Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why testing is NOT a "standard process"

In the beginning there was consumption...

It all starts with the consumption society in which we, software testers, live.
An average consumer, willing to spend some money, asks for a certain custom product.
Being a consumer for quite a while, and having the experience of buying standard products, we know a price and an exact scope of  what we're going to get for our money.

When I for example go and buy a car, I know exactly what I'm going to pay, how my car will look like and when I'm going to receive it. The same goes by the way for a book, cd or even a software package.

So our problem, of testing being a process, begins exactly here. We are all very familiar with the trade of standard products. But there is a big difference between standard products and custom made products. Many clients and suppliers are not very competent in buying or selling such a non-standard, custom product.
And even though you think your car is customized when you have carefully chosen your options and colour - you just configured your car with the standard options and colour a supplier provides for this car. If you disagree, go to the garage and try to have an integrated GPS with bluetooth module, traffic board recognition and rear-driving camera, ESP and ABS system in a 1992 Opel Corsa and you'll see what I'm talking about.

When testing is required, we're talking mostly about new product development. We're going to build or integrate something that we never built or integrate before. So this is NOT a standard product that we can just take off a shelf.

What we seem to like to omit, is the fact that in custom software production, we're going to make something for the first time. We might integrate with components that aren't there yet, using technologies we haven't been using yet, working with people we have never seen before. There are a lot of unknown factors here.

So how do we need to buy or sell a custom product?

When we sell or buy something that does not yet exist, we don't want to find out that what we wanted is not really what we needed on the moment we spent all our money. We want to verify step by step and have the possibility to learn and steer and even more, get a good understanding about the real cost of the complete product we're asking for.

What we need to do is learn quickly, as we will be making false assumptions on cost or complexity, forgot about important things and maybe had some misunderstandings on all different levels. We have to keep our eyes open, and our focus sharp. Is this product that we're building fit for purpose? Are we on the right track? We better find out that we made a mistake before we spent all those millions.

So ideally we plan, build and act in small iterations. Each iteration gives us time to act and learn so that we can adopt in order to do better during the next iteration. Testing is a part of acting and is taking place in close cooperation with all stakeholders and is therefore a important driver of the learning and improvement of the team.

We buy and sell by building a solid trust relation between buyer and seller that gives room for continuity and results after a couple of iterations in a very clear view on budget, scope, planning and their  respective interferences.

Process VS Learning

Now what is a process?
A process is a series of predefined actions that produce something or that lead to a particular result.
Processes tend to always start from the same starting points, with known input and the output of a process is also known.

Processes are used to streamline factories and service companies that offer standard products or services. We don't want those people, building cars, delivering lettres or producing cd's to learn and improve. They have to follow the process. We want them to work effectively and at a minimal cost.

When building custom products, it is close to impossible to have a concrete view on any standard process to follow right from the start as there is no routine yet, that could be the base for a process to be put in place. On the contrary, there are many unknown factors in input, actions to be taken and even outputs.

This does not mean that no agreements can be made about communication and cooperation.
By learning and improving, processes and procedures might be put in place during software development. But those processes  and procedures will be very specific and tailored to the people and the context of this piece of software that is being built.


I would like to claim that testing can not be performed successfully by only following any standard process. Quality of any custom made software product can not be guaranteed by following any process. Good and effective testing requires expertise, knowledge, experience and skill.

During testing, it is the learning curve that can lead to creation of specific processes that can be applied within projects, programs or cooperating teams. But it is the learning curve and close stakeholder cooperation that leed to less issues in production, not any process.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

The role of QA in the Agile organization

What is quality not (anymore)?

Some companies (still) think of quality as a standard set of KPI's that should be met for all projects in the company and reported on.
Those KPI's consist in the worst case for example of amount of analysis documents finished in time VS finished late, amount of test cases prepared per designed function, quotes on how well templates are being followed, bugs per test case, reopened bugs, bug fix times etc...
One role in the company is ultimately responsible for implementing quality in systems.
This role is the QA Lead or QA Manager who represent the project "head of police". They take their best-practice sheet out of the magical best practice box and start implementing it in the company.
The result of this way of implementing quality in a company producing software is a product that meets KPI's, was more costly to build and the people building it getting frustrated from working in a framework they don't support.
People on the floor don't seem to see the added value of the QA Manager and their KPI's, but those KPI's are sent way up, so they need to shine... in the worst case at the cost of product quality.
Maybe this was an acceptable way to approach quality when building products using the waterfall and V-model, and as a step to take in order to learn how to do better.
Now there are better ways to do this.

What is quality and how to pursue it?

"Quality" is like any software requirement. The idea of what an application needs to and may not do, changes over time and not all quality aspects can or should be fulfilled in order to deliver a successful project.
Each and every project member needs to understand the goal of what they are building and why they are building it. That's the first step in delivering software quality - a clear common goal.

The team with all their individual members are the owners of quality, the QA lead is their coach. 
The definition of what quality is, is formulated by it's stakeholders and can change over time.
What it means in reality is that good software quality (how stakeholders perceive quality) can only be reached when the common understanding of quality is carried by the team.
Stakeholders in this case are not only the business, but also the developers, testers, end users, release team, support teams etc...

The QA job in a project starts by making sure all stakeholders are identified in the first place and making sure they are aware they need to provide (continuous) input on what they need from a software product in order to reach the level of quality they want to achieve.
The next thing QA needs to do, is coach the product owner (or project sponsor - who owns the budget) in deciding which of all identified aspects are more or less important considering the budget and timelines. 

