insight software testing

I am the Queen of Defocus

I remember the day I earned the self acclaimed title of Queen of Defocus. I had been testing for about 3 years and had been hired as the *only* tester in an R&D lab of about thirty engineers. I also happened to be the only female engineer at the time, so I was Queen of the Lab regardless.
But I become Queen of Defocus when one day I was working on creating a test strategy for a Nationwide Freephone service that was to be designed and built in our lab. I had earlier cottoned on to the idea of white boarding the service and grabbing poor unsuspecting engineers as they passed by to help me figure out how the service worked. This helped me understand the service better and also on occasion I saw engineers go quiet as they realised through my questions that they had overlooked something in their design. (I later discovered James Bach calls this Inside-Out Analysis)

One day, as I was applying this approach I had a gestalt moment. I realised that I was really really good at  asking pertinent questions. Questions not necessarily about the service itself (though I did ask those) but also about how the service was going to be used, deployed, tested, maintained and operated. But what made these questions so valuable? Why were *my* questions seemingly able to discover problems other engineers failed to think of?

What exactly was I doing?

I decided it was the ability to grasp an answer from one question and allow it to connect to some other seemingly significant piece of information to generate another question. To do that, I had to let the information go for a wander in my mind until it connected to another piece of information. I had this visual idea of information wandering through my brain, seeking a neuron to bond with. However it happened it was working.

So I became Queen of Defocus partly because of this gift I had to make connections, but also because everyone else was so focused. By focusing so well (and they were some of the brightest engineers in the country) my defocusing ability was allowed to really shine. I was the ying to their yang.

Years have flown by (literally, I traveled overseas to Dublin for 2 years) and testers still comment on my ability to hit any situation, ask pertinent questions and make connections. Richard Robinson watched me pull an admin guy’s strategy apart, leaving him with a notepad full of questions to find answers for.

But being Queen of Defocus has its downside, it can if your not careful make you sloppy and shallow in your work. I know this because I’ve fallen into this trap of not paying sufficient attention to detail. I watch out for it now. I’ve learned that not knowing facts can be really embarrassing and I try to avoid that.

But mostly, I’m pretty happy letting my mind wander and reflect and ponder on why sun streaming through the window on an Autumn day fills me with joy. I store these moments away open to the possibility that they may prove helpful one day. On days like this, a bit of defocus is bliss!






16 replies on “I am the Queen of Defocus”

“But being Queen of Defocus has its downside, it can if your not careful make you sloppy and shallow in your work. I know this because I’ve fallen into this trap of not paying sufficient attention to detail. I watch out for it now. I’ve learned that not knowing facts can be really embarrassing and I try to avoid that.”
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how you can become so good at one mindset only to realise it’s at the cost of another mindset? I learned the same thing when I became very good at negative analysis – finding the problems in absolutely everything, trying to think about everything that could possibly go wrong. It was only much later that I realised there are times when a tester needs a positive mindset – trying to think about everything that could go *right*. Not only because it’s a useful tool, but because being a negative personality in the workplace can make you a very unpleasant person to be around! And you need to be approachable. It’s not enough to just muscle your way into design meetings and steal the spec for analysis. You know you’ve really won the team over when they come to you because they value your feedback.

It’s also interesting how mindsets like defocus can become part of your non-work mindset, like you mention in your last paragraph. Identifying cognitive skills like this not only helps you enjoy your job, but also enjoy life, and I think that’s such a marvellous part of being in a job that involves this kind of thinking.

I have this image of you prowling the corridors at work looking for cracks in paintwork and scowling at people in meeting. The Trish I know is much nicer than that, so I’m glad you didn’t perform your negative analysis around me.
Totally with you on the last line, its a great part of testing.

Shucks, we’re going to miss you!

It’s definitely a tester thing (said as an ex-developer).
Sometimes I find developers can be a bit like Wile E. Coyote. They are geniuses, and they come up with an elaborate, cunning and brilliant plan to “get that bird”.

But there’s something about the “big picture” they’re not getting, and they kind of won’t let themselves see,
* Maybe it’s that the rock they’ve tied themselves is on a very dodgy precipice.
* Maybe it’s that the trigger to drop the anvil is set for coyote and not roadrunner weights
* Maybe it’s the fact that although the firework you’ve strapped to your back will give you tremendous speed, ultimately it’s designed to go “BOOM”.

Maybe Wile E. Coyote needs a defocused tester …

Great list of questions Joe. Yeah, its kind of hard to explain the whole question – connection thing. Its like I ask a question and then the information I receive gets signaled out like in radio waves in a radar. It goes out in this broad circle and when it hits a target it goes beep, and so I ask a question around that.

Great post. One day I’ll learn to write in such an easy style. But I reckon there has some hard work gone into it.
Seeing the “big picture” and making connections (how do we deploy that, will that clash with x,ect ?)I often take for granted, maybe I shouldn’t. If you are surrounded with people that are thankful for someone with this talent that’s great. I’m struggling if that’s not the case and (at least from my perspective) people shoot themselves in the foot in the long run.
Taking a step back and letting “them” is hard. If you have any experiences or tips I’m all ears!

About the attention to detail trap, yep, fell into that today. Didn’t chase up a detail, had to do more chasing as a result. We live and learn.

Anne-Marie’s Reply: I’m curious. Why don’t they want to help you figure it out?

Sometimes replies like, that’s not a problem, I don’t understand what the problem is (and not interested to find out), etc. There may be a fear that if there’s a problem than that leads to delays. And delays are bad so let’s close both eyes and pretend there’s nothing wrong. Sigh.

Great post AM.I’m keen to know… do you have certain triggers that tell you that you’ve now been in defocus mode too long, so it’s time to return to focus mode?

I guess where I’m going is… you can ask /really good/ questions all day, but what tells you that you now have enough information? Is that difficult if you have moved on from your original question by way of /defocus/?

Anne-Marie Reply I guess I stop when I put my radio waves go out and I get no beeps in return (see above comment). The questions tend to be rapid in a relatively short space of time. I go off and work with the information I know, but sometimes I come back and restart the questioning.

Its a really good question, and I should give it more thought.

Thanks for that. I find it a hard one. We often hear that we need to stop once we have ‘enough’ information, but how do we know that? Obviously context dependent like all other things, but still a good art to master (if possible).

Anne-Marie’s Reply: I suspect the answer lies in always being prepared to absorb new information and raise questions based on that. To ‘lock down’ information seems at odds with solving an ever changing problem. No easy answers here!

Leave a Reply to Thomas Ponnet Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *