Schedule and Events

March 26-29, 2012, Software Test Professionals Conference, New Orleans
July, 14-15, 2012 - Test Coach Camp, San Jose, California
July, 16-18, 2012 - Conference for the Association for Software Testing (CAST 2012), San Jose, California
August 2012+ - At Liberty; available. Contact me by email:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Budgets, Badges, and Badgers - III

Earlier in the week I introduced the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award, and my doubts about it -- yesterday I posted a quick summary of my opinion.

It is a serious subject and deserves a serious answer -- I do believe it is time to get specific.

What is the Baldridge award?

According to it's homepage, the mission of the Baldridge program is to "improve the competitiveness and performance of U.S. organizations." Mr. Borawski defined it by saying that:
The Baldrige Program serves to:

1) Identify and recognize role model organizations
2) Establish criteria for evaluating improvement efforts
3) Disseminate and share best practices

To put this into my own words, I suppose the best, most competitive companies have ideas that can be used by other companies. So we should find those organizations, hold them up, and share their ideas. If everyone were to share these ideas, why, we would see increased productivity, which means more goods and services created, which means an improvement in quality of life in our communities and increased competitiveness abroad -- everybody wins. Sounds good to me, eh?

Except ... wait.

Exactly who is deciding what 'best' means?

In Wall Street, we have one way of deciding who's best: The wisdom of the crowd. People buy shares in companies they like, and sell stock if they do not like them. This creates 'winners' and 'losers.'

Likewise, on main street we have another kind of voting: The pocketbook. People purchase services from companies they like, and can complain about or boycott companies they don't like. If enough people stop buying your stuff, you go out of business; if lots of people buy your stuff (and you don't mess up along the way), you can become Wal*Mart. (Or at least Target, maybe?)

I call these sorts of systems "market based" because they allow people to vote with their wallet. This means a company needs to sell goods or services people want at a price they can afford -- or the company goes out of business.

The Baldridge Award replaces this measure with it's own wisdom. Now, for public service organizations (a police station) and non-profit organizations, you might have to do something like that.

But that's not the point Matt, sharing of best practices is!

The ASQ (and most other Baldridge defenders) are quick to point out that the program is not about the award, it is about sharing of best practice.

ahh, there is that word. "Best Practices." I have to tell you honestly, that term creeps me out.

Best practices is not an engineering term.

Engineers of any stripe, software or mechanical, do not talk about best practices. They talk about tradeoffs, about losing something less important to our group at this point in time in order to get something more important to our group at this point in time.

The groups and the points in time might change, so no practice is ever "best."

In fact, I belong to a group called the context-driven school of software testing that censures the term best practices.

By censure, I mean outlaw. If you use the term at one of our conferences, you'll likely be told to use another term. (More likely, your submission won't be accepted, and you'll get an email explaining why.)

When I hear the term "best practices", what comes to mind is marketing, sales, hype, and sloppy thinking.

Sure, the baldridge program might share practices - but are the cash-handling practices for a bank going to apply for a gas station? How about for a one-person small engine repair shop?

It's likely that they will not - that implementing the practices can cause more harm than good.

What is the criteria for the program?

The criteria for the business side of the Baldridge award ("performance excellence") is a seventy-seven page PDF that provides a framework for evaluating a business. The evaluation terms include things like "Measurement, Analysis, and Knowledge Management", "Workforce Focus", "Customer Focus", and "Results."

Now this is where I have to get a little personal and base my opinions on my experiences, just a little bit. You see the Baldridge program does have a relatively small budget - so to evaluate companies it relies on volunteer "examiners." Of all the aspects of the award, I probably like the volunteer/examiner program the best.

Ideally, I should become an examiner and take the training myself - but I've met enough examiners and talked to them to have some idea of what the program entails. Suffice to say that the program evaluates companies according to a value system - to see if the companies work is stable, predictable, and measured enough that it can experiment with a change and known numerically if the results are sufficient.

The examples I have seen were around hospital wait time, and time-to-execute on certain recurring operations, like perhaps a blood draw. Yet there are significant challenges with measuring knowledge work, which is an increasingly large part of the American economy. Even if the work is repeatable, I might question if it is valuable -- for example, Barnes and Nobles had a great, stable, repeatable system to produce books in 1995 ... right up until came along with a disruptive innovation and took away their business model.

That idea of disruptive innovation being more and more dangerous to a business that becomes more and more highly specialized -- isn't mine alone -- it is a hallmark of modern risk management.

