Agile Testing > Story : On the backlog

Over the next few posts I’ll be exploring the concept of a story in an agile environment and what it means to us as a tester. Over the past few days I’ve been hearing about how testers don’t get involved with story writing sessions, how testers duplicate the acceptance criteria in their tests and how testers don’t fully understand how a story can replace a spec.

 

I’ll hopefully cover all of these and some more by breaking a story down in to smaller lifecycle steps.

 

My experience is based around scrum projects. The one thing to consider is that each agile implementation is different, with different teams and customers and different requirements of the team. So no ‘one’ solution will be suitable for all. But hopefully by sharing my experiences on here it will help you round your view and decide on the best way of working on your agile project.

 

A story is basically a description of how someone interacts with the software to get a desired response.

 

A story basically takes the form of:

 

As a [Actor/Person] I would like to [Feature or capability] so that I can [Value of action]

 

At the start of a project there is a tedious, but incredibly important job of adding all of the customers ideas, requirements and thoughts to the Backlog. The Backlog is the project holding space for stories. Look at it as your requirements document.

 

Getting the stories on the backlog is a process of sitting with the customer and adding their requirements to the system in the form of the story. At this point it is unlikely that the stories will have acceptance criteria (i.e. the details of what is involved in the story).

 

Some of the stories may actually at this point be Epics. An Epic is essentially a story that contains lots of other stories. An example would be “Log In”. This would normally consist of several individual log in stories – depends how complex though. When tackling an Epic it is essentially to break it down to manageable stories.

 

A manageable story is essentially a story that can be completed (to the definition of done) in your sprint. A sprint is normally between 1 and 4 weeks – although there is no law on that one. If the story is not achievable then it is an Epic and needs to be broken down more.

 

The definition of done can be complicated but essentially this is a set of rules/regulations/guidelines that must be adhered to before the sprint/story or task is considered done. For example, the sprint is not done until all code is checked in, all tasks are done, all stories are done, the stories have all been tested, the demo stack is ready for the customer, the deployment scripts are done, the automation suite is started, no defects outstanding etc etc. A series of gates in which the software and process must go through to be ready.

 

Right, back to the story. Once all stories are on the backlog the customer should then rank the stories based on priority order. i.e Top to bottom rank order of what’s most important to them, at that moment in time. This rank order will change as the customer sees the software, gets new information or responds to market/financial pressures – and this is the beauty of agile. The next piece of work is always the highest priority for the customer.

 

Once ranked there are two lines of thought as to what to do next.

 

A: Have the team estimate each story in advance – time consuming, inaccurate as acceptance criteria will not be defined, tricky to estimate with no information on the emerging system
B: Add acceptance criteria to the first few stories and then have the team estimate.

 

I prefer option B as estimating the whole backlog often proves fruitless and pointless in my experience unless you are using it for forward planning. It’s at this point that we, as testers, sit with the customer and programmer and work through the stories adding relevant acceptance criteria (coming in the next post).

 

Once acceptance criteria is added we then have the whole team estimate. Some teams use time estimation points, others complexity, others a combination of the two. For me, the only one that really matters is complexity, but the others would argue against this.

 

Estimating complexity is a process of sitting down with planning poker cards (numbers on each card). The scrum master (person running the sprint) would then read out the story and each team member would estimate on complexity, putting their card face down. Once everyone has estimated the whole team then turn the cards and we find a happy ground, negotiating between each other.

 

Estimation based on complexity is tricky to understand. It’s not about how long it will take but about how complicated you think it is. An easier way of working it out would be to take a story that is neither “really hard” nor “really easy”, writing in on a piece of card and sticking on a long wall. Then take each other story and write them down too. Now stick them either side of the existing story. Right hand side for more complicated. Left hand side for least complicated. From this you can start to understand that each story will have a complexity level that we assign a number to. I work on 8 being the average story and work either way from there.

