Debating the Modern Testing Principles

Last week I had the opportunity to moderate a discussion on the Modern Testing Principles being developed by Alan Page and Brent Jensen with a group of QA folks. I’m a relative late-comer to the AB Testing podcast, having first subscribed somewhere around Episode 60, but have been quite interested in this take on testing. Armed primarily with the 4 episodes starting from their initial introduction and some back-up from the article by the Ministry of Testing, we had a pretty interesting discussion.

Discussing the seven principles

After giving a bit of a preamble based on the mission statement—“Accelerate the Achievement of Shippable Quality”—we went through the principles one by one. For each one I asked (roughly) these questions:

  1. What do you think this statement means?
  2. How do you feel about this a core principle of testing?
  3. How well (or not) does this describe your approach to testing?
  4. Is this a principle you would adopt?

For the first four principles, there was a lot of agreement. We discussed building better products versus trying to assure the product’s quality, the importance of prioritization of tests and identifying bottlenecks, leaky safety nets, data-driven decisions, and the easy alignment with a whole-team Agile mindset. Then it started to get a bit more interesting.

Disagreement one: Judging Quality

The fifth principle started to get problematic for some people:

5. We believe that the customer is the only one capable to judge and evaluate the quality of our product.

There was a lot of debate here. Although a couple people were on board right away, the biggest question for most in the room was: who is the “customer”? Lots of people could fall into that category. Internally there are stakeholders in different parts of the business, product owners in our team, managers in our department, and team itself to some degree. We also have both our current end users and the people we want to attract into regular users. Some of you may have simpler environments with a clear cut individual client, but others could be even more complicated.

What we did agree on was that you have to use the product to be able to judge it. The people testing have to think like the customer and have a good idea of what their expectations are. Interestingly, when we changed “customer” to “anybody who uses the product”, everybody around the table could agree with the principle as a whole.

I suspect, though, that if we only say “anybody who uses the product is capable of judging and evaluating the quality of the product”, the statement loses its power. My feeling is that if this principle feels problematic in its original form, you may just not have a firm idea of who your customer really is. This just highlights for me how important it is to ask who’s opinion, at the end of the day, is the one that counts.

Disagreement two: The dedicated specialist

It’s likely unsurprising that a principle suggesting the elimination of the testing specialist would raise a few eyebrows in a group of testing specialists.

7. We expand testing abilities and knowhow across the team; understanding that this may reduce (or eliminate) the need for a dedicated testing specialist.

There was no disagreement with the first clause. Many people immediately connected it with the 4th principle, to “coach, lead, and nurture the team towards a more mature quality culture”. Surely endeavouring to “expand the testing abilities and know-how across the team” is a good way to achieve that. When the group initially discussed the 4th principle, we were all in agreement that we wanted to drive a culture of quality and a whole-team approach to testing.

I am still unsure whether the disagreement with eliminating the dedicated specialist was just a knee-jerk reaction or not. I tried to use an analogy of the tester-as-Mary-Poppins: She stays only as long as she is truly needed, and then takes to the wind again to find a new family in need. It didn’t seem to sell the point. We agreed that our teams should be able to function without us… temporarily. There was one assertion that QA was the most important part of the whole process and therefore could not be eliminated. Another one that the skills are different from other roles. And yet another that not everybody wants to be a dev. (Although, of course, the principle doesn’t end with “… so that they can become a developer.”)

Additional context from Alan and Brent helps here too. In some of the episodes after the principles were first introduced, they do talk about now not every tester needs to be a Capital-M Capital-T Modern Tester. I don’t believe the intent is to eventually eliminate the need for testing specialists full stop. It’s not even a given that the specialist would be eliminated on a particular team, just that the need for a specialist should be reduced. To me this principle is a corollary of reducing bottlenecks and building the testing know-how on the team, albeit phrased more provocatively.

Nonetheless, the closest we got to agreement on this was to say we could eventually eliminate the singular position of a testing specialist, but not eliminate the function.

Is that any different or just an easier pill to swallow?

