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CAST 2009: How to teach yourself testing, an interview with James Bach

At this year’s Conference for the Association for Software Testing (CAST), taking place July 13-16th in Colorado Springs, James Bach will be presenting a tutorial on self-education for software testers. The tutorial, titled “Teach YOURSELF Software Testing,” is about teaching yourself testing, instead of waiting for some testing guru to tell you all the answers. Bach often boasts that he invented testing for himself, and he believes you can too. In his tutorial, Bach plans to share his personal system of testing self-education. Based on his upcoming book “Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar,” it’s a system of analyzing experiences and questioning conventional wisdom.

James Bach is a high school dropout who taught himself programming and testing. He’s been a tester, test manager, and consultant since 1987. A founding member of the Context-Driven School of testing, he has taught his class, Rapid Software Testing, around the world. He is co-author of “Lessons Learned in Software Testing,” and author of “Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar,” a book about technical self-education which is being published in September.

I first heard Bach talk at a conference in 2000 where he outlined a method of approaching testing problems that I found both engaging and effective. A few years later, I met him at a workshop and (after trying to hack his laptop) was lucky enough to get along well enough with him that he invited me to study software testing with him. I’ve had the pleasure of studying under him and have first hand experience working through his syllabus of software testing concepts; developing my own understanding of how to identify, articulate, and test my own heuristics; and developing methods of how to assess my progress. All of those topics are covered in this tutorial.

I opened the interview with Bach by asking him why he thinks self-education, as opposed to more traditional methods like classes or certification, is so important for someone’s career:

“Technical self-education is traditional, going back hundreds and thousands of years. Electricity, for instance, was discovered and developed by individuals working on their own, outside of any institution. So was chemistry and physics, for the most part. We are in the process of developing the testing craft, and that requires people who innovate.

Testing classes and certifications are pretty bad, for the most part. Of course, I try to teach a good one, but there’s not a whole lot I can do in three days. What I try to do is start a fire in the minds of the testers to pursue their education further without me telling them the answers.

Self-education is available to each of us, all the time. We don’t need a budget. We don’t need anyone’s permission. Institutional education, on the other hand, is expensive and limiting.”

Bach first presented a tutorial along these lines at CAST 2007. He often talks fondly about pulling the material together for the first time as a “bold boast.” A bold boast is a self-education technique.

“A bold boast is a trick I use to get myself going on a project. It’s basically a promise to accomplish some feat, such as to write an article or teach a class. I make the boast that I can teach something, and then my mind gets serious about solving the problems that need to be solved. So, the first time I did this tutorial was when I was writing the Buccaneer book and wanted to develop new material for it, more quickly. I told the CAST organizers ‘I’ll teach a class on self-education for testers,’ not knowing what I was going to do, at first.”

If you follow Bach’s work at all, a lot of what he puts forth in the tutorial mirrors the way he talks about and teaches software testing. So I asked him how the tutorial builds on, or extends, some of his past work.

“I have lots of odd ideas about testing. They run counter to the traditional ‘Factory School’ ideas that you find in most testing textbooks. I teach and demonstrate these ideas, in all my classes, but in this tutorial I get to share how I came up with them in the first place.

I’m nervous when I teach this tutorial, because I expect more from the students than in my normal classes. People who only want quick answers about how to test will be disappointed, because my goal is to show them how to create their own answers. In fact, I show them how they already know a lot of the things they don’t think they know!

In the tutorial, I also talk about how the testing craft is going through a great struggle. The various testing schools are fighting with each other for dominance. The certificationists, of course, being the most visible and aggressive of those. I stand up for the Context-Driven School – against the certificationists and Factory folks – and do my best to recruit testers to our cause. I’m up front about that.”

Bach’s ideas about self-education have, in the past, faced some criticisms. I asked him to anticipate a couple of the more likely criticisms and asked him how he addresses them.

“The most likely criticisms, I think, are these two:

In the tutorial I attack other schools of testing thought instead of trying to find common ground. My response to that is – that’s right. I think those other schools are harming the craft. I don’t see common ground. But I’m glad that our field is not regulated. I’d like to see the other schools go down in flames, but not through any mechanism other than the efficient operation of a well-informed market of ideas.

The second criticism is that it’s all well that the great James Bach can make it up as he goes along, but what about people who aren’t famous? My response to this criticism is that I was developing my own methodology before anyone outside of my team at Apple Computer knew my name. I became well known because some folks found out about what I was doing and thought it was interesting. ANYONE can be a testing methodologist. The market will decide, in the long run, whether it is interested in your methods.”

Bach’s ideas on self education have been influenced by the works of Jerry Weinberg (also speaking at CAST this year), Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahneman, and Nicholas Taleb. “I would recommend ‘The Invention of Air’ as a great book that shows the development of one man – Joseph Priestly – and the development of his field of electricity and chemistry through vigorous and collegial self-education.”

“CAST is the conference that attracts the core contributing thinkers in the Context-Driven School. These are the people who, like me, are engaged in the creation of a vibrant testing craft that has roots in many disciplines and in the history of science. No other testing conference is like that. At CAST, I don’t have to apologize for using Joseph Priestly as an example of a good tester.”

For more on the upcoming show, check out the CAST conference website. For more on James Bach’s work, you can check out his website, or either of his books “Lessons Learned in Software Testing,” and “Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar.” Bach also runs two very popular blogs, one on testing and one on self-education.

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