 

Once we agree on an estimate that goes against a story and is then used to work out the team velocity. The velocity is essentially how many complexity points we can achieve per sprint. This is why sprints tend to be kept the same length to maintain a consistent velocity. In the first few sprints though, you will have no idea of the teams velocity as there is no historic data. Over time though the team will slip in to a rythm or groove which allows a much more accurate velocity to be calculated.

 

We have not estimated all stories at this point, but before each sprint this process needs to take place. This is so that at the sprint planning meeting the team can assign stories to the sprint which have already been estimated and have acceptance criteria. The customer also needs to check the ranking and the backlog as there could be new stories and defects to now consider. This is a continual process and is often referred to as grooming the backlog.

 

And so that’s it really. In a nutshell (and a heavy scrum one at that) we have the basics of stories and backlogs and how they are used in a sprint. The one key point I have missed though is distilling the acceptance criteria in to each story. Something that not only makes estimation easier but also makes programming and testing smoother, cheaper and less dramatic. More on that in the next post.

 

Rob..

Pair Programming and Pair Testing

Our programmers here at iMeta now wax lyrical about pair programming and it’s easy to see why. The quality of code coming through to the test team now is exceptional. There’s very few fix-fail episodes and the programmers seem over the moon with how great pair programming is fairing. Sure, there were teething issues and some programmers didn’t feel the groove when pairing but these were soon overcome and they moved forward.

 

It got me thinking though about whether or not testers should be pairing when writing test cases. And my conclusion is that they should. It brought back memories of when I used to have to send test cases off for peer review at a previous company. I too had to review other peoples tests. It did often become a chore but more importantly was that is missed the point. And here’s why:

  • The review was more a sanity check on formatting, spelling, ensuring every step had an expected result, test case length was ok, etc
  • It became a chore so often it ended up being a skim read.
  • The person reviewing often didn’t have the same product knowledge. This meant the test cases weren’t reviewed regarding how well they tested the application.

 

And so I sat down with a fellow tester on an after work development project and did some pair test case writing to start with. It was incredible. The thought patterns and processes we entered were remarkable. As a pair we wrote simple, clean and to the point tests. Those pointless steps or ideas were left out. During the tester not doing the main writing would then spawn a mind map charting all of the ideas so that we didn’t miss any.

 

The tests were succinct and short in a high level guidance way (i.e. no detailed steps). We kept every single test DRY (don’t repeat yourself) extrapolating all setup, preconditions and data out to separate excel documents. It truly was a great experience as each of us brought a different outlook to the table. But more than that we bounced ideas off of each other. In terms of time spent it might appear that we were doubling but the quality of the output was incredible.

 

So how about actual pair testing?

The next step was to actually see if we could do some pair testing. And we could. This too brought some amazing side effects. We raised more important defects. We generated new and interesting exploratory ideas to run all managed through a mind map. We had to do so little admin to the test cases that we were both truly surprised with how good they were.

 

It felt like we’d covered more of the system in less of the time. But we also covered a lot more of the system than we had test cases for. This was because as we got to a step, one or both of us would highlight that the documentation hadn’t mentioned this, or the test case didn’t consider this factor yada yada.

 

The whole process has left me thinking more and more of us should consider pair testing. Maybe as a short trial process for one day a week. Maybe as a permanent idea. Believe me, the tests, the testing and the camaraderie are all enviable positive effects of pairing up. Let’s not just leave the pairing to the programmers. Let’s help take testing to a new level too.

Stubborn Cat

There’s a cat down the road from me who is so stubborn it’s untrue. He refuses to budge – literally. He saunters out to the middle of the road and sits there with his smug little smile taunting drivers and cyclists. He refuses to move out of the way and it’s not uncommon to have to mount the kerb to get past him.

I don’t know his name but I do know he is stubborn. I generally like cats, my parents have several and one thing I have noted is that they are all fairly stubborn. I think it’s in their nature.

It’s interesting how the testing community seem to think of themselves as stubborn and argumentative. I too believe these to be traits of the majority of testers and often with good reason. We sometimes need to be this way to get the job done. It’s often necessary. There are times when you need to be stubborn, to stand your ground and to hold on to your opinion in the face of pressure and resistance.

