Sunday, 4 September 2011

Testing: Do you train like an athlete?

" #softwaretesting #testing "

I just read this analysis piece on the BBC site about the pressures involved in sprinting, especially the start and run-up to the start.

As I read through it I found myself mentally ticking off links to the testing world:
  • There is no perfect start
  • Appearance and presentation is part of the message
  • Pressure kills concentration
  • Reacting at the right time
  • Distractions affecting focus
No perfect start?
The interview contrasts two sprinters with different techniques and how their physical make-up presents different problems at starting and how they handle that. In the software development world this translates to there is no best practice. Every problem and solution is unique - what works for one athlete (or product) does not necessarily work for another.

Presentation of the message
In the article the example is given of Linford Christie displaying his superior physique to other competitors before a race. The intention was partly - I'm prepared and ready.

In the testing world, the message and form in which we give that message is important. Successful message styles are usually truthful, not unduly biased by numbers and consistent. Part of this goes towards building your brand.

Building this trust in your team and stakeholders is vital to successful story-telling.

Pressure kills concentration
All athletes respond and cope with pressure in different ways. Some pressure is exerted by other athletes, some is created by the athlete themselves (their own expectations) and their surroundings.

In the testing world - sometimes the pressure is external - created by teams or stakeholders, sometimes with unrealistic expectations of testing and sometimes because they don't handle/distribute the pressure so well.

This reminded me of the chapter in Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, "pressure kills cognition" which gives examples of overt pressure disrupting thinking. Be on the look-out for this - it's not the easiest thing to deal with when you're on the receiving end, but if anything, don't pass on the pressure - or at least understand what effect it might have.

Reaction times
In athletics the false start is feared - especially for the sprints. The athletes are coiled like a spring and are trying to react as quickly as possible. But, they don't want to react too quickly, and not too late either - they want something that's good enough for them. The interview demonstrates the difficulty here with the game of slapsies (look here and here).

In testing, the similarity might be when to raise or highlight a problem, call in help for the investigation. You don't want to be crying wolf for every issue, just as you don't want to be doing some lone investigation "too long" (and potentially getting stuck). Here is where pairing or having a colleague (tester or developer), that you can run something by, is very useful. Even at a daily stand-up meeting mention what you're currently investigating - sometimes there is someone who says "check X" or "have you got Y set in your configuration".

There is a routine and balance to find here - something that takes both practice and goes hand in hand with your message / brand.

Distractions affect focus
Athletes get distracted by the antics of other athletes, sometimes by the crowd or acoustics in the stadium. They have different ways of dealing with this - some try to get into and stay 'in the zone', some go and lie down and stare at something, whilst others continuously move around to avoid tensing up.

Distractions play a big part in any work environment also, as well as the ways we try and remedy them. It might be the problem of multi-tasking - getting many high-priority demands on your attention and not being able to decide which to devote attention to - or really how to stay focussed on the task at hand.

Sometimes, it's more efficient to simplify the problem into smaller component parts, and so have a feeling of manageability and being able to see progress quicker. Small wins keep attention and focus rather than long drawn-out slogs wading through mud.

Sometimes it's about removing distractions - don't check email for the next hour, close unnecessary browsers (with their flash animations that catch the eye - or use a flash blocker) - reduce the number of open windows to the minimum needed for the task.

Sometimes it's right to de-focus on the problem, step back and look at the wider picture. This helps you relate the problem to it's situational context, re-evaluate why you're doing something, maybe even bring in a fresh pair of eyes to help. This sometimes gives new information or re-affirms the original scope, then you can re-focus on the problem (with any new insights and information).

Are you a person that whilst talking to someone must always answer a phone call (no matter who it's from)? Or do you treat phone calls like someone coming up to you in the corridor whilst you're already in a conversation - usually they'd wait to interrupt your ongoing conversation - so why should it be different with a phone call? (The exemption here is if you're waiting for some urgent or important information which would lead you to interrupt the conversation.)

There are lessons to learn all around - especially from non software testing disciplines. The key is to be able to recognise your potential problem areas - whether it's to do with message presentation, knowing when to react, handling distractions or being aware that pressure can have a detrimental affect on performance.

Awareness is an important first step in problem solving - whether you can solve the issue or not - understanding factors that affect your "testing performance" is key!

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