Recently I’ve been working on measuring organizational efficiency and I was comparing test case execution patterns of a quality assurance team to that of a known sample from a whitepaper I had gotten from IBM. IBM had recognized that there is an S-shaped curve to the cumulative execution of cases. That is, you start off slow, ramp up, and then as you reach the end, the last few cases take a longer time to get done. I don’t know why this is particularly, but I wondered if the same applied in this situation.
And that reminded me of a story about a college professor. Professor Reid was a geology professor at my college, and the way my college curriculum worked, even if you weren’t majoring in the natural sciences you still had to either take a certain number of courses or do a project in the natural sciences. I opted to do a project, though I had no idea what that project was going to be. Fortunately, someone lined me up with Professor Reid.
Professor Reid told me that he had taken a bunch of high school students (on some sort of outreach program) to Shapiro Brook, a generally unremarkable brook which ran down the side of a nearby mountain. At the top of the mountain where the brook sprang from the ground was a quarry.
Now, I’m probably going to get this wrong, so if you are a science buff, I apologize. If you are a science student looking for information on conductivity or pH, this is NOT the place you want to look. You’ve been warned.
Anyway, apparently, the behavior of “normal” brooks is that when the water springs from the ground it has relatively high pH and low conductivity. This is due to there being lots of free H+ ions in the water. As the brook travels over the surface, the free H+ ions are bound by Potassium (K) and Sodium (Na). As a result, this causes the water to become more neutral in pH (pH drops) and more conductive (conductivity rises). As I said, that’s the “normal” behavior.
What Dr. Reid and his students found was the exact opposite. For some reason, pH rose and conductivity dropped. He found this fascinating and wanted me to repeat the experiment, bring back results and finally even put some of that stuff through a Plasma Mass Spectrometer. The Plasma Mass Spectrometer is the kind of equipment that GRAD students wait in line to use, so I was super excited to have the opportunity. Dr. Reid thought, by the way, that the active quarry at the mountaintop was somehow impacting the pH and conductivity of the brook, though he wasn’t sure what the mechanism was exactly.
Anyway, early that fall, I walked up the mountain with a conductivity meter and about 40 little plastic vials which I had properly cleaned with DI Water… blah, blah, blah I won’t bore you with the details of my proper experiment preparations. Every 50 yards or so I took a vial of water and a conductivity reading. When I got back to the bottom of the mountain, I pulled out my map that I had been given. I don’t know why I did this AFTER, but I did. And that’s when I realized I had walked the WRONG brook. Now, I was a college student who was just trying to complete a coursework requirement. I could’ve just used the data I had, forgetting whether the results were honest or not. But, no, I felt guilty doing such a thing, though it crossed my mind, so I went back to the lab, cleaned 40 more vials and trudged back up the mountain this time with my map out in the first place.
Again, I went down the mountain collecting samples every 50 yards or so. Once winter fell, I returned to the same brook to repeat the experiment. We did this to make sure that little feeder streams weren’t influencing the main brook. Of course, this time instead of walking down some of the mountainside, I fell and tore up my hand and wrist pretty good. Determined to not have to go back and make yet another trip, I ripped off some of my shirt, wrapped my hand and wrist (that was probably melodramatic of me), and proceeded to complete my measurements.
When I got back to the lab, I carefully tested the pH of every vial and recorded the data. Then, I brought all my results and readings back to Dr. Reid. I couldn’t really make heads or tails of it, but he could. He literally started bouncing up and down in his chair with excitement. Not in some sort of ridiculous way, but just a little more spring as he talked to me, and his eyes lit up, and a big smile came to his face.
“NOTHING! Shapiro Brook behaves just as it should!” he exclaimed.
I was heartbroken. How was I supposed to write a college paper on nothing? Dr. Reid was undeterred. He proceeded to tell me how great this is, to disprove that there was anything special about Shapiro Brook at all. To in fact find that the world worked exactly as we would expect it to work was, to him, joyful. “You could be a science guy,” he said to me, “have you ever considered switching concentrations?”
And that stuck with me through all these years. When Dr. Reid passed away in the early 2000s, it was this story that first came to mind, and the story that came to mind when I pulled together my data for Quality Assurance.
Sure enough, the QA teams experience the same patterns of progress that IBM had observed. The S-shaped curve wasn’t just some IBM myth. I’m not a QA person, just as I wasn’t a “science guy” back in college, so maybe all QA people know this, but I didn’t. There was excitement discovering that they were just like everyone else, so I sent an email titled “so cool!!!” with the details of my findings to a good friend who I knew would appreciate it. There is satisfaction in finding out that we are not special or different, that despite what people believe, things that the outside world experiences can be applied to us. It gives us hope that what we learn elsewhere is transferrable knowledge.