At EuroSTAR 2013 I had a brief disagreement about software testing standards with Stuart Reid. To be more accurate, I was one of a group of sceptics pressing Stuart, who was putting up a battling defence of standards. He has been working on the new standard ISO 29119 and made a very interesting and revealing point. He insisted that the critics of standards don’t understand their true nature; they are not compulsory.
The introduction to standards makes it clear that their use is optional. They become mandatory only if someone insists that they must be applied in a certain context, often by writing them into a contract or a set of in-house development standards. Then, and only then, is it appropriate to talk about compulsion. That compulsion comes not from the standard itself, but from the contract or the managerial directive.
I found that argument unconvincing. Indeed I thought it effectively conceded the argument and amounted to no more than a plea in mitigation rather than a plausible defence.
Even a cursory analysis of this defence reveals that it is entirely specious, merely a statement of the obvious. Of course it is a choice made by people to make standards mandatory, but that choice is heavily influenced by the quite inappropriate status of IEEE 829 and, in all likelihood ISO 29119, as standards. Calling them standards gives them a prestige and authority that would be missing if they were called guidelines. The defenders of standards usually want it both ways. They refer to standards when they are making an implicit appeal to authority. They refer to the standards as guidelines when they are on the defensive. That doesn’t wash. Standards and guidelines are not synonymous.
Stuart’s defence struck me as very interesting because it was entirely consistent with what I have long believed; the rationale behind standards, and their implicit attraction, is that they can be given mandatory status by organisations and lawyers with a poor grasp of software testing.
The standards become justified by the mandatory status assigned to them by non-testers. The justification does not come from any true intrinsic value or any wisdom that they might impart to practitioners. It comes from the aura of the word “standard” and the creators of standards know that this gives them a competitive advantage.
Creating standards is a commercial activity
Standards are not produced on a disinterested “take it or leave it” basis. They do not merely offer another option to the profession. Standards are created by people from the companies who will benefit from their existence, the companies who will sell the services to implement the new standard. In my experience heavyweight, document-driven processes require large numbers of expensive consultants (though not necessarily highly skilled consultants). Creating standards is a commercial activity. The producers of standards are quite consciously creating a market for the standards.
If the creators of standards were merely expanding the market to create a profitable niche for themselves that might not be a big deal. However, the benefit that accrues to them comes at the the expense of everyone else.
It comes at the expense of the testers who are frequently committed to following inappropriate and demoralising practices.
It comes at the expense of their employers who are incurring greater and unnecessary costs for results that are poorer than they need be.
It comes at the expense of the whole testing profession. The standards encourage a dangerous illusion. They feed the hunger to believe, against all the evidence, that testing, and software development in general, are neat, essentially linear activities that can be be rendered orderly and controllable with sufficient advance documentation. Standards feed the illusion that testing can be easier than it really is, and performed by people less skilled than are really needed.
As I said in my EuroSTAR tutorial last week, testing is not meant to be easy, it’s meant to be valuable.
Good contracts or bad contracts?
It is understandable that the contract lawyers find standards attractive. Not only do standards offer the lawyers the illusion that they promote high quality and define the correct way for professionals to work, they also offer the lawyers something they can get their teeth into. A standard makes it easier to structure a contract if you don’t know about the subject area. The standard doesn’t actually have to be useful. The point is that it helps generate deliverables along the way, and it requires the testers to work in a way that is easy to monitor.
Contracts are most useful when they specify the end, or the required value; not when they dictate how teams should reach the destination. Prescriptive contracts can turn unwarranted assumptions about the means into contractually mandatory ends.
I once faced what looked like a horrendously difficult challenge. I had to set up a security management process for a large client, who wanted assurance that the process would work effectively from the very start. This had been interpreted by my employer as meaning that the client required a full-scale, realistic test, with simulated security breaches to establish whether they would be detected and how we would respond. This would have been very difficult to arrange, and extremely expensive to carry out. Failure to deliver on the due date would have resulted in heavy weekly penalties until we could comply. However, the requirement was written into the contract so I was told we would have to do it.
I was sceptical, and went back to the client to discuss their needs in detail. It turned out that they simply needed to be reassured that the process would work, smoothly and quickly. Bringing together the right people from the client and supplier for a morning to walk through the process in detail would do just as well, at a tiny fraction of the cost. Once I had secured the client’s agreement it was straightforward to have the contract changed so that it reflected where they really wanted to end up, rather than stipulating a poorly understood route to that destination.
On many other occasions I have been stuck with a contract that could not be changed and where it was mandatory for testers to comply with milestones and deliverables that had minimal relevance to the real problem, but which required such obsessive attention that they detracted from the real work.
Software testing standards encourage that sort of goal displacement; management attention is directed not at the work, but at a dubious abstract representation of the work. Their attention is directed to the map, and they lose sight of the territory.
We can do better
Sure, no-one has to be a sucker. No-one has to buy the snake oil of standards, but caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) is the legal fallback of the huckster. It is hardly a motto to inspire. Testers can do better than that.
What is the answer? Unfortunately blogs like this preach largely to the converted. The argument against standards is accepted within the Context Driven School. The challenge is to take that argument out into the corporations who are instinctively more comfortable, or complacent, with standards than with a more flexible and thoughtful approach.
I tried to challenge that complacency in my EuroSTAR tutorial, “Questioning auditors questioning testing”. I demonstrated exactly why and how software testing standards are largely irrelevant to the needs of the worldwide Institute of Internal Auditors and also the Information Systems Audit and Control Association. I also explained how more thoughtful and effective testing, as promoted by the Context Driven School, can be consistent with the level of professionalism, accountability and evidence that auditors require.
If we can spread the message that testing can be better and cheaper then corporations might start to discourage the lawyers from writing damaging contracts. They might shy away from the consultancies offering standards driven processes.
Perhaps that will require more than blogs, articles and impassioned conference speeches. Do we need a counterpart to testing standards, an anti-standard perhaps? That would entail a clearly documented explanation of the links between good testing practices and governance models.
An alternative would have to demonstrate how good testing can be accountable from the perspective of auditors, rather than merely asserting it. It would also be directed not just at testers, but also at auditors to persuade them that testing is an area where they should be proactively involved, trying to force improvements. The testers who work for consultancies that profit from standards will never come on board. The auditors might.
But whatever form such an initiative might take it must not be called a standard, anything but that!