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Agile Testing Questioned

Zenzi Ali has been running a book club on the Association for Software Testing Slack and over the last few weeks we've read Agile Testing Condensed by Janet Gregory and Lisa Crispin.

Each chapter was taken as a jumping off point for one or two discussion points and I really enjoyed the opportunity to think about the questions Zenzi posed and sometimes pop a question or two back into the conversation as well.

This post reproduces the questions and my answers, lightly edited for formatting.


Ten principles of agile testing are given in the book. Do you think there is a foundational principle that the others must be built upon? In your experience, do you find that some of these principles are less or more important than others? 

The text says they are for a team wanting to deliver the highest-quality product they can. If we can regard a motivation as a foundational principle, perhaps that could be it: each of the ten principles are ways to contribute to a higher quality product.

I thought it might be interesting to compare the ten to the principles behind the agile manifesto. There is some overlap, but some traditionally important agile principles are not present. For example iteration, different roles working together closely, sustainable pace, technical excellence.

Do these not contribute to higher-quality software? Are they not applicable to testing?

Another thought on the principles? What makes these agile testing principles rather than, say, good testing principles? 

Agile testing is defined as "Collaborative testing practices that occur continuously, from inception to delivery and beyond, supporting frequent delivery of value for our customers. Testing activities focus on building quality into the product, using fast feedback loops to validate our understanding. The practices strengthen and support the idea of whole-team responsibility for quality."  Would you describe your current testing practice as agile by this definition? Why or why not?

Depending on how we care to define "continuously," "frequent," "fast" etc for a given context  I think that what I attempt is very much aligned with the definition. I might say that rather than focus on building quality in, I want to focus on the delivery of business value. In principle, sometimes, by some definitions, this could mean a reduction in quality for some stakeholders.

The section How Teams Deal with Defects touches on the concept of zero-defect tolerance on engineering teams.  This seems to contradict the common belief that no software is truly bug free.  Can these two approaches exist harmoniously? 

Yes, for example if zero tolerance is of known bugs that we think are worth fixing.

There may be unknown bugs (how would we fix them and know we'd fixed them?) and there may be known bugs (to someone) that we choose to regard as acceptable.

One of the things that I have seen often is people not realising that a bug can be high priority or severity today, and completely disregarded tomorrow. All sorts of factors play into the assessment of whether or not it is important to fix, and when. 

Chapter 2's main idea seems to be that gathering multiple perspectives (from product, customers, testers, etc) allows the team to better assess risk, deliver quality, and test early and often. Is there feedback that carries more weight than others in this model? How do we define "done" when our principles stress continuous improvement and continuous feedback?

I think this is a wonderful question, btw. 

Yes, some feedback carries more weight than others but there are complications... how explicit everyone is about the relative weight of feedback from different participants, how much agreement there is on whose feedback has the weight under what circumstances, whether that person is available to give it, what politics and other factors that business value feed into it, how to resolve differences in feedback to get to action, etc etc etc.

One pragmatic way is to say that "done" means that the things on a checklist of activities have been addressed in a reasonable manner.

It doesn't mean perfect and it doesn't assert that a particular result is guaranteed.

It could be interpreted as something like "we did everything that we currently think is the right kind of things to do, to the extent that context and risk analysis suggested was appropriate, given the priority, constraints, and opportunity cost."

If team, product, and level of system detail are the defining components of test context, do you think that it's possible to compensate if testers lack expertise or knowledge in one component area?

Yes. It requires some means of compensating, of course — someone else with the expertise that's lacking, or designing work or product around the lack, for example — and the resources to allow that compensation to take place.

Do you think that team, product and levels of detail are a reasonable way to break down the context? 

The authors suggest that the "ideal" agile team is small and co-located.  Do you agree?

To be fair, the quote I'm looking at is "ideal situation for easy communication."  I think I'd find that easier to baldly agree with than the question as asked.

On the idea of an ideal agile team being co-located... Perhaps it's nit-picking but it's possible to imagine teams where remote might be necessary for some people to be on the team at all.

For example, some social anxiety sufferers, working parents, or people living in a foreign country might be an amazing fit for the team needs. An ideal team would have them on it. But they can't co-locate.

In general, though, my experience is that smaller and closer in both time and space makes for better empathy, spirit, communication, and interactions.

What benefits do you think exist in not using the word “test” when creating documentation around quality-realted procedures?

If there's any prejudice about what testing is and who does testing, then not using the word can help to reduce it.

Examples sound like something that anyone can legitimately come up with and so potentially increases engagement. There's less of a barrier to entry.

In chapter 5, the authors stress the importance of gathering The Three Amigos to advocate for the customer, drill down on product features, and build  consumer trust via a high-quality delivery. Can you think of questions that each "amigo" might ask during a session that would help a team reach quality and risk-related goals?

The way I like to think about  it, and I don't recall where I got this from, is that we want (at least three) perspectives:

  • requestor - what we want
  • suggestor - ways we could do it
  • protestor - potential risks, problems, constraints

They don't need to come from three people with particular roles. We call the approach Three Colleagues or Three Hats at work now to be less gendered and I have combined it with example mapping in the past. 

Edit: this post by John Ferguson Smart has more to say about request, suggest, protest, but I'm not sure it's where I first saw those terms.

In what ways do you combat bias when test planning (drafting test cases or an exploratory testing charter)?

Start by being aware of the possibility that you are biased.

Use tools to help you take broader perspectives. For example, I like SFDIPOT when considering a system.  

In chapter 7, the authors suggests exploring how our product team will gauge success (or failure)  of a newly released feature.  Without speaking directly to customers, how would you determine if a new offering is a quality fail or success?

