Limbering Up QA: Adapting to an Agile Process

In the days of Waterfall, testers were seen as the guardians of quality and the protectors of user experience. They were the last line of defense to prevent a flawed product from being released. This meant that QA needed to have all of the requirements provided to them so they could prepare their tests for when the product was finally complete and they could begin their process. Sure, the deadlines were usually tight because the release couldn’t be moved and development ran long, but that was just part of thrill. QA were sometimes viewed as an obstacle rather than an aid, but they remained strong and provided their sworn services for client and company.

All of this changed with the dawning of Agile.

The once-powerful QA is now faced with shorter deadlines, stories instead of specifications, and seemingly incomplete features being submitted for test. Worse yet, the developers are encouraged to develop unit tests that automate a chunk of what the tester once handled.  How can we possibly work like this? It’s utter madness.

It may seem like madness and chaos, but there is also method and rhythm to be found in the new processes. The first step is to stop fighting the current and dive off the waterfall instead. After taking the plunge, testers can learn to navigate the flow of sprints and iterations. Granted, this is often easier said than done, but any habit can be kicked and new ones formed. It just requires time, effort, and a willingness to change.

Unfortunately, two out of three of those things are often not in the testers’ inventory, time and willingness to change. I’m sure that a number of those reading this might be offended by that statement, but bear with me. I know that no-one will argue with the time part, but everyone trips on the willingness to change. It’s natural for people to find a comfort zone and settle in. It’s also natural to be startled and scared by change. In my experience, testers are often leery of Agile because it seems to value speed over quality, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Agile places emphasis on quality but it is done by building it in rather than straining out errors after development.

This change in both thought and method is the key to producing software quickly without compromising quality. The catch is that it requires developers and testers to step out of their silos and work closely together. They should also include product owners and other stakeholders in their discussions to keep everyone aligned.

The idea is to inject the knowledge of QA from the beginning rather than waiting until everything is done. While this may sound like a pitch for TDD or BDD, that is only a piece of the picture. Sometimes, it is already too late for feature to maintain quality once it gets to development. This case is most often found with legacy modifications or a stakeholder pet project that seems “simple enough” but hasn’t been fully evaluated for ripples or pitfalls. This isn’t because someone missed  something. It is a result of their standard thought processes.

  • Developers tend to think in terms of “how can I make this work?”. They are focused on solving the puzzles.
  • Product owners focus on the value of the feature to clients. Most POs leave the technical concepts to the dev team.
  • Stakeholders are usually focused on how the feature will improve their positions or increase the company’s profits

When testers are left out of the planning stages, teams sacrifice an opportunity to reduce bugs and head off troubled projects before they are sent to development. A tester’s mindset generally includes looking at contingencies, interactions, and risks within a system. Even if the person doesn’t know the  system, asking the right question during planning can shine a light on a major issue that may have been glossed over, such as “Have we considered how the new shipping system handles an order including both physical and downloadable content?”.

After planning, QA should be helping to translate business process knowledge from the POs into paths through the software and tests for the new feature. A common method of doing this is by writing Given-When-Then (or similar concept) scenarios. These scenarios will then form a basis for both automated and manual tests used to confirm the functionality during development and prior to release.

In short, testers should make an effort to be involved throughout the project cycle rather than sweeping up at the end. By doing this they can help set the stage for successful projects and avoid the stress of being the roadblock or bearer of bad news just before release. While this is a major change, it is one worth embracing.