However, when we are so stubborn that we refuse to move we could be endangering the project and ruining our reputations. If we refuse to move and accept new ways of thinking we may become side tracked, irrelevant and a nuisance. Just like the cat.

I’ve recently been at the receiving end of testers who can’t/won’t accommodate new information and who genuinely do believe it is their way or no way. Testers who can be quite nasty and cutting about other testers who don’t subscribe to certain ways of thinking. It’s at times like this when it feels like people are no longer stubborn and argumentative to be constructive but are moving ever so close to arrogant and at times, woefully wrong. But we are here to serve the stakeholders, to offer a service that people get value from, not to be argumentative and stubborn. Not to cause a nuisance. Not to be seen as the awkward one.

It’s a fine line to tread between being focused on quality and downright stubborn. Tread it right and your testing will flourish.

Test Reporting in an agile environment

 

A low tech dashboard is a great way of communicating the state of the software mid sprint. At the end of the sprint, the board is fairly meaningless unless you have stories incomplete. But mid-sprint it’s a great visual way of showing progress. I.e. we’ve hit this feature in depth and it looks ok.

 

It’s another indicator of how we are progressing. Look at it as a quality indicator that compliments the velocity indicators like burndowns and burnups. It’s a clear, visual representation of the “quality” of the software from the testers point of view. It doesn’t need weighty metrics to back it up – although that may help in some environments. It doesn’t need to be absolutely accurate, just like the burndown report and it doesn’t need to be complicated.

 

It needs to be simple, easy to read, easy to understand and simple. It’s about communicating to all stakeholders (and other teams) where we are at with the software ‘quality’.

 

And when we get to the end of the sprint and we have stories incomplete then the dashboard can be a good way of highlighting where quality is lacking.

 

A few years ago I created an equivalent that was a ‘mood board’ with smileys which the testers would put up on paper to show visitors to the team area what mood we were in (happy, sad, nonplussed, ill, bored, tired, giggly, etc). A visual representation of how we were progressing. And it worked wonders and the management loved it more than the metrics. And believe it or not – that was in a waterfall environment…

Easy Tiger – Don’t dismiss record and playback just yet

Again this week I’ve been reading blogs, forums and tweets from people dismissing record and playback as a viable automation option. Which is fine, providing reasons and justifications can be cited for not using it. But empty statements and re-iterations of other peoples reasons don’t wash too well, especially in the complicated world of testing where context appears to be king.

 

Sure, it should probably never be used as a long term automation strategy, but I’ve done a couple of projects recently where simple, low tech, “dirty” record and playback has been the perfect choice. And here’s why:

  • The project had incredibly tight timescales
  • The project, in the same guise, was unlikely to be re-run in the same way meaning a full considered automation strategy could have been a waste of money
  • The testers didn’t have time to plan, build and utilise a full automation strategy
  • The appropriate skills weren’t available
  • Quick feedback and regression was needed

Given that time was of the essense I needed a quick and dirty way of smoke testing the UI and using automation to load data. I didn’t need long term, dynamic, flexible and wide covering automation otherwise I would have adopted a different strategy.

 

I needed a simple and quick smoke test that hit some key acceptance criteria, gave me confidence core functionality was still working and loaded some data at the same time.

 

It was right for me. It gave me confidence. It showed up basic functionality that was no longer working. It wasn’t time consuming or difficult to maintain. It took only 5 minutes to run. It did the job.

 

Think of record and playback as a tool the manual tester can use to help them achieve their testing goal. In essense, it was a project that had no automation with a manual tester who used record and playback to lower the regression burden and load states. Does that make it sound more viable and appealing? The tester was using it lower burden and make their testing efficient, not as an automation strategy or plan. Far more appealing now.

