Blog: Rising Against the Rent-Seekers

At CAST 2014, a quiet, modest, thoughtful, and very experienced man named James Christie gave a talk called “Standards: Promoting Quality or Restricting Competition?”. The talk followed on from his tutorial at EuroSTAR 2013 on working with auditors—James is a former auditor himself—and from his blogs on software standards over the years.

James’ talk introduced to our community the term rent-seeking. Rent-seeking is the act of using political means—the exercise of power—to obtain wealth without creating wealth; see http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/RentSeeking.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent-seeking. One form of rent-seeking is using regulations or standards in order to create or manipulate a market for consulting, training, and certification.

James’ CAST presentation galvanized several people in attendance to respond to ISO Standard 29119, the most recent rent-seeking scheme by a very persistent group of certificationists and standards promoters. Since the ISO standard on standards requires—at least in theory—consensus from industry experts, some people proposed a petition to demonstrate opposition and the absence of consensus amongst skilled testers. I have signed this petition, and I urge you to read it, and, if you agree, to sign it too.

Subsequently, a publication named Professional Tester published—under an anonymous byline—a post about the petition, with the provocative title “Book burners threaten (old) new testing standard”. Presumably such (literally) inflammatory language was meant as clickbait. Ordinarily such things would do little to foster thoughtful discussion about the issues, but it prompted some quite thoughtful reactions. Here’s one example; here’s another. Meanwhile, if the author wishes to characterize me as a book burner, here are (selected) contents of my library relevant to software testing. Even the lamest testing books (and some are mighty lame) have yet to be incinerated.

In the body text, the anonymous author mischaracterises the petition and its proponents, of which I am one. “Their objection,” (s)he says, “is that not everyone will agree with what the standard says: on that criterion nothing would ever be published.” I might not agree with what the standard says, but that’s mostly a side issue for the purposes of this post. I disagree with what the authors of the standard attempt to do with it.

1) To prescribe expensive, time-consuming, and wasteful focus on bloated process models and excessive documentation. My concern here is that organizations and institutions will engage in goal displacement: expending money, time and resources on demonstrating compliance with the standard, rather than on actually testing their products and services. Any kind of work presents opportunity cost; when you’re doing something, most of the time it prevents you from doing something else. Every minute that a tester spends on wasteful documentation is a minute that the tester cannot fulfill the overarching mission of testing: learning about the product, with an emphasis on discovering important problems that threaten value or safety, so that our clients can make informed decisions about problems and risks.

I am not objecting here to documentation, as the calumny from Professional Tester suggests. I am objecting to excessive and wasteful documentation. Ironically, the standard itself provides an example: the current version of ISO 29119-1 runs to 64 pages; 29119-2 has 68 pages; and 29119-3 has 138 pages. If those pages follow the pattern of earlier drafts, or of most other ISO documents, you have a long, pointless, and sleep-inducing read ahead of you. Want a summary model of the testing process? Try this example of what the rent-seekers propose as their model of of testing work. Note the model’s similarity to that of a (overly complex and poorly architected) computer program.

2) To set up an unnecessary market for training, certification, and consultancy in interpreting and applying the standard. The primary tactic here is to instill the fear of being de-certified. We’ve been here before, as shown in this post from Tom DeMarco (date uncertain, but it seems to have been written prior to 2000).

Rent-seeking is of the essence, and we’ve been here before in another sense: this was one of the key goals of the promulgators of the ISEB and ISTQB. In the image, they’ve saved the best for last.

The well-informed reader will note that the list of organizations behind those schemes and the members of the ISO 29119 international working group look strikingly similar.

If the working group happens to produce a massive and opaque set of documents, and you’re in an environment that claims conformance to the 29119 standards, and you want to get some actual testing work done, you’ll probably find it helpful to hire a consultant to help you understand them, or to help defend you from charges that you were not following the standard. Maybe you’ll want training and certification in interpreting the standard—services that the authors’ consultancies are primed to offer, with extra credibility because they wrote the standards! Good thing there are no ethical dilemmas around all of this.

3) To use the ISO’s standards development process to help suppress dissent. If you want to be on the international working group, it’s a commitment to six days of non-revenue work, somewhere in the world, twice a year. The ISO/IEC does not pay for travel expenses. Where have international working group meetings been held? According to the http://softwaretestingstandard.org/ Web site, meetings seem to have been held in Seoul, South Korea (2008); Hyderabad, India (2009); Niigata, Japan (2010); Mumbai, India (2011); Seoul, South Korea (2012); Wellington New Zealand (2013). Ask yourself these questions:

  • How many independent testers or testing consultants from Europe or North America have that kind of travel budget?

