Thursday, January 22, 2015

A World Without "Heroes"?

As is often the case, there is a two level thought process that goes into every one of my "Uncharted Waters" blog posts. The first is the thought and consideration that goes into the lead up to, the writing of and the making public of the post. The second is what happens usually within the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours after the post goes live, because I will get a comment or a thought from someone that will make me slap my head and say "Oh! Yes! That! That would have made sense to say!"

In my most recent Uncharted Waters entry "Heroes, Hubris and Nemesis", I decided to take on the "hero culture" that tends to exist in various companies, and the fact that, instead of them being shining examples of excellence, instead, those so called heroes are very likely the bottleneck to their team. I then spent the rest of the article giving advice about how to deal with all of that.

After the post went live, Michael Bolton posted a comment that was, quite frankly, the perfect follow on:

"Oh! Yes! That! That would have made sense to say!"

Here's where I think we really could make a difference. What if, instead of calling the person that does these things a hero, we used terminology like this instead? What if, for the people that hoard expertise, we called them out for doing exactly that? What if we made the perpetual online and self-flagellating martyr of the team out to be the problem rather than the savior of the organization? Would behavior change? I believe the answer is yes.

Alan Page and Brent Jenson talked about this in Episode 14 of "AB Testing" back in December. They likewise described a "hero" on their team and the way they did things. Brent described the challenge he had with a person that had no desire to teach others, because if others were taught, they wouldn't be special any longer. In addition, what was really happening was that, due to the existence of this particular hero on the team, management didn't have to invest the time or emotional energy in the rest of their team, because their hero was there to save the day.

What if, instead of extolling the hero, this team instead called out that behavior as anathema to their success? What if management had instead insisted that this person be given advancement based on how well and how frequently this person crossed trained the team, and made it clear that any opportunity for advancement would hinge on their ability to teach others and bring the whole team up to that person's level? What if, instead of praising the "hero" instincts, the management instead called out their opaque approach and unwillingness to share as fatal detriments? Do you think the entire culture of that team would have changed? I certainly do. One of two things would have happened. Either that person would have worked hard to train up the team, or that person would have left of their own accord because they would realize that their "heroics" were not going to be their differentiation. Either way, the team would have been better off, because the team as a whole would have to deal with the imbalance of skills. By relying on the hero, management was taking the lazy way out. They (management) didn't have to invest the time and energy in the rest of their team, the hero got to play the public martyr, and everyone was happy... at least until a crisis came where the hero couldn't step up.

My solution was to make a team of heroes, but perhaps the better way, the more appropriate way, is to try to remove the hero moniker from those who are not working to help the entire organization succeed. It would take a lot of guts, but I think the teams willing to do the latter will long term be better off than those who don't.

Do You Want to Move Testing Forward?

The Association for Software Testing (AST) is holding its tenth annual conference this year. The Conference for the Association for Software Testing (CAST) will be held in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan on August 3-5, 2015. Ten years is a cause for celebration in my book, and we are throwing a party. I say "we" because I am part of the Board of Directors and the President of AST, and therefore this conference is a big part of what 2015 will be shaping up to be for me.

The theme of the conference this year is “Moving Testing Forward”, and to that effect, I want to reach out and encourage my fellow software testers, programmers, quality advocates, or whatever area you see yourself, to put in a proposal for this year’s conference.

My belief is that the best way to move testing forward is to do so with more voices, and CAST is well known for being the conference where new and unique voices are heard. Several great speakers have developed over the years, and CAST has been quoted as being where many of them first had the opportunity to present. We want to encourage that approach further, so I am sending out a personal call to those software testers who might still be on the fence.

- Maybe you are a relative newcomer.
- Maybe you have not spoken in front of a large group before.
- Maybe you work in an industry and an environment where you think “oh, nobody would be interested in hearing what I have to say”.

Let me assure you, that last one is categorically false. In my opinion, the best talks and presentations are not built around theories or tools. They are built around real world experiences, the good, the bad, the occasionally ugly, and the often unintentionally hilarious.