So sure, running your company "by the numbers" is one ideal of business management, but it's not the only one, and it bothers me that our government would institutionalize it. (This is probably the one area I know least about the program, but I am open to learning more, and I calls 'em like I see 'em.)

Should our government be doing this?

I may not be a constitutional scholar, but I've read the thing and I see that the government has certain powers elaborated in the constitution and those not elaborated are delegated to the states. I do realize that recently, as a nation, we have not paid a whole lot of attention to the document, especially it's intent. Further, I realize that the Federal Government is granted the right to regulate interstate commerce, and that power is used to justify several large government organizations like OSHA, and NIST, compared to which Baldridge is a drop in the bucket.

Further, our Federal government is one of the world's largest employers; I think we employ something like two million people, and that's before adding government contractors like LockHeed-Martin.

On the business side, I can't see a reason the Federal government would see spreading performance excellence "best practice" as within it's role. The appeal to 'national interest' seems to go against the historical reason we exist as a country -- we exist because we wanted the government out of our business. In addition, it seems to smack of centralized planning to me -- something the russians tried after the second world war -- to "decide" the "right way" to do things and to spread that out to every company, instead of letting the free market decide.

It didn't work out that great for the Russians.

We need less of this, not more. According to my value system, we need lless scripted behavior and more thinking -- the group we need to hold up as exemplars is most likely the liberal arts tradition.

But that's my opinion. I don't need government money to compete; give me a microphone called the internet and let people respond if they want to.


By now you realize that I'm not keen on the Baldridge award. Of course we should de-fund it. More than that, we should ask how a program like that ever got to be funded in the first place!

But that brings an interesting question. If Quality is what Paul Borawski calls "the set the concepts, techniques, and tools that connect good intention with realized and sustainable outcomes", how is it possible that we have such a different understanding the role and benefits of the Baldridge award? Wouldn't you hope we came to the same conclusion, not conclusions that were wildly different?

This is a contradiction and it's probably wise to check our assumptions.

The simplest explanation I can think of is that Paul and I have different values; that he believes that more centralized planning (or "sharing" if you have a lighter touch) combined with management by the numbers will lead to better outcomes for the United States, or even the world.

I've made my case against this worldview.

I would be pleased to see a strong reply; I'm interested in the discussion, or, possibly, an explanation of what I am missing - the benefits that the Baldrige programs adds that I am failing to take into account.

Either way, as a tiny little niche industry, I suspect we 'quality' people have a fair bit of work cut out for ourselves.

It's an exciting time to be a tester.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Budgets, Badges, and Badgers - II

Last time I introduced the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award, and my doubts about it.

I wrote a serious, detailed response that I will post tomorrow. In the mean time, though, I would like to give the five-minute version. It goes something like this:

I have a number of concerns about the Baldridge award, but chief among them is the worldview it seems to be advancing: One in which the ideal business has a defined process and can be managed 'by the numbers.'

In my experience, this kind of business is *both* especially vulnerable to black swan problems, but also vulnerable to disruptive innovations. It pursues a form of maturity that I do not agree with.

I'll debate the details tomorrow - for now, Barry Schwartz's presentation "Practical Wisdom" says it all for me:

For the record: I'm with Barry.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Budgets, Badges, and Badgers - I

I don't talk about politics much on this blog, but there are some interesting things going on right now with the USA Federal budget that seem relevant.

Consider, for example, our massive annual debt. Every politician seems to agree this is a problem -- but have you noticed that few of them have any detailed ideas on how to cut it? If you push hard they'll come up with a statement such as "going over the budget "line by line", but nobody wants to get specific.

Here's why: Every line item on the federal budget has a special interest group supporting it; that is why the line item exists. If you threaten to cut that item, you've just made an enemy of that special interest group.

Threaten to cut medicare or social security, and the baby boomers and senior citizens won't vote for you. Cut medicaid and you'll lose the disabled and lower-incomes -- same with Head Start or Welfare. U.S. unemployment is hovering around ten percent; add family members supported by unemployment, and you've just ticked off a large group of people.

In other words, if you want to cut anything, you can't get elected. So we come up with silly ideas like a federal pay freeze that will save a billion or two, but combine in with stimulus spending that adds up to hundreds of billions a year. (To help visualization, here's short video explainng the last spending "cut".)

