Superman vs software testers

Coding Heroics vs Testing; Delivering software efficiently and effectively.

Superman vs software testers
How much process do you need to run a software development team? Or a technical organisation in general? Some? Lots? None? Maybe you’d opt for the likes of ITIL and Prince2? Or something lighter weight and more pragmatic like Scrum? What about testing of software? How much should you do?

I do not claim to know the answers to these questions and obviously the answers depend a lot on your team, your organisation and the product you are developing. However I have noticed widely differing attitudes towards testing amongst engineers. The two angles:

Test Everything – Process wins

How can you be sure that you are releasing working code unless you test it? You’ll need to do user acceptance testing at a minimum, preferably system/integration testing too. If your application requires it then performance testing, security testing and penetration testing. Ideally all developers should be utilising test driven development and writing suites of unit tests that cover their code 100%. Ideally all of this stuff will be automated but would have at least one round of manual testing too to ensure the tests themselves are correct (testing the tests)..

When code is changed you can never be sure what might be affected so you’ll have to run all the tests every time new code is prepared for release. Code must be tested first by the developers in a dev environment, then pass to a testing or integration environment where most tests are ran again. Then finally everything is released to a live-like pre-production environment where regressions testing is performed. Then you can put the code live.

Test Nothing – Heroics win

How can I be sure that I’m releasing working code? Because I’ve checked it in my dev environment and it works. I have thought about the edge cases and defensively coded around them. I have had to refactor some things but I am confident in my approach and there should be no affect on the refactored code. I know my code will still be as secure and scalable as the previous release because I haven’t written anything that could introduce any issues. When I release this code I will monitor the production system carefully for unforeseen errors. Because I have access to the production environment and a quick lightweight release procedure I can easily rollback if things go horribly wrong. Any minor bugs that are found in live I can fix later.

Everyone in my team knows the entire codebase just as well as I do so we can all be confident in each other’s ability to code and release like this. When we have new starters we spend a long time training them and gradually easing them into doing releases that increase in complexity with their level of experience.

Which test strategy is for me?

Obviously if I were developing a core accounts system for a bank the heroic method probably isn’t going to work too well. Conversely if I were developing a low-traffic company intranet the process approach would be overkill.

I have seen both approaches work within the same team. The heroics approach is wonderfully efficient when it works as there is very little to get in the way of writing useful functional code and getting it released. You can achieve a staggering throughput with relatively few people. It can be scary doing releases but it’s probably worth it in order to get more stuff out the door.

The process based approach gives you a lot of confidence in the code you are releasing; heart-in-mouth moments and failed releases are almost non-existent, bugs are reduced in scale and severity, sleeping at night is easier! Once the effort has been put in to writing tests it is fairly simple to then automate them. Running the full suite of tests every time someone commits a change to the code allows you to get rapid feedback on whether it has affected anything else and seeing a green report that all tests have passed gives you a lot of confidence. When paired with manual testing you gain even more confidence that your tests are valid and appropriate.

The heroic approach totally relies on having very technically strong, multi-skilled developers. As soon as even an average developer enters the team and tries to play the same game, problems start to appear. Anyone who cannot adequately assess the impact of their code changes will encounter problems, big problems. It also doesn’t scale very well as it relies on everyone knowing about all areas of your systems. Not only does this experience take a long time to gather but it becomes exponentially harder as the team grows: The more team members you have, the more code you produce, and the longer it takes to gain experience of it. As the team grows you’ll be spending more time learning existing code and less time writing new code, or more likely you’ll ignore the learning bit and just write more code. The team becomes less effective, bugs and outages increase.

The process approach requires a great effort put into testing. Writing unit tests, integration tests, user acceptance tests, however much you want to do. Writing tests that give good coverage is a significant effort and in some cases may be comparable to the effort to actually write the code in the first place, perhaps even more. In order to be able to rely on your automated tests to give you confidence you have to make sure that all new code has good automated test coverage and you have to maintain all your existing tests too. If you fall behind maintaining decent coverage the value of your test back-catalogue is eroded and you lose confidence in your tests; effectively defeating the purpose of having them in the first place.

Clearly it isn’t a case of picking one or the other option, there are as many shades of grey between those extremes as there are development teams in the world. The main point is to think where on the spectrum your team should sit. This will depend upon many things such as:

  • How risk averse your company/team is
  • Stability requirements of your product
  • Size and make up of the team
  • Maturity of the team
  • Strength and style of developers in the team

It is useful to bear in mind this spectrum when responding to production failures. When you release something that experiences problems and you inevitably get asked the question “what are you going to do to stop this happening again”, the answer you might naturally turn to is “do more testing”. However in this case it may well be better to convince stakeholders that it would be more beneficial to take this sort of thing on the chin and to do less testing, not more.

Thanks to Cartoon Tester for the testing cartoon 🙂

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Man programming a punch card machine

The Coding Paradox; Write less to write more

Man programming a punch card machine

I Just Want To Write Code!

That is something I hear from a lot of developers; they aren’t interested in any of the other activities involved with delivering a software project. They dont want to speak to people, gather requirements, design architecture, attend planning meetings, write documentation, fix bugs, monitor production services etc. I totally get this, I feel the same way to some extent. Those of us that fell in love with coding by sitting in our bedrooms until the early hours writing hundreds of lines of code will probably get it. You fall in love with coding. No one falls in love with planning meetings (if you do then you need to see a doctor!).

The above attitude is obviously not conducive to having a successful team of engineers with a breadth of experience, nor would it do your career any good if you adopted it. But that is not what I want to discuss here. Rather I have noticed an amusing paradox to the above attitude, that is the more code you write, the less code you can write in future.

If your organisation works anything like mine then for every line of code that you write there will be a future cost or liability associated with it. Imagine if you’re so wrapped up in the code for a specific project that you voluntarily spend your entire weekend working on it, getting some of the high-importance low-urgency items off the backlog. Maybe you completed that bit of hairy refactoring work on the core objects that we’d been putting off for months? Brilliant, fantastic! That will make our lives much easier! 🙂

Or will it…

Now you have changed all that code the following things will probably happen:

  • You’ll have to explain and document the changes for the test team so your changes can be put into production
  • Assuming your changes alter the way in which the app behaves in production, even slightly, then you’ll have to explain and document the changes for the support team so they can still effectively support it.
  • Assuming you’re using Scrum or similar, you will have to demo your changes to the whole team.
  • Maybe your changes affect other applications that use those objects in some way. You may have to refactor those apps too (and here we’re into recursion of all the other points!), or at the very least explain and document the changes for other teams so they understand how to modify their app to accommodate your changes.
  • You will have to explain (and possibly document) the changes for the rest of the developers on your project so they understand what you have done, why you’ve done it and how it may affect them.
  • You will become the de facto technical authority on these changes so if anyone works in this area in future they will come to you asking for advice.
  • Any future projects building on the foundations you have created may well pick you out as a design authority, dragging you into early project discussions around feasibility and architecture.
  • Your proactive stance on pushing the team forward may well push you into a de facto technical lead role meaning more and more people will be coming to you for advice, mentoring, code reviews etc.

Not all of the above will apply to every commit you ever make but the principle holds that the more code you write, the more of these other tasks will crop up on your TODO list, which is not what you wanted is it? You just wanted to write code!

So next time you’re on an all-night coding binge, have a think about the horrid work you are queuing up for yourself!