I had the pleasure of having dinner last night with a couple of friends, both involved in various levels of software delivery, including software testing, and the stories we were sharing, and frequently laughing about, came from our core experiences, what we have witnessed, and what we have learned from those experiences. As I listened and participated with my friends, I mentally ticked off six or seven talk ideas and said “wow, these stories, and the lessons learned from them, would be so great if we could get them out to more people”. I have a pretty good feeling that several of these conversations will become talks at CAST, but the main point I want to encourage is that “your real world experiences make for great talks!

The Call for Participation for CAST 2015 ends on January 31, 2015. That’s a little under ten days from now. I’d like to encourage all of you, if you are able, to propose a talk for CAST. How are you moving testing forward? There’s a very good bet that what you are doing (or perhaps wish you were doing, or perhaps not doing) will be of great value to your fellow software testers. We encourage people from all arenas, all experiences, and all backgrounds to come share in each others ideas and approaches. There will be a lot of fun things happening at CAST 2015. We want you to be part of it :).

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Experience is Earned, Expertise is Granted

This title is meant to be a little provocative, and some may disagree with it, but I've been thinking about this topic quite a bit recently. First of all, I want to say thank you to Ryan Arsenault and the folks over at uTest for showcasing me in their first "Ask the Expert" blog entry. The questions I was asked centered around career choices for testers and ways that we can succeed, or at least do better than we are now.

I cannot help it, part of me feels very strange using the word "expert" to describe myself at anything. I'm happy to use words like experienced, educated, practiced or even proficient, but "expert" carries a strange weight to it. It's so subjective, and it feels like, once you've been branded one, that there's only one way to go from there, and that's down. Moreover, I don't really believe there is such a thing as an "expert", because that implies that that person has learned all there is to learn and has mastered all there is to master... and that's just fundamentally wrong on so many levels.

I've come to realize that we all own our experiences, and that we all have opportunities to learn from our successes and our mistakes (oh, how much I have learned from my mistakes). This is why I have no problems talking about my experiences or my observations. They are mine, and as such, are certainly open to interpretation, or debate, or scrutiny, or even outright ridicule at times, but they are wholly mine. Expertise, however, is a judgment call. I personally have very little trust in people who proclaim themselves to be "experts" at anything. However, I place a lot of credence on other people who tell me that someone is an expert. Why? because they are witnesses to the skill, acumen and judgment being displayed, and they can then decide if the term "expert" makes sense.

It also often comes down to "expert compared to who?" I have many interests, and things that I spend a lot of time getting into. When I tell people I was a competitive snowboarder for several years, it conjures up an image in their minds; I must be an expert snowboarder. They may even watch me ride, and come to that conclusion because of the technique I can muster and the terrain I can ride on. Yet put me alongside other riders I used to compete with, and any questions of my so called "expert" level goes right out the window. That doesn't take away from what I have learned, the events I've participated in and the medals I won, but to use those hallmarks to say I am an "expert" is, in my mind, misleading. Still, to others who have never raced, or are newcomers to the sport, to them I am an expert, insomuch as I can show or teach them things that they do not know.

Again, I thank uTest for giving me an opportunity to share my experiences, and I am honored to be part of their "Expert" panel. I don't know if I deserve the moniker, but they seem to think so, and so do their readers, and ultimately, I guess that just means it's up to me from here on out to either prove them right, or prove them wrong. Here's hoping my actions and efforts do more to strengthen the belief in the former, rather than proving the latter ;).

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Take Two: A Survey on “The 2015 State of Testing”

So let me set the stage here….

Joel Montvelisky wanted to write a post about the advances that have taken place in the tester-verse in the last 5-10 years. While he was trying to put this post together, he came to the conclusion that there really isn’t a centralized set of information or trends as to what is happening in the testing world.

What does a tester do when they can’t find that information? They take it upon themselves to make their own. Trust me, I understand this logic completely ;).

