Exploration Through Example

Example-driven development, Agile testing, context-driven testing, Agile programming, Ruby, and other things of interest to Brian Marick
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Sat, 24 Jul 2004

Methodology work is ontology work

I've had a paper accepted at OOPSLA Onward. I had to write a one-page extended abstract. Although I can't publish the paper before the conference, it seems to me that the point of an abstract is to attract people to the session or, before then, the conference. So here it is. I think it's too dry - I had to take out the bit about bright cows and the bit about honeybee navigation - but brevity has its cost.

(As you can guess from the links above, the paper is a stew of ideas that have surfaced on this blog. I hope the stew's simmered enough to be both tasty and nourishing.)

I argue that a successful switch from one methodology to another requires a switch from one ontology to another. Large-scale adoption of a new methodology means "infecting" people with new ideas about what sorts of things there are in the (software development) world and how those things hang together. The paper ends with some suggestions to methodology creators about how to design methodologies that encourage the needed "gestalt switch".

In this paper, I abuse the word "ontology". In philosophy, an ontology is an inventory of the kinds of things that actually exist, and (often) of the kinds of relations that can exist between those things. My abuse is that I want ontology to be active, to drive people's actions. I'm particularly interested in unreflective actions, actions people take because they are the obvious thing to do in a situation, given the way the world is.

Whether any particular ontology is true or not is not at issue in the paper. What I'm concerned with is how people are moved from one ontology to the other. I offer two suggestions to methodologists:

  1. Consider your methodology to be what the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos called "a progressive research programme." Lakatos laid out rules for such programmes. He intended them to be rules of rationality, but I think they're better treated as rules of persuasion. Methodologies that follow those rules are more likely to attract the commitment required to cause people to flip from one system of thought to another (from one ontology to another) in a way that Thomas Kuhn likened to a "gestalt switch".

  2. It's not enough for people to believe; they must also perceive. Make what your methodology emphasizes visible in the world of its users. In that way, methodologies will become what Heidegger called ready-to-hand. Just as one doesn't think about how to hold a hammer when pounding nails, one shouldn't think about the methodology, its ontology, and its rules during the normal pace of a project: one should simply act appropriately.

Methodologies do not succeed because they are aligned with some platonic Right Way to build software. Methodologies succeed because people make them succeed. People begin with an ontology - a theory of the world of software - and build tools, techniques, social relations, habits, arrangements of the physical world, and revised ontologies that all hang together. In this methodology-building loop, I believe ontology is critical. Find the right ontology and the loop becomes progressive.

## Posted at 13:06 in category /ideas [permalink] [top]

About Brian Marick
I consult mainly on Agile software development, with a special focus on how testing fits in.

Contact me here: marick@exampler.com.




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Working your way out of the automated GUI testing tarpit
  1. Three ways of writing the same test
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  4. You should be able to get to any page in one step
  5. Extract fast tests about single pages
  6. Link checking without clicking on links
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