4 Quick Wins to Manage the Cost of Software Testing

a guide by QASymphony

Posted by Alexander Todorov on Wed 28 December 2016
Every activity in software development has a cost and a value. Getting cost to
trend down while increasing value, is the ultimate goal.

This is the introduction of an e-book called 4 Quick Wins to Manage the Cost of Software Testing. It was sent to me by Ivan Fingarov couple of months ago. Just now I've managed to read it and here's a quick summary. I urge everyone to download the original copy and give it a read.

The paper focuses on several practices which organizations can apply immediately in order to become more efficient and transparent in their software testing. While larger organizations (e.g. enterprises) have most of these practices already in place smaller companies (up to 50-100 engineering staff) may not be familiar with them and will reap the most benefits of implementing said practices. Even though I work for a large enterprise I find this guide useful when considered at the individual team level!

The first chapter focuses on Tactics to minimize cost: Process, Tools, Bug System Mining and Eliminating Handoffs.

In Process the goal is to minimize the burden of documenting the test process (aka testing artifacts), allow for better transparency and visibility outside the QA group and streamline the decision making process of what to test and when to stop testing, how much has been tested, what the risk is, ect. The authors propose testing core functionality paired with emerging risk areas based on new features development. They propose making a list of these and sorting that list by perceived risk/priority and testing as much as possible. Indeed this is very similar to the method I've used at Red Hat when designing testing for new features and new major releases of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. A similar method I've seen in place at several start-ups as well, although in the small organization the primary driver for this method is lack of sufficient test resources.

Tools proposes the use of test case management systems to ease the documentation burden. I've used TestLink and Nitrate. From them Nitrate has more features but is currently unmaintained with me being the largest contributor on GitHub. From the paid variants I've used Polarion which I generally dislike. Polarion is most suitable for large organizations because it gives lots of opportunities for tracking and reporting. For small organizations it is an overkill.

Bug System Mining is a technique which involves regularly scanning the bug tracker and searching for patterns. This is useful for finding bug types which appear frequently and generally point to a flaw in the software development process. The fix for these flaws usually is a change in policy/workflow which eliminates the source of the errors. I'm a fan of this technique when joining an existing project and need to assess what the current state is. I've done this when consulting for a few start-ups, including Jitsi Meet (acquired by Atlassian), however I'm not doing bug mining on a regular basis which I consider a drawback and I really should start doing!

For example at one project I found lots of bugs reported against translations, e.g. missing translations, text overflowing the visible screen area or not playing well with existing design, chosen language/style not fitting well with the product domain, etc.

The root cause of the problem was how the software in question has been localized. The translators were given a file of English strings, which they would translate and return back in an spread sheet. Developers would copy&paste the translated strings into localization files and integrate with the software. Then QA would usually inspect all the pages and report the above issues. The solution was to remove devel and QA from the translation process, implement a translation management system together with live preview (web based) so that translators can keep track of what is left to translate and can visually inspect their work immediately after a string was translated. Thus translators are given more context for their work but also given the responsibility to produce good quality translations.

Another example I've seen are many bugs which seem like a follow up/nice to have features of partially implemented functionality. The root cause of this problem turned out to be that devel was jumping straight to implementation without taking the time to brainstorm and consult with QE and product owners, not taking into account corner cases and minor issues which would have easily been raised by skillful testers. This process lead to several iterations until the said functionality was considered initially implemented.

Eliminating Handoffs proposes the use of cross-functional teams to reduce idle time and reduce the back-and-forth communication which happens when a bug is found, reported, evaluated and considered for a fix, fixed by devel and finally deployed for testing. This method argues that including testers early in the process and pairing them with the devel team will produce faster bug fixes and reduce communication burden.

While I generally agree with that statement it's worth noting that cross-functional teams perform really well when all team members have relatively equal skill level on the horizontal scale and strong experience on the vertical scale (think T-shaped specialist). Cross-functional teams don't work well when you have developers who aren't well versed in the testing domain and/or testers who are not well versed in programming or the broader OS/computer science fundamentals domain. In my opinion you need well experienced engineers for a good cross-functional team.

In the chapter Collaboration the paper focuses on pairing, building the right thing and faster feedback loops for developers. This overlaps with earlier proposals for cross-functional teams and QA bringing value by asking the "what if" questions. The chapter specifically talks about the Three Amigos meeting between PM, devel and QA where they discuss a feature proposal from all angles and finally come to a conclusion what the feature should look like. I'm a strong supporter of this technique and have been working with it under one form or another during my entire career. This also touches on the notion that testers need to move into the Quality Assistance business and be proactive during the software development process, which is something I'm hoping to talk about at the Romanian Testing Conference next year!

Finally the book talks about Skills Development and makes the distinction between Centers of Excellence (CoE) and Communities of Practice (CoP). Both the book and I are supporters of the CoP approach. This is a bottoms-up approach which is open for everyone to join in and harnesses the team creative abilities. It also takes into account that different teams use different methods and tools and that "one size doesn't fit all"!

Skilled teams find important bugs faster, discover innovative solutions to hard
testing problems and know how to communicate their value. Sometimes, a few super
testers can replace an army of average testers.

While I consider myself to be a "super tester" with thousands of bugs reported there is a very important note to make here. Communities of Practice are successful when their members are self-focused on skill development! In my view and to some extent the communities I've worked with everyone should strive to constantly improve their skills but also exercise peer pressure on their co-workers to not fall behind. This has been confirmed by other folks in the QA industry and I've heard it many times when talking to friends from other companies.

Thanks for reading and happy testing!

tags: QA, fedora.planet

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