Thus, Joel reach out to Lalit Bhamare (who edits Tea Time with Testers) to create and conduct a State of Testing Survey. The purpose? To provide a “ snapshot” of what the “ reality” of the testing world is, and see if we can follow various  trends as they shift year by year.

For those feeling that this post is a dose of “deja vu”, well… yes, it is! The above couple of paragraphs are pretty much word for word what I wrote towards the end of 2013, when the last version of the survey was posted. Joel, Lalit and others who were asked to contribute to it are now bringing forward the 2015 State of Testing survey. I had a small hand in reviewing and helping shape this second go around for the survey.

Also, just like in December of 2013, for this survey to be effective, many people need to participate. With that in mind, I’m doing my part once again to help spread the word and encourage everyone to participate

This survey will be going live roughly 00:00 Thursday, January 22, 2015 (Pacific Time). Right now, there’s a countdown saying when it will go live, so if you go there right now, you’ll see the countdown. Come back when it tells you it’s done, or subscribe to get the official go-live message. Like last time, I am anticipating the survey will be up for about ten days.

So here’s what I am asking… again ;):

  1. Go to the link and subscribe so that they can contact you when the survey goes live.
  2. Participate in the survey and give you honest feedback.
  3. Make a point to tell as many testers as you can to likewise participate in the survey.

For those who would like to see what the end of 2013 survey looked like, at least as far as the survey responders said, the link to the results are on the page as well. Also, a disclaimer; this survey is, like all things, subjective and reflective of the respondents as a whole. It may or may not reflect your own reality, but then, if you don’t participate, it definitely will not reflect your reality, or even a statistical sliver of it. If you want to give your opinion or have your voice heard, well, now’s your chance :).

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review: Design Accessible Web Sites

This is a bit of a retro review, but since I’m in the process of putting together a talk about the design and testing aspects of sites as relates to accessibility, this came recommended as a good starting point.

Many books that talk about designing for accessibility tell you a lot of the what and the way around accessible design, but don’t put much emphasis on the how. Jeremy Sydik’s book “Design Accessible Web Sites: Thirty-six Keys to Creating Content for All Audiences and Platforms" does an admirable job on explaining the "how" of accessible design.

This book was originally published in 2007, so the technical underpinnings of the web have certainly changed a bit, but the overall message of “Design Accessible Web Sites” is still very relevant and still very usable. In the current rush for the latest and greatest, with frameworks abounding to handle just about every conceivable interaction, there comes a need for programmers and site designers to step back and consider if they are making it possible for the most people to use the sites and access the content they provide.

The core of the book revolves around what Sydik calls the Ten Principles for Web Accessibility:

  1. Avoid making assumptions about the the physical, mental, and sensory abilities of your users whenever possible.
  2. Your users’ technologies are capable of sending and receiving text. That’s about all you’ll ever be able to assume.
  3. Users’ time and technology belong to them, not to us. You should never take control of either without a really good reason.
  4. Provide good text alternatives for any non-text content.
  5. Use widely available technologies to reach your audience.
  6. Use clear language to communicate your message.
  7. Make your sites usable, searchable, and navigable.
  8. Design your content for semantic meaning and maintain separation between content and presentation.
  9. Progressively enhance your basic content by adding extra features. Allow it to degrade gracefully for users who can’t or don’t wish to use them.
  10. As you encounter new web technologies, apply these same principles when making them accessible.

Part 1 lays out the case for why accessibility is important (it’s good business, it;s the right thing to do, it’s the law in many places, and accessible sites are more usable for everyone). This section also steps through a variety of disabilities, some of which we automatically associate with Accessibility (visual, auditory and mobility impairments, as well as a variety of cognitive impairments and those who deal with a combination of the previous issues, specifically due to the results of aging). It also introduces the first eight “keys” of preparing for making an accessible site, including planning, making multiple access paths, avoiding the WET trap (WET stands for “Write Everything Twice”), and to set a solid foundation of accessibility testing, which really does require sapient skills to do. Automation can tell you if a tag is there or not, but it cannot tell you if a user experience for a disabled user is comparable to one for a normative user.

