James BachInteview-with-James-Bach
Organization: Satisfice, Inc.
Current Role/Designation: Consulting Software Tester
Location: Orcas Island, Washington, USA

Thirty-one years ago James was a high school dropout working as video game programmer, writing in Assembler for the Commodore 64. A few years later his “big break” came when he was hired to manage a test team at Apple Computer. He’s been hooked on testing ever since. He spent nearly a decade as a test manager in Silicon Valley during the 90’s, and became well known for rethinking software testing to give it a grounding in social science and general systems thinking. The focus of his work was much influenced Cem Kaner and Jerry Weinberg.
James is a founder of the Context-Driven school of testing. He created and teaches the Rapid Software Testing methodology, and has written two books: Lessons Learned in Software Testing (with Cem Kaner and Bret Pettichord) and a book about succeeding without going to school called Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar.

* Interviewed by Jay Philips

1. Tell us about your journey to becoming a software tester. How did it start and how this has been so far? Was it planned or by accident?
I suppose the journey began when I was 12 and had trouble in school because I didn’t want to do things I was told to do. I was also doing a lot of stealing and telling lies. I was a confused and angry kid. I could have become a criminal except I discovered along that path that I do have a moral sense and I want to protect people instead of hurt them. This stopped me from telling lies and stealing, but I could not bring myself to fit into the system of public education. It didn’t make sense to me. Now that I’m much older, I know that’s because it really is not sensible. It’s a terrible system. I’m proud of myself for leaving it.
And that is the beginning of being a real tester: when truth matters more to you than comfortable myths and conventional beliefs that almost everybody else believes. I wanted to be a scientist, for that reason, but science is all tied up in that ceremonial world of academic life. My next thought was to be a programmer, but I found it too boring after a few years. Ah, but testing…?
I actually didn’t know there was any such thing as testing until I was offered a job doing it. I had never worked with a tester before. Well, testing suited me very well. Testing is an ongoing mystery story where I get to be the detective.

2. When did you realize your passion was software testing?
Shortly after I got the job at Apple, I knew I had found my career. Partly that’s because testing needed me. Testing was (and still is in most places) a screwed up field. Most people are confused. I have dedicated my career to fixing that.
I would say my deeper passion is studying and learning about complicated things, then helping other people learn about them. I think I am naturally a teacher. But testing feeds right into that impulse. I learn about the status of the product and then communicate that clearly to my clients.

3. Do you regret being associated with software testing today? Given a chance would you move from testing to any other field in IT?
I don’t regret being associated with testing, but it would be nice to try other things, too. If I won the lottery, I might quit my job and go study mathematics and systems theory more intensively.

4. You co-authored the book “Lessons Learned in Software Testing: A Context-Driven Approach”. Is there one lesson that stands out the most?
“Testing is Applied Epistemology.” I think that’s the most important one. To find you greatness as a tester, you must learn what knowledge is and how it can be acquired. What is a fact? How can facts fool us? These are questions of Epistemology. I might add that India has a rich Epistemological tradition that almost no Indian tester studies. Yet.

5. You created the course on “Rapid Software Testing”, what makes this course stand out from others?
Rapid Software Testing is a relentless probing and challenging of the mind of the student of testing. It is not about memorizing techniques or following forms. I treat students not as children but as intelligent, self-aware adults. This is often startling to people who are used to being quiet and thinking of how to please the teacher by repeating back the things they have been told.

6. You are part of the Context-Driven School community. Can you briefly explain what the community is about?
It’s about being responsible for what you do as a tester, and not ever blaming that on anything else—not even context. Context-driven does not mean that context forces you to do anything, it means that you, the tester, make your decisions about your work based on how well they address real problems you face. Those real problems belong to the context. That means we reject any formula for any specific testing practice. We reject “best practices” and see ourselves as using or creating any practice that gets the job done well and with reasonable efficiency in that context.
The Context-Driven community is a community of thinkers who are always experimenting.

7. What is your next big idea?
The next big idea is a class especially for programmers to teach them testing. I’m working out the details now.

