This is the third part of the transcript of a conversation about the relationship between joking and testing. The jokers were Jerry Weinberg (JW), Michael Bolton (MB), James Lyndsay (JL), Damian Synadinos (DS), and me (JT).

See also IntroPart 1 and Part 2.


JW: There’s another kind of joke that I think has a tremendous parallel to testing. I don’t know if people still do this but when I was a kid this was done all the time.

Somebody might ask you “how did you find these bugs? It looks like magic.” And you say “well it is magic.” And then you tell them there’s a secret phrase you have to say in Sanskrit and if you do that then you discover things. You have to memorise it because you have to get it exactly right. It’s three words in Sanskrit. The first word, and you repeat after me, “Owah”

All: Owah.

JW: The second word is “Tagu”.

All: Tagu.

JW: And the third word is “Syam”.

All: Syam.

JW: OK, now say them all together:

All: Oh what a goose I am!

Coincidentally, my wife got me a Valentine’s Day card this year with a picture of a goose that she thinks looks like me …

MB: “Tana” also works, “Oh what an ass I am!”

…  she hasn’t yet sent me a card with picture of a backside wearing glasses on it.

JW: It’s like testing. People write something and they think they’re saying one thing but it’s saying something else to the computer. I don’t know what those jokes are called, but I think it’s a wonderful model for testing yourself.

How do you respond when you’ve been a goose, and saying things where you didn’t know what you were talking about or what you were implying. How do you handle those responses when you are the tester?

DS: A woman walked into a bar and asked the bartender for a double entendre. So he gave her one. Is that a dirty joke?

JW: Only if you have a dirty mind. It’s like that joke about the guy who goes to the psychiatrist. And he shows him a picture of a triangle and asks what he can see and the guy says “I see two people making love.” So he shows him a square and asks again and he says “two people making love”. Shows him a perfect circle and he says again “it’s two people making love” and the psychiatrist says “all you see is these dirty things” and the guy says “you’re the one who’s showing the dirty pictures.”

MB: I know one similar to that. A guy goes into a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist says “we’re gonna see how your mind works”. And he says “what is it that a man does standing up and a woman does sitting down and a dog does on three legs?” and the guy thinks for a minute and says “shakes hands”.

The Psychiatrist says “Hmm. What does a dog do in the back yard that you might not want to step in?” and the guy says “digs a hole.” And the psychiatrist says “Aha, right. So when you wake up in the morning and you look over at your wife, what round hard part of you is sticking out of your pyjamas?” And the guy says “my head”.  The Psychiatrist says “interesting.”

The guy says “so what’s the story with me, doc, am I weird or something?” And the psychiatrist says “no you’re perfectly normal, but you wouldn’t believe the weird answers I’ve been getting.”

JW: So here’s a question for you guys.  If you were interviewing for a tester and you have a number of candidates and they were all similar but one of them had a much better sense of humour would you choose them as a better tester because they had a good sense of humour?

DS: All other things being equal somehow? If that were the only factor that were distinguishable between them, then yes.

MB: A tester is someone who knows that something can be different. In that respect testers and comedians are exactly the same. It’s a difference in perspective. It’s that joke that I have in the chapter in The Gift of Time, the Steve Wright joke about the guy who says “your socks don’t match” and I say “yes they do, I go by thickness.”

When a tester can see that other dimensions exist, that to me is the essence of what testing is: the capacity to see things from a different angle. It’s essential to comedy and it’s essential to testing.

DS: are there degrees? Might you test their sarcasm meter. Sarcasm is a type of humour that is perhaps a bit more nuanced that just a joke.

JW: That’s a good point. I think you’re on the right track when you said “other things being equal”, because they’re never equal. But they may trade off one another, I mean how many years of experience is worth how much sarcasm?

JL: I think that if I was interviewing for new team members and found that somebody was funny I would see that as being a little bit of extra grease to how the team works. Because it’s good to have levity in the team.

However,  if it was just two, me and one other, and I found him or her extremely funny, I don’t know that that would be the thing that I would want to do.  Not because I wouldn’t enjoy it but because I think that we’d be too similar and I don’t want people that are similar to me in my test team if there’s just two of us.

MB: What about if they are funnier than you?

JW: Also, there is such a thing as diversionary humour, people who, when something is really serious, they make jokes to distract from it. That’s not the kind of humour you’re looking for.  Testers need to face up to what is going on, which may not be pleasant although it might be funny or embarrassing or whatever. But they need to deal with it, take it in, maybe say “Oh shit”.

I have run across testers who hide from people. They have a difficult situation and they don’t know what to do about it so they won’t report it and they’ll hide. The whole point of testing is not to hide anything.
 So that would be a kind of humour I would not value. But generally speaking I’d like someone who can take what life gives them, make a joke of it, and then move on and deal with it.

DS: There’s a book I read during improv training, Truth In Comedy by Del Close and that phrase itself is extremely interesting because you’ve often heard that “from pain comes comedy” and many comics had horrible childhoods, or adulthoods, and from that pain they draw and make comedy and there’s a lot of truth in it. One of the tenets of improv is not trying to be funny, but be honest and true and support of your fellow improvisers and humour will come from it.

A good example of that is if you think about the hardest you’ve ever laughed. It’s probably not at a joke but it’s probably telling stories amongst your friends that are based in reality, based in truth. Usually these cause the most genuine deep laughs, those stories that are based in truth and sometimes that comes from pain.

