Are we building shelf-ware or a useful test automation tool?

Frustration and astonishment inspired this post. There currently is a big regression testing cycle going on within the organization, over the past 4 months we have worked hard with testers to establish a sizable base of automated tests, however the moment regression started everyone seemed to drop the automation tools and revert back into what they have always done: open excel and check the check-boxes of the scripted tests.

Considering that we have already setup a solid base with a custom fixture enabling the tests, or checks if you will, to do exactly what the tester wants them to do and do what a tester would do manually whilst following the prescribed scripts, and having written out, in FitNesse, a fair share of these prescribed scripts, what is stopping them from using this setup?

Are we automating for the sake of automating?

While working on this, extremely flexible, setup with FitNesse and Selenium WebDriver and White as the drivers I have started wondering more and more why we are automating in this organization. The people responsible for testing do not seem to be picking up on the concept of test automation, they are all stating loudly that it is needed and that it is great that we are doing it, but when regression starts they immediately go back to manual checks. I say manual checks on purpose since the majority of testing here is done fully scripted, most of these scripts do not leave anything to the testers imagination, resulting in these tests being checks rather than tests. Checks we can execute automatically, repeatedly and consistently with tools such as FitNesse.

How do you make testers aware that a lot of the scripted tests should not be done manually?

Let me be clear on this, I am a firm believer in both manual and automated testing. They both have their value and should be used together, automated testing is not here to take away the manual testing, rather it is here to support the testers in their work. Automated testing should be complimentary to manual testing. Thus far in this organization, I have seen manual testing happening and I have seen (and experienced) a lot of effort being put into writing out the automated tests in FitNesse. However there has not been a clear cooperation between the two, despite the people writing the automated tests being the same individuals who also are responsible for executing the manual tests (which they have rewritten into FitNesse in order to build automated tests).

We have tried coaching on the job, we have tried dojos, but alas, I still see a hell of a lot of manual checks happening instead of FitNesse doing these checks for them. What is it that makes people not realize the potential of an automation tool? Thus far I have come up with several possible causes

  • In our test-dojos we mainly focused on how to write tests in FitNesse rather than focusing on what you can achieve with test automation. This has led me to the idea that we rapidly need to organize another workshop or dojo in which the focus should be on what the advantages of automated tests are.
  • Another reason could be that test automation was not initiated by this team, it was put upon this team as a responsibility. The team we are currently creating this fixture for is a typical end-of-the-line-bottom-of-the-testing-chain team, everything they get to test is thrown over a wall and left to them to see if it works appropriately. Most of them do not seem to have consciously chosen to be testers, instead they have accidentally rolled into the software testing field. Some of them have adapted very well to this and clearly show affinity and aptitude for testing, others however would, in my opinion, be better of choosing a different occupation. It is exactly the latter group that needs to be pulling this test automation effort currently going on.
There are more reasons I could go into here, but I believe these two to be the main issues at hand here which can actually be addressed.

So what will make people use automation tools properly?

The moment I can answer this one in a general rule-of-thumb I will sell it to the highest bidder. For within this organization however there doesn’t really seem to be a simple solution just yet. As I have written before, there is not yet one sole ambassador for test automation in this organisation. Even if there is, we will need to cause a shift in the general mindset of the testers. Rather than just walking through their predefined set of instructions in excel, they need to consider for themselves what has already gotten covered in the automated tests, how can I supplement these tests with manual testing?

We will need to find a way to get the testers to step out of their comfort-zone and learn how to utilize tools other than Excel and MS Word. Maybe organizing a testing competition will work, see who can cover the most tests in the shortest time and with the highest accuracy?

I am not a great believer in measuring things in testing, but maybe inventing some nice measurements will help the testers see the light. For example “How often can you test the same flow with different input in a certain timeframe?”.

Did we build shelf-ware or did we add value to the testing chain?

At the moment I often ask myself whether I am building shelf-ware or actually am building a useful automation tool (trying to stay away from terms like framework, since that might only increase the distance between the tool and the testers). Whenever I play around with the FitNesse/WebDriver/White setup we currently have running I see an incredibly versatile test automation tool which can be used to make life a lot easier for those who have to test the software regularly and repeatedly (not just testers, but also developers, product owners etc. can easily use this setup).

It is completely environment agnostic, if needed we can (and have in the past) run the same tests we run in a test environment also in production. It is easy to build new test cases/scripts or scenarios (I seem to have lost track what would be the safe option here to choose, they all have their own subconscious connotations) since it is a wiki. All tests are human readable, if you can read an excel sheet, reading the tests in FitNesse with Slim the way we built it, should be child-play.

Despite all these great advantages, the people that should be using it are not.

Reading all this back makes me consider one more thing; we started off building this setup with these tools based on a request from higher management. The tool selection was done by the managers (or team leads if you will) and not by the team themselves. Did we miss out on the one thing the IT industry has taught us? Did we build something we all want, but not what our customer wants and needs? I hope not, for one thing, I am quite sure this is what they need, an easy to use tool to automate all tedious, repetitive check work.

Question that remains: is this what our customer, or to be more exact, our customers’ end user, the tester, wants?

2 thoughts on “Are we building shelf-ware or a useful test automation tool?

  1. I think there are a few key problems with automated testing.

    As developer I earn my life creating things that usually have not been done before (it is technology after all) and the way testing needs to be done usually also is different for every project.

    To me that means that investing in automated test is also an investment in technology and investing in technology requires skilled developers. These developers are typically like me “hard to get, expensive and expected to write bug free code” so when a company finds one they are put in development ratter then testing.

    This can be a problem at higher level (e.g. the company wants products to ship and not beautiful core). Or the developers them self prefer the production process ratter then the testing process.

    Investing in automated test in the way you describe e.g. a technology push(not developer or tester driven) will most of the time need to be explained in the form of “cost reduction”. Who are we to think a human can easily be replaced by a machine.

    I don’t have real answers for you as I am searching myself. I am spending time automating things (mainly for regression testing).

    You are probably right in thinking you forgot to talk to your users.

    One approach I am really keen to test is having a dedicated tester per small team that can take unit tests from the developers and grow that to something *directly* returning value. This tester should be the person knowing about $LATEST automation framework.

    Greetings

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