Miyamoto Musashi on Software Testing

On February 14, 2013, in Articles, News, Newsletter, by Association for Software Testing

By Pete Walen

In 2012, I found myself talking with a far broader range of people than I have in previous years. These were generally software professionals of some sort. Some were experts in writing code to be delivered to production. Some were experts in designing databases. Some were experts in software application and solution design. Some were experts in various techniques in software development.  Many were describing similar problems at their offices or client sites. All were interested in new ideas that could help them solve these problems.

A couple of weeks ago, I was considering what it was that made software testing different for me than for some of my colleagues. To be fair, I should say many of my colleagues at my current client site, or at organizations where I have worked in the past. I find many people at conferences and tester groups and online forums who have a similar view to my own, but there are others who seem challenged by things. I know that no person is perfect. I know that sometimes we can get so deep into a problem that a fresh set of eyes looking at what is going on can notice something I overlook. When I walk in and ask a question, that to me at least, seems pretty obvious, the reactions vary from “I never considered that. Wow. Thanks.” to “That’s a crazy idea. No one would ever do that.” Obvious extremes aside I find it interesting that people seem either very open to ideas or offended that people see things they do not. I do not know why that is.

For me, when someone asks “Have you thought about this?” and I have not considered it, I find it refreshing and helpful. Enlightening at times, humbling at others.

Sitting with a cup of tea, I considered what it was that made software and software testing in particular so challenging. What made some people look for information and ideas and new approaches and others simply were content to do what they always have done, or what they were told to do? Why are some people simply content when others are striving for something?

I was reminded of ideas I had read and could not recall where. I flipped through some of the books on the shelf over my desk looking for an idea that kept bothering me. It was bothering me partly because I had read it, it stuck with me, and I could not recall where I had read it or who wrote it. That really bugged me.

When I opened one book, a very short one, one phrase leapt out at me. This idea was repeated, phrased slightly differently, in several places.

These things cannot be clearly explained in words. You must research what is written here.

You must train well and research…

You must research this well

I had found what I was looking for. Constant training and study was needed to be a master. Recognizing that understanding is elusive, we must seek out learning constantly. This writer had given me an understanding to my questions that I may have had before, but had allowed to be muddled by the day-to-day mundane things. I had lost the way. I also had an understanding to what my question really was about.

The issue was that the people in question thought they had mastered what they needed to master and were content with that. Problems that eluded them and questions that were never asked were impossible to understand. Yet, their understanding was flawed. It was not the true way.

In a book written in Japan in the 1640’s, I had found what I was looking for. Miyamoto Musashi wrote his A Book of Five Rings as a summary of his learnings as a master of the sword. His study of “strategy” and swordsmanship. He mentored others and continued his own studies. He tested himself as he tested others. He worked to make himself better. At the same time, he scoffed at those who proclaimed themselves “expert” and masters of their “schools”

His writings are replete with calls to be flexible, to be open to opportunity and to be responsive. He denounces the idea of a “single way” as a falsehood. He calls on students to exercise and practice and constantly measure themselves. He also calls on students to avoid the easy answers that present themselves, for they are false and will deceive you and weaken you particularly when encountering an opponent who followed his teaching and was not deceived by those offering easy solutions.

In addition to calling on students to study, he calls on them to practice and practice relentlessly. Musashi exhorts his students to be aware that a single thing can be both powerful and weak. Context matters whether it will be powerful or weak. The long sword is a formidable weapon, unless you are in a situation where you cannot wield it properly. What of our favorite or preferred test tools or approaches, are they always formidable or do they sometimes limit us?

Musashi encourages people to study and understand other “ways” – of poetry, of tea, of calligraphy, of painting. His assertion is that once you find the “way” in your chosen craft, you can learn more about your craft by studying others.

How many times have we seen and heard people proclaim that their training program is the best because of some measure they wish to emphasize? Do we blindly accept that? Do we reject that? Is this not the same argument Miyamoto Musashi was railing against nearly 400 years ago? Is there a single school, a single “way” that always dominates all others?

For Musashi, the answer was clear. His answer was to research all things and examine them carefully. Find the flaws and benefits within them. Dismiss what is of no value, consider what may have value and continue studying and learning. It is only when the master admits their own weakness and inadequacies, and takes steps to address them that they can achieve the title master.

For us, his lesson is clear: Continue learning.  Rejecting ideas because of the source may not serve us properly or well. Dismiss the ideas that have no value in themselves. Consider those that may have value in the future.  Consider our weaknesses and strengths.  Work on improving the weaknesses that can be improved.  Reinforce the strengths you have.

You must train well and research…

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One Response to Miyamoto Musashi on Software Testing

  1. Andy Still says:

    Pete –
    Excellent! I have often paralleled the study of the sword with business, and in particular, mastery. There are so many valuable lessons. You did a great job of pulling this concept back into light.
    Thank you,

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