automation is good at:
  • Fast checking of huge amounts of data that is prone to change and therefore to errors
  • Doing repetitive procedures over and over again
  • Access code that is not easily accessible through the UI
  • Do basic sanity checking on an regular intervals

Test Automation is very, very good at the above. Beer bellies aren’t.

The excellent book Mind over Machine by Hubert L. and Stuart E. Dreyfus describes it accurately:

Computers are general symbol manipulators, so they can simulate any process which can be described exactly.

On the other hand humans are splendid observers even if they don’t anticipate beforehand what they are going to discover. A tester who finds a bug during an exploratory testing session and who is asked how he/she found a certain bug will sometimes reply: I don’t know. Finding a bug without exactly knowing how it was done differs enormously from the definition of a computer above.

What humans are good at:
  • Collateral observation
  • Rapid change of direction if new information demands it
  • Acquisition of knowledge in general
  • Taking advantage of the wisdom of crowds
  • Using intuition

Beer bellies are very, very good at the above. Test automation isn’t.

I think our western culture is very much imprisoned in a dichotomous either-or-mindset. There seems to be a need for a constant opposition between two positions. Hence you either do manual testing OR automated testing.

This is a silly standpoint. Use both. And do it the same way a good manager distributes tasks among his different directs. Every task according to the individual strengths of the people.

There wouldn’t be any machines left if the fat people finally took over. And this is also true the other way round. It would be a sad world.