“Test” and “generalist” are vague words

Brian Marick has posted his Methodology Work Is Ontology Work paper. As I was reading it, I came across this part on page 3 which puts into words what I have been thinking about for a while:

… there are two factions. One is the “conventional” testers, to whom testing is essentially about finding bugs. The other is the Agile programmers, to whom testing is essentially not about bugs. Rather, it’s about providing examples that guide the programming process.

Brian uses this example as an ontology conflict, but has provided me with a springboard to talk about vague words. Not only conflicts, but vague terms can cause breakdowns in communication which can be frustrating to the parties involved.


When I was studying philosophy at university, we talked a lot about vague words, which are words that can have more than one meaning. We were taught to state assumptions before crafting an argument to drive out any vague interpretations. Some work has been done in this area with the word “testing” on agile projects. Brian Marick has talked about using the term “checked examples“, and others have grappled with this as well.

“Test” is a term that seems to work in the agile development context, so it has stuck. Attempts at changing the terminology haven’t worked. For those of us who have testing backgrounds and experience on agile teams, we automatically determine the meaning of the term based on the context. If I’m talking to developers on an agile team and they use the word “test”, it often means the example they wrote during TDD to develop software. This and other tests are automated and run constantly as a safety net or “change detectors” when developing software. If I’m talking to testers, a test is something that is developed to find defects in the software, or in the case of some regression tests, to show that defects aren’t there. There are many techniques and many different kinds of tests in this context.


Another vague term that can cause communication breakdowns is “generalist”. An expression that comes up a lot in the agile community is that agile projects prefer generalists to specialists. What does that mean in that context? Often, when I talk with developers on agile teams, I get the impression that they would prefer working with a tester who is writing automated tests and possibly even contributing production code. As James Bach has pointed out to me, this concept of a project generalist to a tester would be “…an automated testing specialist, not a project generalist.” Sometimes independent testers express confusion to me when they get the impression that on some agile teams, testing specialists need not apply, the team needs to be made up of generalists. A tester may look at the generalist term differently than a developer. To a tester, a generalist may do some programming, testing, documentation, work with the customer – a little bit of everything. A tester feels that by their very dilletante nature on projects that their role by definition truly is a generalist one. Again, we’re using the same word, but it can mean different things to different people.

For those who have software testing backgrounds, working at the intersection of “conventional” testing and agile development is challenging. This is a challenge I enjoy, but I find that sometimes testers and developers are using the same words and talking about two different things. Testers may be intially drawn to the language of agile developers only to be confused when they feel the developers are expecting them to provide a different service than they are used to. Agile developers may initially welcome testers because they value the expertise they hope to gain by collaborating, but may find that the independent tester knows little about xUnit, green bars and FIT. They may be saying the same words, but talking about completely different things. It can be especially frustrating on a project when people don’t notice this is happening.

Other vague words?

I’m trying to make sense of this intersection and share ideas. If you have other vague words you’ve come across in this intersection of conventional testers and agile developers, please drop me a line.