Old Masters and Young Geniuses

A while ago, I read David Galenson's "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity." This book was appealing to me because I use to be an art student and I'm always looking for books on creativity, but as I read it I started to see patterns in it that lead see the Old Masters and Young Geniuses metaphor as something useful for software testers. If you often find books that have nothing to do with software testing, useful in helping you form your opinions about software testing, then I think you'll enjoy this book immensely.

Disclaimer, I only read the book once, so some of my summary statements might be a little off, but for the most part, I think I do it justice. I might have miss-read something here or there. Don't be too upset if I got something wrong.


In the book, Galenson draws the distinction between the experimental and conceptual artist. The experimental artist is the artist who works in a very controlled fashion; almost scripted. They make variations to their process and practice over time, but always in a calculated way. Always trying to perfect some small aspect of their craft. They might do the same work, or series of works, over and over again. Think of Monet as an archetype of the experimental artist. Galenson tries to illustrate that the experimental artist's best work is done late in their career. They become an "Old Master."


The conceptual artist is the artist who works more from intuition then from process. They break from custom. They do something never done before of take some established philosophy and turn it on it's head. The might do a particular work or even style only once, and move on to the next phase of their career. Think of Picasso as an archetype of the conceptual artist. Galenson tries to illustrate that the conceptual artist's best work is done early in their career. They start as a "Young Genius."


Interesting dynamics emerge in the differences between the way the two groups work:


"The distinction between experimental and conceptual artists can be sharpened by considering their procedures in making paintings. For this purpose, we can divide the process into three stages: planning – all the artist does before beginning a particular painting; working – all the artist does while in the process of putting paint on the canvas; and stopping – the decision to cease working."


Galenson explains that for the experimental, all three stages are controlled. Extensive upfront planning takes place, work is tightly controlled (often delegated), and the decision to stop is predicated on completion of a goal. For the conceptual, there is little to no planning; that stage is very short. The "signing" artist does most work, and the process for the work may vary day to day. The decision to stop is heuristic.


As I read the book, I found myself inserting scripted for experimental and exploratory for conceptual. Think of a continuum like the scripted vs. exploratory continuum (you can see an example on slide 15 of Jon Bach's Breaking Down Exploratory Testing Skill talk) many of us use to illustrate the continuum for testing. In a similar continuum for artists, you might have those that tend to favor small controlled change, with learning over time, and those that favor large rapid change, with breakthrough results. It's a stretch, and it doesn't fit perfectly throughout the book, but it was useful for me. This book changed the way I view the dynamic between the two polarities.


"Recognizing the differences between the experimental and conceptual approaches provides the basis for systematic predictions concerning the relationship between age and artistic innovation. The long periods of trial and error often required for important experimental innovations means that they will tend to occur late in an artists career. Because conceptual innovations are made more quickly, it might be thought that they should be equally likely to occur at any age. Yet the achievement of radical conceptual innovations depends on the ability to perceive and appreciate the value of extreme deviations from existing conventions and traditional methods, and this ability will tend to decline with experience, as habits of thought become more firmly established. The most important conceptual innovations should therefore tend to occur early in an artist's career."


With this prism, if I view an early book on software testing, or an exemplar from the factory school, I might choose to see someone who is trying to perfect a method of their craft. With small controlled changes, they might make that method a little bit better each time. If I view an article on exploratory testing (because there aren't many books dedicated to the topic), or an exemplar from the context drive school, I might choose to see someone who is trying to revolutionize the field. Someone with the "ability to perceive and appreciate the value of extreme deviations from existing conventions and traditional methods."


This is important, because for me it creates a place where I can appreciate the innovations one might want to make within a school that isn't the one I choose. I sometime struggle with that; this helps. Don't get me wrong, I think there are exploratory testers who are old masters (James Bach?) and scripted testers who are young geniuses (Kent Beck?) within their particular school. Like I said, it's a model...


After I read that last large quote in the book ("Recognizing the differences between..."), a couple of questions occurred to me. I wrote them down in my moleskin and wanted to explore them here.


First, I've heard Cem Kaner talk about our field's problem of not learning from history. To paraphrase what I think the problem is, software testers (computer scientists in general?) don't invest much time in learning the history of their craft. Does this continuum relate in some way to that history problem?


I think it's possible that, of those that are "aware" – I suspect some testers don't want to be young geniuses or old masters, most would rather be conceptual, and thus don't think they need to understand history to make a meaningful contribution. Thus, like many artists, they may make (and probably often do) an "original" contribution that was original 20 years ago. In addition, if most old masters really are old (in terms of how long they have been practicing their craft), and if a solid understanding includes understanding past history, and many testers leave testing for career changes, project management, BA roles, programming, or some other development role, can we even develop old masters?


Second, if I look at someone whom I think might fit the young genius mold, Jon Bach, what are the implications for how I can learn from the behavior I see? (I choose Jon as my example because of the work he did early in his career with session based and open book, two ideas that I think are conceptual innovations in our field. Jon, I hope you don't mind.)


If I look at examples of young genius in testing (or old masters), just as I could in art, what could I learn personally to influence how I become conceptual (or experimental). What are the implications for me (or for anyone who wants to innovate – either drastically or a little bit over time)?


Finally, in the book, Galenson provides some models for measuring the success of a work of art. I won't go into them here, but imagine if we had a way to measure the success of a testing idea. It wouldn't necessarily tell you it if was good, just like you can't look at the popularity of a painting and say that makes it good, but it tells you it was potentially influential is some way. How would, or could we, measure the influence of testing ideas?


Most of those questions are rhetorical. I'm not really expecting anyone to answer. The book just got me thinking. It has some great stuff on schools and movements, analytic techniques, developing intuition, community, and a ton of stuff on the exploratory process. Recommended read.

BooksMichael Kelly