 

So when someone says that record and playback is wrong, costly and pointless ask them to qualify why that’s so and under what circumstances. It’s always best to have a balanced view of these things. There’s a time and a place for all types of automation. And if that person has never used it, never worked under the conditions it can be suitable for or simply prefers to spend time manually checking basic tests that a computer could be doing – then maybe their point of view should be taken with a pinch of salt. My guess is, that point of view may also contain the words ‘best’ and ‘practice’.

 

Long term automation with a framework and key skillset is the way forward for most projects. However record and playback still has its place, so don’t dismiss it just yet.

Acceptance Criteria : it’s a good friend

With some careful planning, a good use of time and access to your customer (or customers proxy) you can craft and distill stories that will make your job as a tester all the more effective.

 

On an agile project test involvement early in the planning and story writing can add an extra dynamic. Testers often have very critical minds and often ask questions other team members don’t. And it’s this questioning and thinking that is so powerful and effective when writing stories.

 

It’s not just that the customer understands the stories more and thinks more critically about them but that the programmers also have more information up front and the designers and any other team member can see clearly what criteria that story will be judged against. Testers often posses the skills needed to bridge the gap between the customer and the tech teams too. They also tend to put themselves in the shoes of the user, consider usability and accessibility and are often the ones who raise pertinent questions about non-functional behaviors.

 

Leaving the tester out of the story writing sessions means that when the story moves over to test for testing the testers will often generate a lot of defects, some of them often quite simple. Defects that could (and should) have been found before any code was written.

 

And if the tester is being involved to their full capacity they too will find that the story in essence becomes a very effective test case. A case that both manual and automated testers can work from. There is no reason why a story can’t contain a long list of acceptance criteria. In fact, the more the merrier in my eyes, it only helps to make estimation and verification easier. There’s no reason why the acceptance criteria can’t reference or jump out to flow diagrams, state transitions and any other supporting documentation. And all of this become far more possible when you include a critical thinker in story writing sessions.

 

I’ve been through many sprints that, at first, weren’t successful but we soon started getting key team members involved at each story writing session and we soon started dropping code that had fewer defects. With fewer defects velocity tends to go up, moral remains high and more time is freed up for exploratory testing.

 

So don’t be shy. If you are not actively being invited to story writing sessions, then invite yourself and add your critical thinking early.

It’s not a blame culture but it’s definately their fault

One of the main things I really like about agile is the fact that the whole team are creating and working towards shippable software at the end of each sprint. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

 

And a positive side effect of this is that you lose the ‘over the wall’ mentality. In a true agile environment there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. It’s no longer a blame culture. Everyone is responsible for quality. Everyone is responsible for getting the software working. The software is not thrown over the wall to test and then thrown back over for bug fixing.

 

So it becomes a team activity in the truest sense. We are all working towards a common goal. No one person is responsible for quality – we all are. Sure, there are still individual mistakes but the team rally together to solve these.

 

And it is great. There’s no bad mouthing, sniping or hushed conversations – well fewer anyway 🙂 It’s all about the product. It’s all about the team. And that, in my eyes, is a really positive thing.

It’s all about the people

As many may have guessed or deducted from my posts I’m all about the people. I strongly believe that people and their skills, outlook and mind set are what make or break a team. A good team can achieve great things. A bad team will rarely achieve anything above average.

 

But a good team isn’t just about getting a group of genius’ or 5 star employees together. It’s about diversity and creativity. And this is exactly why great development teams can churn out huge amounts of software of exceptional quality. It’s why some open source projects are so successful and social media collaborative projects are so exciting, interesting and productive.

 

It’s because of people. It’s because the people in the team are usually self governing, highly motivated, creative and directing their own work in line with the whole team approach. It’s partly because these teams are made up of cross disciplines whose outlooks on life, work and play can be so very different.

 

As a manager or team builder don’t be too hasty to build a team of just one discipline, gender or personality. Instead, search out the creative, individual, accommodating, communicative and motivated individuals and bring these people together irrelevant of experience. (Note: Obviously some teams require certain unique skills sets which cannot be ignored)

 

The interconnection of ideas, thoughts and opinions is where real learning and development takes place. It’s where great ideas are born and plans are made.

