Jim Halpert on Satisficing and Assumptions

Lately I’ve been saying something so much that it’s become a bit of a mantra: “Just killing Germans any way I can.”

I’m being the furthest thing from literal, of course. Please don’t report me to the authorities. I have German ancestors, and nary a killing bone in my body. But if you are a fan of the American version of The Office, you may recognize this as a line said by Jim Halpert in Season 3, when the Stamford office is playing the video game Call of Duty. Jim, who is brand new to the game, playing with an experienced group, and obviously overwhelmed, reports this line to a coworker when his in-game actions are questioned (more on all of this in a bit).

In the way that other people might have the radio or television just “on,” my wife and I very often have The Office just “on” via Netflix. There are other shows in our regular rotation, but The Office is my wife’s TV comfort food, and I have zero complaints. And so, in a similar way that TV or radio ad jingles get stuck in people’s heads, I frequently get lines from shows like The Office stuck in my head when I’ve heard it enough times. It’s also not unusual for such a line to get funnier to me the more I use it, in less and less relevant contexts. For example, as I finish the last few bites of a big dinner: “Just killing Germans any way I can.” As I take a different route home from the grocery store: “Just killing Germans any way I can.” Usually this habit fades away over time and my increasingly mindless repetition delivers the humor in the line a slow, awkward death. But something more interesting happened in this case: as the humor faded, an unexpected usefulness arose, and the line refused to go away. As I strategize how to haul off an endless pile of wood from a felled oak: “Just killing Germans any way I can.” As I test a bug fix scenario without the data I may have preferred: “Just killing Germans any way I can.”

I realized eventually that “Just killing Germans any way I can” had come to mean “satisfice” for me (thank you, James Bach, for first making that term known to me): seeking a solution that gets the job done satisfactorily — not necessarily optimal, not perfect, but good enough for the current context. As testers, we can’t always get what we want. We are in service of a stakeholder who seeks information about the product under test: maybe developers, maybe a product manager, maybe customer service, maybe customers themselves. The point is that we don’t always get to dictate the terms of our service: maybe we don’t get the perfect QA environment; maybe we don’t get data quite like production; maybe we don’t get requirement or specification documents; maybe we don’t get the time that we’d like. There are project factors at work that limit every team member’s resources in some way, not just the testers’; that’s life in software development. But we testers still have an obligation to provide timely, useful information to the stakeholder who is making decisions about the product. So we make the most with what we have; which is to say, we just kill Germans any way we can.

Beyond being reminded of the power of satisficing, something else happened the more I repeated that line, as I started to play out the rest of that scene from The Office in my mind each time:

Andy: “Why did you do that??”

Jim: “Just killing Germans any way I can.”

Andy: “We’re on the German team. Shoot the British.”

Jim: “Wait, are we playing teams?”

Jim’s bewilderment over the basic terms of the game is hilarious, but it’s also instructional. We’ve all been there: triumphantly marching along, testing our merry way, just killing Germans any way we can, working under a particular set of assumptions that perhaps we’re not even aware we’ve made, and then suddenly — perhaps we kill a teammate in Call of Duty without realizing they’re our teammate, perhaps we submit an invalid bug report, perhaps we share some results with a developer that make no sense — suddenly our unconscious assumptions are tossed in our face, and we’re forced to finally ask the questions we maybe should have asked before embarking on our adventure. “Wait, are we playing teams?” “Wait, are we not supporting IE8 any longer?” “Wait, are the customers who will be using this feature primarily Spanish-speaking? Only Spanish-speaking?” “Wait, is this supposed to work with Android? We’ve never supported iOS?”

As testers, we’re well-trained to question the assumptions made by others; it’s why we love being involved early in projects, so we can ask our many questions and question our team members’ many assumptions, before they become too solidified. But do we remember to question our own assumptions? I think that is much harder to do, especially when we are new to a context, as in Jim Halpert’s n00b Call of Duty experience. “Just killing Germans any way I can” is my reminder to do just that. (Don’t worry, I’ve never uttered this mantra aloud to anyone but my wife.)

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