getting away from it all

When you’re on vacation do you think about work? Not thoughts of dread, worry or angst but reflection, planning and problem solving. I just did. Last Sunday I awoke in Seattle to freezing temps and a dusting of snow. By midday I was building a sandcastle on Ka’anapali Beach, Maui in 79 degree sunshine. If that’s not getting away from it all, I don’t know what is.

Yet my mind wasn’t really away. In fact, I thought about work all the time. Given that software was everywhere I looked, it’s not hard to see why. My entire trip was booked online, even the taxi to the airport. Not a single person besides myself took part in the process. Just me … and a load of software.

The taxi cab itself contained software, as did the airplane. The baggage carousel, the espresso machine, the car rental counter (no person there, just a self serve terminal) and even the surveillance camera that watched my son juggle his soccer ball while I packed our bags in the trunk. All alone, except for the software. Even the frozen concoction machine had software that helped it maintain the right temperature. (It broke, incidentally, making me thankful that I am a beer drinker.)

Is it possible for anyone in this field to really get away from it all? (Don’t get me started on the motion sensors that control the air conditioning in the hotel room. I’m all for turning them off when they are not in use, but apparently sitting still and being cool was not one of their end-to-end scenarios.)

The truth of the matter is that getting away from it all just isn’t necessary for me. I like seeing software in action and I enjoy brooding over problems of testing it. Vacations free my mind from the daily grind and leave my mind to question things that back home I might overlook. Does this make me work obsessed or just indicate that I really like what I do?

Vacations have always been like this for me. When I was a professor, two students who led my research lab, Ibrahim El-Far and Scott Chase, actually avoided me when I returned from a trip, afraid of the work my new insights would bring. They never quite managed to successfully do so.

Which brings me back to the motion sensor in my room. The problem isn’t so much a poor tester, rather poor testing guidance. The sensor does exactly what it is designed to do and testing it based on those requirements got me in the sit-and-sweat loop. The problem is that no one thought to give it a field try … what I call ‘day in the life’ testing. Had the tester thought to take the sensor through a 24 hour cycle of usage they would have identified that problematic ten hour period (yes, ten, it’s a vacation after all) when motion is low and the desire to be cool is high. But what tool gives such guidance? Modern tools help testers in many ways, but helping them think of good test scenarios isn’t one of them. They help us organize, automate, regress and so forth, but do they really help us to test?

That’s the tool I want. Tomorrow, when I return, I am going to direct someone to build it for me. Ibrahim and Scott, you are off the hook this time.