Getting a junior up to speed on test automation with FitNesse

Last week we had the privilege of having a junior test engineer working with us for a few days to see what it would take to get him fully up and running with test automation as we have implemented it at our customer.

Our intern, as I introduced him at our client, has a solid eduction in Civil Engineering and lacked any kind of knowledge of test automation or writing software. He has just finished his first project as a junior tester, which was testing a data warehouse migration.


What drove us to try this was simple: curiosity and questioning of my personal coaching and explaining skills. Thus far I have had the feeling that I somewhat failed in showing how easy the setup of FitNesse with our custom fixture is to anyone who is not part of a management group. With this engineer I wanted to confirm whether this was me not explaining things clearly or people not following what I explained properly (e.g. me explaining things in the wrong wording).

Starting point

Our “intern”, as said, has little or no hard IT knowledge. He is one of the junior test engineers that came out of the group of trainees Polteq Test Services hired at the beginning of the year. With his degree in civil engineering he is for sure a smart guy, but considering he has never been on the construction side of software, he had some ways to go.

Considering that he had no prior knowledge of either the FitNesse/WebDriver setup nor the environment we are working on, we started with a morning session of explaining and overflowing him with information by answering the following questions.

  • What do the applications under test do?
  • What is the service oriented architecture underneath?
  • How does this all tie together into what you see when you start using the applications?
  • What is FitNesse?
  • What is WebDriver?
  • How do these two work together?
  • What is the architecture of the Fixture?
  • What is a fixture and how does that relate to WebDriver and FitNesse?

After this session he was set to work with FitNesse. The main thing that slowed him down somewhat was the getting used to the syntax as we force it through the use of our custom Slim fixture. At this point he still had only a minor base knowledge of what the application under test does or is supposed to do. Based on the existing functional testcases he managed to fairly rapidly automate a set of testcases, or more specifically, transform them from base functional descriptions into Slim tables which will run successfully as a test.

The result

Writing the testcases was easy work for him, he picked up the base syntax really fast and managed to pump out some 15 working tests in a very short period. It was time for a bit of a challenge.

Considering he had never written a line of code in his life I thought we might as well check to see how fast he would pick up writing a simple wrapper in C# around an Advanced Search page, which includes a set of dropdowns, textfields, radiobuttons and checkboxes which can be manipulated along with a submit and reset button.

The first two methods we wrote out together, him typing while I was explaining what is what. Why do you want the method to be public, why does it need to be a bool, what are arguments and how do you deal with that in FitNesse.  Where do you find the Identifier of the object you are trying to get the wrapper around, what do you do when there is no ID, how do you extract the xpath and make that work well. Once we got through the first few methods I set him at work to figure it out for himself.

The first question I received after a while was: ok, so now I’m done writing these things out in code, then what? How can I now see this working in FitNesse? After making an extremely feeble attempt at explaining what compiling is and deciding to just show where the compile button is, he then set to work to verify in FitNesse that his code indeed is capable of reaching and manipulating every element on the search page and getting to a sensible search result.

Take away

What did I learn in this week? For starters that when coached close enough it is very simple to get someone without experience up and running with FitNesse the way we set it up, which is good to have confirmed again, since that was the aim.

Another thing we have seen proven is that adding new methods to the fixture is dead-simple, changing the ID’s of objects on the pages should not lead to too much hassle maintaining the fixture. For the Base class quite some developer knowledge is still required, but once that part is standing expanding the testable part can be done with some of coaching. So technically we would need to start handing over maintenance of our Base classes to someone within Development and hand off maintaining the rest of the fixture to someone within the test teams here.

One of the things we might consider in making maintenance easier could be to split the leaf-nodes, e.g. the page level, off from the base and helper classes in order for these two to be complete independent of one another, which means that the developer can add and refactor in the base, without breaking the current functionality, once done refactoring or adding stuff, the new DLL can be used to talk to.

Maybe I am getting carried away with making things modular now though…

Overall, good to see our idea of making things easy to transfer indeed seem to work well, although I do not want to say that this one week was enough to hand over everything of course!

Based on this week I have started to explain things to the test team internally, which does seem to indeed be an improvement. I do believe that having this week gave me a chance to play around with the ways in which I explain stuff, especially on a non-technical level.

Erwin, thanks for being here and listening to my explanations, following instructions and asking questions! It was a joy working with you this week.

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?

FitNesse – Test automation in a wiki

the assignment
When I started working at my current assignment I got told that the tools for automation had already been chosen, one of the tools being FitNesse. The way the tools were chosen is not my preferred way of picking a tool, the fact that the assignment was to “implement test automation across the organization through the use of the chosen tools” made me slightly worried whether or not FitNesse and the rest would indeed turn out to be the right choice.

