Tim Hordern

I ♥ building amazing products and teams. QA + Product + DevOps + Fast = Awesome.

Test Strategies of Doom

Documentation Hell

For many years, I was a tester in a waterfall environment. The organisations that I worked for followed a pretty standard way of delivering testing during a software project.

Firstly, someone would start writing a large test strategy up front (somewhere between twenty to a hundred pages long), either immediately once the project started or during a structured analysis phase.

They, or another person, would then write a large test plan up front (somewhere between twenty to a hundred pages long), which would describe and list the test cases for every phase of the project.

Then, a bunch of (subordinate) people would then have to flesh these generic test case descriptions out into actual test cases. These test cases would have varying levels of detail, depending on how much the person writing them cared and would be intended as a series of prescriptive steps to blindly follow.

After this point, the people involved would usually leave and move onto another project, as they ‘focused’ on analysis only.

The project would then enter one of the described phases of testing. The manual testers would arrive, pick up the test cases prepared earlier and blindly execute them. It wasn’t really expected that they needed to understand the context of the feature in test, to deal with real customers and have a feel for their needs, to have a real grasp of the architecture of the system, let alone look at the code.

They would blindly raise defects in a horrible tracking system like Quality Center, a developer somewhere would fix those defects, and the cycle would begin anew.

The test strategy usually calls for having any number of meetings about the progress of testing, status checks, and defect prioritisation meetings. And because the test strategy says so, the team blindly follows.

On a large enterprise transformation, involving potentially hundreds of people, the timeline for the first few activities required up to 6 months of effort, writing huge documentation of often hundreds of pages. The test strategy, test plan and test cases all need to be written, usually to meet a documentation criteria, to meet an enterprise standard for delivering projects, and to show that all those people were worth paying extremely high consulting fees.

This is before you’ve even started testing.

After all of the test cases had been finished for the phase, a bunch of fixes would happen, and another cycle would start to retest everything (not just the things that had changed). Regardless of whether the software actually solved any problems, if all the test cases were finished (or at very least the amount of defects was minimised), then the code was shipped in a giant at-once legacy migration to a new system.

Now imagine you’re a tester who’s turned up just as the actual testing execution’s about to start. The horror!

This process engenders the very worst fears of good testers (and good teams):

  • Having managers dictate what to do
  • The people who design the work aren’t the ones who have to do it
  • Any number of people absolving themselves of the risk of failure
  • Doing manual work instead of automated work
  • Gathering no feedback on whether what you’re building works
  • Not testing the right things
  • Not adapting your approach to testing as you go
  • Worst of all, risking that you’re building entirely the wrong thing

Why do organisations and teams do this? It’s because the organisation wants to avoid risk. In this mindset, having an overly documented process means that the risk has been removed from the execution. Execution should be a piece of cake, right? In this world, the test team’s feedback introduces risk to the end of the process that the ‘analysis’ experts can’t cater for.

But in my experience, locking down testing in a document-driven approach doesn’t reduce risk, and doesn’t build confidence in your testing activities. It just means that you’ve locked down a guess that you took ages ago about your future testing activities.

In fact, this means you’re ensuring failure by codifying that risk into documents, and blindly sticking to them regardless of what you discover later on.

How to spend your testing time

So what should you do? Should you never have a test strategy and all these test plans at all?

There are some good reasons why you should prepare test plans, especially in large enterprises. It helps you set expectations, set the scope of the work and establish the resources required. But it should also be a living document, written by the people who are doing the testing, and it should not hold you back from doing any testing. A nice, small concise document might help you get started.

But don’t waste 6 months of time just to write documentation. You could be:

  • defining what quality means to the team and the customer, not just a laundry list of features. Don’t build a list of features, work out what problem you’re solving and make that a quality experience
  • defining clear acceptance criteria
  • building automated acceptance tests
  • building great automated unit tests
  • running real world user testing (it helps get your team out of the office!)
  • runnning code reviews
  • building an automated Continuous Integration system to make getting code delivered to production smoother and faster
  • conducting exploratory testing to see what edge or corner cases you missed, and building tests to ensure they’re checked for every single time you push new code
  • conducting performance testing, and better yet building automated performance tests
  • conducting security testing
  • scaling your tests against real-world sized traffic, preferably in a blue-green environment. Another way of doing this is have a production-sized environment against which you mirror your production traffic.

One more key thing:

You let the testers test. Don’t dictate to them what to do, enable them to help the team build the right things.

Awesome, then I don’t have to write any test documentation!

Woah, wait a second. It’s a pretty standard misconception that agile means no documentation. People read the Agile Manifesto and see this line:

Working software over comprehensive documentation

and think this they don’t need to write documentation:

Working software over comprehensive documentation

We should actually translate this as meaning that both are important:

Working software over comprehensive documentation

You need to do both.

You should build working software and build the right amount of documentation to help you build working software.

So: build the documentation your team needs, not just documentation for documentation’s sake. It also doesn’t need to be a giant Microsoft Word document, or huge Excel spreadsheets of test cases. You should be doing all those things I mentioned before, as well as continually shipping working software and seeking real feedback from real customers [1]. They are actually part of your test documentation. Risk managers and auditors love you when you can demonstrate that you have highly tested code (tested thousands of times by your CI system), against any number of measures and any number of environments. Your customers love it, because they know they’ve paid for the right thing.

You can also define your testing beliefs, strategy and plan in a simple light-weight manner. Some really simple examples:

  • writing your beliefs on the wall next to the team
  • writing your test strategy as a small README or wiki document in your code
  • writing your test plan as a series of executable specifications and tests

The worst thing you can do is think that project success is determined by having the right documentation.

The best thing you can do is build the right products with the documentation that helps the team building those products.

[1] Crazy idea: you can video tape your customer feedback sessions and they become your test results. It’s some of the best test results you’ll get.