Phoebe the tester

Albert Gareev’s post on the Software Testing Club’s blog about Phoebe Buffay from Friends made me smile.

I remember years ago, watching Friends in rapt admiration. Ross the paleontologist took Phoebe’s reluctance to believe in evolution as a personal affront.

Phoebe, the scatty new-ager, dismantled Ross’s certainty in a masterful little cross-examination.

YouTube doesn’t allow embedding of this clip, so here’s the link. The key bit is three and a half minutes in, but the lead up is fun anyway.

Frankly, Ross caved in far too easily, but that was largely the point as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t that he was wrong. The problem was that he was so convinced he was right that he was completely thrown by an astute rhetorical ploy.

He wasn’t used to being challenged, and couldn’t handle it. He was tested and failed.

Phoebe may not have cut it as a conventional corporate software tester, but she did have some qualities that are priceless for testers.

She had a distinct perspective. She looked at the same things that others saw, but saw them in a different way.

She wasn’t afraid to be out of step. She wasn’t worried about ridicule and didn’t care if people thought she was wrong. She was as far from being a “yes person” as you could find.

Above all she challenged conventional wisdom and forced people to question their assumptions. She enjoyed doing so, and managed to do it without truly upsetting people.

If the example had involved Phoebe being unambiguously right, whilst Ross was totally wrong, what would there be to learn from it?

I think most of us would agree that if the project is doing something wrong we should question it. The trouble is that challenging other people, especially senior people, or challenging requirements, can seem ill-mannered or dangerous. So it’s all to easy to persuade ourselves that they’re probably right. We just drift along and don’t ask questions.

Sceptical thinking and challenging questions are worthwhile regardless of whether we know we’re right or wrong. We often don’t know – not for sure. It’s important we don’t act as if we did know, as if certainty were available.

We have to ask the difficult questions to try and help everyone gain a better understanding of what’s going on. Even if our stance as devil’s advocate is wrong, or unsound, the process of questioning should have helped clarify everyone’s thinking.

Ross’s conviction that he was right hadn’t been tested. As soon as Phoebe swung into tester mode Ross crashed with a severity 1 failure. Maybe he needed to sharpen up his thinking and his debating skills? Ross the Debater 0.2 would surely have done far better after failing that test.

When I originally watched this episode of Friends I had recently switched to testing after spending a few years in computer audit. I could empathise with Phoebe’s willingness to challenge, and stir things up. I loved her sense of mischief as she did so A sense of mischief? I’ve never seen that in a job ad for a tester, but it’s not a bad quality.

Come to think of it, I remember a programme manager at IBM calling me an iconoclast. As a Christian of the reformed tradition I was happy to take that as a compliment!

Please! Don’t get over-analytical about the story of Phoebe the tester. It’s not an argument about evolution, or religion or science. As Phoebe said, “that was fun – so who’s hungry?”.


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