Defending the Qualitative Approach against the Quantitative Obsession

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Some years ago I studied Sociology and General Linguistics at the University of Zurich. That was before my time as a software tester and I enjoyed Sociology a lot. Well, at least part of it. Quite interestingly, Sociology and - in my observation - many of the human sciences, display a minority complex towards the so called hard sciences such as Physics.

This leads to a sad obsession. Make everything quantifiable.

But I was much more interested in qualitative studies. There is a brilliant sociologist from France - Jean-Claude Kaufmann - who studied and described many of the deeply human activities and behaviors. For instance, how men behave on beaches where women do topless sunbathing. The book: Corps de femmes, regards d’hommes - La sociologie des seins nus (women’s bodies, mens looks - the sociology of naked breasts). A fascinating read!

Also, one of my lesser known heuristics is, that men with extravagant mustaches are interesting people who have captivating stories to tell. Jean-Claude Kaufman has an extravagant mustache. Judge yourself:


On the other hand, I have always found that quantitative Sociology has only boring stories to tell. Its findings tended to be things that everybody already knew. There is hardly any discovery. Not even mentioning the fact, that the whole complex of validity of what has been found out through measurement, leaves some questions open. Measurements often give a false sense of certainty.

Our good old friend Availability Bias enters the scene: "if you can think of it, it must be important”. And we are already deep in the domain of software testing.

It is not difficult to count something and put that counting result into relation to something else. And - hey! - we are already 50.4576% done. Only that this has no relation to any relevant reality. It is utter nonsense. It is dwelling in fantastic la-la-land. And our users couldn’t care less about 50.4576%. They want a joyful experience while using our application.

Peter Drucker - the famous management man - once said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. A simple sentence that stuck in the simple brains of too many simple contemporary managers. That statement is of course not true, as every parent on earth knows from empirical experience. You do not quantitatively bring up a child. You don’t draw progress charts. You tell stories and pass your time playing and laughing.

But because many managers are too busy collecting meaningless data, they no longer find time to read books and have missed that Peter Drucker later in his life had serious doubts about his initial statement. It is not only us testers who suffer from that lamentable laziness.

I’d rather go with Albert Einstein instead: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


There Are Two Sides to the Managerial Coin and this Analogy Is Worn Out Like your Testing Skills

You lean back in your expensive executive leather chair puffing your H. Upmann cigar smoke in the face of your subservient employees and then you laugh far too loudly while lifting your legs and placing your expensive bespoke brogues on your desk.

You have successfully changed sides. Yesterday you were a tester, now you are a manager of testers. Great, isn’t it? And while you indulge in complacency in your splendid new corner office, what might soon happen to your testing skills shall be exemplified with the following image:

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It was in November 2007 when I was promoted line manager of my test team. We have four different roles: Testers, Test Engineers, Software Developers in Test and Test Managers. The size of the team has always been between 13 to 19 Testers. My team is great, I love them all. And being a line manager is very rewarding.

If somebody asked me I would say that I follow the Servant Leadership style. I am familiar with DISC (myself being a strong I and D with a significant share of C) and Process Communication Model (Base: Workaholic, Phase: Rebel). I concentrate on the “what” and I am agnostic about the “how”, “when” and “where”. I constantly try to keep on learning; currently I am an avid listener of the Manager Tools Podcast.

So, where is the problem?

There is a fundamental difference between being a tester and being a manager of testers. Given the size of your team is big enough, the line manager part of your job becomes a full time activity. Now, what does that mean? Well, if it is a full time job, then obviously you are no longer testing that much yourself, are you?

And what happens if you do not practice anymore? You become fat and ugly.

I don’t want to be fat and ugly. In the same fashion as many people start jogging after Christmas gluttony, I decided to start my own little jogging program. Only dwelling in propositional knowledge won’t make you better at all. These are some of the things I have started:

  • Regular Skype coaching sessions with James Bach (next session: tonight)
  • Registered with and started testing to reeducate myself (And they even pay you but I think I am going to donate the money to charity)
  • Challenge my brain with Lumosity, Khan Academy and Code Academy
  • Vowed I will submit session proposals to at least 3 conferences this year
  • Try to learn from testers who are active on Twitter
  • This blog is actually a result of my reasoning about testing (writing == reading your own thoughts)

Here’s an invitation: If you are from Switzerland and you are serious about testing, please read on. And by “serious” I mean:

  • You regard testing as an intellectually demanding activity
  • You are context driven
  • You strive to become really good at software testing
  • You value honest feedback
  • You sneer at useless certifications

PLEASE do contact me, I want to talk to YOU. Let’s form a context driven school of software testing group in Switzerland. Let’s get better at Exploratory Testing. Let’s solve puzzles. Let’s challenge each other. Let’s become world class together.