Part 2 focuses on building a solid structure for your pages, with thirteen additional keys to help you design your pages with accessibility in mind, such as keeping the site design simple, removing style from structure as much as possible, using links effectively, designing interfaces that emphasize the selecting of elements and actions rather than drag and drop movement, breaking away from tables and creating forms that are easy to follow and intact with without losing their interactivity or power.

Part 3 focuses on the visual aspects of the web, specifically how we deal with photographs and video clips. the nine keys in this section focus on selecting colors that contrast and don’t blend together, utilizing alt tags as more than just a place holder for generic text, and encouraging a design that can describe itself and allow the user to “see” the whole picture, or “hear” the whole story, even if those options are not on the table.

Part 4 looks at some additional aspects of accessibility and rounds out the last six of the thirty-six keys with how to work with documents that are not traditional for the web, options for dealing with PDF files, scripted output, as well as with Flash and Java apps.

Part 5 is a reference to a variety of web accessibility guidelines including WCAG, US Section 508, and examples from around the world, including Australia, Canada, European Union, Japan, United Kingdom, United Nations, etc.

Bottom Line:

To design sites that are accessible, we have to think differently, but the differences need not be radical. Also, accessible design need not be boring design. There are plenty of techniques and approaches to use that will help make sites easier to interact with for a broad population, and for those willing to embrace this approach, having the capability of designing sites that are accessible could be a differentiator for you as compared to other designers, programmers and testers.  As the tenth principle says, "As you encounter new web technologies, apply these same principles when making them accessible.” Technology moves on, but the advice and methodology is still sound, making ‘Design Accessible Web Sites” an evergreen title to consider for years to come.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

In Through the Side Door: Advice from an Unconventional Career

First off, Happy New Year to all of my friends and readers out there. I wish you all a great 2015 with the hope that what you strive to do and accomplish will be met.

About two years ago, I was given the opportunity to do a talk for a conference that would be happening in India called ThinkTest. My friend Smita Mishra extended an invitation to me to participate, and while I could not actually travel to India at that time, we decided to try something unorthodox. Why not video-tape my talk, and we would whittle it down to a presentation length and make it available to those who wanted to view it? Since I found myself in a hotel room near Chicago for an extra day, I decided to turn the room into a makeshift film studio and talk about my career as a software tester, its ups and downs, and other things that helped make it a reality.

Sadly, due to an automobile accident that incapacitated Smita for awhile, the conference had to be canceled. The talk project was, of course, put on hold, and then, over time, other initiatives took center stage, and I forgot about the talk and the recordings... that is, until a couple of months ago. Lalit Bhamare of Tea Time With Testers, asked me if we could use the material for his new project, TV for Testers. I said "sure", and he then proceeded to gather the clips I had recorded and delivered to Smita into the talk that is presented here.

In Through The Side Door

First, I feel it only appropriate to say... this is a long talk! I had originally recorded it with the idea that we would cherry pick the best parts and make a shorter presentation (something around forty minutes) but through correspondence with Lalit, he asked if it would be OK to present the entire talk, in its (mostly) unfiltered form. He felt that there was a lot of insights I offered that would be of value to those who, likewise, came to their careers from peripheral avenues, and the asides and segues, in his opinion, actually added to the value of the talk. So, again, that's what we decided to do. Lalit posted the talk on TV for Testers today, and I am now saying to those who would like to check it out, please do so.

Again, my thanks to Smita for asking me to put this together, and my thanks to Lalit for deciding he wanted to have it be seen. If you take the time to watch it, I also thank you for doing exactly that. To borrow from and paraphrase the recording artist Seal, "I hope you enjoy the presentation; it was the best material I had at the time" :).

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Short Story/Serial Book Review: Markram Battles

"And now, for something completely different!"

