A tester’s view on James Bach’s presentation ‘The REAL Agile Testing Quadrants’

New Thinking 11 August 2014 Calum McHaffie

I must say that I’ve never really spent much time looking at either Marick’s or Crispin and Gregory’s version of the Agile testing quadrants before. So when James Bach presented his and Michael Bolton’s updated version, it made me think about how easy it is to just accept an idea. 

The limitations of the old Agile testing quadrants

Supporting Programming vs. Supporting the Team vs. Critiquing the Product

James pointed out that he first heard the idea of the Agile testing quadrants when Brian Marick posed the idea to him. He found them mildly misleading, but thought it harmless. When Crispin and Gregory incorporated it into their Agile testing book, they modified it slightly.

Overlay 3 – Central Obstacle Divides Work

The third overlay was their answer to “Can a developer test their own code?”, their answer being “Yes… but it takes time”. There is a difference in the mindset required to develop a solution and then to test it (to any decent extent).

My knee-jerk reaction (probably the dev in me coming out) was to argue against this, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw the relevance.

The first question you may have is, “What is the difference in mindset?” Here are my thoughts:

  • Developer – How can I make this work?
  • Tester – How can I break this?

The second then may be, “Why would it take time to switch mindset?”

This is the point where I start to have an internal argument. The dev in me saying “Pshh, easy!”, the tester saying “Critical distance, you’re too close”.

Thinking back on projects I have worked on in the past, I can recall examples for both cases. But the one thing that may define the difference for me is complexity. The more complex the product, the harder it is to switch mindset.

I recall a project I worked on at university where we had to write our own messaging protocol. We got it working in no time at all and were quite proud of what we had done. We had even written unit tests and a few basic process tests. Then our nominated tester came across and proposed a few more tests to run, which of course we had overlooked and had to revisit.

Of course, had we spent more time looking, I’m sure we would have identified these tests and eventually found the bugs. But it was notable that having someone else there to test gave us a much faster turnaround on bug identification and resolution.

Note: By testing here, my interpretation is that we are talking more about UAT and process testing, rather than unit testing (which I would consider a developer task).

Overlay 4 – Critical Distance

The fourth overlay is about critical distance. I thought this one was probably less about the quadrants, but still a great way of showing the need for testers.

The first question a product owner may have is, “Why not get the developers to test the product?” This has already been covered above by Mt. Mindset.

The second question a product owner may have is, “Why don’t we just let the public test the product?”. James’ answer to this is, “Ask the developer/business owner to try it. Then watch them try to understand the incoherent abusive results they get from disgruntled customers”. A tester is good at identifying bugs and conveying the bug to the business/developer in a clear and concise fashion.

Other noteworthy thoughts

Testing vs. checking

Although not specifically to do with the Agile testing quadrants, James made a point that I believe is worth mentioning. The question is often asked “Why don’t we get rid of all our testers and automate all our testing?”. You never hear someone say “Why don’t we get rid of all our developers and automate all the development?”.

The reason James posed is that developers do the smart thing and call their automated work ‘compiling’. Why do we not, as testers, differentiate between testing that requires thought (testing that can’t be automated) and the checking that we do with automation?

While I do not completely agree with this, I do see the point that we have to make. There is some testing (or checking) that we can automate easily, but there are other tests that require more thought, that you wouldn’t or couldn’t automate. Automation will never replace exploratory testing.

You do not have to know how to code to test

During his presentation, James often got sidetracked on areas he seemed passionate about. Here is one worth mentioning.

His argument for not needing to be able to code to test is based on the following…

In Agile, there is this idea that everyone should be cross-functional. This defeats the whole purpose of being a specialist. Why would you study and strive to be good/great/the best at something and then spend your time trying to do something else?

Given this logic, a tester would not need to be able to code to test, they need to know how to test.

That said, I see multiple arguments that say it is very beneficial to know how to code or at least be able to read code.

  • If you understand the way a developer thinks or are able to read their code, it bridges the communication gap that can sometimes exist
  • Taking the Agilist view, if you are cross-functional and able to code, you have the ability to assist the developers when the demand is there


Coming away from the presentation, I found myself thinking that none of the ideas proposed were particularly new, but the way they visualised it and the way James presented it was a clean way of pulling it all together.

Overall, I thought the new testing quadrants James and Michael proposed were a vast improvement on the old models. (It would be interesting to hear a review from a developer or BA regarding these quadrants).

As for his actual presentation, the passion he has for the industry and the examples he used made it thoroughly entertaining and really made the message clear.  

I would absolutely recommend you attend one of his presentations or chat to him if you have the opportunity.
There is much more to these new quadrants and James’ presentation than I have mentioned here, so if you’d like to discuss it over a beer or two or three, let’s meet up.

James Bach’s slide presentation on ‘The REAL Agile Testing Quadrants’ can be found here.