If you are looking for an article on the best way to improve or fix your test process, this article is not it. Instead, this article will present ideas that the author has found effective when looking to improve test process and testing in general.
A common approach is to search for a solution in the formal test process. Testers, Leads and Test Managers may readily turn to a "process problem" as the cause for the demand for improved testing. One statement I often hear when talking with people about their own experience is essentially, "I don’t know how to make the process better. It is pretty good, but we just aren’t seeing what we can do to improve it."
If we look to how the testing group conveys information to management or customers, are we providing information relevant to what they need to know to make well-reasoned decisions? Are we fulfilling the expectations of management or customers? Sometimes, the test group’s charter and mission statements look good and read well, but have little to do with what management really wants or needs.
If the charter and mission statement do present and define what management needs from the testing group, and your testing group is providing services based on those needs, what is driving the call for change?
If the team is doing all it can do to meet the needs of management and the defined process supports meeting these needs, then what needs improvement: the testing process
or the testing
To improve testing, an honest assessment of the skills of the test group as a whole can serve to direct actions to that improvement. One tool I have found to work well in a variety of situations is a SWOT analysis.
The elements of SWOT
are straight forward. They consist of strengths
within the organization as it exists today, along with opportunities
external to the organization. By limiting "organization" to the testing/QA group, this tool can be applied to testing process as a whole, or to specific aspects within the test process.
The challenge is for participants to be fully engaged in looking for solutions. It is not a quick process and can take some time to do the actual assessment. In no way can this be seen as a quick fix. It can have serious implications as it challenges the participants to look at the situation as it truly is and not as the official description would have it.
Getting all members of the team involved as equal participants may help cohesion and acceptance. Views may shift during this process and it is perfectly natural as people exchange ideas and participants realize the differences and similarities among the team.
Generally speaking, the strengths
aspect can be defined in a fairly short period of time. Most testers can identify what are believed to be positive aspects, individually and for the team. Likewise, most will use some of the "canned" team-building slogans encountered at some point to "put something up" on the board. Caution should be employed to be certain that the "strengths" are true to the team and not empty platitudes that say nothing tangible about what the team
is good at doing.
aspect will be challenging. It is hard for most people to admit their own shortcomings. When discussing them in front of peers, it is challenging on multiple levels. Some may be reluctant to discuss their own shortcomings, but very happy to discuss the weaknesses of others. By keeping this focused on the team or group, and not on the individuals, some tension can be released.
aspects of this may also be difficult to define beyond some general characteristics. Almost universally, there is a demand for improved testing, hence an "opportunity" to make changes. However, the countering "threat" (sometimes referred to as an obstacle to avoid negative connotations) is oftentimes a variant of "little tolerance for error on management’s part" or the equally troubling "opposition to changes with potential to impact other managers’ turf."
When building the SWOT
, allow for each aspect to be revisited, even when it is "done." As discussion on one area evolves, information may be shed on other areas. It is highly possible that an idea can be added under "strengths" as a result of discussing "weaknesses." It is also important to recognize that something may be removed from the list.
Consensus is important. You may not be able to get unanimous agreement on all aspects of the SWOT
. It is good if you can, but it there are one or two issues that not everyone agrees with, that should not completely stop the process.
When working through this process, avoid well-sounding but empty clichés. Most people with any experience will see them for what they are: filler. Focus instead on building lists of specific items that can be referenced to the experience of the participants.
When each of the four aspects are generally agreed on, the next step is to find the best way to maximize the strengths and opportunities, minimize the weaknesses and isolate threats to the fledgling process. You have arrived at the heart of the issue.
If you have identified the weaknesses within the team, discuss with the team how these can be addressed. In some cases, training may be appropriate. In other cases, you have good people who are hampered by the tools available. Look into what can reasonably be done to get usable tools in place then make sure that the team is trained in their use. In some situations, bringing on additional staff with the missing skill-sets may be the solution. This can be either full-time employees or possibly consultants or contractors who can train the existing staff.
If you have staff members who are looking and ready for new challenges, they may be prime candidates to learn these skills. There may be danger in forcing otherwise content workers to take on challenges they are not willing or able to accept, causing them to become discontented.
Finally, when addressing the weaknesses identified consider the overall impact to the team. As a group, discuss which weaknesses should be addressed first and how they should be addressed. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages in turn. Dealing with these iteratively may be a valid option and cause less disruption than attempting to "fix" all of them at once.
Regular communication to management, including inviting them to observe the process, may relieve doubts in the group’s desire to improve, or of the group’s basic abilities. Care should be taken that no one, including any members of the management team if they are present, should use positional authority to bully any participants or belittle the thoughts and ideas presented.
As with any new endeavor or change in approach, mistakes will happen. There may not be any significant improvements in the first projects using the new skills or techniques. Team leadership and organizational management must be prepared for this and will need to accept this possibility in order to gain the trust of the staff that the efforts will not be discarded because they "don’t work."
Allow the team to make mistakes and support them when they do. Mistakes can be astoundingly effective learning devices. Give the team the opportunity to try things and experiment. Trust their professional judgment and they will reward you accordingly.
If you become the cheerleader, supporter and passionate hero to the team and to management while this process is going on, the team will see that, pick up on your confidence in them and respond in kind. Even as problems are encountered, your confidence in them can be contagious. These become learning points and true opportunities to gain insight.
Using this technique with both the test team and management involved in the process can demonstrate a commitment to quality work in a team environment. From this process, all participants can learn to respect the needs of their colleagues and how to support one another. By setting a goal, all participants can also share in the discussions around how to measure the impact of the changes and lay the groundwork for future improvements.
is most effective when directing the effort toward a tangible goal. Setting the focus on improving testing can help the team focus on actual, realistic aspects of their work instead of more theoretical ideas around process. When the team, its leadership and management all have a better understanding of the team’s actual abilities, these abilities can be directed to specific areas in testing that need improvement.
By directing your effort to improving the testing itself and confirming the needs and expectations to fulfill the charter and mission of the team, you have laid the groundwork and taken a huge step toward the improvement of your test process. When you have identified how you can improve your testing, and have exercised the new test techniques and approaches, you can then map the process changes needed to fulfill your charter.
More About the Author:
Peter Walen has been in software development for over 25 years. After working many years as a programmer, he moved to software testing and QA. Following a brief foray in project management and business analysis, he returned to software testing. He has worked in the fields of Insurance and Finance, Manufacturing, Higher Education/Universities, Retail, Distribution and Point Of Sale Systems. Peter is an active member of several testing associations, an active blogger on software testing and a moderator on SQAForums.com.
Twitter handle: @petewalen
Mr. Walen will present Test Process Improvement: Lessons Learned from the Trenches
at the Software Test Professionals Conference 2011
. He will also be a co-presenter of No Box Mixes: Building a Test Group from Scratch