I am one for whom Dan Carlin's phrase "History has all but ruined fiction for me" rings true. I find that the real life exploits of historical figures, and the reality of their worlds, tends to make many aspects of fiction story telling, well, just not hold much interest. Fictional Mob Boss or the struggle for Alexander the Great's throne? Mythical marauders or real life Scythian warriors and their waves of descendants? Seriously, how can anyone top the Mongols, in fiction or elsewhere?

Still, there's a part of me that loves the "what if's" of both the near and distant future, with the possibilities, be they wondrous or terrifying, that make science fiction a place I enjoy spending time in. Added to that is my love of Role Playing Games, especially those that come from Japan (think the Final Fantasy series, Shin Megami Tensei, and Suikoden). Also, I love Animé series that look at the struggles of everyday people against overwhelming odds (think "07-Ghost" or "Gantz").  When something hits that sweet spot of all of those interests, and still focuses on the humanity of story telling, I pay attention. Add to that having an author of such material being a personal friend? Well, what else can I say? I want to share, and share I shall :).

M.C. Muhlenkamp is putting together a series of short stories that feel one part ancient Rome, one part Eurasian steppe, one part Japanese RPG and one part Young Adult dystopian struggle. Weave these all together and you get what is shaping up to be "Markram Battles". More to the point, "Markram Battles" takes a cue from the past, in that it is really a serialization. If you liked the idea of Alexandre Dumas publishing his "Three Musketeers" in small pieces, waiting to see where and when the next "dose" will appear, then here's an opportunity to do exactly that.

M.C. takes us into a word where "Earth as we know it no longer exists." In its place is an empire that looks to "recruiting" humans as "battle entertainment", specifically women. The rules of the battles are simple. Fight and win, or die trying. The story focuses on the interactions between the the empire of the Markram and the humans who are forced to play their game to survive. The first and second deliveries ("Genesis of an Uprising" and "Omens of Doom") focus on the interactions between Seven, a Unit Leader whose sole purpose is to lead recruits in battle, and Thirteen, an unwilling recruit who refuses to play the game, at least not in the way that the Markram want her to play.

The chapters are short and taut. The characters are believable even in their other-worldly space. Little in the way of useless exposition is given. The reader is expected to go with the story and figure out the world and its parameters without long winded explanations as to what has gone on before, except where it makes sense to give context to the situation. Even in the first short sections, you find yourself caring for the characters and wondering what will happen next, on both sides, Markram and human.

The cover sets the tone and the mood of the stories, and in this way, I can't help but feel drawn to parallels made in video games like "Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga" or Anime like "07-Ghost", each with a fight to survive ethos and a shadowy "other" pulling the strings. The stories feel like they are designed for a YA audience, but don't let that dissuade you, as the themes and the stories focus are strong enough for all ages.

Bottom Line:
The serialization approach works well for this series. It feels like a Manga without the pictures, and that's meant as a solid compliment. Two issues in, I find myself asking "OK, so when will number three be ready?" If stories about human spirit and desire to not cave to the rules of an unfair system hit a sweet spot for you, give these stories a try. They are quick reads, and at $0.99 apiece, less expensive by far than a manga series, and every bit as engrossing and satisfying. Yes, MC and I are friends, but I'd dig this series even if we weren't ;).

Monday, December 29, 2014

In Praise of Khan Academy

Back a couple of weeks ago, I tagged along with my daughter Amber to bring her to Hour of Code. The class that she chose was being taught through Khan Academy, and as a person there, I figured I'd tag along and see what she was doing. In the process I set up an account, and then I forgot about it for a couple of weeks. 

During my holiday break, I was reading some posts about mathematics education, or in some cases lack thereof, and a friend of mine, who is a long tenured engineer, told me that he had gone back through Khan Academy and walked the Mathematics section, solely for the purpose of seeing how much he had forgotten over the years. His final analysis. It turns out he'd forgotten a lot of things, but more to the point, he mentioned that he came in contact with concepts that he had never studied, and how fun he found it to go through and check those areas out.

