28 September, 2016

The Professional Pessimist

I’m a pessimist. My wife tells me, my friends tell me and my work colleagues tell me. I’m also a Test Analyst and it’s alright…. I guess…..


I’m sitting here with a half full cup of tea and I’ve been tasked with writing a blog but I think “what’s the point? Knowing me, it’s probably going to be rubbish anyway” and that got me thinking about the psychology of a Tester. I’m a pessimist and I love testing (*eherm I mean, I tolerate it…) but why is it (for me anyway) being of a pessimistic mind-set goes so well with testing. Is it possible for a tester to be an optimist? I recall a section from the ISQTB handbook that discusses the psychology of a tester:

“Testers know that all software contains bugs and so focus their attention on finding those defects” 

“Looking for defects in a system requires curiosity, professional pessimism, a critical eye, attention to detail and experience”

Even the ISQTB handbook is a pessimist. It states that all software contains bugs and that essentially software is broken until proven fixed. Maybe I’ve found the perfect job for me? Who knows? What I do know is that we as testers spend most of our days attempting to prove that a piece of software, or a website for example, works as well as it should and in a sense, does not break. With that, we spend all day essentially trying to break stuff. Okay, not physically (although sometimes I feel like I want to!) but figuratively. Perhaps then a negative mind-set in a tester is a good thing? I like to think that my negative mind set is as much as I hate to say it, a positive thing. If we look at the developer Vs tester argument you could say that a developer has a positive mind-set in that “this software will work”, “innocent until proven guilty” and a tester has a negative mind-set, “it won’t work”, “guilty until proven innocent”. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking to stir up a dev Vs test war here but you have to agree that testing in itself, is pessimistic. You’ve got “happy path” and “sad path”. I bet it was a tester who first thought of the “sad path”. Who else would think of scenarios which will result in a negative outcome, or want to use negative scenarios in order to try confuse and break a piece of software resulting in a possible defect.  I’m beginning to feel more and more like being a pessimist is a good thing for testing… and I don’t like that. You could even say that a pessimist may possibly have more attention to detail in that “I want to make sure this works, I want to make sure there are no defects” and an optimist may think “it will be fine!” 

Consider buying a car. Imagine you spend only a few £100 on a pretty old and beat up car that most likely, will break down. Now, here we have my usual pessimistic self always thinking negative but because of this I might’ve thought of a contingency plan. What if the car does break down? I could get breakdown cover, I could make alternative travel arrangements and therefore mitigate some of the risk. Consider having this mind-set in testing. What if this software does contain defects? (It probably will). Well, we can fix them. We can rework them. We can remove that piece of functionality (if the business agreed) until it’s fixed and release it at a later date. Consider not having this mind-set in testing. “I’ve tested that it works, I’ve not tested that it doesn’t work”. Here you may be taking a risk in releasing a product where there has been no pessimistic testing (that’s right, I’ve renamed “sad path” the pessimistic path!) and therefore possibly prone to defects and a lesser quality of product. We can’t help as testers be pessimistic.


I am also a believer of a dedicated test team. The more independence the tester has from the developer the better. A dev is going to want their software to work where as a test analyst is going to want to prove it doesn’t work and therefore improve the overall quality of the work. Surely that can only be a good thing? At the end of the day whether you are a pessimist or an optimist we all strive for a common goal and that is to create the best version of our work possible.


So there you have it. Want to hire a tester? Hire a pessimist.


By Jamie Mulcahy - Test Analyst, Edge Testing

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