Mashing “Best Practices”

Once, someone irritated me about using the term “Best Practices”. I spouted off.

After reflection, I’ve realized that while comparing test case spreadsheets to Nickleback was good for getting people that already agree with me to snicker, it was not helping me make my point to people who did not already have that point of view.

Canadian Arena Rock Best Practices
Arena Rock Best Practices

Clearly, “Vancouver Creed” is evocative of strong emotions to many music fans, but lots of people like them, and I don’t just mean Avril Lavigne and other Canadian Mediocrities. They sell millions of records and sell out arenas, even today. These guys are rich beyond even *my* wildest dreams, and that is a pretty frightening Lynchian hip hop video.

The core issue is not the wording of whatever label is used for defining helpful practices as an abstract concept, but with trying to control dialogue about practices by insisting that precedent is the most important concept in deciding what to do. Here, I’ve tried to spell out what I think the Worst of the “Best Practices” label really is: how it can be used to fool ourselves and each other into rushing without sufficient care or information to bad decisions.

1. Implied Framing

Anyone can point at anything and say that it is a “Best Practice”. I think that adding chicken stock before whipping is a good practice for mashed potatoes. I’ve made mashed potatoes that way and liked it, so I could decide to call that a “Best Practice”.

However, that would be dumb. My wife doesn’t like mashed potatoes that way. She, and many other people, have different techniques to reach different definitions of delicious, creamy mashed potatoes.

If I insist on a practice because it will create an outcome *I* want, I am assuming that the outcome I want is exactly the same as everyone else wants. There are other problems here to discuss, but that is the first – that my view of things is the only valid one, and that everything must serve the end.

Many recommended testing practices seem to be focused on the end of establishing central control and repeatable testing practices. That may serve the purposes of a person “managing” a large testing project, but most stakeholders don’t care about that.

2. Over-Simplification – Problem and Implementation

Mashed potatoes are a terrible analogue for testing software. In fact, any process seen as deterministic from a handful of factors is the absolute opposite of useful.

All software projects are one-offs created by developers, testers, and project staff of various skill levels and engagement, to solve different problems, using different components, based on variably incomplete understandings of requirements. In a given context, at a given time, a team of (hopefully) smart and (always) flawed people work together to make JUST ONE thing that never existed before, and follow-up with as much bug-fixing as they have time, money, and energy for. They stumble through a project, splitting their time with other projects and non-work situations, and eventually call it done. Then they move on to create something else, with a different team addressing a different set of requirements, some a little more skilled, some a little more cynical or a little less interested. Requirements, conditions, and the skill and engagement of the people on the team, are all moving targets.

Software testing isn’t mashed potatoes. It isn’t even a restaurant; the closest I can get to is an “Iron Chef” style competition: here are some ingredients and requirements you may or may not be familiar with and an arbitrary timeline – go!

A Demanding Stakeholder who doesn't care about process, just results
A Demanding Stakeholder who doesn’t care about process, just results

That being said, indulge me. Let’s briefly consider the simple system of mashed potatoes:

- Mashed potatoes involves first, potatoes. Selecting Yukon Gold, Redskin, Russet, Purple Peruvian, or another variety makes a huge difference. This woman is all wrong about types of potatoes, by the way. Redskin potatoes make awesome mashed potatoes. The age of the potatoes at picking, and how long they hung around before cooking matters, too. Finally, do you peel them first or not?

- Usually, the potatoes are boiled until soft. The mineral content of the water? Salt and garlic cloves in the water (no and yes for me)? How soft?

- Then they get whipped, often with a hand mixer, sometimes with a stand mixer, maybe with a food processor. Some amount of salt and butter is added. A splash of milk is a good idea, though I like sour cream or yogurt better. Some people like cheese.

- Then some amount of time passes, and the potatoes are eaten hot, reheated, or cooled off, and may or may not have gravy.

Are all mashed potatoes the same? I guess that depends on how much you care about the quality of the mashed potatoes. What’s good enough for a Tuesday night? What’s good enough for Christmas Dinner? If you wanted commodity potatoes, why not just get instant?

3. False Assertion of Authority/Expertise

“I’m an expert on potatoes. And mashing them. So let’s do it my way.”

If the person is saying that because they have a true love of potatoes and many years of experience, they should still be sensitive to the context: the available materials, time, budget and skill.

This is far more preferable than the next most likely situation: someone read something or watched a presentation, and are attempting to apply techniques they haven’t used. This turns on the worst assumption of a process engineer – that process trumps skill, experience, and context.

I love aphorisms, but one of my favorite is “Knows enough to be dangerous”. This is a place that applies.

4. Shut Down Debate/Appeal to Fear

This is related to the previous. Once you believe the right software testing is a matter of selecting the right process, then you can do whatever it takes to advocate for a “pure” implementation of it.

One highly effective way to control people is with fear.

"And then we will probably all get sued!"
“And then we will probably all get sued!”

Whether you construct legal strawmen, invoke the boss’ name to try to access people’s fear buttons, or go straight for the fear of losing their jobs if the project fails, the easiest way to halt debate is to make people think that implementing processes that worked somewhere else has less risk – even if you have to make it personal. You can always claim later that you were just being cautious, which will have many people forgiving you for your attempted manipulation.

I don’t mean to minimize the important of safety. If people don’t feel safe, of course they will be more conservative in decision making. My experience is that there is a lot more fear out there than is appropriate. I am saying that amplifying the level of fear is unkind at best, often cruel, and never fair as a technique for debate.

Sometime, there is no debate. A consensus builds (or the HiPPO makes the call), and perceived risk is reduced; whether that is project or political risk is rarely untangled.

I SAID TMap!!!
I SAID TMap!!!

Somehow, I think we are a long ways from being done with debating these issues. “Use Best Practices” is a mantra that has spread far and wide. We have a lot of work left to do.

Happy holidays to everyone. I hope that wherever you are, and whoever you’re with, that your mashed potatoes are satisfying to all.

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