Then QA talks with the team on how these quality aspects will be put in place. The team will decide, together with QA on the definition of done (What are the measurable aspects of the software product that need to be fulfilled before we can ever say any component of this software has been "released".)

By doing so, the team defines how they will reach quality standards to ensure development speed, release efficiency, product maintenance, product aesthetics, acceptance criteria etc...
Based on the team's "definition of done"  that evolves over time, the individual project will gain more maturity in understanding what quality means for their project and will start reporting on measurable project related KPI's.
The QA Lead can assist in setting up and maintaining those reports, but needs to take care not to become the owner of those reports.

Projects are further monitored by testers (or test engineers, QA engineers or whatever you call the people who look for flaws in products and processes). They assess process and product, and contribute to the definition of done by testing the product, but also by checking with the team and stakeholders on the completeness and correctness of the definition of done  - that can be adapted after every iteration.

At the end of every iteration, it is important to look back on what went well and what went wrong in this project.
Lessons learned and incentives are the most valuable aspects a project can receive. Making sure those sessions take place and result in action points, can also be a QA role.

Results of implementing quality are not statistics in the means of the traditional overall KPI's anymore, but are project specific KPI's and even more importantly - they result in more successful projects, more accurate cost estimations, faster release cycles, faster delivery cycles, faster defect fix-rates, closer business cooperation and even higher retention levels of employees.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Moving towards acceptance

For an average professional software tester, testing is a merely rational concept.
The tester discusses the test scope, creates a test plan, defines an approach, defines the test levels, entry and exit criteria. Then they install the tools, define working instructions, test the analysis, the code, the procedures and maybe even te project members. They register bugs, shout about risks ad issues that get solved or not after which they retest, retest and retest after which they finally advise about moving to acceptance testing or go-live, and (maybe after a couple of times going trough this procedure) start the hand over to the standing organisation to start testing for another project. For a tester, most of the time, there is no life beyond the project. No fear for production issues and how they will impact maybe thousands of people after the final Go-Live is given.

For an acceptant, testing is a totally different matter. the acceptance testers are generally a representative set of constructive people that KNOW the organisation, operate or lead operations and therefore have a good influence on their business colleagues. They will have the last say about going live or not. (even when they are not formally asked - they can create a lot of commotion if their buy-in is not obtained by the time of go-live)
It's the business users that will face the issues coming from poor design, architecture, forgotten parts from analysis and also from development and testing shortcomings.

They care less about those numbers in those professional and colourful defect reports. They don't look into most of your risk assessments and don't even care about your scope descriptions.
For them, the product needs to work on an acceptable level before go live and there is no number or colour that will convince them otherwise.
Therefore those acceptants are the managers biggest nightmare as they are out of his control but will decide about the added value of the project team's work.

It's those people that will have to work with the product for the next weeks/months/years until a possible update of the product will be made available. And that can take a while when you're not working in an agile structure.

So how can we create this buy-in that managers are so desperately looking for?

It's not all that hard. It all comes down to basic things. The project needs to be able to listen. They should not abandon all those "extra feature requirements" that are constantly coming in as defects at the end of the project. Instead the project should distill those extra features as soon as possible in the project, so that they can be estimated and built in time.

It is useless to build a program that fits incorrect or incomplete requirements. The goal is to get a good understanding of what we are  building and why we are building it, making sure that we deliver value. To get to a good understanding, feedback loops are of the highest importance.
Is this what you wanted and is it working as you expected? Thats what we need to find out as soon as possible.

So how can we do that?

1. Agile product delivery
Running short sprints of software delivery, focussing on the most important parts of the most important features, is one of the best ways I know to get early feedback from your stakeholders. They get involved in setting up priorities and backlog creation and can be involved in testing very early on. They need to be coached in testing though as they might expect more then they will receive in the first deliveries and are looking for the wrong defects.

If agile product delivery is not an option for you, there are still other ways to get a good and in time understanding of what your business actually really wants.

2. Dry-run
Testing for business is not only about the software, but about doing their jobs with this software.
A dry-run can be seen as a role-playing game where all business that is involved in accepting the product makes a simulation of their day to day operational work with the new software package.
This can already be done based on analysis material as for example wire frames or a prototype.
Every part that is analysed and prototyped or wire-framed, can pass a dry-run session - which can eventually lead to proper documentation of the business processes and analysis and re-used in all later testing.

3. Prototyping
Before building the actual product, it might be a good idea to build a complete prototype. Prototypes can help people understand what the development team understood they need to build.
Prototypes can be run trough from different angles
- Does this prototype support the business process?
- Do we capture all possible errors that can occur?
- Does the screen layout and setup make sense?
- Will the software be able to support the amount of users we estimate to have?
- etc...
They can be evaluated individually by the stakeholders and testers and/or used in a dry-run session.

4. Demo's
As soon as you have a feature ready that can be shown, the developers take the initiative to give a demo. A demo is a forum to receive constructive feedback. The invitees should not be the managers high up in the chain but a representative set of users.
After the developer finished the demo, the stakeholders ask the developer to show other relevant scenario's of the same feature. The developer can find and solve defects and the project leader might receive a set of changes in features or new features.

Probably there are more ways to accomplish a good relation with your stakeholders, but I found the previous four very fruitful. Engaging your business early on in the project, making them part of the project delivery, is key to successful project delivery.