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How Is Agile Testing Different?

We both started working on agile teams at the turn of the millennium. Like a lot of testers who are new to agile, we didn’t know what to expect at first. Together with our respective agile teams, we’ve worked on we’ve learned a lot about testing on agile projects. We’ve also implemented ideas and practices suggested by other agile testers and teams. Over the years, we’ve shared our experiences with other agile testers as well. We’ve facilitated workshops and led tutorials at agile and testing conferences, talked with local user groups, and joined countless discussions on agile testing mailing lists. Through these experiences, we’ve identified differences between testing on agile teams and testing on traditional waterfall development projects. Agile development has transformed the testing profession in many ways.

Working on Traditional Teams

Neither working closely with programmers nor getting involved with a project from the earliest phases was new to us. However, we were used to strictly enforced gated phases of a narrowly defined software development life cycle, starting with release planning and requirements definition and usually ending with a rushed testing phase and a delayed release. In fact, we often were thrust into a gatekeeper role, telling business managers, “Sorry, the requirements are frozen; we can add that feature in the next release.”

As leaders of quality assurance teams, we were also often expected to act as gatekeepers of quality. We couldn’t control how the code was written, or even if any programmers tested their code, other than by our personal efforts at collaboration. Our post-development testing phases were expected to boost quality after code was complete. We had the illusion of control. We usually had the keys to production, and sometimes we had the power to postpone releases or stop them from going forward. Lisa even had the title of “Quality Boss,” when in fact she was merely the manager of the QA team.

Our development cycles were generally long. Projects at a company that produced database software might last for a year. The six-month release cycles Lisa experienced at an Internet start-up seemed short at the time, although it was still a long time to have frozen requirements. In spite of much process and discipline, diligently completing one phase before moving on to the next, it was plenty of time for the competition to come out ahead, and the applications were not always what the customers expected.

Traditional teams are focused on making sure all the specified requirements are delivered in the final product. If everything isn’t ready by the original target release date, the release is usually postponed. The development teams don’t usually have input about what features are in the release, or how they should work. Individual programmers tend to specialize in a particular area of the code. Testers study the requirements documents to write their test plans, and then they wait for work to be delivered to them for testing.

Working on Agile Teams

Transitioning to the short iterations of an agile project might produce initial shock and awe. How can we possibly define requirements and then test and deliver production-ready code in one, two, three, or four weeks? This is particularly tough for larger organizations with separate teams for different functions and even harder for teams that are geographically dispersed. Where do all these various programmers, testers, analysts, project managers, and countless specialties fit in a new agile project? How can we possibly code and test so quickly? Where would we find time for difficult efforts such as automating tests? What control do we have over bad code getting delivered to production?

We’ll share our stories from our first agile experiences to show you that everyone has to start somewhere.

Agile teams work closely with the business and have a detailed understanding of the requirements. They’re focused on the value they can deliver, and they might have a great deal of input into prioritizing features. Testers don’t sit and wait for work; they get up and look for ways to contribute throughout the development cycle and beyond.

If testing on an agile project felt just like testing on a traditional project, we wouldn’t feel the need to write a book. Let’s compare and contrast these testing methods.

Traditional vs. Agile Testing

It helps to start by looking at similarities between agile testing and testing in traditional software development. Consider Figure 1-4.

Figure 1-4

Figure 1-4 Traditional testing vs. agile testing

In the phased approach diagram, it is clear that testing happens at the end, right before release. The diagram is idealistic, because it gives the impression there is as much time for testing as there is for coding. In many projects, this is not the case. The testing gets “squished” because coding takes longer than expected, and because teams get into a code-and-fix cycle at the end.

Agile is iterative and incremental. This means that the testers test each increment of coding as soon as it is finished. An iteration might be as short as one week, or as long as a month. The team builds and tests a little bit of code, making sure it works correctly, and then moves on to next piece that needs to be built. Programmers never get ahead of the testers, because a story is not “done” until it has been tested. We’ll talk much more about this throughout the book.

There’s tremendous variety in the approaches to projects that agile teams take. One team might be dedicated to a single project or might be part of another bigger project. No matter how big your project is, you still have to start somewhere. Your team might take on an epic or feature, a set of related stories at an estimating meeting, or you might meet to plan the release. Regardless of how a project or subset of a project gets started, you’ll need to get a high-level understanding of it. You might come up with a plan or strategy for testing as you prepare for a release, but it will probably look quite different from any test plan you’ve done before.

Every project, every team, and sometimes every iteration is different. How your team solves problems should depend on the problem, the people, and the tools you have available. As an agile team member, you will need to be adaptive to the team’s needs.

Rather than creating tests from a requirements document that was created by business analysts before anyone ever thought of writing a line of code, someone will need to write tests that illustrate the requirements for each story days or hours before coding begins. This is often a collaborative effort between a business or domain expert and a tester, analyst, or some other development team member. Detailed functional test cases, ideally based on examples provided by business experts, flesh out the requirements. Testers will conduct manual exploratory testing to find important bugs that defined test cases might miss. Testers might pair with other developers to automate and execute test cases as coding on each story proceeds. Automated functional tests are added to the regression test suite. When tests demonstrating minimum functionality are complete, the team can consider the story finished.

If you attended agile conferences and seminars in the early part of this decade, you heard a lot about TDD and acceptance testing but not so much about other critical types of testing, such as load, performance, security, usability, and other “ility” testing. As testers, we thought that was a little weird, because all these types of testing are just as vital on agile projects as they are on projects using any other development methodology. The real difference is that we like to do these tests as early in the development process as we can so that they can also drive design and coding.

If the team actually releases each iteration, as Lisa’s team does, the last day or two of each iteration is the “end game,” the time when user acceptance testing, training, bug fixing, and deployments to staging environments can occur. Other teams, such as Janet’s, release every few iterations, and might even have an entire iteration’s worth of “end game” activities to verify release readiness. The difference here is that all the testing is not left until the end.

As a tester on an agile team, you’re a key player in releasing code to production, just as you might have been in a more traditional environment. You might run scripts or do manual testing to verify all elements of a release, such as database update scripts, are in place. All team members participate in retrospectives or other process improvement activities that might occur for every iteration or every release. The whole team brainstorms ways to solve problems and improve processes and practices.

Agile projects have a variety of flavors. Is your team starting with a clean slate, in a greenfield (new) development project? If so, you might have fewer challenges than a team faced with rewriting or building on a legacy system that has no automated regression suite. Working with a third party brings additional testing challenges to any team.

Whatever flavor of development you’re using, pretty much the same elements of a software development life cycle need to happen. The difference with agile is that time frames are greatly shortened, and activities happen concurrently. Participants, tests, and tools need to be adaptive.

The most critical difference for testers in an agile project is the quick feedback from testing. It drives the project forward, and there are no gatekeepers ready to block project progress if certain milestones aren’t met.

We’ve encountered testers who resist the transition to agile development, fearing that “agile development” equates with chaos, lack of discipline, lack of documentation, and an environment that is hostile to testers. While some teams do seem to use the “agile” buzzword to justify simply doing whatever they want, true agile teams are all about repeatable quality as well as efficiency. In our experience, an agile team is a wonderful place to be a tester.

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