Will the Test Leaders Stand Up?
First published 09/05/2013
Testing is Long Overdue for a ChangeRumours of the death of testing were greatly exaggerated, but even so, the changes we predict will be dramatic. My own company has been heralding the demise of the 'plain old functional tester' (POFT) for years and we’ve predicted both good and bad outcomes of the technological and economic change that is going on right now. Some time ago, I posted a blog, Testing is in a Mess where I suggested that there's complacency, self-delusion and over capacity in the testing business; there is too little agreement about what testing is, what it’s for or how it should be done.
But there are also some significant forces at play in the IT industry and I think the testing community, will be coming under extreme pressure. I summarise this change as ‘redistributed testing’: users, analysts, developers and testers will redistribute responsibility for testing by, wait for it, collaborating more effectively. Testers probably won’t drive this transition, and they may be caught out if they ignore the winds of change.
In this article, I’ll suggest what we need from the leaders in our industry, the market and our organisations. Of course, some responsibility will fall on your shoulders. Whether you are a manager or technical specialist, there will be an opportunity for you to lead the change.
New Architectures, new ApproachesMuch of the software development activity in the next five years or so will be driven by the need for system users and service vendors to move to new business models based on new architectures. One reason SaaS is attractive is that the route to market is so simple that tiny boutique software shops can compete on the same playing field as the huge independent software vendors.
SaaS works as an enabler for very rapid deployment of new functionality and deployment onto a range of devices. A bright idea in marketing in the morning can be deployed as new functionality in the afternoon and an increasing number of companies are succeeding with ‘continuous delivery’. This is the promise of SaaS.
Most organisations will have to come to terms with the new architectures and a more streamlined approach to development. The push and pull of these forces will make you rethink how software available through the Internet is created, delivered and managed. The impacts on testing are significant. If you take an optimistic view, testing and the role of testers can perhaps, at last, mature to what they should be.
The Testing Business has Matured, but BloatedOver the last twenty years or so there has been a dramatic growth in the number of people who test and call themselves testers and test managers. It’s not that more testing happens. I think it’s because the people who do it are now recruited into teams, having managers who plan, resource and control sizable budgets in software projects to perform project test stages. There is no question that people are much more willing to call themselves a tester. There are now a huge number of career testers across the globe; many have done nothing but testing in their professional lives. The problem is that there may now be too many of them.
In many ways, in promoting the testing discipline as some of us have done for more than twenty years, we have been too successful. There is now a sizable testing industry. We have certification schemes, but the schemes that were a step forwards fifteen years ago, haven’t advanced. As a consequence, there are many thousands of professional testers, certified only to a foundation level who have not developed their skills much beyond test script writing, execution and incident logging. Much of what these people do are basically ‘checking’ as Michael Bolton has called it.
Most checking could be automated and some could be avoided. In the meantime, we have seen (at last) developer testing begin to improve through their adoption of test-driven and behaviour-driven approaches. Of course, most of the testing they do is checking at a unit level. But this is similar to what many POFTs spend much of their time doing manually. Given that most companies are looking to save money, it’s easy to see why many organisations see an opportunity to reduce the number of POFTs if they get their developers to incorporate automated checking into their work through TDD and BDD approaches.
As the developers have adopted the disciplines and (mostly free) tools of TDD and BDD, the testers have not advanced so far. I would say, that test innovation tends to be focused on the testers’ struggle to keep pace with new technologies rather than insights and inventions that move the testers’ discipline forward. Most testing is still manual, and the automated tests created by test teams (usually with expensive, proprietary tools) might be better done by developers anyway.
In the test management space, one can argue that test management is a non-discipline, that is, there is no such thing as test management, there’s just management. If you take the management away from test management – what’s left? Mostly challenges in test logistics – or just logistics – and that’s just another management discipline isn’t it?
What about the fantastic advances in automation? Well, test execution robots are still, well, just robots. The advances in these have tracked the technologies used to build and deliver functionality – but pretty much that’s all. Today’s patterns of test automation are pretty much the same as those used twenty or more years ago. Free test automation frameworks are becoming more commonly used, especially for unit testing. Free BDD tools have emerged in the last few years, and these are still developer focused but expect them to mature in the next few years. Tools to perform end-to-end functional tests are still mostly proprietary, expensive and difficult to succeed with.
