Agile processes can have an impact on QA departments. Greg Law considers how they can adapt to survive and even thrive.
The entire software industry is currently undergoing major, ongoing change. The rise of agile development, test-driven development, continuous integration and continuous deployment are all transforming how software is created and provided to customers. At the same time the spread of software into more and more of the devices around us and the interconnectivity of those devices means that the sector is growing in scale, complexity and importance.
These factors are having an enormous impact on testing and QA departments. If more software is being produced and needs to be deployed in shorter and shorter timeframes, traditional testing methodologies have to change, hence the rise of automation in the testing process (and corresponding worries among testers that their jobs will disappear).
Rather than fear change and automation, however, test departments need to embrace it. With QA at the beginning of the automation process, it is worth looking at the impact it has had on other industries. Automation tends to affect the number of people employed in an industry – for example, in 1900 41% of the US workforce was involved in agriculture, and in 2000 it was 1.9%. Agriculture is now many times more productive than it was when it relied on brawn, rather than brain. The same applies to the disruption caused by robots to factory jobs in the 20th century. In both cases, those who survived and thrived were the ones who embraced automation.
So how do test teams adapt to the new DevOps world? In my experience there are three areas to focus on.
Be part of the process
Agile is here to stay, and there is no point in denying that change is happening. So test departments need to understand agile, and look at how they can automate and work with developers to deliver the right services to meet overall business needs. In this world testers have to be able to become developers of a sort, scripting for automated test tools if they want to remain relevant.
At the same time, test and QA teams need to retain their independence from the development process, by challenging and testing development assumptions. This is one of the key strengths of having a separate function, and has to be preserved. Testers therefore need to work together with developers, but keep a certain distance from them, and testers should not be afraid to use their skills to ask potentially awkward questions.
Embrace new technology
Test automation brings a whole new set of opportunities and challenges. As I mentioned testers will need to be able to script tests to run on these tools, but more importantly they need to be able to understand, and communicate, the results.
The combination of agile, test automation and potentially unlimited compute resources via the cloud means more (and more detailed) tests are being run, more frequently, on more complex software. A software project of a given size can easily run two or three orders of magnitude more tests every day than the equivalent project would have run ten years ago. This means that there is a consequent growth in test failures, which threatens to overwhelm QA teams. If many thousands of tests run every hour, and 0.1% of them fail, triaging these failures can quickly become a nightmare. (And a failure rate as low as 0.1% is rare; I have spoken to companies where more than 10% of their overnight tests fail.)
Test teams therefore need to look at new technology that can help them not just to automate their tests, but they also need technology that will help them deal with the resulting failures. Tools such as Jenkins can help with more basic fails, allowing QA teams to focus their efforts on more complex or unpredictable issues. Software is becoming available to support test teams with these tougher cases as well, and can add greatly to productivity and speed.
Work more closely with developers
Software developers are QA’s customers, so it is imperative that test teams provide a service that meets their needs. In pre-automated days, QA knew that simply handing over a list of red/green pass/fails was never going to help engineering find and fix the root cause of a problem. That’s why they added verbose bug reports to give as much detail and context about a problem as they could. Obviously, this approach doesn’t scale in the automated test world, which leads back to the point that using tools that can provide more details on what went wrong is highly valuable, even if it is as basic as “this was the commit that caused the code to fail”. Talk to developers in their own language and give information in a usable form if you want to remain relevant and valued.
At the same time, testers need to be proactive and fight for their right to exist. For example, if you wait to be asked to attend development meetings there is a risk that the invitation will never arrive. So talk to developers, get involved early and use your skills to provide a higher level service that is valued by the whole company. If there are daily stand-up meetings, make sure you attend those.
I’m currently seeing a big change when I talk to customers and prospects. Three years ago I was speaking to development teams; now I’m increasingly talking to smart QA departments who understand that they need to be closer to developers, and want the tools to deliver this change. Obviously, the bad news for testers is that automation is likely to reduce their numbers, but arguably those that remain will move up the stack and be seen as more strategic and important to the entire agile development process. The choice may seem stark, but if they embrace change, test departments can survive – and thrive – in an agile world.