Prior to this assignment I had heard a lot about FitNesse but had never had any hands-on experience with it, nor did I know anyone with hands-on experience with it.
Having worked with FitNesse for a few months now i feel the time has come to share my thoughts on it, what do I like, what do I believe is up for improvement, how is it working for me for now etc.

learning curve
Getting started with FitNesse was not all too intuitive. Getting it started is easy enough, but once you have it running it is not clear where to start and where to go from the FrontPage. Since we were not planning to use the standard fixtures but instead were planning to create our own we started on the fixture side rather than with FitNesse itself directly. Having created a generic login functionality in the fixture translating actions back int FitNesse became a lot more intuitive.

The base fixtures such as the DoFixture, WebFixture etc. are very powerful in itself, I however feel they somewhat miss the point of automating in clear text: the tests are not easy to read, logical to follow or intuitive to write. We chose to work with SLIM rather than with FIT since FIT gives too much flexibility in usage of (almost) psuedo-code. Examples as used in the acceptance test in FitNesse are not clear enough for our purpose at this client. The test team is, to say the least, not very technically inclined and examples such as below do not really help them very much:

This is still somewhat readable

!|Response Examiner.|
|type  |pattern|matches?|contents?|
|contents|Location: LinkingPage\?properties|true||

A while loop implemented in FitNesse however quickly turns into black-magic in the hands of the technically less inclined:

|put book in the cart|i|
|confirm selection|i|

With our custom implementation we now have test cases that can be read by most people within the organization and will be quite well understood, for example the below scenario for transferring money from one account to another:

|Scenario|Transfer Money|amount|From Account|accountFrom|To Account|accountTo|With Description|desc|
|Start               |TransferMoney |
|Go To|
|Select Van Rekening |@accountFrom |From Dropdown|
|Select Naar Rekening|@accountTo|From Dropdown|
|Enter Bedrag        |@amount|In Textbox|
|Enter Omschrijving  |@desc|In Textbox|
|Click On Verwerken|
|Select Content Frame|
|Is Text             |Het effect van deze overboeking op uw vrije bestedingsruimte is|Present|
|Click On Verwerken|
|Start               |CurrentAccount|
|go to|
|check               |Get data from column|Bedrag|3|

Having started with Selenium as the driver below FitNesse enabled us to quickly build out quite a lot of test cases for the web applications. Part of the beauty of FitNesse in my opinion is that it is driver agnostic. In other words, it doesn’t really care what the system under test is, be it a website, a JavaApplet, a database or desktop applications. We are currently starting to work on TIBCO interfaces and will soon have to move over to Delphi and C# desktop applications. With quite some traditional test-automation-frameworks this would force us to start working either with a different tool or at least in quite a different way. The great thing about FitNesse is that it is so flexible that we can not only test desktop applications, we can also test across several parts of the platform. For example start executing some functions on the web application, verify these actions directly in the database, start a management desktop application and approve the actions initiated from the web application, all within one test case. A test case that big would make the test fragile, but the great thing is, it is possible if you really would want to.

Quite some of the tests currently in FitNesse have been built up based on a functional mapping we initially made of the system, rather than the flows through the application. This is not quite ideal when running the tests, let alone when trying to sort through them and building up a suite for a particular type of flow or functionality.
Refactoring in FitNesse is probably the part where I believe a lot of improvements can be made. The current functionality, based on regular expression search is fairly crude.
FitNesse being a wiki, does have a wonderful different perk when needing to execute some bigger refactoring or moving around of test cases. All tests are text files within directories in the filesystem of your PC. In other words, if the built-in refactor function is too crude, a tool like Notepad++ or TextPad can be of immense value. These can search through files across directory structures and do a big part of the refactoring work for you. If you need to move whole folder structures, again you can copy them around directly on the file system.

My feeling regarding FitNesse so far is that it is a great tool which thus far seems to be underestimated out there in the world of test automation. Even when working directly with the standard fixtures FitNesse makes for easy to use, simple and quick to implement test automation. The main challenge is the initial learning curve, getting started with it and making the right choice in whether to go with Fit or Slim are for the newcomer the main hurdles.

What did I get out of today’s testingdojo

It’s funny to see how difficult it is to get a group of people, who work with one another daily, to talk freely and share their ideas, even when their manager is not present and they are amongst their peers.

During today’s testingdojo, which again was supposed to last an entire day focussing fully on working with FitNesse, we started off with a talk about what we aim to achieve at our customer’s with test automation. I tried to enthuse the group by pushing them to think about the possible difference between “test automation” and “computer aided testing” and if there are differences, what does one mean and what does the other mean. From there I hoped to get to insight into what they think we should aim to achieve and of course whether or not their ideas make sense to us, as the leads on implementing test automation.