I must confess, it takes a special kind of masochist to go and do math "for the fun of it", or should I say, that was my initial reaction. Still, I found myself with several days off last week, and will have several more this week, so I made a personal challenge for myself to take on the same challenge. There is a track called "The World of Math", and it covers everything from the basics of Kindergarten level arithmetic all the way through to Linear Algebra. For the record, I managed to make my way through in my twenties to completing mathematics courses up to and including Differential Calculus, and then I hit a wall. I fancied that, maybe, I could give my old rusty neurons a workout and see if I could push through it all and get to those areas I never learned.

To date, here's where I stand (after three days of off and on focus on this goal):

To add to that, I have pulled in several other topics that just tickled my fancy, and I've been having a lot of fun walking through and checking them out (as of last Tuesday, I've gotten through entire lecture blocks on World History, Biology, Music Appreciation and Greco-Roman art). The materials range from really well produced to someone's screencast on a topic that interests them. All of them are proving to be a fun way to spend time and learn. Because much of the material is bite sized, i.e. can be viewed in anywhere from five to ten minutes, you get the feeling that you are getting a broader appreciation for these subjects, and doing so a little bit at a time (and quite often, you find yourself realizing that you are spending a lot of time, but you don't mind it one bit!).

If someone told me earlier this month that I would have spent close to twenty hours on Khan Academy in less than a week, I would have said "aw, come on, who has time for that?" Well, it turns out, I do! You might also notice that I haven't mentioned anything about their computer programming or computer science offerings. In addition to their Hour of Code, they also offer some respectable HTML/CSS and JavaScript tutorials and coursework, and some stuff on algorithms, cryptography and information theory. It's not enough to cover all the details, but paired with Codecademy and some other initiatives, there's a good chunk of material there to get anyone curious about programming to be able to make a fair stab at getting proficient. What's also cool is that Khan Academy keeps adding more and more material all the time.

My apologies for being late to this particular party, but I have to say, for anyone looking to brush up on long forgotten basics, learn something new in a super low pressure environment, and just plain have fun doing it, seriously, give a gander to Khan. I think you will enjoy what you find :).

Monday, December 22, 2014

BAST in the Saddle Again: New Talk for January, 2015

As many of you saw last month, we had some dramatic happenings in the Bay Area Software Testers Meetup group. We want to usher in 2015 with a bang, and to that end, I am please to say I will be giving a talk on Thursday, January 8, 2015 and I want you all to come.

Now, granted, this is probably going to work best for people who will happen to be in the San Francisco Bay Area on Thursday, January 8, 2015, but hey, why be exclusive ;). Seriously, though, if you can make it, here's the details about the event and what we will be covering:

All for Web, and Web for All: Designing and Testing for Accessibility - Michael Larsen

As the web, mobile, and other devices we have yet to fully comprehend proliferate around us, we want to do our best to cater to the customers that best represent the users of our products. However, there is a population that is frequently left with little to work with, and that is those who have to deal with physical disabilities. Issues with sight, sound, motor movements, comprehension and other disabilities puts many sites and apps out of reach for those who would most like to use them.

Making products that are accessible is more than just implementing a few tags so a screen reader can spell out the terms, it involves designing a product from the top down to be navigated easily and seamlessly.

In this talk, I will present some challenges those with disabilities face, ways that we can design products to better work for those with various physical disabilities, and that testing for accessibility can be a fun, interesting and important part of your organizations product offerings.

To RSVP, please see the formal invitation and event details HERE.

Friday, December 19, 2014

For Your Listening Pleasure: TESTHEAD’s Podcasts

It’s the end of the year, and it seems that people are going to be getting all sorts of new devices for the holidays. Smartphones, tablets, computers, etc. will likely be purchased by many, and with those purchases will be a need to fill them. In my personal opinion, while video tutorials and such are cool and all, nothing is as portable, engaging and good for short bursts of calm time, semi-active physical exertion or long road/air trips than podcasts. 

Thus, in the spirit of giving, I would like to give everyone a taste of my current listening habits, my podcasts of choice. Some of these have been with me for years, some are relatively new, all of them are informative and engaging (well, at least I think so). 

