Testing is an Information Service

Testing is an information service. The point of testing is to inform stakeholders about the system. This is not a new sentiment, nor does it originate with me. But I’ve found that many testers have not considered their role from this perspective.

I teach classes about how to test software. Early in each class I describe testing as an information service. Even in classes filled with experienced testers, there are always a few people for whom this is a new idea.

In one class, just as I finished saying that testing is an information service, a man in the back of the room said, “Oh, no!”

“You disagree?” I asked.

“No, no, I agree,” he said. “It’s just that I’ve never thought of it that way before.” He paused and frowned. “And I think I’ve been doing it all wrong.”

I thought it was unlikely that he’d been doing it all wrong, so I asked, “How have you been doing it?”

“I just try to break stuff. When I can break it, it’s like I win. And if I can’t break it, I feel like I’m failing.”

“Trying to break stuff,” I said, “is an important part of testing.” I mentioned James A. Whittaker’s excellent book How to Break Software, which teaches testers how to find the kinds of defects that arise from common programming errors.

“I know,” he said, “but that’s all I’ve been doing. And when I find a nice, nasty bug, I run over to the developers and rub it in their faces.”

“Oh, no”, I said.

He laughed and nodded. “Now you understand.”

“How does that work out?” I asked. (I know what you’re thinking, but you’ve got it backwards. Doctor Phil channels me.)

“They hate it. And hate to see me coming. They keep telling me to bring them some good news once in a while.”

“But if your job is only to break stuff…”

“Then I never tell them what’s working. But that’s information, too, and that’s what I just realized. And that’s what they’ve been asking for.”

I’ve had numerous similar conversations with testers who had found themselves mired in unproductive relationships with developers. Shifting your focus from breaking stuff to informing stakeholders (including developers) can help with that.

I’ll say more later about testing as an information service. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your questions and comments about it.

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