Equivalence class partitioning: is it real or is it a figment in our imagination?

Last week I attended the Software Testing and Performance conference in Boston. I presented a workshop on Systematic Testing Techniques, as well as a talk on random test data generation, and combinatorial analysis. One way I continue to learn about our profession and increase my own knowledge is by going to conferences to hear different points of view from practitioners from around the world. So, I also attended several talks during the conference, but there was one talk in particular that was particularly entertaining (and I don't mean that in a good way).

When I listen to other testers sometimes I hear something that is new to me and I desire to learn more about it. Sometimes I hear something prophetic that makes me think, contemplate alternatives, or reflect more deeply on my own personal perspectives. Sometimes I hear something revolutionary that causes me to reevaluate my position. And, sometimes I hear something so irrational I almost barf up a lung!

In this case the speaker opened his talk with an attack on a quote from the ISTQB foundation syllabus used to describe boundary testing which states, "Behavior at the edge of each equivalence partition is more likely to be incorrect..." Now I know the speaker a bit, and I know he disdains the ISTQB and other certification organizations, but what surprised me was his initial rebuttal by emphatically stating, "equivalence class partitions are figments of our imaginations!"

These days I usually just try to shake off wild and baseless comments as bombastic bloviations used to generate controversy. But, in this case what caught my attention was when the speaker later said that he and another well-known person defined boundaries as "a dividing point between two otherwise contiguous regions of behavior; or a principle or mechanism by which things are classified into different sets." What!? I couldn't believe what I heard, so I had to stop reading email and look up at the presentation. As I visually processed the words I thought my head was going to explode from the so seemingly obvious contradiction.

Now, I am not a linguistic expert, but I am pretty sure that "otherwise contiguous regions of behavior" and "classifying things into different sets" are just overly simplistic ways of describing equivalence class partitions. But, I could be wrong. So, I began thinking that since most people start learning about sets in elementary schools they probably understand the foundation of equivalence class partitioning is set theory which basically states "a set is an aggregate, class, or collection of objects," and the collection of objects or 'classification of things' in different sets is based on an equivalent relation between the elements in each set. The application of equivalence class partitions in our profession is elegantly explained by Lee Copeland in his excellent book A Practitioner's Guide to Software Test Design by stating "An equivalence class consists of a set of data that is treated the same by the module or that should produce the same result." Equivalence class partitioning is also discussed in-depth in books by noted experts in the industry such as Beizer, Binder, Myers, Jorgensen, Perry, and Marick just to name a few.

In fact, the concept of sets and equivalence almost seems instinctive in most humans and is generally expressed at a young age. I remember my young daughter at age 2 or so separating beads by color into "different sets" on the carpet. The red beads in one group, blue in another, and so on. She was diligent to make sure the different sets of beads did not touch as she put them into the appropriate piles. If a pile of beads got to close to another pile she would run the edge of her hand between the "contiguous regions" to clearly delineate the "dividing point."  When I asked her to get me a red bead, she would randomly grab one from the pile, because all the red beads were...red, and there were no significant differences among the red beads (elements) in the set she created that were relevant in that context of that game.

Perhaps the majority of the industry's experts are wrong and I wasted my time reading books on software testing principles and practices because this person is right and equivalence class partitioning is really only a figment of our imagination.

However, on the other hand, although I certainly have never claimed to be an expert, I am still pretty darn sure the underlying foundation of computers and computer software is somewhat influenced by mathematical principles, and as a tester I might be able to use those same principles to help me design effective tests that might help me better evaluate discrete functional capabilities and attributes of software components and more efficiently expose certain categories or patterns of errors.

But, why should we get mired down and confused with facts (especially all that boring math stuff) when it is much easier to appeal to some peoples' emotions. So,forget everything you just read...and if anyone asks why testing is so hard just tell them testing is an art with no practical foundation in logic because software is...well, it's just magic!