Additionally, I have also included websites with background info and storage for previous episodes. All are free for newer episodes, some sites charge for back catalog items. Most of course appreciate donations to help them keep the shows going, so by all means, if you can offer them support to keep producing stuff you like, hey, show a little love :)!

And now, without further ado…

AB Testing
Alan Page and Brent Jenson (AB testing, get it ;)?) talk about a variety of software testing topics and their combined four decades of experience, as well as their own meandering thoughts and topics that happen to come into their heads. Both Alan and Brent are long time Microsoft veterans, so there is, of course, a Microsoft flavor to the podcast, but don’t think that just because you don’t live and work in a Microsoft shop that this isn’t for you. There’s plenty to keep a tester (or anyone interested in software quality, regardless of role) interested. What I love about this is that it’s done in a very casual tone, as though they are just kicking back with a couple of beers and ranting about the topics that come up (please note: I have no idea if they are kicking back with beers as they do their podcast, it’s just the vibe it gives me, and I love it :) ). 

Back to Work
Two hundred episodes in, this is still one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann generate a lot of banter in their podcasts, and for those who want the business end of the podcast each week, I’ll help you now with this tip, just fast forward twenty minutes and you’ll be much happier. However, if you’ve been with the show since the beginning, you’ll know that some of the most fun parts of the show actually take place in these twenty minutes, as well as the banter that carries over every show. It’s goofy, messy, often unfocused, but filled with gems if your goal is to really get into the things that make for creative work. Oh, and don’t be surprised if, after a few weeks of listening, you start to look forward to the rambling intros, because you feel like you are getting a glimpse at two of your friends just kicking it and getting caught up on what matters to them, only part of which is the actual podcast.

Common Sense with Dan Carlin
This is the first of two “indispensable” podcasts for me, ones I have listened to for several years, and that I consider the “gold standard” of what the podcast medium can deliver. Dan Carlin is a cantankerous, fast talking, highly caffeinated and animated commenter who bills himself as being “political by way of Mars”. Dan is based in the U.S., and many of the topics he covers are from a U.S.perspective, but what makes Dan different is he refuses to approach problems or issues from a partisan position. For tester looking to exercise their critical thinking skills when it comes to political topics, this podcast is a jewel. 

Freakonomics Radio
The subtitle of this podcast is “The Hidden Side of Everything”, and it tends to remain true to that tagline. Stephen Dubner and Steven Leavitt are the hosts of this eclectic show that mostly looks at economics, but is wonderful for testers because it looks at teasing out what the data tells us about a variety of topics. We think we understand how things work, and why the world looks the way it does, but very often, the hidden realities go counter to the agreed to narrative. Often controversial, always fascinating.

Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
This is the first of the “Quick and Dirty Tips” podcasts that I follow, and the fact that I fancy myself a bit of a writer on the side of being a software tester, it should come as no surprise that I would appreciate a regular infusion of grammar and interesting ways to improve my game as a writer. Grammar Girl is hosted by Mignon Fogarty, and is full of interesting tips and tidbits about language, grammar construction, writing tropes, and etymology. There are as of this writing 446 episodes. That’s a lot of potential grammar tips, and while you may not want to listen to every one of them, you will not surprise me in the slightest if you come back and tell me you have heard them all ;).

Hardcore History with Dan Carlin
Of all the podcasts I listen to, most of the episodes are listened to once or twice, and then I delete the ones I listened to already. I do not delete episodes of Hardcore History! I have saved every one of them since the beginning, and I have listened to each episodes multiple times (and that’s no small feat, considering several of the Hardcore History podcast episodes are multiple hours long). Dan Carlin uses the same “Martian” approach to thinking as used in the Common Sense podcast and applies it to historical events. Earlier podcasts were brief entries, while the most recent podcasts would count as full audio books. Dan has a style of delivery that is dramatic, intense, and for me personally, enthralling. Many of the podcasts are continuous series. He’s currently doing a multi part series on the causes and effects of the First World War. The combined total time for this series (titled 'Countdown to Armageddon") is currently almost fourteen hours, with more episodes still to come. Do not be surprised if you find yourself listening for hours at a time. In my opinion, Hardcore History is the perfect long drive or long flight companion, and is still, to me, the gold standard of podcasting.

