Posts tagged ‘testing’

Please note – As of March 2013, I have rewritten this post in the light of further experience and discussions. The updated post is available here.

I feel like I’ve spent most of my career learning how to write good automated tests in an agile environment. When I downloaded JUnit in the year 2000 it didn’t take long before I was hooked – unit tests for everything in sight. That gratifying green bar is near-instant feedback that everthing is as expected, my code does what I intended, and I can continue developing from a firm foundation.

Later, starting in about 2002, I began writing larger granularity tests, for whole subsystems; functional tests if you like. The feedback that my code does what I intended, and that it has working functionality has given me confidence time and again to release updated versions to end-users.

Often, I’ve written functional tests as regression tests, after the functionality is supposed to work. In other situations, I’ve been able to write these kinds of tests in advance, as part of an ATDD, or BDD process. In either case, I’ve found the regression tests you end up with need to have certain properties if they’re going to be useful in an agile environment moving forward. I think the same properties are needed for good agile functional tests as for good unit tests, but it’s much harder. Your mistakes are amplified as the scope of the test increases.

I’d like to outline four principles of agile test automation that I’ve derived from my experience.


If you have a test for a feature, and there is a bug in that feature, the test should fail. Note I’m talking about coverage of functionality, not code coverage, although these concepts are related. If your code coverage is poor, your functionality coverage is likely also to be poor.

If your tests have poor coverage, they will continue to pass even when your system is broken and functionality unusable. This can happen if you have missed out needed test cases, or when your test cases don’t check properly what the system actually did. The consequences of poor coverage is that you can’t refactor with confidence, and need to do additional (manual) testing before release.

The aim for automated regression tests is good Coverage: If you break something important and no tests fail, your test coverage is not good enough. All the other principles are in tension with this one – improving Coverage will often impair the others.


When you look at the test case, you can read it through and understand what the test is for. You can see what the expected behaviour is, and what aspects of it are covered by the test. When the test fails, you can quickly see what is broken.

If your test case is not readable, it will not be useful. When it fails you will have to dig though other sources outside of the test case to find out what is wrong. Quite likely you will not understand what is wrong and you will rewrite the test to check for something else, or simply delete it.

As you improve Coverage, you will likely add more and more test cases. Each one may be fairly readable on its own, but taken all together it can become hard to navigate and get an overview.


When a test fails, it means the functionality it tests is broken, or at least is behaving significantly differently from before. You need to take action to correct the system or update the test to account for the new behaviour. Fragile tests are the opposite of Robust: they fail often for no good reason.

Aspects of Robustness you often run into are tests that are not isolated from one another, duplication between test cases, and flickering tests. If you run a test by itself and it passes, but fails in a suite together with other tests, then you have an isolation problem. If you have one broken feature and it causes a large number of test failures, you have duplication between test cases. If you have a test that fails in one test run, then passes in the next when nothing changed, you have a flickering test.

If your tests often fail for no good reason, you will start to ignore them. Quite likely there will be real failures hiding amongst all the false ones, and the danger is you will not see them.

As you improve Coverage you’ll want to add more checks for details of your system. This will give your tests more and more reasons to fail.


As an agile developer you run the tests frequently. Both (a) every time you build the system, and (b) before you check in changes. I recommend time limits of 2 minutes for (a) and 10 minutes for (b). This fast feedback gives you the best chance of actually being willing to run the tests, and to find defects when they’re cheapest to fix.

If your test suite is slow, it will not be used. When you’re feeling stressed, you’ll skip running them, and problem code will enter the system. In the worst case the test suite will never become green. You’ll fix the one or two problems in a given run and kick off a new test run, but in the meantime someone else has checked in other changes, and the new run is not green either. You’re developing all the while the tests are running, and they never quite catch up. This can become pretty demoralizing.

As you improve Coverage, you add more test cases, and this will naturally increase the execution time for the whole test suite.

How are these principles useful?

I find it useful to remember these principles when designing test cases. I may need to make tradeoffs between them, and it helps just to step back and assess how I’m doing on each principle from time to time as I develop.

I also find these principles useful when I’m trying to diagnose why a test suite is not being useful to a development team, especially if things have got so bad they have stopped maintaining it. I can often identify which principle(s) the team has missed, and advise how to refactor the test suite to compensate.

For example, if the problem is lack of Speed you have some options and tradeoffs to make:

  • Invest in hardware and run tests in parallel (costs $)
  • Use a profiler to optimize the tests for speed the same as you would production code (may affect Readability)
  • push down tests to a lower level of granularity where they can execute faster. (may reduce Coverage and/or increase Readability)
  • Identify key test cases for essential functionality and remove the other test cases. (sacrifice Coverage to get Speed)

Explaining these principles can promote useful discussions with people new to agile, particularly testers. The test suite is a resource used by many agile teamembers – developers, analysts, managers etc, in its role as “Living Documentation” for the system, (See Gojko Adzic‘s writings on this). This emphasizes the need for both Readability and Coverage. Automated tests in agile are quite different from in a traditional process, since they are run continually throughout the process, not just at the end. I’ve found many traditional automation approaches don’t lead to enough Speed and Robustness to support agile development.

