Testing & Software Blog

The occasional thoughts of a freelance software tester, drawn from experience across the software development life-cycle.

In a lacerating blog post, Troy Hunt asks how are websites still screwing up these user experiences?!. Almost all these horrors are related to monetising the sites; examples of how websites are locked into a zero-sum game with each other and end up in a race to the bottom.

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Now we’re into Panto season in Britain, I’m tempted to close off bug reports for bugs that have been fixed and successfully re-tested with the words “Oh no it doesn’t”.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 3 Comments

Noel Gallagher, The Gift That Keeps On Giving

So Noel Gallagher has a new interview out. His interviews are always far more entertaining than his records nowadays, and this one sees him try and pick a fight with One Direction fandom, amongst others.

But this quote takes the biscuit (I’ve left the swears in)

I was being asked about a reunion five weeks after I left the band. It’s a modern phenomenon. It’s a modern disease. All the bands that get back together, all those ones you’ve mentioned [Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin] they didn’t have anybody in the line-up as fucking brilliant as me. What’s the guitarist out of Fleetwood Mac called? Lindsay Buckingham. I can’t remember him setting the world on fire. Jimmy Page? That’s debatable. He’s a good guitarist but I’m not sure how many solo albums he’s fucking made.

Oh dear, oh dear.

The software development industry, or rather the software development recruitment industry, often talks about “Rock star developers”. I have always found the concept utterly ridiculous, and the above quote goes a long way towards demonstratng why. In today’s world, the concept of “Rock Star” is far more about swaggering ego than it is about actual skill.

As a guitar player, Noel Gallagher is at best a mediocre talent who is not fit to tie the shoelaces of Jimmy Page or Lindsay Buckingham. If you read some listicle of supposedly great guitarists and see his name there, it’s as much proof that the list is a load of cobblers as the absence of Tony Iommi or Nile Rogers. And as a songwriter his work is so derivative and backward-looking that if he was a programmer he’s be writing in COBOL.

There was a day when “Rock Stars” represented the top talent of their profession. The larger-than-life personality was part of the package, but the talent had to be there. But the days of Freddy Mercury and Jimi Hendrix had long gone by the time Oasis arrived on the scene, and the worlds of creative artists and media celebrities have gone their seperate ways.

Anyone who talks about “Rock star programmers” is living in the 1970s.

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Web Advertising is Eating Itself

How often does this happen?

  • You click on a link that appears in one of your social media feeds.
  • You begin reading the article
  • Suddenly the screen darkens and and an unskippable video ad pops up, often with audio.
  • You close the browser tab without reading the rest of the article.

The web did not used to be like this. There used to be a time when not every online newspaper article had “sponsored links” to bottom-feeding clickbait garbage about celebrities who have aged badly or the sorts of barely-legal get-rich-quick scams that you only used to see in email spam.

It’s a classic tragedy of the commons situation. Now that internet usage in the developed world has plateaued, web advertisers are locked into a zero-sum game with each other for finite amount of web users’ attention. Making your own advertising more and more intrusive gains a temporary advantage, but it only leads to a race to the bottom in which everyone else is the loser.

It’s also the reason why a thousand-word article sometimes results in a browser-crashing multi-megabyte web page, bloated with third-party cruft whose only purpose is to serve ads that the reader doesn’t actually want.

The whole ecosystem is clearly unsustainable, and the way more and more people are being forced to install ad-blockers just to make the web usable highlights this. There has to be a better way.

So, once web advertising has finally eaten itself, what alternative economic models might replace it?

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The Wootton Bassett near-miss

Battle of Britain Pacifit "Tangmere"(Wikimedia Commons)

The official report into the near-miss at Wootton Bassett (pdf) makes interesting reading, and demonstrates what I’ve often said about rail and air accident reports making useful reading for software testers.

In this case there were no injuries or indeed any damage to the train, although it could have been a very major accident; a collision at high speed with one train formed of 1950s-design rolling stock that doesn’t have the crashworthiness of modern trains.

The immediate cause of the incident was blatant disregard of rules and procedures which rightly raised questions about the levels of training and safety culture, so it wasn’t really a surprise that the operator’s licence was suspended.

Aside from the chain of events that led to the train overrunning a red signal, what makes it a worthwhile read is the details of how modern automated safety systems interface with literal steam-age techology in the shape of a 70-year old steam locomotive. It also highlights some user interface issues with the controls within the locomotive cab.

