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.