The test management tools that are out there are sophisticated, but they perform only the most basic record keeping. Most people still use Excel and survive without test management products that only support the clerical test activities and logistics and do little to support the intellectual effort of testers.
The test certification schemes have gone global. As Dorothy Graham says on her blog the Foundation met its main objective of “removing the bottom layer of ignorance” about software testing. Fifteen years and 150,000+ certificate awards later, it does no more than that. For many people, it seems that this ‘bottom layer of knowledge’ is all they may ever need to get a job in the industry. The industry has been dumbed-down.
Agile: a Stepping Stone to Continuous DeliveryThere is an ongoing methodological shift from staged, structured projects to iterative and Agile and now, towards ‘continuous delivery’. Just as companies seem to be coming to terms with Agile – it’s all going to change again. They are now being invited to consider continuous ‘Specification by Example’ approaches. Specification by example promotes a continual process of specification, exampling, test-first, and continuous integration. CI and Delivery is the heartbeat, the test, life-support and early warning system. The demands for better testing in development are being met. A growing number of developers have known no other way. If this trend continues, we will get better, stable software sooner and much of the late functional checking done by system testers may not be required. Will this reduce the need for POFT testers? You bet.
But, continuous delivery is a machine that consumes requirements. For the rapid output of continuous delivery to be acceptable, the quality of requirement going into that machine must be very high. We argue that requirements must be trusted, but not perfect.
Testers are Being SqueezedDevelopers are increasingly taking on the automated checking. Some business analysts are taking their chance and absorbing critical disciplines into analysis and are taking over the acceptance process too. Combined, the forces above are squeezing testers from the ‘low-value’ unskilled, downstream role. To survive, testers will have to up-skill to upstream, business-savvy, workflow-oriented, UX-aware testing specialists with new tools or specialise in automation, technical testing or become business domain experts.
So how do Testers take Advantage of Redistribution?I set out my top 10 predictions for the next five years in my blog On the Redistribution of Testing and I won’t labour those points here. Rather, I’ll explore some leadership issues that arise from the pressures I mentioned above and potential shifts in the software development and more particularly, testing business.
The core of the redistribution idea is that the checking that occupies much of the time of testing teams (who usually get involved late in projects) can be better done by developers. Relieving the testers of this burden gives them time to get involved earlier and to improve the definition of software before it is built. Our proposal is that testers apply their critical skills to the creation of examples that illustrate the behaviour of software in use in the requirements phase. Examples (we use the term business stories) provide feedback to stakeholders and business analysts to validate business rules defined in requirements. The outcome of this is what we call trusted requirements.
In the Business Story Pocketbook, we define a trusted requirement as “… one that, at this moment in time, is believed to accurately represent the users’ need and is sufficiently detailed to be developed and tested.” Trusted requirements are specified collaboratively with stakeholders, business analysts, developers and testers involved.
Developers, on receipt of validated requirements and business stories can use the stories to drive their TDD approach. Some (if not all) of these automated checks form the bulk of regression tests that are implemented in a Continuous Integration regime. These checks can then be trusted to signal a broken build. As software evolves, requirements change; stories and automated checks change too. This approach, sometimes-called Specification by Example depends on accurate specifications (enforced by test automation) for the lifetime of the software product. Later (and fewer) system testers have reduced time to focus on the more subtle types of problem, end to end and user experience testing.
The deal is this: testers get involved earlier to create scenarios that validate requirements, and that developers can automate. Improving the quality of requirements means the target is more stable, developers produce better code, protected by regression tests. Test teams, relieved of much of the checking and re-testing are smaller and can concentrate on the more subtle aspects of testing.
With regards to the late testing in continuously delivering environments, testers are required to perform some form of ‘health check’ prior to deployment, but the days of teams spending weeks to do this are diminishing fast. We need fewer, much smarter testers working up-front and in the short time between deployment and release.
Where are the Opportunities?The software development and Agile thought leaders are very forcefully arguing for continuous delivery, collaborative specification, better development practices (TDD, BDD), continuous integration, and testing in production using A/B testing, dark releases and analytics and big data. The stampede towards mobile computing continues apace and for organisations that have a web presence, the strategy is becoming clearer.
The pace of technical change is so high that the old way of testing just won’t cut it. Some teams are discovering they can deliver without testers at all. The challenge of testing is perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be one of speed and cost (even though it’s more subtle than that of course). Testers aren’t being asked to address this challenge because it seems more prone to a technical solution and POFTs are not technical.