Philosopher's call this "the tragedy of the commons." By each group lobbying for it's own individual best interest, we slowly destroy the system as a whole.

And by every special interest, I mean it. Did you know the 'quality' special interest has our own line-item?

It's called the Malcolm Baldridge Award, a federally-chartered award to recognize performance excellence in the categories of public, private, and non-profit organizations.

A little googling shows me that the Baldridge award program costs out Federal Government about twelve million dollars annually. As a taxpayer aware of the tragedy of the commons, I'd be inclined to sacrifice the award off the bat.

Then I read this blog post by the executive directory of the American Society for Quality, taking the opposite position. It made me pause and reflect.

What criteria should we use to judge the Baldridge award?

A few things occur to me. First of all, we know the cost, but what is the value? In order to make an informed decision, we would want to subtract the cost from the value -- to find out of the award is a good investment for the American people. We would want to find out if the award is good for society. If that comes out positive, I'd want to ask if the award is within the role of government -- is it the kind of thing the government should do, and, if yes, if it is the kind of thing allowed by the Federal Republic defined in our constitution.

All that said: Let's take a look.

More to come.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Test Management Certification

So I'm trying to figure out my 2011 (and beyond!) professional development plan.

I've got a lot of ideas -- I like to try a lot of things at the same times and see what sticks.

In 2009, I started a formal, zero-profit, non-commercial school for testing known as Miagi-Do, and that has gone well. So well, in fact, that in a recent email thread on test certifications, someone wrote:
I confess that all I know about Miagi-Do is that all the people who have mentioned they are Miagi-Do rated in some way are people I respect highly. This leads me to believe it is a good program.

That was nice.

That got me to thinking about certifications, and risk.

Think about it the main arguments for test certification: The it reduces the risk to the company in the hiring decision, flattens expectations, maybe reduces some of the communications friction because people use the same words and know what those words mean. Mostly, though, I think it is about risk.

Test certifications create /some form/ of differentiation, allowing an HR department without discernment to winnow two-hundred resumes down to twenty with relative ease.

But that's the problem: The department lacks discernment.

So what if, instead of a test-er certificate, we came up with a test management certificate?

It wouldn't have to be limited to test managers, of course. A development manager could earn it to demonstrate his expertise in the discipline.

So I took the idea to the Rebel Alliance List (an informal group of software testers) and we kicked the idea around a bit.

Certifications have problems.

What does a certificate mean?

The words "certified", imply to me that some authority has decided something about you. So a certified test manager would mean that this authority (whoever it is) claims the person has the skills, tools and abilities to be successful in a certain role.

For some very specific jobs that are well historically defined, like plumbing, bricklaying, or for an electrician, it seems reasonable to me to have a certification.

But in testing, I've seen far too many people be successful in one environment, jump ship, and the very things that made them successful in one environment made them fail in the next.

So the best think we could do is say something like "If you company has this sort of values, and if they are doing this sort of testing, we think this person has the abilities to have success."

Nothing is ever guaranteed, of course, but I do think that within our community we could find the skills to do an evaluation to make such a statement that stands up to scrutiny.

But that kind of statement is too complex for the lazy HR person who wants to check a box.

Which, as my friend Joe Harter pointed out, is a problem - a test management certification might enable someone to be lazy, but at best that is treating a symptom, not a root cause. (I said "at best"; Joe was ... more choice in his wording.)


After looking into the issue seriously, I don't think a test management certification is something I can reasonably pursue in 2011. It is appealing, and I won't rule it out for the future, but it's not the top of my stack for next year, and I don't think it should be. Moreover, if you do pursue a certification, you might want to ask the people offering the cert if they have wrestled with the questions above -- and what answers they came up with.

If you get a reply that is a sort of sheepish grin, handwaving, or "mature organizations don't have those sorts of problems", well, you can probably figure out what I think of the cert.

Yet there is another, less often discussed, benefit of certification: It offers a concrete development plan, combined with some sort of sense of accomplishment. Those are good things, and important things, and I don't want to downplay them.

What I recommend instead, though, is that you write your own plan. One place to start is with reading, and piles of it. If you're here, you're in the right place, and I could drop a suggested reading list as a blog post anytime.

Why I'm thinking of that, though, is mostly from an interview I did recently with Jurgen Appello on Software Management, in preparation for his upcoming book on Management 3.0.

Or to paraphrase James Bach -- "If you can't find a certification with integrity, go certify yourself."

More to come.