I did not invent sympathetic testing. Anyone who says I claim to have invented it will have only read the title of this post, but nothing further. Now you know.

I may have been the first in my circle to recognize one specific benefit of sympathetic testing. But if so, that is a minor technical point. Because I know that my recognition came directly from a point of view championed by Cem Kaner. From where I stand, it came largely from him.

Okay, James, this is a bit confusing. Why are you talking about this, today?

Ajay Balamurugadas came to me today asking if I came up with the idea of “sympathetic testing.” This is an idea he’s found in Mike Kelly’s work, which derives partly from my work (on tours). It’s also in the section of Lessons Learned in Software Testing that I wrote (and which was edited by Cem Kaner and Bret Pettichord). He had already asked Cem Kaner, who said he got it from my brother [correction: Ajay tells me he saw Cem say that on a video]. But if so, I know exactly where Jon got it: from me, during a project we worked on around 1997. That’s where he was working for me on a court case where I had to do an analysis of “good enough” quality, using a method strongly influenced by Cem’s thinking about cognitive biases.

I’m talking about this today because the provenance of ideas can be confusing when people work closely together. Who cares who invented it, or named it? You might be surprised. Credit is important to people who live by their reputations in a world of ideas. Reputation is money, to put it bluntly. To achieve high income and control over your work as a tester, one way– and the only way I know, actually– is to build your public reputation. Moreover, a lot of our motivation is the respect of our peers. Therefore, this matters.

This isn’t really about “sympathetic testing”, then. Still, what IS sympathetic testing?

Sympathetic testing, as I think of it, is sometimes slightly confused with the closely related ideas of “happy path” or “positive testing.” Sympathetic testing means testing while affirming (rather than challenging) each assumption, resource, or service. But if that’s all it meant, then it would be the same as positive testing. For me, sympathetic testing means more. It means asking “what is wonderful about this product?” rather than “what is broken about this product?” I can do positive testing all day and still be focused on bugs. With sympathetic testing, I may find bugs, but that is not my focus or purpose– my main purpose is learning; building a rich model in my mind.

The insight I had, when working with my brother (way back before he was a recognized test expert in his own right) was that sympathetic testing made me better at unsympathetic testing. Searching happily prepares me to search aggressively.

Okay, then what’s really troubling you?

What bugs me is that Cem deserves more credit for sympathetic testing. But if he claims it himself, he probably thinks he will anger me, and if he gives me full credit, it would anger him: because Cem and I aren’t on speaking terms, at the moment. (I hope that’s temporary.)

I’m hereby offering him credit. Cem and I collaborated for roughly 16 years. We had probably hundreds of deep conversations about testing. Among those conversations, he lectured me on mental models and biases. We once had a fairly bitter argument about what a model is. He won that argument, thankfully, and I have been comfortable with the outcome ever since. He introduced me to Cognitive Science and pushed me deeper into Epistemology. It was that sensibility that led to me discovering a lot of things: among them the power of sympathetic testing. I’m certain that the first person I ran to with my discovery was Cem, but not only that, this is exactly the sort of thing that he was famous for encouraging: to look at things in a sympathetic way. I can’t remember the conversation itself or what he said. I bet he said something like “That’s just what I’ve been trying to tell you!”

Therefore, “sympathetic testing” is part of our joint work. Between about 1997 and 2007, it’s a good bet that I didn’t have a significant thought about testing which wasn’t also sifted and tested by Cem. We didn’t always agree, but we were extremely close. It’s for that reason that he put my name on his BBST class, even though I didn’t do any direct work on it. He was recognizing my influence on him. I’m doing that now.

I’m my own man. I have reinvented testing for myself (just as I recommend that others do). And yet a few people have deeply influenced me in that process. The three people who have had the most influence on my are my father, Jerry Weinberg, and Cem Kaner. I sometimes joke that I can sell out and offer baloney certifications to gullible testers, just like the ISTQB does– but only after those three men have died and I’m no longer seeking their respect.

[Postscript: Why did I title this piece “How I Invented Sympathetic Testing”? Because it was the best way I could think of to attract the attention of people who might be upset that I would make such a claim. Then maybe they would read this post, and feel a lot better.]