I hope you will find these principles will help you to reason about the automated tests in your suite.

I’ve just spent 3 weeks teaching a class of 11 students about automated testing, as part of a one year course in software testing. The course is organized by the local “Kvalificerade Yrkes Högskolan”, KYH. (loosely translated: Skilled Trade University). The students come from all kinds of job backgrounds, from sitting in a supermarket checkout to driving trams to gardening, and most of them had never written a computer program before the course started.

The KYH tries to design their courses so that students will be competent enough to get a job by the end of them, so they work closely with local employers to set the curriculum and find teachers for the courses.

I was pleased to be asked to do this teaching job, since automated testing is one of my main areas of expertise, but at the same time I was quite daunted by the prospect. I’ve never taught non-programmers before, and I’ve certainly never had to set an exam or hand out grades. Before I agreed to do it, I spent some time talking to a friend of mine who has previously taught a different KYH course, and his story actually wasn’t all that encouraging. It’s hard work preparing the teaching materials, and some of the students will find it very difficult and need a lot of help and coaching. I decided it could be worth doing, anyway. I had some teaching materials prepared already, and I wanted the chance to invent more, try out some new ideas, and broaden my horizons.

Now that I’ve done the course I can attest that it really is hard work preparing lessons and exercises, and some of the students do need a lot of help. It is very rewarding though when they start to understand. I got a real kick out of going round the classroom seeing them all starting to write tests with Selenium and Cucumber, and answering their questions about Ruby and Page Objects and how to name tests and what to assert, and where to put the code and which parts to write tests for…

I think by teaching this course I’ve learnt a lot myself about things like how to communicate ideas, give feedback and encouragement, and to set boundaries and manage expectations. I found marking their work much more interesting than I expected, too. What kinds of mistakes do inexperienced programmers make when doing TDD? Do they find it easier to write good tests with Selenium or Cucumber? Is there any correlation between testing skill and programming skill? (short answers – they don’t refactor enough, Cucumber is way easier, and no, the correlation seems pretty weak)

So do I recommend getting involved? Absolutely! I think the IT industry in general needs more people in it from diverse backgrounds, and this is the kind of course that brings them in. If my experience is anything to go by, you’ll work hard but you’ll learn a lot from the students too. Networking with the other employers in the course Industry Reference Group is useful, and if I was looking to hire a junior tester I’d now know exactly who to ask first. Actually, who knows, in a few years some of my students might even be in a position to give me a job.

Don’t just complain that it’s hard to hire qualified people and/or people from diverse backgrounds. Get down to your local KYH equivalent and help them set up a course! I think that being a good software developer or tester is not restricted to only those with a degree in Computer Science. A course at a trade school where local employers get involved is good value for everyone.

In my current assignment, I’m taking the role of “developer-in-test”. I’m working in a large distributed development project, which is building new functionality on a large existing codebase. In practice, I work closely with the developers in the project and build automated tests for subsystems that previously had only manual tests. The developers can use these tests to support their work, and add new tests as they build new features.

My background is basically as a developer, so I have been reading up on testing. I found “Lessons Learned in Software Testing” by Kaner, Pettichord and Bach very helpful, and “Agile Testing” by Lisa Crispin and Janet Gregory helpful and also very thorough. I find it interesting that the authors of the first book started out as developers and now classify themselves as testers, while Lisa and Janet apparently always have called themselves testers, although they clearly write a fair amount of code as part of their work.

Dave Nicolette recently made a blog post “Merging the developer and tester roles” where he argues that Tester is just a specialization of Developer in the agile world, like DBA (DataBaseAdministrator) is a specialization of Developer. He argues that agile teams need to be staffed with generalizing specialists. That means anyone can turn their hand to any task that is currently needed, while still having some tasks they perform with more skill than others.

I like Dave’s viewpoint, it fits my experience. I can only write effective 2nd Quadrant tests, (business facing, support the team), if I understand what the developers need, and I do that best if I have done some development on that part of the system myself. To put it another way, I need to be just as competent at writing code as the other developers in the project I’m working in, but I also need additional skills to do with testing.

I like the term “developer-in-test” to describe a role writing and enabling 2nd Qudrant tests.

Having said all that, I’m not sure I agree with Dave that the Developer and Tester roles should always be merged. In my current assignment I’m also helping a group of testers, usability experts, technical writers and product owners to get going with exploratory testing. This testing falls into Q3 of the agile testing quadrants, and is quite different. You still need testing skills, but developer skills are mostly irrelevant. It’s much more about understanding what the user is trying to achieve with the system, and how they view it.

I think there is a role for non-coding testers in Q3 testing. However, I don’t think you’ll get far with Q3 unless you have the other quadrants well covered with automated tests. So I think the majority of work for a tester in an agile environment is still going to involve test automation. Only the biggest projects will be able to afford to have non-coding testers.