Tester Traits – Comfort with Cognitive Dissonance

I believe that software testers need to be comfortable with two conflicting ideas in order to best contribute to the success of a project. They need to be able to find and point out every defect in a given software application; however, they also need to keep in mind that the software can meet the business’ needs even if it is not perfect. The best software testers that I’ve worked with are comfortable with the cognitive dissonance caused by these two conflicting ideas.

Goal of Perfection

I’ve worked with some software testers who are great at finding defects, but they get so focused on the defects that they lose sight of the big picture. They seem to believe that the ultimate purpose of software is to be perfect rather than to meet a business goal. These software testers can cause a software project to be unnecessarily delayed by arguing that minor issues should prevent software from going live. They can also reduce end-user acceptance of a product by complaining to anyone who will listen that the software is subpar and by pointing out every known issue to end-users.

I believe that testers do need to point out every bug possible to the internal development team and ensure that the team knows the business implications of any bugs. However, good testers need to be comfortable with the fact that perfection is not ultimate goal for business software. Instead, software has some business purpose that does not require perfection. Once software goes live, I believe that a tester should champion the software to the end-users.

When I encounter a tester who has trouble accepting imperfect software, I remind them that most useful commercial software has known bugs. Often, some of these bugs are even listed in a “Read Me” file for end users to see. There is a real value to having less than perfect software available rather than having no software at all.

Goal of Delivery

Although I have seen testers who are too focused on perfection, I have also seen testers who are too focused on delivery of the software. These testers either are not detail-oriented enough to find critical bugs or they ignore the real business impact of bugs. These testers do not want to stand in the way of the delivery date under any circumstances. Project Managers often put enormous pressure on testers to sign-off on software that was not properly tested or has major bugs in order to meet a delivery deadline. However, the best testers will have the backbone to stand up to any pressures and point out the specific risks of going live.

In my opinion, it’s important that the tester understand the business goals well enough to point out the specific risks to key decision makers; however, I believe that it should not be up to the tester to decide whether or not software goes live. The ultimate decision should be made by management who understands the full scope of business needs and can weigh the quality risks against every other concern.

The Ponds

There’s a poem by Mary Oliver called The Ponds that I think captures the essence of this trait that software testers need to contribute to a successful project. Testers need to notice imperfections while still being “willing to be dazzled”. This version of the poem is from a book called New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver published by Beacon Press in 1992. I hope you enjoy it and find it relevant.

Every year

the lilies

are so perfect

I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding

the black,

mid-summer ponds.

Nobody could count all of them –

the muskrats swimming

among the pads and the grasses

can reach out

their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that

rife and wild.

But what in this world

is perfect?

I bend closer and see

how this one is clearly lopsided –

and that on wears an orange blight –

and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away –

and that one is a slumped purse

full of its own

unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life

is to be willing

to be dazzled –

to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even

to float a little

above this difficult world

I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.

I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing –

that the light is everything – that it is more than the sum

of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

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