For several years, my job has been testing web sites. There’s several ways to describe what I do, the commonest being that I “look for bugs.” I perform a role known formally as ‘Quality Assurance’ on web development projects, and I’ve worked on a variety of sites, like HGTV, the Washington Post, TroopSwap, and Better Medicine.
I’m not a programmer by training, but much of the QA process requires logical thinking and familiarity with engineering practices. As someone who majored in English and spent more time reading Shakespeare than learning UNIX commands, my career has been an experiment of patience. Testers are usually outnumbered by coders, so it can be a lonely (and thankless) task.
I recently found a novel that lucidly captures the mentality of testers, developers, and anyone who has had to deal with the often infuriating process of creating software.
“The Bug” by Ellen Ullman tells the story of a single software defect that dramatically affects the lives of all who encounter it. A tester and a coder frame the narrative, the tester happy to find a flaw within a system she feels intellectually superior to, and the coder driven to madness by trying to fix it.
I connected to the story on a remarkable level, given the ‘tester’ character’s background in literature and linguistics. For those who have thought deeply about the power and nuance of the English language, the efficiently dull and plodding ‘languages’ of software can be infuriating.
What the novel does brilliantly is reveal what I feel is easily overlooked in software development – the unavoidable connection between the ‘coder’ and the ‘code’. Developers have pride in how universal and general code is intended to be, but all intellectual creations carry the signature of their maker, however faint they intend it to be.
Days and weeks spent in conversation with a machine that at its core only understands two statements – true or false – can shift the perspective of the people behind the screen. Tunnel vision can be a fatal result. Long stretches of time thinking in binaries can strip people of the humanity required to see the ‘big picture’ of what they’re trying to achieve.
“The Bug” captures the dichotomy of thinking like machines in order to assist people – in much richer and more studied language than you’ll find in any programming manual.
Ullman’s gift for uncovering the fallible humanity that hides in the cracks of software is evident in passages like this one:
“But now I knew that between one pixel and the next—no matter how densely together you packed them—the world still existed, down to the finest grain of the stuff of the universe. And no matter how frequently that mouse located itself, sample after sample, snapshot after snapshot—here, now here, now here—something was always happening between the here’s. The mouse was still moving—was somewhere, but where? It couldn’t say. Time, invisible, was slipping through its digital now’s.”