Programming is the number one quality assurance activity

By Jim Grey (about)

Programming is the number one quality assurance activity.

Or maybe it’s design. Or maybe it’s writing good user stories. Or maybe it’s having good ideas for things to build in the first place. Or maybe it’s paying down technical debt.

TestBut it sure as hell isn’t testing.

When I talk to engineering leaders at small software development shops and they find out I make my living in testing, many of them admit that they don’t have any testers yet. They’re sheepish about it. It’s as if I’ll be offended!

I tell them to rock on, and to delay hiring that first tester for as long as they can.

And then I ask them about the quality challenges they have. Too many bugs? Won’t scale? Bogs down under load? Don’t fall prey to the gut reaction “oh my god we need to test,” as if testers are a magic filter through which perfect software passes.

Because if you respond by hiring testers, you’re likely to end up with testing theater. Your testers will do testery things and find bugs, sometimes even good ones, bugs that let you sleep better at night.

But they can’t fix your quality problems. Only your developers can do that. Instead of letting your developers do whatever it is they do and hope a tester can find everything that’s wrong, challenge your developers to get better.

I ask them these questions:

Do your developers have the skills needed to build the software you’re asking of them? If not, help them build those skills or, gulp, replace them with developers who have them.

Are you following good development practices? Test-driven development, pairing, and code reviews. Not only do they promote solid code, they help create a culture of quality among your developers.

Is your team writing lots of automated unit tests and and acceptance tests? (By acceptance tests, I mean thin functional tests at the API or controller level.) Do they run on every commit? This traps basic problems as soon as they’re introduced.

Do you have a well-functioning delivery methodology, at the right scale for your organization? If you’re two developers, that might be a kanban board drawn on a whiteboard. If you’re ten developers, you might use a tool like Pivotal Tracker and have a couple defined but light rules and ceremonies. If you’re 100 developers, it might be some scaled agile methodology like SAFe, backed up with a tool like JIRA, guided by a program management office. Whatever it is, are you following it and is work flowing smoothly through the delivery pipeline?

Are you giving your developers the time they need to do thoughtful work? To design resilient software that performs? To architect it for long-term growth?

Do all of these things before you hire your first tester. Your developers will give you a level of quality that makes it hard for testers to find low-level bugs. Testers will then have time to find more interesting and valuable bugs because basic stuff is seldom broken. This makes testing a lot less expensive, by the way. You need way fewer testers when you deliver software to them where core functionality works.

And then your testers, instead of feverishly testing the basics, can contribute at a higher level. Testers bring a different mindset to your teams, one of critical thinking about how the software is deployed and used. When you harness that mindset, you can improve your designs and your architecture before you write that first line of code.

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