Friday, February 17, 2012

Stepping in the shadow of a monument of process, or standing up?

Somewhere in an old and run down railroad boom town, stands a hundred churches.  Most of the churches were built nearly a century before the Americans with Disabilities Act was even contemplated on the floors of the US Congress.  Some have been updated with ramps or elevators, but most like this one old red brick church have only concrete stairs that lead up and into the hall where the people meet each Sunday morning.  Every Sunday a hundred people or more, women, men, children, and elderly walk up those old concrete steps before that service begins and then, retreats back down those stairs again after the service has concluded.

On this particular Sunday morning, many feet trod up and down those stairs. Each pair of feet appear only conscious of their forward motion, an attempt to keep things moving forward, progress, a process.   So one step after another and soon they reach the destination on another iteration of that Sunday morning hour or more of fellowship and learning.  These little feet may be blissfully unaware, or perhaps they know all too well  that the church is a hundred years old, and has stood tall for longer than those feet have been able to move.  Furthermore, it might seem to those feet, as the creep up those stairs in the shadow of that hundred year old steeple that those feet will continue to visit the same pattern of stairs until the trip can no longer be made.

Of course, then there will be other feet will take its place, and as many feet will continue this pattern to mark up and down those stairs, with their purpose focused on the zenith  where the door opens into the terrace of worship.  So common and repetitive might this routine become that these feet may pay little attention to anything except to each footfall after footfall.  While the conditions of the stairway may sometimes be traveled in the dry, the wet, or perhaps with salt or kitty litter spread about to enhance traction when snow or ice threaten the weekly ascent, but always these feet work their way upward, looking towards the doorway at the top, and yet despite the variety caused by the cycle of seasons, still these feet remain oblivious, giving less and less attention to the grind, the steps each foot falls upon as the habit of the process over takes the analysis and observation that once, during those first few trips up and down those stairs, where the mind noticed the grade, the hardness, and sound of those foot falls on their ascent.

Yet then one Sunday Morning, a half hour before the celebration of this years Scout Sunday a lone boy finds his way up these stairs.  He has walked these stairs before, but it has been months since he last made that climb.  While others around him may feel this is nothing but a normal routine, he takes in the moment, the smell of the cold snowy air, the feel of the chill wind against his cheeks, and the sound of each footfall as he climbs step by step, turning at its half way point to the side, and then up one more step to the doorway. That's when his senses detect it.  A sound altogether different from the sounds of all the previous steps he has heard ring out.

The sound catches his attention, and he lingers for a moment on that step, noting that it is different, but not so sure about it, he opens the door and enters the old church.   Others behind walk up the same step, and not one notices, or comments on the sound he heard as he stands back from the doorway and ponders, waiting for the latest bunch of congregational attendants to finish their ascent.   This boy doesn't attend this church regularly, he goes to another church nearby and across town.  He was only visiting on this occasion in support of the church that had graciously helped support his Cub Scout unit.  Yet a question forms in his mind, unlike all the other habitual comers and goers, going through the usual and traditional process of that weeks iteration that raises his curiosity.

The young boy makes his way back down the steps, and this time he takes a slightly different path on the other side of the stairway.  As he steps down the stairs, he notes that this time it sounded a bit different.  He begins to question as he continues his way back down to the bottom of the stairway.  Had he misheard?  Did he really hear it wrong?  Or had he stepped a bit different on that step and just didn't notice?  Had he perceived a discrepancy where none existed?  In that moment the boy considers whether it had all been in his mind, after all a hundred others had come and gone on these steps already that morning, surely at least one other person would have noticed something amiss.  He begins to be skeptical of his own observation, thinking that because he is new here that maybe it has always sounded that way, or perhaps there was another sound at the moment which he had confused with his own footfall.

That explanation could be the truth, yet he still feels that calm voice inside saying, "Hey, I did hear something, so what was it?"  At this point he thinks about the difference between ascent and descent on the stairway and ponders whether the step may sound different depending upon which direction he traveled on the stairway.  That alone could be sufficient answer to why the sound had been different, but how do you prove it?

The young boy considers the time on his watch and then shrugs his shoulders.  Then he begins to ascend the steps again.  Step by step, they all sound the same, with each footfall, each sound just like the other he begins to think that maybe it was nothing after all.  He smiles as his mind begins to drift from this curiosity to focus on the other tasks that morning.  He turns and steps again on that last step, to hear a hollow 'thunk' sound.  There it was again! That sound was the same as before. He had reproduced the effect, and now was confident it wasn't just something  he had imagined.