 

Sir Ken Robinson said that “creativity is the interaction of disciplinary ways of seeing things.”

 

Whenever I build a team I look at the team as a whole, not as individual members. I don’t dictate ideas down to the team. I get them all in a room (of all levels) and we brainstorm and generate ideas together, as a unit.

 

It’s this team work that generates ideas, plans, actions and a team unification that is so often missing from many test teams. If you can include programmers as well, then you are on to a winner.

 

Creativity is a core fundamental in software testing. How can I find more bugs? What questions can I ask the software? How can I report my findings in a way my audience will interpret them as I want them to? How can I make myself more efficient? How can I leverage Bob’s skills even though he is not on my team?

 

So a good team is not only about the people (their skills or experience) but the teams outlook on life as well (attitude, understanding, communication skills etc). And don’t become complacent, it’s often the juniors who have the freshest and most interesting take on testing too………..

Agile: It will make your face melt and your mind burst

For me one of the most difficult challenges I have faced as a tester is the move from a traditional project methodology to an agile one.

 

The process of adopting agile for a manual tester is tricky. It’s incredibly difficult and often it is the testers who offers the most resistance when teams make the move. Stories about testers being negative, throwing their toys out of the pram and generally being a bad egg are common.

And I completely understand why.

When I made the transition from traditional to agile it felt like my face was melting and my mind was bursting.

It was the toughest challenge of my career. I hated those first few weeks and wondered whether I had a role in the team or not. I was contemplating a change of career and feeling completely and utterly under valued. I hated it. I was terrified that this was the future of software testing and I didn’t get on with it.

For a tester, it’s not just about doing the same work in a different order or with tighter time constraints, it’s about changing your outlook on testing and how you fit in to the team. It’s about redefining your role (and your skills) and evolving to stay relevant. You need to do a mind shift that at first seems completely alien. A mind shift that seems so very wrong.

In the end I just let go, took the rough with the smooth and worked at seeing what all the fuss was about. And here’s what I found out.

 

 

The focus of the whole team shifts to quality

  • You will become the quality expert. You will no longer be the person who tests just at the end
  • You may need to devise tests with little to no formal documentation…fast
  • You will need to feedback your test results rapidly
  • You will need to be confident, vocal, capable, responsive and communicative, often taking charge and leading on quality
  • The rest of the development team will come to you for feedback to their tests and code early

 

You will bridge the gap between the business and the techies

  • Your role should now mean you liase closely with the customer. You will need to adopt a customer satisfaction role
  • You will help to define the stories and acceptance critiria – these will become your tests and guidance so your input is essential
  • You will have to report finding about quality to the customer and stakeholders….fast, timely, accurately and with diplomacy

 

You will need to put your trust in the Product Backlog

  • Traditional projects with 100 requirements often end up delivering a large percentage of that 100 but with poor quality, misunderstanding and often incomplete
  • Agile projects with 100 requirements at the start *may* end up delivering only 60. But these will be complete, exactly what the customer wanted and of course, be superb quality.
  • This original number of 100 may grow and shrink with changing markets and business decisions. Trust the backlog.
  • The customer will define and decide the next sprint of work for your team.
    • You will simply advise, manage expectations and communicate
    • This is a tough one – letting the customer decide what to do next….
  • You will need to consider the longer term and bigger picture, but your main focus is the sprint in hand

 

You will need to increase your exploration and automation

  • You will need to replace the tedious, checklist type manual tests with automation if possible.
    • Your regression suite will get too large unless you make the most of automation and get the basics covered.
    • The only other option is to hire a load of undervalued and demotivated testers to simply ‘checklist’ basic functionality.
  • Your automation should be integrated with the continous integration and automated build deployments.
  • Elisabeth Hendrickson summed up agile testing very nicely indeed (taken from her ruminations blog – http://testobsessed.com/):
    • Checking and Exploring yield different kinds of information.
    • Checking tells us how well an implementation meets explicit expectations.
    • Exploring reveals the unintended consequences of meeting the explicitly defined expectations and gives us a way to uncovers implicit expectations. (Systems can work exactly as specified and still represent a catastrophic failure, or PR nightmare._
    • “Checking: verifying explicit, concrete expectations”
    • “Exploring: discovering the capabilities, limitations, and risks in the emerging system”
  • A negative side effect of increased exploration is how you go about managing the test information.