Wrapping up

Both of these, the two biggest objections to the Modern Testing Principles, have a common theme. The 4th principle asserts that testers aren’t the judge of quality or even truly capable of evaluating it. The 7th pushes the idea that given the right expertise and know-how, a testing specialist may not even be needed. Both of these can feel like a threat. Both speak to a fear of losing agency. Alan and Brent also talked about this in the podcasts: one of the motivations for formulating these principles was to prepare people for how testing is changing so that we aren’t all caught unprepared. While I have doubts that there’s an apocalyptic testing singularity coming—something I plan to write on in another post—it does emphasize how important it is to be prepared for new ways of thinking in the industry.

To wrap up the discussion, we did a quick summary of the words and concepts that had come up as common themes in the principles. Then, to compare, I asked for testing concepts or buzzwords that had been conspicuously absent. Chief among the latter were automation, defect tracking, reporting, traceability, documentation, and not once did we talk about writing a test case. Highlighting what was not explicitly mentioned in the principles seemed to be a great way to highlight what makes this a different approach compared to a lot of our day-to-day experience. Though some of those “missing” elements may come out naturally as tools necessary to really embrace these principles, I felt it important to highlight that they were not the goal in and of themselves.

In the end, these differences and the disagreements were the most interesting part of the Modern Testing Principles. Alan described presenting the principles at Test Bash in much the same way—it’s not much fun if everybody just agrees with everything! Hopefully the discussions sparked some new ways of thinking, if only a little bit.

Agile Testing book club: Courage

This is the third part on my series highlighting lessons I’m taking out of reading Agile Testing by Lisa Crispin and Janet Gregory. Other entries in the series can be found here.

Chapter 4 is largely about transitioning non-agile processes to an agile workflow. There’s a lot here that would have been useful to me a couple years ago, but these days my work is great about not imposing cumbersome processes. Nonetheless, there was one passage that stood out:

On Courage

Courage is especially important. Get up and go talk to people; ask how you can help. Reach out to team members and other teams with direct communication. Notice impediments and ask the team to help remove them.

— Agile Testing, Lisa Crispin & Janet Gregory, Chapter 4

Often I find this one of my biggest personal challenges. Good communication is one of the most important elements of working as a team, and that means talking to people directly. I consider myself an introvert, and though I’m happy stepping up to lead a conversation when needed, it can be very easy to find excuses to avoid it. Sometimes I don’t want to bother someone or intrude, sometimes I’d rather avoid hashing out a point of disagreement.

There’s two main ways I try to overcome this.

Don’t borrow the jack

Some time ago, my husband told me a story about a man that got a flat tire out on a country road. According to Oprah.com the story originated with Danny Thomas in the 1950s. Quite a few versions have been nearly copy-pasted around the blogosphere already. The story goes that the man needed a borrow a jack to put his spare tire on. As he walked up to the closest farmhouse, he started imaging increasingly bad scenarios about what might happen. The farmer will probably demand money, get upset at being interrupted at the late hour, or just generally be an asshole. By the time the man gets to the front door, he’s worked himself up so much that he knows to expect the worst. When the farmer answers the knock, the man just shouts “You can keep your damn jack!” and storms off.

The moral of the story is to be careful about imagining worst-case scenarios and getting angry about hypotheticals. It’s this kind of thinking that leads to avoiding communication out of wanting to avoid conflict, even if the conflict is imaginary.  Give the guy a chance. and embrace the benefit of the doubt.

“Don’t borrow the jack” has become a shorthand now between my husband and I to warn ourselves about imagining the worst. I try to remind myself of that when I start getting into the mindset that I’d rather avoid talking to someone directly. Overcoming that mindset when it does set in can take a lot of courage.

Like going to the gym

Summoning the courage to get up and talk to someone isn’t always about overcoming conflict avoidance. Lisa and Janet point out an example in Chapter 5 of where processes in place can make it even more difficult:

Defect tracking systems certainly don’t promote communication between programmers and testers. They can make it easy to avoid talking directly to each other.

— Agile Testing, Lisa Crispin and Janet Gregory, Chapter 5

Too true. Written communication like defect trackers, documentation systems, and code review platforms have their purpose, but they’re also the easiest excuse to avoid conversation. A comment that provides background, context, or a clarification is great. One that continues a back-and-forth debate isn’t; go talk to the person and then come back to comment so there’s a record of the outcome. Five minutes talking in person could easily resolve something that would take hours or days in a writing. It can just as easily highlight a bigger issue at play that needs to be worked out.

