Thanks to Subject7 for providing us with this blog post.
A common question is how much of each type of testing should I do. And to answer how much, how many, or what ratios, we need a way to count and compare types of tests. A small unit test might take a minute or two to write and 10 milliseconds to run; a small end-to-end test might take a half-hour to create and a minute to run. When it takes a tester to create one end-to-end test, a programmer might create several unit tests.
Does that satisfy the pyramid’s requirements of a broad base? Or are we just comparing apples to oranges?
Talking to the people who kicked around the original ideas, we can conclude that the intent was one of focus: The team should focus on the unit tests more than the higher-level tests. In other words, they should build a solid foundation first.
Matrix measurement and output
These ideas are conceptual advice, but they are not very practical. To figure out the ratio, we would need to measure the number of minutes people spend on activities at various levels, then compare high-functioning teams to low-functioning, and then eliminate other independent variables.
However, the reality is that no one does this sort of measurement at the industry scale. In his landmark paper Software Engineering Metrics: What Do They Measure and How Do We Know?, Cem Kaner suggests we have so little agreement on what words mean – is the build maintainer a developer? A tester? What about user experience specialists? Kaner argues that comparisons like figuring out a developer-to-tester ratio make little sense. Even with a survey of every company, the metrics would reflect an average of all the people who responded to the survey. Companies with an external API as a main product would undoubtedly have a different ideal ratio from those that do electronic data interchange (EDI) as a business. Likewise, software as a service (SaaS) companies, like GitHub or Atlassian (who makes Jira), will have a different approach from insurance companies and banks that do data processing.
With that in mind, the question becomes less about the “right” industry-standard number for each type of test or even the right number for your company. Instead, the question is, “should our team be doing more or less of each type of testing?”
Unit tests tend to find low-level, isolated problems and provide incredibly fast feedback to the programmer. Integration and API tests find problems gluing together components, often due to misunderstanding the protocol — how the information is transferred. End-to-end tests exercise the entire system, ensuring the complete flow works for the customer.
Challenges faced by teams.
It is tempting to get the data you need from a Scrum retrospective. But people in Scrum retrospectives tend to focus on a single incident or something that has happened only a few times. We want an objective assessment that looks at what has happened over time, not what people experienced in the past two weeks.
Instead of a retrospective, we suggest looking at bugs found recently. That includes bugs found in testing and later by customers after they escape to production. This evaluation includes quantitative data and qualitative data from reading the bug reports, particularly for impact.
When we’ve done this, we’ve gone back somewhere between a month and six months and pulled the bugs that qualify into a spreadsheet, with a column for the root cause and another for where the defect should have been found. Most recently we’ve just looked at the last hundred bugs. If your team does a “zero-known-bug” policy and doesn’t write them up but fixes them, you might need to write down what you find for two to four weeks.
One team we worked with recently had a great number of user interface bugs that were based on regressions — that is, a change in one piece of the code had unintended consequences in a different area of the code that seemed to be unrelated. It was a mobile application, and the screens used shared code libraries. The changes were visual and mainly concerned with the look and feel of elements like text boxes and combo boxes.
Another team had mobile application problems that showed up mostly when testing with real devices, such as a sticky scroll on an iPhone or changes in screen design that did not render properly when the screen resolution changed for various devices. This was an e-commerce application for a luxury brand, and as it turned out, iOS represented an extremely large percentage of actual dollars spent on checkout.
None of these bugs would have been caught by unit tests. In these cases, the focus clearly needed to shift to more user interface and end-to-end tests.
Another data point comes from looking at how often testers are waiting for a fix, how long that wait is, and if the problem could reasonably have been found by end-to-end tests. Waiting is one of the seven wastes of the Toyota Production System. In software, we tend to “paper over” waiting by having people work on other tasks, but the wait (and delay) is still there. Gathering data for this problem can be as simple as going to the daily standup and getting a list of stories (and bugs) the testers are waiting for, then working backward to see if end-to-end tests would have found those defects or if unit tests could have found them.
Prevention is better than cure.
Bugs that escape production can be a little trickier. In some cases, the team needs additional end-to-end tests. In others, the problem was a lack of creativity and freedom within the testers — “Nobody thought to test that,” or in some cases, “We thought to test that, but the setup was hard, and the programmer said it could never happen.”
The classic question, “Why didn’t QA find that bug?” is really unproductive here. Instead, the questions are “Can this bug reoccur?” and, if so, “How should we shift the test effort to find the defect?”
For one team we worked with, the bugs that escaped to production were relatively unique: a configuration flag was left pointing to test.companyname.com when an API was called, or a database indexer ran for too long and caused all requests from the database to block. These were big problems but relatively rare, best addressed by policy and procedure.
Certainly, a test running on test.companynname.com could never find that problem. In other cases, the issues in production were infrastructure-based and could have been found by making the change in a test environment, then running the end-to-end tests against that environment.
A final question to consider is how many of the crucial defects that are discovered are through exercising the entire system (often regressions), and how many are limited to new feature development. Many new feature bugs would imply the need for better exploratory testing and, perhaps, more unit tests. You would need to dig into the details.
End-to-end and GUI tests provide value when the workflow breaks. If testers spend a great deal of time dead in the water waiting for bug fixes, it’s likely time for more end-to-end testing. On the other hand, we’ve worked with teams where the first build simply did not work at all, and the simplest combination of inputs rendered an error. In that case, focusing on unit tests, or at least programmer-testing might be best.
Starting points to quality testing at speed
Here’s a place to start: Is the code quality on the first build delivered to test “good enough?” If not, then is the problem one of insufficient regression testing? Or do the issues stem from new features?
If the problem is insufficient regression testing, analyze whether the issues could be found by end-to-end testing. Test the login, search, create a new page, and create a profile — errors that block the flow of work might be findable by end-to-end testing. Other problems, like a sticky scroll, might require more engineering work to build better code. If the problem is new feature development, examine whether the programmers should do more unit tests or better check their work before passing it off.
These questions don’t provide a percentage or ratio, but they can help set expectations for change.
On a full delivery team of 10 or more developers, analysts, and testers, the next step will likely take someone half-time to work on the area that needs emphasis. Often programmers feel like they need permission to do more unit tests (or write end-to-end tests themselves), while testers feel like they need permission to beef up the regression-check automation. Insisting on obtaining this permission will slow down the pace of delivery.
Still, if the heavier concentration on unit testing was buggy, and those bugs delayed release, a heavier emphasis on end-to-end testing may result in less back-and-forth and better quality in less total time. Think of this as reducing the big, ugly delays by investing in a little more end-to-end testing. You may even end up going faster. That is a win.
Payam Fard – Co-Founder Subject7
Payam has over 20 years of experience in the software development and process automation industries, spanning both federal and commercial sectors. During his career, he recognized one of the main challenges of test automation – the mismatch between the technical experience of testing teams and the complex test automation solutions that existed in the market.
He co-founded Subject7 with the intent of developing a comprehensive test automation solution that would empower business and non-technical users to deliver sophisticated and scalable automation without the need for any programming experience. At Subject7, he has focused on ensuring the success of early customers and evangelizing the benefits of codeless technologies for the test automation industry.
Prior to Subject7, Payam spent his career developing large-scale business applications for federal agencies, working for SAIC, CSC, Raytheon, and Hughes Network Systems. He obtained B.S. and M.S. degrees in Computer Science from the University of Maryland and an MBA from The Johns Hopkins University.
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