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Keeping It Simple: Whiteboard Planning

A test strategy should be simple enough to fit on a whiteboard, and you should be able to explain what it means to anyone on the project team within a matter of minutes. This simplicity ensures that concepts are defined clearly and are simplified before you take the time to document them in more detail. The process of putting things on a whiteboard is often participatory, and I find it's usually the best medium in helping people to share ideas. When people work on whiteboards, they draw nifty diagrams and flowcharts that everyone can understand.

When you develop the test strategy, you need to involve other people on the project. Often, project managers, development leads, architects, DBAs, and other key people on the project will have a better idea than you do of some of the technical resources available to them (tools or environments). In addition, your test strategy should cover the entire project lifecycle and everyone working on it. This means that you need the input of those technical people in order to succeed. At the very least, they can give you a more realistic idea of the types of testing that are taking place outside of the test team (unit testing, code reviews, runtime analysis, and so on). I typically try to find those people I perceive to be most involved on the project, and usher them into the room with me. Their insights and suggestions are often invaluable.

Step 1: Outline the Basic Strategy

Once you get everyone together, start with a clean whiteboard. Put a column on the whiteboard for each aspect of testing that you want to capture or develop. For our project, I used a column for phases of testing (including types of testing performed on the project), the different code environments, and the measurements we would use to determine when to move the code between environments. It looked similar to the whiteboard in Figure 1.

Figure 1Figure 1 Whiteboard—strategy outline.

Using a red marker, define what you currently do. List each phase of testing that the team currently executes consistently; under each phase, list the types of testing performed. You may find it helpful to clearly define for the group what each phase of testing represents and what happens there. There is no "right" definition; it's only important that everyone agrees with the definition you use. You may need to define the types of testing as well, but more importantly make sure that everyone understands how the types differ from each other. Remember that you're facilitating the brainstorming for developing a test strategy; a clear framework requires clear definition.

Step 2: Document the Current Setup

Next, list the different project environments and all the measurements currently used to move builds between those environments. For our project, I queried each person present and found that the team had been performing system testing and some regression testing, and we had a handful of users doing ad hoc acceptance testing. There was no consistency to unit testing and integration testing, and any code reviews typically happened after the code was delivered to the customer. In our system testing, we did mostly requirements verification, with some functional and lifecycle testing after that. On the previous iteration, the team performed one or two improvised latency tests, so we included those. All regression testing, when time allowed, was manual and based on test cases from previous releases.

We had five project environments. Each developer had his or her local environment, which they all then integrated into a common development environment. Once integrated, the project was built to a test environment for system testing. Then, based on requirements verification and the delivery date (key measurements), the code moved to the quality assurance (QA) environment. Once the users reviewed the most desired functionality for the release, there was a series of signoffs (another key measurement) and the code moved to production. All said and done, we had the test strategy shown in Figure 2. In the Measurements column, we discussed the level of requirements verification that took place in each environment and agreed that those numbers accurately reflected the current process.

Figure 2Figure 2 Whiteboard—current state of testing.

Step 3: Brainstorm Improvements

Once everyone agreed that what we had on the whiteboard accurately reflected where we were, we started talking about what we wanted testing to achieve for the project. We talked about practices and tools that we thought would make us more effective and would match our current level of resources (both human and monetary). We knew that we probably couldn't expand the size of the testing team, for example, so we tried to focus our conversation around what the developers could do to help assist in testing. We also tried to focus on the key problems we were experiencing. (Remember that scary bulleted list I showed earlier?)


In a keynote at the Sixth IEEE International Workshop on Web Site Evolution, Hung Nguyen described his technique of taking a "bug centric" approach to developing a test strategy. His method looks at the problems found in production and works backward to create a strategy that will target these specific problems. He focuses on trying to add visibility to determine the cost and speed to production for each release. Whatever your context is, make sure that the group doing the brainstorming knows what problems they're working to solve. If you don't have a clear vision of what the test strategy needs to accomplish, step back and establish that vision first. The worst thing you can do is to put a strategy in place with the wrong objectives—that strategy is doomed to fail. It will create new problems or worsen existing problems. At best, it will end up solving some of the current problems accidentally, making the remaining problems appear more difficult to solve than they really are.