8. According to you, what is lacking in today’s commercialized training industry, especially in testing?
Truthfulness and competence. With a few exceptions, including my class, Cem Kaner’s BBST, and I guess Rob Sabourin’s Just In Time testing class, almost all the tester training in our industry is taught by people who don’t know how to test and don’t care to know. The stuff they teach is either worthless or trivial.
The test training industry is one that tolerates and even rewards idiots. I’m ashamed of it.

9. The “Black Box Software Testing” (BBST) course is only available to Association for Software Testing (AST) members. Do you agree that the course is limited to a group of testers? How can we open the training up to all testers?
I have nothing to do with that class, anymore, so I’m not the one to ask. But I suppose I’m not clear on what the problem is. If indeed it is only available to AST members, well, it doesn’t cost much to join the AST, does it? Much less than the cost of the class, I believe.

10. You are a founding member of International Society for Software Testing (ISST). What is your role and what you are doing in ISST these days?
My role is that I am one of the “ambassadors.” That means I participate in a chat room with other people I respect and we discuss what we can do to improve the industry. The ISST has a great heart and it’s willing to fight for good testing in the industry. However, it does not have much money, yet, and without money none of us can afford to stop our other work and pursue ISST projects.
I’m happy that the ISST exists and I think in the coming months it will begin to be heard. I recommend joining it if you want to make a strong symbolic statement in support of skilled software testing and the Context-Driven principles.
Anyone who comes to me for help will get it more quickly and readily if he tells me that he’s a member.

11. What qualities will you look for in a candidate when you want to recruit someone for software testing job?
For a junior, I have three big things I’m looking for: Are you eager to learn about technology? Do you have the patience and confidence to tackle difficult puzzles? Can you stand up to me and tell the truth when I am scowling at you and demanding answers? If so, I can teach you to be a fine tester.
For a senior, I’m looking for a track record of self-study and a preferably a public reputation as an insightful and caring tester. I also expect you to have a lot of patience to argue with me.
Anyone who finds a way to teach me something in the interview gets huge points.

12. What will you suggest to people who want to join IT industry as software testers?
I suggest that if you have any desire to learn to program, you should definitely do that. In fact, it might be better for a lot of people to start as a programmer and then move into testing. I am not one of those who think all testers should be programmers. It’s just that you’ll have an easier time getting a job in most places if you do.
Apart from that, please study general systems thinking. I recommend Jerry Weinberg’s book on that. Read it!

13. Name few people you would like to thank, people who helped you directly or indirectly in your career as a software testing professional.
Other than Cem and Jerry, I thank my father and my wife for encouraging me to always do what I think is best. I thank my brother Jonathan for going on this journey with me, and developing himself into a fantastic tester. I would happily work for him, any time. I thank Michael Bolton for being my closest collaborator, improving the Rapid Testing class (and for deferring to my will on so many occasions).
I thank Chris Brown for being the manager at Apple who first hired me to be a tester, and Dale Disharoon, no longer living, who found me working in a computer store in Iowa and gave me my first job as a programmer. He also taught me to drive and pushed me to become a musician. I owe a lot to Dale.

14. One last question – Do you read Testing Circus Magazine? If yes, what is your feedback to improve this magazine?
I don’t read testing magazines, as a rule. I get too annoyed about the articles, and that makes more work for my wife to calm me down. However, I downloaded The December 2013 issue and went through it and I was not too bothered. It was okay. I’m glad you exist. The interview with Keith Klain was my favorite part, because he’s a great guy. The rest of the articles weren’t written for someone like me, though.
What I’m looking for is soul-searching insight about the nature of testing practice or else detailed, honest, experience reports. Neither of these is easy to find. Testers are testers. They are not professional writers or philosophers. And of course, no tester can tell all the tawdry details of what’s really going on with their projects if he wants to stay employed. Recently someone made a revealing comment on my blog and lost his job over it. Thus, no testing magazine can help me much, but I would appreciate anything you can do.
So, here’s my suggestion: keep pushing for clarity and depth. Read the articles submitted and ask yourself two questions: “Can I easily follow the narrative or is it gobbledegook? Is this the REAL story or a fairy tale version of the truth?”

Blog/Site: http://www.satisfice.com/blog
Twitter ID: @jamesmarcusbach

This interview was published in our February 2014 edition.

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