  • What kinds of consultants might be more likely to obtain funding for this kind of travel?

  • Who benefits from the creation of a standard whose opacity demands a consultant to interpret or to certify?

Meanwhile, if you join one of the local working groups, there are two ways that the group arrives at consensus.

  • By reaching broad agreement on the content. (Consensus, by the way, does not mean unanimity—that everyone agrees with the the content. It would be closer to say that in a consensus-based decision-making process, everyone agrees that they can live with the content.) But, if you can’t get to that, there’s another strategy.

  • By attrition. If your interest is in promulgating an unwieldy and opaque standard, there will probably be objectors. When there are, wait them out until they get frustrated enough to leave the decision-making process. Alan Richardson describes his experience with ISEB in this way.

In light of that, ask yourself these questions:

  • How many independent consultants have the time and energy to attend local working groups, often during otherwise billable hours?

  • What kinds of consultants might be more likely to support attendance at local working groups?

  • Who benefits from the creation of a standard that needs a consultant to interpret or to certify?

4) To undermine the role of skill in testing, and the reputations of people who discuss and promote it. “The real reason the book burners want to suppress it is that they don’t want there to be any standards at all,” says the polemicist from Professional Tester. I do want there to be standards for widgets and for communication protocols, but not for complex, cognitive, context-sensitive intellectual work. There should be standards for designed things that are intended to work together, but I’m not at all sure there should be mandated standards for how to do design. S/he goes on: “Effective, generic, documented systematic testing processes and methods impact their ability to depict testing as a mystic art and themselves as its gurus.” Far from treating testing as a mystic art, appealing to things like “intuition” and “experienced-based techniques”, my community has been trying to get to the heart of testing skills, flexible and responsive coverage reporting, tacit and explict knowledge, and the premises of the way we do testing. I’ve seen no such effort to dig deeper into these subjects—and to demystify them—from the rent-seekers.

Unlike the anonymous author at Professional Tester, I am willing to stand behind my work, my opinions, and my reputation by signing my name and encouraging comments. Feel free.

—Michael B.

Want to know more? Learn about Rapid Software Testing classes here.

15 responses to “Rising Against the Rent-Seekers”

  1. […] Rising Against the Rent-Seekers Written by: Michael Bolton […]

  2. sunjeet says:

    Another reason to encourage standards is to ensure interoperability/replaceability

    Which makes sense for network devices,browsers,thermometers but completely does not make sense for humans !

  3. Matt says:

    There is no single standard for programming, so how can there be a single standard for testing?

  4. […] Iain McCowatt – Stop 29119 Keith Klain – The Petition to Stop ISO 29119 Michael Bolton – Rising Against the Rent-Seekers James Bach – How not to standardize software […]

  5. […] Rising Against the Rent-Seekers, testing Blogger Michael Bolton is under no illusions as to the real agenda behind proponents of […]

  6. […] is an commercial organisation. The standard is a form of “rent-seeking“. One form of rent-seeking is using regulations or standards in order to create or […]

  7. Andrew says:

    For my sins, I have received training as an ISO Auditor, and conducted audits in organisations that wished to claim various types of compliance.

    The auditors mindset is completely at odds with an effective, context driven, testing mindset.

    Michael replies: I’m not convinced that’s always so. For example, James Christie, himself an ex-auditor, suggests in this post that “Binary opinions in internal audit (are) a relic of yesteryear”. So maybe there’s some hope.

    At best the ISO 29119 standard will be just one more obstacle to be worked around, while you try to deliver effective testing – all the while stunting the growth of those who rely on it, and lessening the regard in which testers are held by the people we need to work with.

    I can see no upside to the standard here.

    Thanks for the comment. Please help us get to our (comppletely arbitrary!) goal of 1000 testers by encouraging colleagues to sign the petition.

  8. […] blog posts, a hashtag, a slow and large skeet target, a petition, and other actions taken. We now know about rent-seeking, some have properly contextualized ISO 29119, some of the lions in our field have spoken, and some […]

  9. […] “In one sense, it won’t make any difference to my business if 29119-1, 29119-2, and 29119-3 are left to stand, and if 29119-4 and 29119-5 move from draft to accepted. Rapid Software Testing is about actual testing skills—exploration, experimentation, critical thinking, scientific thinking, articulate reporting, and so forth. That doesn’t compete with 29119, in the same kind of way that a fish restaurant doesn’t compete with the companies that make canned tuna. We object to people manipulating the market and the ISO standards development process to suggest to the wider world that canned tuna is the only food fit for people to eat. I discuss that here: http://www.developsense.com/blog/2014/08/rising-against-the-rent-seekers/ […]

  10. […] Rising Against the Rent-Seekers […]

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