As we brainstormed, we agreed on a number of points and reached some conclusions:

  • More structure and rigor in unit and integration testing would allow us to find more problems sooner, provide an initial level of automation, and give us some metrics with which we could better track the progress of development so we could make more informed decisions about when to move code. (Our application was built using mostly J2EE and Oracle, with some other technologies thrown in here and there. Both J2EE and Oracle have many robust and free tools that aid in unit and integration testing.)

  • In systems testing, we concluded that with each release our user base would grow and that their demands would require increasingly more rigorous performance testing—something for which we had barely scratched the surface.

  • We needed to move away from our dependence on requirements verification as our primary type of testing. While that was important, we were neglecting security testing, usability testing, configuration testing, data integrity testing, and hundreds of other types of tests.

  • We decided to include some session-based exploratory testing that we would initially execute in pairs, until we felt more comfortable with the process and developed our rapid-learning and problem-solving skills. Once we felt more comfortable performing exploratory testing, we could begin executing more sessions on our own.

  • We felt that we needed to establish a formal automated smoke test that we could use in all environments, along with a set of automated regression scripts to test high-risk functionality and high-volume transactions.

  • We knew that our user acceptance testing (UAT) was not nearly as effective as it could be. So we committed to taking the time to develop a more detailed UAT test plan, along with some detailed test scripts for users to follow and more detailed training material to help bring them up to speed quickly. This is not to say that we wanted to take full responsibility for UAT, just that we wanted UAT to run more smoothly, which we could help by providing more guidelines, resources, and training.

  • We agreed on metrics for when we should move code between environments. For both unit testing and integration testing, a 90% test pass rate would offer us enough confidence in the code to promote it, even knowing there were still some bugs to be worked out—as long as none of the bugs were showstoppers.

  • We determined that we would be stricter in code reviews, ensuring that they would happen early in the process (preferably while the code was being written or very closely following) rather than after the release. Once we created our smoke tests, the code would have to pass those tests at 100% before progressing to the next level.

  • In system testing, we agreed that we would not promote any critical or high-level defects, regardless of date, but that we would allow all other defects to be promoted and to let the user community decide whether they wanted the problems fixed now or later.

  • We added code-coverage metrics as a tool that, along with defect trend analysis, could help us measure the effectiveness of our system test efforts.

Grabbing a different color of marker, I recorded our brainstorming session on the whiteboard (see Figure 3).

Figure 3Figure 3 Whiteboard—draft with types of testing and measurements.

Step 4: Organize the Plan

At this point, I asked everyone in the room to check that we all had agreement and felt as if we could succeed with this plan. Our next step was to establish who was responsible for what and where each of these activities would actually take place. Using yet another marker, we spent two or three minutes drawing brackets and arrows (see Figure 4).

Figure 4Figure 4 Whiteboard—responsibility and environments.

These groupings reflected the teams involved on our project. It's quite possible that you will have more teams involved on your project—multiple development or test teams, or even separate infrastructure teams or QA. The arrows we drew on our whiteboard represented the environments in which we would execute the types of testing identified. While not perfect, they gave us an outline for where we wanted to run most of the tests.

Step 5: Organize the Tools

The final step in developing our test strategy was to document which tools we would be using to make all of this planning actually happen. The company already had a large investment in the IBM Rational products, so that factor influenced many of our decisions. We supplemented those tools with other tools where it made sense. For unit testing, for example, we chose JUnit because some of our developers already knew how to use it—and it's free and easy to learn. For static analysis, we chose Jlint. Rational filled in all of the other tool choices: ClearCase for source and test asset control, ClearQuest for issue tracking; Purify, Quantify, and PureCoverage for runtime analysis; Requisite Pro for requirements management; and Robot and TestManager for test automation. We talked about using some other tools for tasks such as runtime analysis and source control, but it just made sense for us to keep everything on a common platform for which we already had support. Our final whiteboard contained the information shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5Figure 5 Whiteboard—final strategy.

That's it—hard part over. The next step is to implement it. Okay, maybe the hard part isn't actually over....

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