The end of the road for the test phase?
There is much debate about how testing will be organised in the near future. The testing profession has evolved from the very first time developers started testing through to separate test phases and independence and then to collaborative testing.
The waterfall method, which is still being used by many organisations, prescribes an extensive final test phase. Another significant feature of waterfall is that the software development process is organised with several sequential periods, or test phases, in which a dedicated group performs specialised tests. In this context, the term ‘test phase’ can be defined as a group of jointly executed and controlled test activities. The testing within each phase may be more or less structured and formal, but the test activities within a test phase are bound by common objectives and the same focus or system boundaries.
There is little value in a quality assessment that is too late. Within the waterfall method the testing is often tested until just before the deadline. Due to high workload the test report is written afterwards when the system is already in production. What is the value of remarks and comments at this stage? What should the project do with bugs that cannot be restored, since the deployment is already a fact?
Even when testing is done at early stages, such as with the system test, results are coming in too late. The fair is already over. The programmers have done their work and want to start something new, but must wait until the testers make their statement about the quality, often accompanied by a litany of bugs.
Customer experience is a key performance indicator (KPI) that is gaining popularity with our stakeholders. Organisations put the customer rating at the centre of their dashboard. Although bugs are a threat to customer experience, the perceived value of a full bug tracking system depreciates quickly.
The aim is not to demonstrate the differences with the specification, it is to have a satisfied customer. Agile development aims for ‘right first time’ and has therefore a large focus on early detection and quick resolution of errors. The user is involved in the development and cooperation is more important than following a formal specification. This reduces the need for an independent quality judgment at a later stage.
The development cycle is shortening
The life of software is becoming shorter due to rapid innovation. Consequently, we should develop our software faster also. Kent Beck provides a clear prognosis at the USENIX Technical Conference.
In the coming years the deployment cycle will decrease from an average of once a quarter to releases on a daily or hourly basis. For testing this has two direct consequences. First, test must be performed quickly. You cannot test for one month when the software is due to be released next week. Secondly, the phasing of activities gets blurred. Testing is done continuously and by everyone. There is no longer room for a separate testing phase.
A shift to operational assurance
For many organisations the test phase is still important but in Agile organisations there is a shift in emphasis. We see that testing is an activity that is conducted by many parties: developers within the sprint, business architects during design and real users that perform beta tests. Quality attributes like usability, durability and security are increasingly important and get attention throughout the project. This is in contrast to the traditional test phase in which a group of independent testers, urged to speed by a fast approaching deadline, execute their functional tests.
The above description shows a clear shift of formal testing phase (especially at the end of the development process) to a continuous process involving many disciplines. Linda Hayes indicates that there is a shift from quality assurance to operational assurance. In this the quality assessment no longer has central place, but the support of the operational process has. On the basis of the above arguments, it is clear that one of the ‘victims’, of this shift is the separate testing phase.
Note that the above arguments question the health of the separate test phase, and argue it to be dying dinosaur. Between the lines you can read that testing as discipline is far from dead. It will be organised differently and other disciplines are getting involved. Although things are changing for sure, the above arguments are only one side of the coin. Are there arguments that plead for a separate test phase and the end of the cycle? Yes, there are!
Arguments for a test phase at the end of cycle
In the following paragraph I will share some arguments that plead for a separate test phase.
Although it is desirable to maximise early testing as much as possible, not all tests can be done upfront. Often it is just not possible. Unit and system tests only check the quality up to a certain level. Due to appification and an increase in system couplings, the system chains get longer.
Using adequate simulations and by working with trusted components a lot of errors can be solved before integration, but these measures will never replace a true integration test. Experience teaches us that when two systems interact for the first time, often unforeseen problems arise. A testing phase at the end prevents these problems from occurring while being in operation.
The supplier has other interests
Wherever development work is being outsourced, organisational boundaries arise. On either side of this boundary parties have their own interests. And they might be different and exclusive. For political reasons or due geographic spread it is difficult for the accepting party to have real insight in the activities of the supplier, therefore control and checking by the acceptor is a necessity.
Preferably this are done during the project and in cooperation with the supplier, but formal acceptance means that there is should be a critical examination once the goods are delivered. Although the weight of this activity may vary based upon the trust one has in the supplier and the risk involved, it pleads for a small testing phase at least.
Apart from the question of acceptance, when organising testing one has to have an eye for the role that politics has in the organisation. Increasingly, organisations are expected to meet compliance standards like Basel, SOx, SEPA (just to name a few). This forces compliance testing, and makes demands on the formality of the testing activities. Besides it is often desirable to have a shared responsibility and create a wide commitment. Both can be achieved by involving stakeholders and management in testing. Such a test phase therefore has a political purpose.
As mentioned, quality attributes such as security, performance, durability and user friendliness become increasingly important. Experience shows that these specialised tests are often best organised separately. Usability, Performance testing, and especially reliability testing seldom fit within a two week sprint. If you organise Beta Testing, a longer run will lead to greater coverage, reasons for these tests to be organised in a – you guessed it – separate test phase.
Almost all organisations have to deal with legacy. Agile development, continuous integration and testing are all right, but bear in mind, that not all of the software is suitable for this mode of development. In particular, legacy systems can best be adapted in a traditional development way.
According to Ken Beck various types of systems require different testing approaches. It may therefore be effective to choose for different test approaches. These coexist within the same organisation. Besides legacy systems, there are also legacy organisations. In these organisations, the technique does not determine what is possible, but the culture and available knowledge does. Agile development requires the right expertise and mindset. Not every organisation is ready for this.
In life-critical systems the above arguments apply even stronger. If lives depend on it, the organisation is bound to tackle as many problems as possible by fully integrating testing into the development, and to have the necessary objective test moments. Thus, the two opinions merge into one other and coexist side by side.
Best of both worlds
We have seen that there are arguments for and against separate test phases within software development. I do not think there is value in forced decisions for or against. We should not cling to the known test phases just because we are familiar with them. Neither is it desirable to throw away the old approaches. Current developments will lead to many changes. It is important for testers to track these developments and to consider what its consequences are for the testing profession and the way we do our work.
In my view, the job gets more colourful, versatile and challenging. We get new tools and options. Test strategists will have to think about the contribution they want to make to the organisation and what objectives we pursue with our activities. On this basis we can make choices.
Let old and new ideas come together. This will result in testers that sit beside developers to reduce and rapidly detect errors. This will also lead to testers that are working in separately organised test phases, whenever this is more efficient.
I can think of situations where, for example, all activities related to a certain risk group are combined in a dedicated test phase. Proper business alignment dictates that the output of our test activities are closely related to the information needs of the business. Regardless of the moment in time that particular test activities are being performed, it can be rewarding to organise them separately. This holds for all testing activities that contribute to the same insights and information. By doing so, the test coordinator becomes the responsible person that, on behalf of the business, ensures intelligence and comfort for one or more key focus areas.
The test phase is far from dead, but it will increasingly be defined and organised in a different manner. I think that’s just fine, as long as we keep aligned with the needs of the organisation, we continually challenge ourselves to deliver maximum added value and contribute to operational excellence.