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Tuesday, May 4, 2021

What is QA to me

Before I did testing and QA I was a software developer and a lecturer at university.

I actually wanted to teach high school (mathematics, computer science, statistics, etc.). I applied to Teacher's College but due to a bureaucratic mistake, I was told I had to apply again a year later.

I could have fought it but I figured I'd just find a job for a year and try again a year later.

Funny enough, I found a job testing software development tools for a company which created computer chips. Testing an IDE, compiler, assembler, micro-kernel, etc. required hardware and software development knowledge. I had both and thought working in 'QA' would be ideal as it wasn't a 'real' job.

I took that job in the Fall of 1998 with the full intention of going back to school in the Fall of 1999. It is now May 2021 and I'm still doing QA and testing software. I just fell in love with it.

Automated testing wasn't really a think. Many people, myself included, where still doing Waterfall software development.

Over the years I moved from testing desktop applications to testing web applications. Initially, when software developers starting doing Agile software development, QA or testing was still an after thought. One signatory of the Agile Manifesto actually published an article about how QA was dead and Agile software developers didn't need software testers anymore. He was wrong and others pointed it out.

But it still got me wondering about the future of QA and software testing. Software development was evolving. So without skipping a beat, I evolved too.

With manual testing, I'd get a story from developers. I'd manually test it. Then I'd get a second story. I'd manually test it. But I'd also re-test story number one. By the time the developers had written story 500, I was unable to do regression testing on stories 1 through 499. First thought was to order the stories in terms of importance. Test the most important stories first. Maybe I could test 300 of the stories before the Project Manager ask if the product was ready to ship. I was nervous to say yes. He shipped it anyway.

I'd keep testing after the product ship. If I found anything wrong, we'd create a "service patch".

This didn't feel ideal. So I started automating UI testing. Tools like Selenium and HP Quality Center started appearing. Being a former software developer, I like the programmability of Selenium. I could use the tools and best practices of software development to develop Selenium test suites.

But I remembered an article from IBM about how maintaining code was 4/5th of the work. I quickly realized that maintaining my test automation would become a huge part of the development. If I couldn't maintain it, it would fail.

Try as I might, maintaining UI automation which tested everything wasn't maintainable. It tested a lot but it was still lacking.

Along comes Mike Cohn, Mountain Goat Software, and the test pyramid. It made sense to me. I started learning about flipping the pyramid or as Alister B. Scott put it, the test ice cream cone. Rather than doing a lot of testing early, I was testing everything at the end. I almost saw it as the testing lollipop.

So I started encouraging developers to test as much as they could at the unit level. Kent Beck was promoting JUnit, an xUnit test framework. This seemed ideal. I could take one of my tests at the top of the pyramid and see that it had 10 reasons it might be failing. If I found a defect, could the developers write a unit test that would detect the defect? If yes, then I no longer had to maintain my UI automation for that potential failure. I started to realize that they could have unit tests that caught maybe 6 of the 10 possible failures.

Then we started learning about mocking, test doubles, etc.. Gerard Meszaros wrote a great book titled XUnit Test Patterns. You can read more about it at 

As I looked more and more into this I started finding about integration testing, contract testing, etc.. All these other lower level tests that were easier for developers to write and maintain.

I started realizing that UI testing an application wasn't really valuable at all. The test pyramid showed me that UI testing, at the top of the pyramid, was the smallest portion. Trying to convince people I needed to write more UI tests was self-defecting. If I REALLY wanted to assure quality, I needed to enable the team to write better software.

Looking at patterns for software failure and thinking about how could this have been caught and fixed early was now a priority for me. Writing automation was starting to shift from my job to the job of the software developers. Was that Agile Manifesto signatory right? Was I no longer needed?

He wasn't. The software developers still have a different mindset. I still notice to this day that a software developer tends to make sure the application does what it is supposed to do. But a QA tends to make sure the application doesn't do what it isn't supposed to do. It is a subtle difference but an important one.

Are their software developers who know how to think like a software developer AND think like a QA? Absolutely! Does my working with a developer help them think like a QA and potentially put me out of a job? Well, kind of. When I pair with a developer a little bit of me rubs off on them. But there are so many other developers I can help. I've been doing this for almost 20 years now and I still haven't found people I can't help.

I still write automation but I also try to understand where problems might arise in the application. Enterprise architecture can get really complex. How can we reduce that complexity? How can I find and eliminate defects? It seems to be a never-ending task. I keep trying to put myself out of a job but so far I've just made myself and my team better.

Bottom line, stop doing Quality Control (you can't test quality into software) and start doing Quality Assurance.

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