JT: I was listening to a podcast which I really recommend called the Comedian’s Comedian. It’s an interview with a comedian – not for them to make jokes – but about them and their methodology for creating jokes.

This week, the comedian who was on was suggesting that, as an art form, comedy isn’t as well respected as film, or writing or the stage and he cited as an example the fact that you make a film about an atrocity and it can be seen as a great piece of art but you start joking about an atrocity and get asked “how on earth can you joke about that?” It’s just not given the same weight. It got me to wondering is that similar with testing?

JW: I often quote Oscar Wilde to people in our business: “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”

In passing, according to Quote Investigator, Wilde didn’t actually quite say this.

And people get really serious when developing some product. I’ve worked on projects where we were developing stuff where human lives were depending on the software and it’s easy to fall into this overly serious mode of things. It’s not a creative mode.

When we were putting people into space we had lots of jokes about what would happen if this bug happened or that one, or if a person was left up there in a horrible situation where they can’t come down. But you have to be able to do that, but it doesn’t mean that you have to be able to make a joke out of the whole thing.

DS: One thing that James Thomas talked about in his EuroSTAR presentation and does it often on Twitter is to take an idea and put it through a mental wringer and come out with at least three different variations on a theme. And you do these puns, these series. Comedy comes in threes and you do three puns in a row. That process of thinking what if, what if, what if and challenging and twisting ideas … First off, I love it, I told you that before and I love to follow along on Twitter when you do these, but I think that that thought process is very similar to something that testers frequently do.

MB: Rule of three!

DS: Yes, and twist ideas. We talked earlier about turning something on its ear.

JW: For half a century I’ve criticised people’s attempts to make programmer and tester aptitude tests and people are still selling these things.  You look at these tests and they’re exactly wrong in my opinion. They’re a bunch of multiple choice questions, single answer questions.

Reading this back, I remember that I designed a joke advert for a tester job a few years ago.

We developed tests for testers where we give them a question and four or five possible answers and their job is to give a reason why each of the five answers could be the answer. They’re all right, but what’s the underlying truth of each one? And people who can do that are likely to make good testers.

Another form of comedy is inversion. I had a client a few years ago. We asked whether they did technical reviews as part of their test process and they said “oh yes, we regularly review software”. I asked whether they reviewed all software and he said “pretty much; almost all of it.”

And I caught the word almost and I asked specifically which things didn’t he review and he said that once in a while they were late delivering the software and they don’t have time for review.  And I said “why is it that the software is late?” and we went and asked a few people and they all said the same thing: “it was because we had errors in it that we couldn’t fix”. So I said “what you’re telling me is that you review every piece of software that comes out of here except the errors, that’s what you just told me.”

And that’s a joke, right, and it tells me a lot about what I’m dealing with. And like that “Oh what a goose” business, they realise they’ve been really stupid and they’ve got things backwards. I told them that they’d improve their process immediately if they stopped testing they stuff they’d been testing and only test the things they haven’t been testing.

Some people respond very well to that and other people are offended and you know you can’t keep them as clients because you’re not going to get anywhere.

JT: That puts me in mind of something Damian said earlier on. Where he said you test for a month and find nothing.  I know that if I went to our Dev team and said that we’d tested their builds for a month and found nothing, that would get an enormous laugh.

Fortunately, the Dev Manager has a great sense of humour.

MB: Laughter is the sound an epiphany makes.

JW: Do you know the programmer’s national anthem? “Ohhh” You all know it, you know all the words, and that’s the epiphany. And I just add that word “shit” to it, and get “ohhh shit” and we’ve got the whole way to deal with it.

I went into computing because when I was 11 years old I read an article that told how computers wouldn’t make mistakes. Now I’ve recently figured out something that I hadn’t really thought through before: computers rarely make mistakes but they do so many things so fast and even a rare mistake gets repeated millions of times in a second.  So that the effect can be worse than doing something by hand but only making a mistake every once in a while.

I read this article and it said [the computer] was a thinking machine. They were called “giant brains” in those days. I’d never seen a computer and I didn’t know anybody who’d ever seen a computer but I just decided that’s what I wanted to work with: I found a way that I could do things without making a mistake.  Well, I was 11, what did I know? What did anybody know? It was what people believed in those days. And some people
still believe that.

Y’know, I get this with clients. They tell me that they’ve got some program, that they’re doing some analysis, and they say “our objective is to minimise our costs” and I say “well go out of business and you’ll have not costs at all”.

They say “you don’t understand” and I say “apparently you don’t either, because you’ve got your objective and clearly that’s not your objective.” You can avoid making mistakes by just making one big mistake, just go out of business. You can avoid making programming errors by not writing any programs, except the one error of not writing a program when that would be the thing to do.

So maybe that’s where the sense of humour comes in. People who are so afraid of making a mistake and looking stupid, maybe they won’t do a good job. Something to think about…

MB: I’d like to offer a benediction that Mark Breslin, who was the creator and founder of Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto where I worked for a long time, used to end the shows on a weekend on Friday and Saturday nights with:

“Ladies and gentleman tonight we’ve been through a lot. You know in this world there’s an awful lot of pain and sorrow and hurt and suffering but the amazing thing about comedy, the amazing thing about comedy, ladies and gentlemen is that it can take all that pain and that hurt and that suffering and by some almost mystical transformation turn it into something very, very, very … cheap”

See also IntroPart 1 and Part 2.