Many years ago I watched an incredibly funny comedy sketch in which John Cleese played the part of a merchant banker. He was busy at his desk when he was approached by a rather nervous spotty youth who asked Cleese if he would like to part with a small sum of money in exchange for a colourful metal pin in the shape of a flag. “Is it a share certificate?” asked Cleese. “No”, replied the spotty youth. “Will it provide me with a return on my investment?”, Cleese continued. “Not as far as I can tell”, spluttered the spotty one. “Will I be able to pass it on to my children, as part of their inheritance?” The youth was visibly shaking as he provided another negative response. “So, what is the point of it” asks an exasperated Cleese. “Well sir, it will help poor families in Africa have a better education”. “But what about about the education of my family….”. The sketch descends towards pythonesque oblivion, but burns itself into the hearts of millions. The irony is peerless. The timing perfect. The utter dejection of the spotty youth palpable.
For me, there is a similar real-life scenario, where seemingly intelligent people walk up to complete strangers, give these strangers a little slip of paper (with a horses name on it) and accompany said slip of paper with a random amount of cash. These optimistic souls then stand around for the next four or five minutes while a handful of horses (ridden by men with high squeaky voices) coax them into a box and cajole them into running faster than any other horse in their vicinity. The fastest horse provides those fortunate to predict this outcome with a return on their outlay. The return, though, doesn’t always live up to expectations. That’s why it’s called gambling and not investing.
I need to declare right away that I do not frequent race tracks or betting shops and I don’t apportion money to an animal that I’ve never seen or heard of, in the hope that my bank balance will grow. Having said that, I’m also very different to the John Cleese character mentioned earlier. I spent thousands of hours as a kid playing card games and learnt how to count the cards in a deck. It gave me a healthy respect for prediction vs gambling. It also helped me understand the odds of a particular outcome occurring – like the expected result of a software test I may undertake.
It fascinates me that we are so certain of software testing outcomes that we generally document a single outcome when 10 probabilities/possibilities may exist (if only we took the time for more creative thinking). If I walk up to a computer and press the ON/OFF button any one of 20 possible outcomes may occur. However, I have seen predicted outcomes confined to “computer login screen appears“.
John Cleese’ character (in the comedy sketch) wasn’t questioning the spotty kid because he was a tight ass, he was purely applying his standard risk profiling techniques before parting with his hard-earned. I think it’s far more interesting for those learning the basics of software testing to look at our challenges from a non-technology perspective. They are far more likely to remember their application and importance.
Tomorrow, those of us fortunate enough to live in and around Melbourne (Australia) will enjoy a public holiday in order that we may join around 100,000 other hapless souls at the Flemington Racecourse for “the Race that Stops a Nation”. Mind-boggling as it may seem, we really do have an annual public holiday in order to celebrate the running of a thoroughbred horse race. It is a marketing executives’ wet dream – 100,000 suited, booted, fluted (and soon to be looted) race-goers. I will not be one of several million Australians lining the pockets of a large multinational on the chance that I may double, triple, quadruple (etc) my money. Instead I will send $40 to the SIDS and KIDS charity and expect no return on my investment.
Dateline: Melbourne, Monday November 3, 2014