Recently I’ve had the priviledge of working with a team of developers where I sit in the same room as half of them, and the other half are in China. My role is to help them to develop a suite of automated system tests alongside the production code. After a few month’s work, we now have quite a substantial product, with quite a substantial test suite.

When we started, very few of the developers had written much in the way of system tests, and even fewer knew how to write good, maintainable ones. Over the weeks, I have been promoting practices to enhance test readability, reviewing test code, and pointing out areas that need better coverage.

I’ve noticed that with the local developers, reviews and feedback are usually conducted face to face, informally, whereas with the offshore developers, it all goes via email, with a substantial time delay. This has meant that the Swedish developers have learnt faster, since they benefit from shorter feedback cycles, and a richer form of communication. Having said that, the Chinese developers are doing nearly as well. They seem really motivated to deliver what I ask for, and keep requesting and responding to feedback until they have written what I consider to be some pretty good tests.

It’s not all sweetness and light, however. As much as learning the technical skills of writing tests, the team needs to learn the culture of maintaining them. The CI server complains the build is broken far too often, and it is because the developers generally are not running the tests before they check in. My perception is that the offshore developers are worse at this, and my interpretation is not that they are somehow less good developers, far from it. I think that they just don’t have the same management support to spend time on maintaining the tests as the onshore ones.

Management in Sweden has really bought into the idea that investing in automated tests pays off over the long term, and vigorously support me in discussions with recalcitrant developers. Management in China has not. My impression is that they see only the costs associated with writing, running and maintaining automated tests, and would rather hire some (ridiculously cheap) Chinese students to run manual tests instead.

I would like to believe that this automated test suite is a really good investment for the future of this product. My experience tells me it should enable regression bugs to be found very soon after insertion, and enable much more frequent product releases. (You don’t have to wait for a 6 week manual test cycle before each release). Over the many year lifetime of the product, this should significantly outweigh the initial investment we have made creating it, and the ongoing costs of keeping it running.

The reality may be quite different. Future versions of the product will likely be developed entirely in China, and I suspect that without their Swedish colleagues’ enthusiasm, the Chinese management might decide the test suite should be quietly dismantled and left to rot. That may be the right economic decision, although it makes me weep to think of it. All I can do is console myself with the thought that at least the tests are so readable they will be easy to convert into manual test cases detailed enough for dirt cheap unskilled Chinese students to perform.