 

You will need to drop the concept of test case preparation and spec analysis

  • It’s unlikely you will get a detailed spec.
  • The acceptance criteria become your test cases and design.
  • The software becomes the UI design.
  • If you must write a test plan, plan for the sprint only.
    • Don’t assume you know how or what you will be testing in three sprints time.
  • Prepare to be dynamic in your tool selection, approach and thinking to testing. You may need to change your tools to cater for new information.
    • Don’t be too prescriptive.
    • Add a quality toolsmith to your team. They will save you a fortune in the long run.
    • Invest time in researching free, open source or cheap tools.
    • The more tools you know of, the more likely you will be able to respond to changes.
  • Don’t even consider what are supposedly Best Practices.
    • Do what is right for your team, on that project and at that moment in time.
  • Trust me, letting the stories and software guide the UI and design is a revelation. It’s just tricky changing your mindset to accept this.

 

You will need to get over the defect stats and metrics complexion

  • Working software is fundamental. It’s what the end goal is.
    • Each sprint you aim to deliver releasable standard software that meets the acceptance criteria.
    • So along the way there is less emphasis on raising and recording every single defect in a tracking system.
    • It’s more about shouting over to the programmer and getting it sorted between you.
    • Look at low tech dashboards as a way of reporting metrics
  • Defects that relate to the acceptance criteria and story under test mean the story is not done (even if it has been coded and the programmer has moved to a new story).
  • Defects are no longer used to cover our backsides or blame other people.
  • Defects that aren’t related to the story should be on the backlog, where the customer can prioritise.
    • After all a defect is a piece of functionality that either exists and shouldn’t or doesn’t exist and should.
    • Let the customer decide what to do with them.
    • They may be less/more important to the customer than you think.
  • If you truly must report then this needs to be done in the lightest way possible. And my guess is, that if you really are having to report each and every defect encountered along with test case metrics and stats in a formal way then someone in the process/system has not truly bought in to agile.
  • Note: I’m not saying be slack with defect tracking and reporting.
    • Far from it, if you need to put a defect on the backlog for the customer then you need to consider how you will describe this successfully for that audience.
    • When shouting to the programmer it’s often easier as you can show them the defect in action. 
    • The people you report to, the information you report and the way you report it changes.

 

After getting my head around these differences and new concepts I noticed a few unexpected side effects;

 

  • I was re-ignited with my passion for software testing
  • I was being consulted far more on quality issues meaning I spent less time complaining and raising obvious bugs after the software was dropped
  • I started to use my creativity and critical thinking in a rapid and responsive way, rather than testing a spec and thinking of a few edge cases up front.
    • I was being engaged and used for my creativity, skill and critical thinking
  • I started to work in teams where the whole team valued quality rather than an ‘over the wall’ mentality.
  • I noticed that the customers were far happier with the process. They were getting to control the focus of the work and ending up with software that meets their needs at that moment in time, not the software they thought they wanted 6 months ago
  • I lost a huge amount of negativity and became more positive, motivated and accomodating.
  • I spent far less time sitting around after raising a barrel load of defects.
    • I no longer waited for the triage, fix, build inclusion, release, retest, close.
    • I got them fixed asap, released asap and retested asap.
  • My job didn’t feel futile. I felt I was adding value.

Now I know there are people with frustrations with agile and there will be teething problems and issues for all new teams. And agile really may not be suitable for all types of work, but there are certainly some awesome principles and techniques we can all learn from agile.

If you have any agile testing stories to share then please let me know in the comments.