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The Volkswagen emissions scandal

Great blog post by James Christie on the implications of the Volkswagen emissions scandal for the software testing profession.

What interests me about this is that the defeat device is integral to the control system (ECM); the switch has to operate as part of the normal running of the car. The software is constantly checking the car’s behaviour to establish whether it is taking part in a federal emissions test or just running about normally. The testing of this switch would therefore have been part of the testing of the ECM. There’s no question of some separate piece of kit or software over-riding the ECM.

This means the software testers were presumably complicit in the conspiracy. If they were not complicit then that would mean that they were unaware of the existence of the different dyno and road calibrations of the ECM. They would have been so isolated from the development and the functionality of the ECM that they couldn’t have been performing any responsible, professional testing at all.

I’ve always maintained that a good tester needs to be able to speak truth to power, and any tester who simply says whatever the project manager wants to hear is not a worthwhile tester. But Christie follows that to its obvious conclusion, and raises some very important questions on the testing profession’s moral and ethical responsibilities. This is something the testing community doesn’t talk enough about.

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Why tank stories make great tech myths

Interesting guest post on Charlie Stross’ blog by M. Harold Page “Why tank stories make great tech myths“, comparing the history of tank warfare with software development.

However, you’re a sophisticated lot, so call the above “A word from our sponsor” and let me tell you why I think tank stories make great tech myths.

First some examples…

We all know the one about the Panther and the T34. The Panther is the better tank, when the Russian mud hasn’t knocked it out, when it doesn’t need shipping to Czechoslovakia for repair, when it’s not being spammed by cheap and cheerful T34s.

That’s a story that ought to be taught to engineers and software developers. Sometimes perfect means “delivered now”. It’s reputedly the Duke Nukem Forever story, but that’s just the most anecdotal example of chasing perfection at the expense of practicality. I’m sure you guys have others.

He doesn’t develop the metaphor quite as much as I’d have liked, preferring to talk about actual tanks. But it’s still an interesting read,

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The news that the VW scandal caused nearly 1m tonnes of extra pollution raises some serious ethical issues for the software industry. It’s hard to imagine that people coded and tested this functionality without understanding what they were doing was illegal.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 3 Comments

Financial Engineers and The Prolonged Death Spiral

Great blog post by Allan Kelly on The Prolonged Death Spiral Business Model highlighting the sort of software companies you probably don’t want to work for,

What I never realised was that a prolonged death spiral could actually be a viable business model itself.

Quadratron was dying, it eked out its last few years collecting maintenance royalties from legacy customers – one customer in particular. In fact it was dying when I joined, they lured me in with a plan to spend a lot of the remaining cash on a new product. But things were worse than that.

Like so many companies Quadratron found that once you have survived the first few years, once you conquered the risk of developing a product and have an installed user base you can continue milking that base for a long time. Provided you don’t do anything silly like trying to develop a new product that is! Quadratron had been very successful, it had a lot of customers to milk.

He goes on to explain how these companies are run by “financial engineers” people know a lot about debt structures and taxation but nothing about software businesses. They’re not interested in investing or capturing new markets, but maintaining cash flow.

He concludes:

These companies are a success by some criteria: the people running them and the people who buy them stand to make lots of money. Financially they look good – except the debt. And customer continue to use the products they want to use. They exist, they employ people. By some criteria they are a success, we should not forget this.

They can be miserable places to work in because real engineering is not a consideration. And pity the poor customers who are being led up the garden path about future products.

It’s a longish piece, but it’s well worth the read.

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Fiasco at a Cashless Fesitval

A lot of rock festivals are going “cashless” with electronic pre-payment cards for all financial transactions on site. A big downside is the way it introduces a single point of failure that can cause things to go seriosuly pear-shaped when you have large volumes of people, with the worst case scenario being tens of thousands of people unable to buy food or drink.

And when it does, people will live-tweet the fiasco on social media.

Now, I’ve only got one person’s account of events to go on, but the comment that they managed to serve precisely four people in a half-hour period suggests something has gone badly wrong with the IT system.

It may have been hardware or software that hadn’t been tested under load. It may have been staff who were insufficiently trained in its use. But whatever it was, the end result was a customer service disaster.

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