The point is, as much as I might want to avoid it at times, I almost always come out of a face-to-face conversation happier for having done it. It’s like going to the gym. I may not want to, but just getting up and going for an hour is easier than agonizing over it all day, and is always worth it in the end.

Agile testing does, I think, ask more of us introverts than a documentation-heavy waterfall style. It can take courage to get up and talk to someone. Just don’t borrow the jack, and it’ll be worth it.

10,000+ synonyms for Quality Assurance

I recently had a conversation with my team about what we should call the status between when work is passed “code review” but not yet “done”. The one thing I didn’t want to call it was “In QA”. One of the developers on my team had another idea that I decided to run with:

Let me explain.

Much like Richard Bradshaw says in this video on “QA” as a term, it doesn’t make much sense to me to name one stage of a feature’s development as if that was the only stage at which QA was done. Michael Bolton regularly insists that quality assurance isn’t even a thing testers do (or should do). (Although interestingly when I brought this up in Testers Chat, Michael was the one to ask whether the name we picked would even make a material difference.) The argument generally goes that testers don’t assure quality. We can do all sorts of other things to it—inform it, study it, encourage it, foster it—but we can’t guarantee or enforce it. We especially can’t do it after the code is written.

Maybe this one is better?

I’ve mentioned before that the terminology at my company is “QA” rather than “Testing”. Asking the difference between “QA” and “Testing” is another sure-fire way to spark debate but I don’t think a piece of development should ever be in a discrete “In Testing” phase either. Generally I’m not too concerned about calling it one or the other; I’m much more interested in what people are actually doing. I haven’t seen any of the dire warnings about using “quality assurance” come true where I am now, but I’m not going to risk encouraging it with an “In QA” phase.

Here’s a third attempt at a better name for QA:

The idea that the developer on my team had was this: if I was so set against calling it anything but “QA”, let’s just take synonyms for “quality” and “assurance” and come up with something that didn’t have all that baggage. He was joking, but I ran with it. I ran with it about 13 thousand times.

Here, come up with some of your own:

This is a little script that will randomly pick alternative terms for “quality assurance”. Very rarely it might actually suggest you stick with “quality assurance”. I do not vouch for any of these being good suggestions, but I think at this point I’m more interested in discussing the merits of “quirk investigation” vs “constitution corroboration” than I am hearing more complaints about “quality assurance” as a term.

The standalone link is here if you want to keep generating more ideas, and I even made a helpful Twitter robot that’ll tweet out a new idea every day. Hit me up on my Twitter or leave a comment if you want to make sure your favourite synonyms are included. Let the pedantry begin!

Testing is like a box of rocks

I was inspired today by Alan Page’s Test Automation Snowman. He makes all good points, but let’s be honest, the model is the same as the good ol’ test pyramid. The only difference is that he’s being explicit about tests at the top of the pyramid being slow and tests at the bottom being fast. Ok, so maybe the snowman thing is a joke, but it did make me think about what might make a better visualization. I quickly doodled something on a sticky note:

A sticky note with a lot of tiny circles in the bottom third, medium circles in the middle third, and a few large circles in the top third.

If the point we want to emphasize is that UI tests are slow (and therefore take a lot of time), we should include that in the visualization! The problem with the pyramid (and the snowman) is that the big tests take up the least amount of space; the small triangle at the top makes it look like having fewer UI tests also means you do less UI testing.

It doesn’t.

At least, not proportionately. If you had an equal number of UI and unit tests, it’s a safe bet that you’re going to spend more of your time working on the UI tests.

So instead, let’s say testing is like a box of rocks. Each rock is a test, and I have to choose how to allocate the space in that box to fit all the rocks that I want. A few big rocks are going to take up a lot more space than a bunch of tiny pebbles. Unless I have a good reason why that big boulder is a lot more interesting than the hundred little rocks I could put in its place, I’m going to go for the little rocks! If I have to add a new rock (to kill a new bug, say) I probably want to choose the smallest one that’ll still do the job.

You can still think about the different levels (unit vs API vs UI, for example) if you picture the little rocks at the bottom forming a foundation for bigger rocks on top. I don’t know if rocks work like that. Just be careful not to get this whole thing confused with that dumb life metaphor.