But the opportunities are there: to get involved earlier in the requirements phase; to support developers in their testing and automation; to refocus testing away from manual checking towards exploratory testing; to report progress and achievement against business goals and risks, rather than test cases and bug reports.
Testers Need a New Mindset; so do VendorsWe need the testing thought-leaders to step up and describe how testing, if it truly is an information provision service, helps stakeholders and business analysts to create trusted requirements, support developers in creating meaningful, automatable, functional tests. And to be there at the end to perform the testing (in production, or production-like environments) to ensure there are no subtle flaws in the delivered system.
Some of the clichés of testing need to be swept away. The old thinking is no longer relevant and may be career limiting. To change will take some courage, persistence and leadership.
Developers write code; testers test because developers can’t: this mentality has got to go. Testing can no longer be thought of as distinct from development. The vast majority of checking can be implemented and managed by development. One potential role of a tester is to create functional tests for developers to implement. The developers, being fluent in test automation, implement lower level functional and structural tests using the same test automation. Where developers need coaching in test design, then testers should be prepared to provide it.
Testers don’t own testing: testing is part of everyone’s job from stakeholder, to users, to business analysts, developers and operations staff. The role of a tester could be that of ‘Testmaster’. A testmaster provides assurance that testing is done well through test strategy, coaching, mentoring and where appropriate, audit and review.
Testing doesn’t just apply to existing software, at the end: testing is an information provision service. Test activity and design is driven by a project’s need to measure achievement, to explore the capabilities, strengths and weaknesses so decisions can be made. The discipline of test applies to all artefacts of a project, from business plans, goals, risks, requirements and design. We coined the term ‘Project Intelligence’ some years ago to identify the information testers provide.
Testing is about measuring achievement, rather than quality: Testing has much more to say to stakeholders when its output describes achievement against some meaningful goal, than alignment to a fallible, out of date, untrusted document. The Agile community have learnt that demonstrating value is much more powerful than reporting test pass/fails. They haven’t figured how to do it of course, but the pressure to align Agile projects with business goals and risks is very pronounced.
Whither the Test Manager?You are test manager or a test lead now. Where will you be in five years? In six months? It seems to me there are five broad choices for you to take (other than getting out of testing and IT altogether).
- Providing testing and assurance skills to business: moving up the food chain towards your stakeholders, your role could be to provide advice to business leaders wishing to take control of their IT projects. As an independent agent, you understand business concerns and communicate them to projects. You advise and cajole project leadership, review their performance and achievement and interpret outputs and advise your stakeholders.
- Managing Requirements knowledge: In this role, you take control of the knowledge required to define and build systems. Your critical skills demand clarity and precision in requirements and the examples that illustrate features in use. You help business and developers to decide when requirements can be trusted to the degree that software can reasonably be built and tested. You manage the requirements and glossary and dictionary of usage of business concepts and data items. You provide a business impact analysis service.
- Testmaster – Providing an assurance function to teams, projects and stakeholders: A similar role to 1 above – but for more Agile-oriented environments. You are a specialist test and assurance practitioner that keeps Agile projects honest. You work closely with on-site customers and product owners. You help projects to recognise and react to risk, coach and mentor the team and manage their testing activities and maybe do some testing yourself.
- Managing the information flow to/from the CI process: in a Specification by Example environment, if requirements are validated with business stories and these stories are used directly to generate automated tests which are run on a CI environment, the information flows between analysts, developers, testers and the CI system is critical. You define and oversee the processes used to manage the information flow between these key groups and the CI system that provides the control mechanism for change, testing and delivery.
- Managing outsourced/offshore teams: In this case, you relinquish your onsite test team and manage the transfer of work to an outsourced or offshore supplier. You are expert in the management of information flow to/from your software and testing suppliers. You manage the relationship with the outsourced test team, monitor their performance and assure the outputs and analyses from them.
SummaryThe recent history and the current state of the testing business, the pressures that drive the testers out of testing and the pull of testing into development and analysis will force a dramatic re-distribution of test activity in some or perhaps most organisations.
Henry Kissinger said, “A leader does not deserve the name unless he is willing occasionally to stand alone”. You might have to stand alone for a while to get your view across. Dwight D Eisenhower gave this definition: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it”.
Getting that someone else to want to do it might yet be your biggest challenge.