A tagging meme reveals I short-change design

There’s one of those tagging memes going around. This one is: “grab the nearest book, open to page 123, go down to the 5th sentence, and type up the 3 following sentences.”

My first two books had pictures on p. 123.

The next three (Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, AppleScript: the Definitive Guide, and Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life) didn’t have anything that was amusing, enlightening, or even comprehensible out of context. So I kept going, which is cheating I suppose. The last, How Designers Think, had this:

The designer’s job is never really done and it is probably always possible to do better. In this sense, designing is quite unlike puzzling. The solver of puzzles such as crosswords or mathematical problems can often recognize a correct answer and knows when the task is complete, but not so the designer.

That’s a hit. It made me realize a flaw in my thinking. You see, it reminded me of one of my early, semi-controversial papers, “Working Effectively With Developers” (referred to by one testing consultant as “the ‘how to suck up to programmers’ paper”). In its second section, “Explaining Your Job”, I explicitly liken programmers to problem solvers:

A legendary programmer would be one who was presented a large and messy problem, where simply understanding the problem required the mastery of a great deal of detail, boiled the problem down to its essential core, eliminated ambiguity, devised some simple operations that would allow the complexity to be isolated and tamed, demonstrated that all the detail could be handled by appropriate combinations of those operations, and produced the working system in a week.

Then I point out that this provides a way for testers to demonstrate value. I show a sample problem, then write:

Now, I’d expect any programmer to quickly solve this puzzle - they’re problem solvers, after all. But the key point is that someone had to create the puzzle before someone else could solve it. And problem creation is a different skill than problem solving.

Therefore, the tester’s role can be likened to the maker of a crossword or a mathematical problem: someone who presents a good, fully fleshed-out problem for the programmer to master and solve:

So what a tester does is help the programmer […] by presenting specific details (in the form of test cases) that otherwise would not come to her attention. Unfortunately, you often present this detail too late (after the code is written), so it reveals problems in the abstractions or their use. But that’s an unfortunate side-effect of putting testers on projects too late, and of the unfortunate notion that testing is all about running tests, rather than about designing them. If the programmer had had the detail earlier, the problems wouldn’t have happened.

Despite this weak 1998 gesture in the rough direction of TDD, I still have a rather waterfall conception of things: tester presents a problem, programmer solves it, we all go home.

But what that’s missing is my 2007 intellectual conception of a project as aiming to be less wrong than yesterday, to get progressively closer to a satisfactory answer that is discovered or refined along the way. In short—going back to the original quote—a conception of the project as a matter of design that’s at every level of detail and involves everyone. That whole-project design is something much trickier than mere puzzle-solving.

I used the word “intellectual” in the previous paragraph because I realize that I’m still rather emotionally attached to the idea of presenting a problem, solving it, and moving on. For example, I think of a test case as a matter of pushing us in a particular direction, only indirectly as a way of uncovering more questions. When I think about how testing+programming works, or about how product director + team conversations work, the learning is something of a side effect. I’m strong on doing the thing, weak on the mechanics of learning (a separate thing from the desire to learn).

That’s not entirely bad—I’m glad of my strong aversion to spending much time talking and re-talking about what we’ll build if we ever get around to building anything, of my preference for doing something and then taking stock once we have more concrete experience—but to the extent that it’s a habit rather than a conscious preference, it’s limiting. I’ll have to watch out for it.

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