Testing for a Safer World

“Software runs the world,” says agile guru Robert Martin.

Advances in robotics, big data and machine learning have pushed software into every aspect of human life. Complex algorithms are taking over critical decisions formerly made by people.

Some software is fun or harmlessly useful, helping us develop and test other software, or running our home appliances.

The potential benefits are enormous. But so are the risks. Increasing complexity brings systems that are difficult to understand, predict the outcomes of, and manage. Safety regulations and standards are lagging behind the technology. Some very complex and unregulated systems—like those operating cars—are safety-critical.

Your car may have 100 million lines of code conveying messages from your feet on the pedals, your hands on the wheel—and its own sensors—to its mechanical systems. Investigators of one popular model found “spaghetti code” with software errors that could cause sudden unintended and uncontrollable acceleration. Hackers remotely took control of another car’s brakes and steering via its entertainment system.

Even regulated medical devices such as heart pacemakers could be hacked. Some experts worry that the vast North American electricity grid could be at risk through its multiplicity of utilities, some small and deficient in cyber-security.

In 2012, safety systems expert Nancy Leveson wrote, “We are attempting to build systems that are beyond our ability to intellectually manage.” We keep building more.

Where will testers be in a world run by software? What new skills and knowledge will we need?

Our roles are changing, but some things haven’t changed. Testers know that there is no bug-free software. We know that a simple software error like a typo in code or a misinterpreted requirement can sometimes result in disaster. We have the mindset to imagine what could go wrong before a catastrophe happens and help to prevent it.

We can test for a safer world.

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      Fiona Charles - Owner & Principal Consultant , Quality Intelligence, canada

      I’m an independent consultant, specialising in the human side of software development and projects. I work as an Agile testing coach, consult in testing and test management, and act occasionally as a program-level test manager on difficult projects. I speak at and conduct workshops at international conferences and in-house for clients, and I have published approximately 30 articles in test-related publications.

      I’m also co-founder (with Anne-Marie Charrett) of Speak Easy, a volunteer organisation designed to increase gender diversity at tech conferences and help new speakers find their voice.

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