A real discussion on this never took flight unfortunately, moreover, the two people we have been working with closely on the implementation remained most silent of all. I am still not sure what the cause of this silence from their side was, natural shyness, cultural pressure, or something else. Instead I ended up pulling some keywords out of the group and discussing my thoughts on them. Not too bad either, but I do not believe I should have been the one talking this much about the subject.

The second part where I hoped to create a bit of discussion was on what the group believes to be good practices in testautomation. This also took some pains from my side, along with some poking, probing and planting the occasional seed, but some discussion arose on this. After a while one of them remarked that in the end it seemed that all things that can be considered good or best practices in testautomation also fly for manual functional testing.

This insight led me nicely back to clarifying the first point, what are we aiming to do: trying to remove manual testing all together or trying to create more free-space and time to enable them to do more and different manual testing? I do believe I got the picture across that we are not trying to take away manual testing, but rather trying to help them remove repetitive work. Since repetitive testing of the same items and same or similar functionality is quite likely to create a form of feature-blindness.

The term feature-blindness seemed to be a new concept for a big part of the group; however I managed to get this concept explained fairly easy by example.

In the end the morning session was not exactly what I hoped it would be, but it clearly did get the points I wanted to make across. Which were: think of what you want to test, try to describe for yourself why you want to automate something and then read it back in order to figure out whether it indeed still makes sense to automate this. Try to keep your tests small, self contained and reusable. Refactor your FitNesse tests into reusable scenarios, but also keep an eye out on over-complicating things by making everything a scenario, e.g. do not make a scenario for the sake of making it, only create it if you indeed have several identical tests which need different input data. And the most important of all as far as I am concerned in functional testautomation: Keep It Simple and Stupid. Even fancy stuff you should be able to keep simple, readable and brief. If at a first attempt you fail at doing it, don’t worry, move on and come back at a later stage to refactor your test.

One not so nice thing about today’s dojo was that for the second time in a row the second part of the day was rudely disturbed by some very unexpected downtime of our test-environments. We were told in advance that one of the environments would be taken down for urgent maintenance and patching, unfortunately both environments went down during this change which resulted in us sending the group off earlier than anticipated.

Main takeaway for me: I really enjoy doing these knowledge sharing and coaching sessions, I like it a lot and see it as a great bonus to my work as a consultant, especially since it makes me (and hopefully my colleagues) think about why I am doing things they way I am doing them.

Thoughts while preparing testingdojo follow up

In the first testingdojo at my current client we familiarized the team with each other and of course with Selenium and Fitnesse for test automation.

As I wrote earlier this was quite a succes, all participants seemed to have really enjoyed the dojo and all learned quite some new tricks on how to use Fitnesse to their own advantages as well as the companies advantages. During this first session we stuck to the basics of what can be done with FitNesse, such as simple testcases, use of variables and some basic reusability like login.

All the fancy stuff we have not even touched upon, so my first thoughts were to cover that during the coming, second, testingdojo.

I am however now doubting that idea. Isn’t it a lot more sensible to explain the basics and have them work, as a team, on what is best-practice for testautomation, how can they implement this best for their organization?

Considering the general lack of knowledge in testautomation within this organization I truly believe this would be the best way to go, however question now is of course, how do you keep a session like that interesting? This could easily turn into a very boring, theoretical discussion rather than a properly interactive dojo.

A thought that occurred to me is that we might start off describing the best practices and then pair them up and make them search for ways to get to these best practices as well as reviewing existing automated testcases and refactor them to adhere to these best practice. In order to do this I would of course need to start off compiling my own list of test automation best practices specially tailored for testautomation within this organization and with FitNesse as a background. So far I have come up with the following list, keeping in mind that my group has limited knowledge of testautomation and will solely work in FitNesse:

  • do you know what we are trying to achieve with testautomation within the organization? Are we automating for the correct reasons?
  • before writing an automated test, describe your objective, does it still make sense to automate this test after reading your objective?
  • choose wisely what to automate and what not, be clear on the reason why you are automating someting
  • keep your tests short, readable and simple in order to keep maintenance low and knowledge tranfer capability high
  • make your tests data-driven, try avoiding hardcoded values. In a fast-moving environment like my customers’ it is key to ensure you are not facing failing tests due to inconsistent or wrong data hardcoded in your tests
  • try thinking in reusable functional pieces, keep an eye open for actions you do more than once and see if it makes sense to a) execute this action more than once and b) if this is indeed the case should we make this function(ality) a reusable scenario?

I am fully confident that I have left out quite a few (even more) important points, however the team itself will need to come up with a list of what they believe is going to be key in making testautomation a success within the entire organization, that is what a testingdojo is about, working together and learning from oneanother.