Philosophize This!
Stephen West hosts this podcast that endeavors to be a chronological exploration of philosophy and epistemology, and if listened to in order, does a very good job of being exactly that. Stephen goes to great lengths to keep a consistent narrative between episodes, and flashes back to what previous philosophers have said to help develop the context for current episodes. He mixes in modern metaphors to help make some of the esoteric bits make sense, and it makes for an overall very enjoyable and interesting series.

Planet Money
Hosted by NPR, and born from the wreckage of the 2008 Financial Crisis, Planet Money has a similar feel and approach to Freakonomics. It’s a very economics based program, with a smattering of finance and a lot of current events, and much like Freakonomics, ventures into territory that is unexpected and open to interpretation. If you think you know that’s going on, you may be surprised to realize how different things look when you “follow the money”.

Ruby Rogues
Ruby Rogues is a revolving cast of commenters, many of which are well known in the Ruby world, and frequently feature guests that talk about a variety of programming topics. I started listening to Ruby Rogues when I worked at a primarily Ruby and Rails shop, and while I have moved on to a work environment that uses different languages, I still listen regularly to this well done and well presented podcast. You do not have to be a Rubyist to reap benefits from listening to the show, but if you are familiar with Ruby, it makes each episode that much more interesting.

Savvy Psychologist: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Mental Health
This is another Quick and Dirty Tips podcast I enjoy following, and I became interested in it due to some of the challenges I’ve dealt with around my own diagnosis and repeated wrestling with issues related to ADHD. Dr. Ellen Hendrickson tackles a variety of psychological challenges, puts it in terms that every day people can understand and relate to, covering topics such as procrastination, anxiety, depression, motivation, mood and creativity. Understanding the challenges we all face helps us relate better to those we interact with, as well as ourselves. 

Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project 
You may know Adam Savage from his ten year plus run on the Discover Channel’s “Mythbusters”, but this series goes beyond his most well known career choice and talks about his involvement with special effects, the maker movement, and tests and explorations related to oddball interests. If you enjoy the Mythbusters approach and delivery, you’ll probably enjoy this podcast, too.

Stuff You Missed in History Class
As my interest in Hardcore History will likely tell you, I am a fan of history. I love the obscure and interesting bits and the connection to us today. However, Dan Carlin puts such time and attention to each episode, it can be months between episodes. This podcast (which is part of the “How Stuff Works” series of podcasts) is a twice a week history snack fest. Shows cover a wide variety of topics, often focusing on the weird or unusual. It’s great fun and a must listen for the avid history buff.

Stuff You Should Know
How did leper colonies come into being? What is terraforming? What did the enlightenment actually “enlighten”? If you’ve ever found yourself wondering about these things, and literally hundred more areas, then this podcast is right up your alley. Twice a week, the podcast covers interesting and unique topics that, when taken together, cover all sorts of areas that I may know a little bit about, but I always learn just a little bit more. If the idea of learning more about rogue waves, X-rays, and stem cells interests you, then this is a great destination.

TED Radio Hour
If you’ve ever seen or heard a TED talk, you know the format and approach. TED Stands for “Technology, Entertainment and Design”, and each hour long episode is based around a theme, with a talk from one or several presenters to build each themed episode. Programs range from games and gaming and how it relates to psychological development, to self determined education in Africa, to working with perceptions, to our relationship with animals. Guy Raz hosts this weekly podcast, and each week is a unique exploration into the unexpected.

Again, these are my favorites for this year and as of today. Next year, this list may be entirely different (though some will probably be perennial favorites). Here’s hoping some of these will be interesting to you, and hey, if you have some favorites you’d like to share, please post them in the comments below.