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Markus Gaertner (
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Software Testing, Craftsmanship, Leadership and beyond
Updated: 4 hours 39 min ago

On auditing, standards, and ISO 29119

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 13:07

Since I am publishing this on my personal blog, this is my personal view, the view of Markus Gärtner as an individual.

I think the first time I came across ISO 29119 discussion was during the Agile Testing Days 2010, and probably also during Stuart Reid’s keynote at EuroSTAR 2010. Remembering back that particular keynote, I think he was visibly nervous during his whole talk, eventually delivering nothing worth of a keynote. Yeah, I am still disappointed by that keynote four years later.

Recently ISO 29119 started to be heavily debated in one of the communities I am involved in. Since I think that others have expressed their thoughts on the matter more eloquently and deeper than I going to do, make sure to look further than my blog for a complete picture of the whole discussion. I am going to share my current state of thoughts here.


In my past I have been part of a few audits. I think it was ISO 9000 or ISO 9001, I can’t tell, since people keep on confusing the two.

These audits usually had a story before the audit. Usually one or two weeks up-front I was approached by someone asking me whether I could show something during the audit that had something to do with our daily work. I was briefed in terms of what that auditor wanted to see. Usually we also prepared a presentation of some sorts.

Then came the auditing. Usually I sat together with the auditor and a developer in a meeting room, and we showed what we did. Then we answered some questions from the auditor. That was it.

Usually a week later we received some final evaluation. Mostly there were points like “this new development method needs to be described in the tool where you put your processes in.” and so on. It didn’t affect my work.

More interestingly, what we showed usually didn’t have anything to do with the work we did when the auditor left the room. Mostly, we ignored most of the process in the process tool that floated around. At least I wasn’t sure how to read that stuff anyways. And of course, on every project there was someone willing to convince you that diverting from whatever process was described was fruitful in this particular situation and context.

Most interestingly, based upon the auditing process people made claims about what was in the process description, and what the auditor might want to see. No one ever talked to them up-front (probably it wasn’t allowed, was the belief). Oh, and of course, if you audit something to improve it that isn’t the thing that you’re doing when you’re not audited, then you’re auditing bogus. Auditing didn’t prevent us from running into this trap. Remember: If there is an incentive, the target will be hit. Yeah, sounds like what we did. We hit the auditing target without changing anything real.

Skip forward a few years, and I see the same problems repeated within organizations that adopt CMMi, SPICE, you-name-it. Inherently, the fact that an organization has been standardized seems to lead to betrayal, mis-information, and ignorance when it comes to the processes that are described. To me, this seems to be a pattern among the companies that I have seen that adopted a particular standard for their work. (I might be biased.)


How come, you ask, we adopt standards to start with? Well, there are a bunch of standards out there. For example, USB is standardized. So was PS/2, VGA, serial and parallel ports. These standards solve the problem of two different vendors producing two pieces of hardware that need to work together. The standard defines their commonly used interface on a particular system.

This seems to work reasonably for hardware. Hardware is, well, hard. You can make hard decisions about hardware. Software on the other hand is more soft. It reacts flexibly, can be configured in certain ways, and usually involves a more creative process to get started with. When it comes to interfaces between two different systems, you can document these, but usually a particular way of interface between software components delivers some sort of competitive advantage for a particular vendor. Though, when working on the .NET platform, you have to adhere to certain standards. The same goes with stuff like JBoss, and whatever programming language you may use. There are things that you can work around, there are others which you can’t.

Soft-skill-ware, i.e. humans, are even more flexible, and will react in sometimes unpredictable ways when challenged in difficult work situations. That said, people tend to diverge from anything formal to add their personal note, to achieve something, and to show their flexibility. With interfaces between humans, as in behavioral models, humans tend to trick the system, and make it look like they adhere to the behavior described, but don’t do so.

ISO 29119

ISO 29119 tries to combine some of the knowledge that is floating around together. Based upon my experiences, I doubt that high quality work stems from a good process description. In my experience, humans can outperform any mediocre process that is around, and perform dramatically better.

That said, good process descriptions appear to be one indicator for a good process, but I doubt that our field is old enough for us to stop looking for better ways. There certainly are better ways. And we certainly haven’t understood enough about software delivery to come up with any behavioral interfaces for two companies working on the same product.

Indeed, I have seen companies suffer from outsourcing parts of a process, like testing, to another vendor, offshoring to other countries and/or timezones. Most of the clients I have been involved with were even suffering as much as to insource back the efforts they previously outsourced. The burden of the additional coordination was simply too high to warrant the results. (Yeah, there are exceptions where this was possible. But these appear to be exceptions as of now.)

In fact, I believe that we are currently exploring alternatives to the traditional split between programmers and testers. One of the reasons we started with that split, was Cognitive Dissonance. In the belief that a split between programmers and testers only overcomes Cognitive Dissonance, we have created an own profession a couple of decades ago. Right now, we find out with the uprising of cross-function teams in agile software development that that split wasn’t necessary to overcome Cognitive Dissonance. In short, you can keep an independent view if you can maintain a professional mind-set, while still helping your team to develop better products.

The question I am asking: will a standard like ISO 29119 keep us from exploring further such alternatives? Should we give up exploring other models of delivering working software to our customers? I don’t think so.

So, what should I do tomorrow?

Over the years, I have made a conscious effort to not put myself into places where standards dominated. I put myself simply speaking into the position where I don’t need to care, and can still help deliver good software. Open source software is such an environment.

Of course, that won’t help you in the long run if the industry got flooded with standards. ISO 29119 claims it is based upon internationally-agreed viewpoints. Yet, it claims that it tries to integrate Agile methods into the older standards that it’s going to replace. I don’t know which specialist they talked to in the Germany Agile community. It certainly wasn’t me. So, I doubt much good coming out of this.

And yet, I don’t see this as my battle. Since a while I realized that I probably put too much on my shoulders, and try to decide which battles to pick. I certainly see the problems of ISO 29119, but it’s not a thing that I am wanting to put active effort to.

Currently I am working on putting myself in a position where I don’t need to care at all about ISO 29119 anymore, whatever will come out of it. However, I think it’s important that the people that want to fight ISO 29119 more actively than me are able to do so. That is why, they have my support from a far.

– Markus Gärtner

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