To prove the point, the boy begins stepping up and down off that single step repeating the sound over and over again. There can be no doubt to him now, that it does sound different than all of the other steps.   Then another question comes to his mind: What had he heard when he came down though?  He quickly realizes that he had ascended the stairway on its right side, but upon descending he had been on the left (his right side on the way down).  Would it make the same sound he made on the right side if he stepped further to his left?   So he formulates another experiment, slides to the left and he tries it, and as he suspected, sure enough the step doesn't make this sound on that side.  He repeats this test over and over, then moves back to the right to confirm the sound is different there still.

Now he has reproduced the defect, and shown a bit about its scope, and he has drawn the attention of one of the church's leadership, who are wondering, what this crazy boy is doing.  The boy smiles politely, and then begins to explain his discovery.  A hundred people before had passed that same step, perhaps for weeks, and not one of them had noted this problem.  Yet this outsider, this newcomer of a boy had noticed it even though it really wasn't something that would necessarily be expected to concern this boy.

Have you ever joined a software team that had been around for a long time?  Sometimes teams get so entrenched into the ebb and flow of their processes that the processes themselves create blind spots.  A latent defect or bug could be present in the product and go undetected for a long time, simply because no focus, thought, or imagination had brought it to anyone's attention before.  Even with a large team, a small, perhaps tiny defect could be dismissed each in turn, yet that defect could be a sign of something about to go wrong with the system being produced.

I've been in that situation, several times, and it can be a bit of a daunting task.  If you are the new guy on the block, and are still learning the ropes of the teams process, learning how they interact and accomplish their daily tasks it can be such a trial to ask, and yet as a newbie that's part of your Job.  You have to know how and why things work the way they are.   Now imagine this had happened on a Software project.  You as a tester or developer ask a more experienced development guy about it, and get a response.  How do you respond?

How would you respond if they say it has always been that way?  Do you ignore it and flag it as just an annoyance that everyone knows about?   Do you speak up and say hey this could be dangerous, and then articulate your feelings as to why it is a problem?  What if noone had noticed it before, yet because you are still in your first month with the team, they discount what you say, perhaps fail to believe you?  What do you do then?  Would you have courage to confirm your observations, and then try to prove it to the team?  Would you have the passion to see that the problem gets addressed, even if the people around you look at you like you've gone crazy?

These are questions I've had to answer in the past.  As a tester, a developer, a leader, a parent, at some point in your life you will find something that is out of place, something that is against the norm, and maybe you are so weary from the travel down life's path that your mind wants to simply dismiss it.  If you do, does your mind realize the risks?  The risks that threaten your Team, your project, your family or community, do you see them and just ignore them?

It is too easy at times to fall into ruts of habit, running here and there all the while wearing out the same patch of carpet beneath our feet.  How do we combat this apathetic attitude?  How do we combat life's fire when just keeping it burning is all we want?

For me, I do this by testing myself, by testing things around me, and trying things that at times will throw people off.   My kids think it's just their father being goofy when I ask them questions about seemingly obvious things.  They may even think I'm getting on their case as I ask them to observe something I've noticed.  What I'm gauging is their reaction to their surroundings.  How do they process things, and how would I respond if I was in their shoes?  It isn't easy to be the squeaky wheel.  Standing alone when the crowd is seated and content with things to be as they are.

Yet, I'm not convinced that being silent is the answer.  There are times when you may have to table an issue because of priority, or it could be this is not the right venue or time to raise it.  It may even be that the thing you've noticed is far more complex than even you might imagine in your mind.   What happens after you've raised the issue is something you and the team will have to manage, but do you have the courage to stand out and speak out when you see something that seems to be wrong?  For me, as an Eagle Scout, and a member of the Association for Software Testing, and a person who believes integrity is very important for professionals, I would do my best to make the issue known.  It might not be something that can be solved over night, and there might be intermediary steps that need to be crossed before it can happen, but I know I would certainly put myself out there to say what I had seen.  Even if there's a small chance I might be wrong, that in and of itself is an opportunity for growth and learning.  Can you say the same?  So as you test your life around you, what kernels in the corner are you ignoring?  What patterns have you fallen into that could be obscuring something that's a serious problem, and once you've identified them, what will you do to try to correct them?


  1. Good post, Tim. Thought-provoking.

  2. Really good post, excellent story to illustrate your message and a great message to share. It can be too easy to fall into ruts, reading posts such as this and blogs from other testers can help keep me thinking so thanks for writing.
    Lee Copeland has Integrity as one of his 9 Forgettings and I'd like to think that I'd raise the issue rather than be silent

    1. The irony here is the inspiration, actually was an odd sound on a stair case at a church. But it reminded me so much of situations I've encountered in groups before, that I thought it would make a good blog post.

      Thanks for the comments.