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Artistic Parallels Between Making Music and Agile Testing

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Music can be used as a metaphor to illustrate learnings from agile and testing. Alexandra Schladebeck and Huib Schoots will do a live performance in their keynote “where words fail, music speaks” at the Agile Testing Day Netherlands 2015. InfoQ will be covering this one day conference with (live) news, Q&As and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Schladebeck and Schoots about artistic parallels between music and agile testing, what agile teams can learn from musicians, and why feedback is important for agile software development.

InfoQ: How did you come up with the idea of using musical theory as a metaphor for agile testing?

Schladebeck: I love using metaphors and comparisons with other disciplines to help me and others understand our area of work. The idea for music came when Huib and I were chatting one evening in the bar at the Agile Testing Days 2014. We discovered that we both played instruments, and the idea was born!

Schoots: Evening? I vaguely remember it was long after midnight… We also discussed how much fun it would be to play music to let people experience and “illustrate” some agile and testing lessons.

InfoQ: Can you mention some of the artistic parallels that you see between music and agile testing?

Schladebeck: We see both musicians and testers as artists. One of the obvious parallels is how musicians and testers can go about their work. Both can be constrained by what is written, and both can add "magic" by being more creative. What might not be so clear to non-musicians is that music is inherently experimental and subject to change based on many factors.

Schoots: While discussing this with Alex we talked about trying out different bowings and fingerings as a part of the violin players’ toolbox and breathing times for trombone players. There is a parallel to testers who are performing experiments with the software. And even if an experiment proves to be useful in one context, it might not work in another. Having to breathe more often when playing outside in the sun, for example.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of what agile teams can learn from musicians?

Schladebeck: Musicians work in teams of different sizes. Each team has different ways of organizing itself – and although skills are transferable from one type of team to another, you can’t behave in the same way in different teams.

Schoots: For example, you can’t start a new tune or a new harmony in the middle of a classical concert, but that behaviour is fine in a session! The roles of musicians in their teams offer some good comparisons for roles in agile teams.

InfoQ: You mentioned fast feedback as one of the things that teams can learn from how musicians learn and work. Can you elaborate on this?

Schoots: As a musician you learn how useful fast feedback is - if you play something wrong, you really notice it! It can be difficult to deal with, especially at first. But it’s this short feedback that will let you correct more quickly and pay more attention the next time this part of the tune comes up.

Schladebeck: Musicians don’t really have a choice to make the feedback cycle any longer – and agile teams should be aiming for cycles as short as possible. Yes, it can be painful, but it’s ultimately better.

InfoQ: What else can people expect from your keynote?

Schoots: We want to entertain, like any musician would! So people can expect live music on stage and some interesting insights and parallels between testing, agile and music. We can’t say much more without giving too much away. But I think we will do something memorable for sure!

Schladebeck: We’re also planning a couple of mini experiments. You don’t really expect us to give a keynote on music without audience participation, do you?!

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