This year it was our turn to host the family Christmas lunch/dinner party. My wife planned to cook a turkey with all the trimmings and I was in charge of baking some cakes for dessert. (I love to bake.)
About a week ago, I found myself sitting in the kitchen making a shopping list of the things that I would need for the baking extravaganza on Christmas Eve:
- I need milk. Don't we have milk? Better get some more.. Add it to the list. Check.
- Need sugar. Check the cupboard. Got plenty. What's next?
- Flour. Hmm.. we don't seem to have enough in the flour container. Didn't we have another bag of flour in the cold cellar(*)? (* Our "cold cellar" is an uninsulated storage room in the basement that we use as a pantry.) I've already been in there three times today and I didn't see it. In all fairness, each time I was in there I was looking for something else, so I'm not really sure if it was there or not.
My wife happened to be nearby in the living room sitting with our two boys watching a Christmas special on TV. "Honey? Do you know if we have any flour in the cold cellar?" I ask. She hummed and hawed for a moment and then said that she thought she remembered that there was a bag in there somewhere.
"I thought so too, but I've been in there a few times already and I didn't see it. Do you know where it might be in there?" I ask. She wasn't really sure but restated that she was pretty sure there was a bag in there.
At this point, I should add that this was near the end of the day and I was pretty tired. I don't think that I had slept very well over the previous few days, so in all I was feeling pretty run-down. Oh, and it was absolutely freezing in the cold cellar and I didn't really want to go in there again not knowing exactly where I was going to find what I needed. "Honey? Since you seem to think you know where it is, do you think you could go in and check for me please?" I plead.
She tells me that she didn't really want to get up and check at that particular moment. (In all fairness, when I'm spending time with the boys I usually defer such requests too.) That was too bad. I had started my shopping list. Once I started, I wanted to finish it. I can't just stop the list now and get back to it later. I need to know if we have some so that I can move onto the next item on the list!
Arrg! Fine. I'll go check myself. So I go in there, I check where I think it should be - nothing. I check the shelves - nope. I look in various plastic bags and underneath some bags with Christmas presents that the boys don't know about - nada. No luck. I'm freezing. Okay, back up to the warmth of the kitchen.
I march on up and mention to my wife in passing that I didn't see any flour so I'll just add it to the list. She asked me if I had checked the shelf above the wine bottles. I said that I looked there in passing, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't there. In fact, I was pretty sure that the bags on that top shelf contained leftover Halloween candy. She seemed surprised at me when I said this and told me that we shouldn't have any of that stuff left.
Damn. I have a doubt. Arrg. Back down into the cold cellar I go.
I go in and check the top shelf. Sure enough... no candy. One (plastic shopping) bag contained a bag of whole wheat flour (I can't use that for the cakes I want to make), and another bag contained some rice. (Wow, I didn't know we had extra rice. This is a good thing to know too.) No Halloween candy. And definitely no white flour. I can't feel my toes. Gotta get back into the warmth.
Up I go again. Again, when I pass my wife I mention that I checked and that she was right about the bags not containing candy, but that I still didn't find the flour I needed.
I sit back down in the kitchen and scribble "flour" onto the shopping list. I had checked. I double-checked. Didn't find any. We will definitely need some. Ahh, I can now happily move onto the next item.
I finish the list and go onto doing something else. About an hour later I found myself sitting pretty much where my wife was in the living room doing something with the boys. I heard a rustling noise coming from downstairs followed by some laughing. (Hmm, do I want to know what she's laughing about?)
My wife returned to the living room to let me know that there was indeed a bag of white flour sitting on the shelf in the cold cellar -- exactly where I had looked. (Sigh. It can't be true. Can it?)
"Really?" I ask. "Yes, really." She replied. "You're not just pulling a fast one on me?" I counter. "No, I'm not. It is sitting there in the middle of that shelf and you just didn't see it."
Doubt returns. Of course I have to go and see for myself.
I walk into the cold cellar and sitting there staring straight at me is this big bag of flour - right in the middle of the shelf. Some fleeting silly thoughts entered my mind: maybe a flour fairy came by and put it there after I had left; maybe my wife found the bag buried somewhere else and she just put it there so that I would think that I had missed it. No. I shake my head. I know exactly what had happened.
The Moral of the Story (a.k.a. "Lesson Learned"):
I was tired and my observation skills were clearly not up to the task at hand.
Also, I did not want to go in there and look for it. This feeling was so strong that I pretty much believed that there was NO bag in there to begin with.
As a result I didn't see the bag even when I was looking directly at it. I knew precisely what I was looking for, but I had the wrong disposition or frame of mind for looking (at that particular moment). In fact, upon reflection, I think I had even moved the bag of flour out of the way at one point in my search so that I could check to see what was behind it.
What changed my frame of mind? I had to believe my wife. Unlike me, she believed that there was a bag in there. She had an idea of where to look. She just opened the door and saw it sitting there plain as the nose on your face.
Sigh. I shut the door and went back up and scratched "flour" off the shopping list. We clearly have enough.
The Software-Testing Tie-In:
Over the years, I've always been very vocal about making sure that testers aren't forced to work overtime to make up for really stupid last-minute schedule crunches. "Just because development was late doesn't mean that the testers have to work overtime every night for the next four weeks to make up the lost schedule time."
I know that when you're tired you make mistakes. To compensate at work, I have always employed a risk-based testing strategy to help me clearly prioritise and communicate what we will (and won't) test under the new schedule timeline. No overtime - that is not an option.
Until the flour-in-the-pantry incident, I cannot recall such a blatant example of this phenomenon ever happening to me. I'm sure it has. This time it was easy to check though.
I can only imagine some poor tired (tester) soul trying to look for a particular bug (or class of bugs) but being too tired to see what is directly in front of them!
I didn't need this "flour" event to happen to me to drive the point home, but it certainly did. In the future, not only will I continue to force the "no overtime" issue, but I will also try to ensure some "recovery" time between testing projects to make sure that the testers have enough time to recover from the intense think-work involved on big testing projects.
Tired brains are just no good to anyone.