Observation on the Proofreader Effect

I've been working on some performance test scripts using Ruby (Watir actually) over the last few weeks, and have been happily rewriting the scripts I first wrote a year ago. (Programmers call this activity refactoring.) I've learnt a lot about Ruby and scripting web apps over the last year. One of the biggest helps came when I read Brian Marick's new book "Everyday Scripting with Ruby". Thanks to that book, my performance test scripts are really slick now and look more like a programmer wrote them. But I digress..

The thing that I've been thinking about over the last few days is the problem of testing the scripts that I've written. Any good tester would never trust a programmer to write error-free code, so why should I trust myself to? But then who should test my scripts? Well, there really isn't anyone else around who can right now so I have to do it myself. Is that a problem? I don't think so.

I'm the biggest stakeholder who cares about these scripts working correctly, while my boss is mostly interested in the numbers and my analysis. So I ran the scripts and worked out the kinks one section at a time until I was able to run them straight through several times without error.

Is that good enough testing? Well, I got the coverage and measurements I wanted, so I guess so. The scripts don't have to be perfect, they just need to give me the data I need. So, it's all good.

Right. I completed the analysis for this run and then started to compare the numbers against the benchmark numbers from last year. It wasn't until several hours later that I noticed a typo in the output. Eek!

I'll just sneak back into the code and fix that. No one saw that. I'll just re-run the scripts and make sure the output looks "clean" this time. Great! Looks fine now.

So how did I miss that typo? I thought about this for a while. I think the proof-reader effect is like a FIFO buffer. That is, I don't think I could have seen this bug until I got the other bigger bugs out of the way.. you know, like the ones that prevented the script from completing or collecting the data I needed in the first place.

First in, First out. Get the big ones out of the way and then I can see the smaller ones that were hiding underneath. The typo was always there but I was just temporarily blinded to it because my attention was so focussed on the bigger fish.

So was I unqualified to test my own code? I don't think so. I caught all the bugs I cared about. It just took me a few days to find them. Would a separate tester have found the typo before me? Maybe, maybe not. The FIFO effect only affected *my* ability to see the little things until the bigger ones were out of the way because I was the one who wrote the scripts. A separate tester would have a different perspective and shouldn't be affected by this FIFO/Proofreader Effect in the same way.

We do Exploratory Testing almost exclusively on our products. When I test, I don't see the same effect happening to me. It's just a matter of time until I get to a feature or page and then I hit it like a whirlwind and move on. It's quite cool and effective. Defect finding rate starting to slow down? Switch to another Test Technique - voilĂ ! More bugs. All the Risks addressed? Move on.

I've seen a number of conversations happening on some of the message boards questioning whether or not a programmer is able to test his or her own code. After this recent experience, I think if the desire is there and there is enough time, then yes, she should be able to find all the bugs that matter.

Once again, a separate pair of eyes not constrained by the FIFO effect would likely speed up the process. Nothing we didn't already know. A Tester helps you to find the bugs that matter sooner rather than later. Well, a good one will anyway.

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