Creativity – The difference between Testers and Checkers

To test is to think creatively.

Working in agile environments, rather than more traditional ones, demand much more of their testers. Testers need to balance their innate bias for quality with the need for shipping working software to customers asap. Testers need to adapt to this changing environment, and fast!

Testers need to be creative, not artistic

For me, creativity simply means problem-solving. Even though the words “artistic” and “creative” are used interchangeably by most, they have different, although related meanings. Being artistic is a gift the lucky few are blessed with. Being creative is something you choose to be. It’s the way you choose to view problems. It’s the lens you see the world through. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the problem solving/creativity side of things, not the artistic side. The side we all possess but most ignore. Sir Ken Robinson’s explains why and where we lost our creative way in his Ted Talk about creativity.

The Problem with Checkers

Checkers, not testers, are most comfortable when handed comprehensive requirement docs where every error scenario and edge case is explained in minute detail. The only critical thinking required was how best to re-word a functional spec doc to create a test script! Such work required minimal brain power and as a result, a checker’s cognitive capacities were rarely, if ever, stretched. Creativity is like any other muscle in your body. If you put it under a short burst of strain, followed by a period of rest, it will expand and grow. Conversely, failure to use a muscle for prolonged periods (think about removing a broken arm from a cast after 2 months) leads to weakness and atrophy. Thankfully you can strengthen your creative “muscle”; you just need to exercise it!

Get fit

If you want to run a marathon, you need to train several times a week. If you don’t want to lose your second language, you need to speak it regularly. In the same vein, if you want to be more creative, at the very least, you need to start reframing your thoughts and ideas. Here’s really good article about (non-testing related) reframing techniques. And here’s one about reframing and innovation.

Scarcity breeds innovation

The fewer resources you have, the fewer options you have, the more you need to think creatively. Testers now work in a world full of scarcities. Stories have minimal requirements (we’ve all seen the 1 liner story!). We are given a limited period of time to test. We sometimes have to test tools and technologies we have limited experience with and knowledge of. And everyone, rightly so, still expects the same levels of rigorous testing. All these constraints force us to think outside the box. Constraints should be seen as an opportunity, not a limitation. Also, we work in an environment where time (feedback loops, time to market, etc.) and not quality becomes the single most important factor in our decision-making process. Some testers can struggle to adapt to this change in mindset. We need creative thinking to solve these problems.

Betty Edwards

The brain is split into 2 hemispheres; the left for logic, language and math, the right for creativity, intuition, and art. Betty Edwards understood this and was able to break the creative process into 5 distinct stages. She explains that for the creative spark to be ignited, engagement from both sides of the brain is essential. Without it, creativity could never exist. Thinking rationally and logically is as important to the creative process as using your imagination.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you reframe the problem!!), there is no silver bullet to becoming creative overnight. It is something you need to actively manage and practice. Betty Edwards has removed the mystery surrounding this elusive trait. She has shown us that creativity can be broken down into components. If it can be broken down; it can be understood. If it can be understood, it can be learned.

The Difference

In Michael Bolton’s seminal article about checking v testing, he clearly, and simple in terms, explains the difference between the two activities. He explains a checker is “a person who needs a clear, complete, up-to-date, unambiguous specification to proceed”. While a tester’s job is to “discover information; often that information is in terms of inconsistencies between what people think and what’s true in reality”. Personally, I think the difference between testers and checkers is creativity. One engages only a small subset of the brain, the other uses it in its entirety. I have heard it said many times that the main reason we need testers in the agile world is because of their “mindset”. What they are really trying to say is testers, not checkers, think creatively and differently from everybody else.

General George S. Patton famously said:

If everyone’s thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.

The world needs more people to question instructions, not follow them. The world needs more testers, not checkers.


4 thoughts on “Creativity – The difference between Testers and Checkers

  1. When visiting blogs, i usually discover a very
    good content like yours. Very good job on this article!
    I really like how you presented your facts and how you made it appealing and straightforward.


  2. Great article. Indeed I’ve enjoyed all your blogs, but this one in particular resonated with me. Thanks for the mention of Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk essential viewing. Keep it up.


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