If it's possible I would ask someone who is speaking directly speaking to customers what the feedback is. This might be e.g. sales, client success manager, tech or customer support.

Customers are not the only stakeholders, though. The feature can be a quality fail for customers but a quality success for the team.

For example, we migrate from an old infrastructure to a new one at the back end. This massively eases the way we work, reduces the chance of certain kinds of critical issues in production and so on. That's a win for us now and other stakeholders going forward. 

However, because we were concentrating on that (and doing several things at once, naturally) the feature we pushed at the same time was undercooked. That's a loss for the customer.

The book describes formal and informal methods to brainstorm test approaches and techniques. How do you determine how much time you'll allow for test planning and design? 

I try to make time for up-front thinking, but I try to make that time proportionate.

For something that feels like a "small" task, perhaps a conceptually and technically straightforward bug fix, I'll start with a small timebox for the work and spend a small proportion of that (for example) making a checklist of test ideas.

The checklist might include checking I can see the issue before the fix and not after, some attempts to broaden the reproduction to look for similar cases, a skim of the code, and wondering whether there's some way to look for unexpected side-effects.

For what feels like a "big" task, perhaps a new feature planned to take months to implement completely, I'll do more up front.

I might start with a mind map and SFDIPOT and dump all the risks, test ideas, questions etc that I have into it.  I'm prepared to put more effort into this at the beginning because it helps me to understand the project and the project context, highlight where I don't know things (yet) etc. It primes me to research, ask questions, raise early concerns, etc.

For me this is a live document rather than a plan. I'll show it to people when the moment is right to get engagement, and I'll update it as I find out more.

Chapter 8 asserts that the key to successfully implementing CI/CD is recognizing the difference between deploying and releasing. What makes this the key concept? How can this difference be explicitly defined within a team?

I'm not sure that I agree the difference is the key concept in implementing CI/CD.

I think Janet and Lisa are saying that understanding the difference helps to reduce the fear of continuous deployment: not every (partial) feature that's deployed to production has to be released (to everyone).

To achieve it, you need a mechanism for exposing features that you have confidence in, and you need to use it well.

Once you have several feature flags you risk combinatory issues becoming a problem. Three flags means 8 possible versions of your system in prod. Are you sure you've enabled just the right stuff for just the right people in just the right places?

I've often heard developers (and testers) say that the role of QA is disappearing.  Thoughts?

I think the tester role title is fading in popularity and QA seems to be more often used for process/compliance checking jobs these days.

The value of someone asking pertinent questions about motivation, approach, need, value, and so on is unlikely to reduce, however.

I can rant about this, so I'll just link to the blog post where I did rather than fill the thread with it.

The Agile Testing Quadrants are said to be suggestions (a tool, not a rule) and can be tailored to business-specific needs.  Can you think of a business or product type that would require updating the quadrants? What would our new quadrants assignments be named? 

Quadrants are a useful, simple, and visual model but they assume two binaries will describe the space. In this case:

  • tests are either tech or business-facing
  • tests are either guiding or critiquing the product

Clearly definitions matter: what those things cover from the space of all possible testing will depend on what you mean by them. But what about, for example:

  • user-centric tests
  • tests that are for information gathering

Where would they sit in the quadrants? What makes you say that?

Your team has decided to use Lisa and Janet's exercise to define "Done" for a new product feature.  You place a grid featuring all four quadrants on a whiteboard and brainstorm test scenarios as a team. At the end of the exercise, you realize that one of the quadrants is completely empty! What's your next step? Is it possible that feature testing can be complete with an unexplored test quadrant? 

Great question. I like to use Jerry Weinberg's definition of a problem to help me in circumstances like this: a problem is a difference between things as desired and things as percieved.

  • do we desire all four quadrants to be populated? If so, to what end? Is that reasonable?
  • do we perceive this model correctly? Perhaps we have miscategorised?
  • is this "thing" the right thing? Does this model even make sense for us at this time on this project? 

Do you think drafting business-readable tests is a realistic test goal? Why or why not?

I'd prefer  a slightly different question: under what conditions would it be reasonable to draft business-readable tests? This accepts that context is going to be a significant factor in the answer.

Outside of specific context, I would say that a good default is probably to prefer to have business input to the scope, desires, intentions, priority, etc of testing and a business-readable report on the outcome of the testing. 

Some new duties of testers are given in Chapter 11 What is missing from the list? Which duties are outside of the scope of our role? 

I think testers should feel empowered to look for places they can add value by exploring the product under test and its context.

This doesn't mean that all other duties should be unceremoniously dumped but spending some proportionate amount of time looking for opportunities or risks and then investigating them, and sharing the results, is usually possible.

With value delivery comes trust and then further freedom.

The authors' ingredients for success can be distilled into 3 factors:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Considering quality a cyclical process (not a step)

What other ingredients do you feel are necessary for success? Can you think of any ingredients or processes that would guarantee failure?

Much like the other questions where there's a classification (e.g. the quadrants), the coverage of your three factors determines whether other ingredients are possible.

For example, perhaps I think that personal responsibility, humility, and open-mindedness are necessary for success. Do they fit into an existing category?

There's a wide range of stuff to fit into those categories too, Where does context-sensitivity (from the  list in the book) fit for you? Is it communication? collaboration? cyclical quality? something else?

In terms of guaranteed failure, I think it's hard to say for sure. You might half-jokingly say "nuclear war" but of course then, as testers, I hope we're all trying to think of scenarios in which nuclear war solves a problem (for someone, from someone's perspective).

Factors that are more likely to lead to an unwanted outcome is a question I think it's more interesting to answer. What's your experience there?


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