Ok, it might not be the best model, but I’ll stick with it for now. And like the Alan’s snowman, you’re free to ignore this one too.

My first game of TestSphere

Today (as I write this, last week as it is published) I had my first experience playing TestSphere. I’ve had a deck for ages but only recently suggested trying to play it with the QA community of practice in my department. Going from never having played it at all to facilitating a session with a whole group was quite a leap and I wasn’t at all sure how it would go. Here’s some of my observations about the experience.

Test sphere cards laid out on a table

Seven thoughts about TestSphere

1. Ten’s a crowd: The weekly meeting of the group usually has anywhere from 4 to 16 people attending, with the typical number around 12. I planned on playing the standard game, which the box says is best for 4 to 8 people. I was prepared to split us into two groups if needed, but in the end tried playing with the full group of 10 that came that day.

2. One for all or a bunch for each: The instructions say to reveal one or more cards depending on the experience level of the group, though it’s not clear to me which way those should correlate. I decide to go with one card of each colour so there would be a variety of types ofthings to think about. This turned out to be exactly the wrong number. Though I deliberately put us as a small table, people still had to pick up cards from the middle to read them. As soon as we started, 5 people were reading cards and 5 people were doing nothing. Should I do this again, I would try one extreme or the other: 1 or 2 cards that the whole group could focus on together, or 3-5 cards each to think about independently and have people play cards from their own hand. In the latter case I can then imagine combo play (“I have a card that applies to that story!” or “I have an experience with that too, plus this other concept from my hand”) but let’s not get carried away.

3. Combining cards: Nobody attempted to combine multiple cards into a single story, which I thought would be part of the fun of trying to “win”. This may have just been because people were passing cards around one at a time rather than looking at them as a group. I suspect it would have been easier to combine cards with fewer people or ones that was already familiar with the cards.

4. Minimalism: We didn’t make use of most of the text on the cards. The examples are great and really show the amount of good work Beren Van Daele and the MoT put into designing the deck, but it was just too much to make use of in this format. While the extra text is useful to fully understand the concept, a minimal deck with just the concept, slogan, and a simple graphic might be less intimidating. (The Easter egg here is that Minimalism is one of the cards we talked about in our group today; going back and reading the card again I’m really torn by this since the examples really do illuminate it in a way the slogan alone doesn’t, and the three are so different from each other that even limiting it to one would not be quite the same.)

5. Waiting patiently: The group naturally developed a pattern of picking up new cards as soon as they came up and holding on to them until it was their turn to tell the story. I wouldn’t say that I expected it to be a raucous fight for cards and who got to tell their story first, but I didn’t expect it to be so calm and orderly either. Once or twice this resulted in someone who had picked up a card just to read it seemingly getting stuck into telling a story about that card whether they meant to or not.

6. Everybody had a story: The energy of the game varied quite a bit depending on who was speaking. Some people are just better story tellers or more comfortable with public speaking than others. Nonetheless, I was quite happy that nobody dominated the conversation too much, and by the end everybody had shared at least once. I had laid out a rule at the beginning that if two people had a story to share we would defer to whoever hadn’t spoken yet, but we only had to invoke it once.

7. My QA is not your QA: Several times I was surprised with the stories people told given the card they picked up, often struggling to see what the connection was. To me this illustrates how differently people think, which would keep this interesting to play with another group of people. Not only that, but they’ll likely work quite easily outside of QA circles. At one point we had only one person left who hadn’t collected any cards yet. “I’m a developer,” he said, “I only have developer stories.” But when prompted he was able to pick up a card just as easily as anybody else.

The forgotten debrief

In the end, we shared about 15 stories in 50 minutes. Overall I think it was a good experience, and it was a neat way to hear more about everybody’s experiences on other teams. Unfortunately I didn’t manage time well and we got kicked out of the meeting room before I had a chance to debrief with anybody about their experience with the game. Some ideas for focus questions I had jotted down (roughly trying to follow an ORID model) were:

  1. What are some of the concepts and examples that came up on the cards?
  2. Were there concepts someone else talked about that you also had a story for? Were any concepts totally new to you?
  3. Did anything surprise you about the experiences others shared? What did you learn about someone that you didn’t know before? What did or didn’t work well about this experience?

and finally:

  1. Would you play again?