On choosing both/and, not either/or

Choices. We all make them tens of times each day. Peanut butter or cheese (cheese for me, most of the time). Jeans or slacks (jeans, definitely). Coffee or tea (decent coffee with a glass of water on the side please). And when you’re working on or learning about automation, there’s a multitude of choices you also can (and sometimes have to) make. A lot of these choices, as I see people discussing and making them, are flawed in my opinion, though. Some of them are even false dichotomies. Let’s take a look at the choices people think they need to make, and how there are other options available. Options that might lead to better results, and to being better at your job.

Do I need to learn Java or .NET? Selenium or UFT?
Creating automation often involves writing code. So, the ability to write code is definitely a valuable one. However, getting hung up on a specific programming language might limit your options as you’re trying to get ahead.

I still see many people asking what programming language they need to learn when they’re starting out or advancing in their career. If you’d ask me, the answer is ‘it doesn’t really matter’. With the abundance in tools, languages, libraries and frameworks that are available to software development teams nowadays, chances are high that your next gig will require using a different language than your current one.

As an example, I recently started a new project. So far, in most of my projects I’ve written automation in either Java or .NET. Not in this one, though. In the couple of weeks I’ve been here, I’ve created automation using PHP, Go and JavaScript. And you know what? It wasn’t that hard. Why? Because I’ve made a habit of learning how to program and of studying principles of object oriented programming instead of learning the ins and outs of a specific programming language. Those specifics can be found everywhere on Google and StackOverflow.

The same goes for automation tools. I started writing UI-level automation using TestPartner. Then QuickTest Pro (now UFT). I’ve used Selenium in a few projects. I’ve dabbled with Cypress. Now, I’m using Codecept. It doesn’t matter. The principles behind these tools are much the same: you identify objects on a screen, then you interact with them. You need to take care of waiting strategies. If you become proficient in these strategies, which tool you’re using doesn’t matter that much anymore. I’ve stopped chasing the ‘tool du jour’, because there will always be a new one to learn. The principles have been the same for decades, though. What do you think would be a better strategy to improve yourself?

Identify and learn to apply common principles and patterns, don’t get hung up on a single tool or language. Choose both/and, not either/or.

Do I stay a manual tester or become an automation engineer?
Another one of the choices I see people struggling with often is the one between staying a ‘manual tester’ (a term that I prefer not to use for all the reasons Michael Bolton gives in this blog post of his and becoming an automation engineer. If you’d ask me, this is a perfect example of a flawed choice in the testing field. It’s not a matter of either/or. It’s a matter of both/and.

Automation supports software testing, it does not replace it. If you want to become more proficient in automation, you need to become more proficient in testing, too. I’ve only fairly recently realized this myself, by the way. For years, all I did was automation, automation, automation, without thinking whether my efforts actually supported the testing that was being done. I’ve learned since that if you don’t know what testing looks like (hint: it’s much more than clicking buttons and following scripts), then you’ll have a pretty hard time effectively supporting those activities with automation.

Don’t abandon one type of role for the other one, especially when there’s so much overlap between them. Choose both/and, not either/or.

Do I learn to write tests against the user interface, or can I better focus on APIs?
So, I’ve been writing a lot about the benefits of writing tests at the API level, not only on this blog, but also in numerous talks and training courses. When I do so, I am often quite critical about the way too many people apply user interface-driven automation. And there IS a lot of room for improvement there, definitely. That does not mean that I’m saying you should abandon this type of automation at all, just that you should be very careful when deciding where to apply it.

Like in the previous examples, it is not a matter of either/or. For example, consider something as simple and ubiquitous as a login screen (or any other type of form in an application). When deciding on the approach for writing tests for it, it’s not a simple choice between tests at the UI level or tests at the API level; rather it depends on what you’re testing. writing a test that checks whether an end user sees the login form and all associated in their browser? Whether the user can interact with the form? Whether the data entered by the user is sent to the associated API correctly? Or whether the form looks like it’s supposed to? Those are tests that should be carried out at the UI level. Checking whether the data provided by the user is processed correctly? Whether incorrectly formatted data is handled in the appropriate manner? Whether the right level of access grants is given to the user upon enter a specific combination of username and password? Those tests might target a level below the UI. Many thanks, by the way, to Richard Bradshaw for mentioning this example somewhere on Slack. I owe you one more beer.

Being able to make the right decision on the level and scope to write the test on required knowing what the benefits and drawbacks and the possibilities of the alternatives are. It also requires the ability to recognize and apply principles and patterns to make the best possible decision.

Again, identify and learn to apply common principles and patterns, don’t get hung up on a single tool or language. Choose both/and, not either/or.

The point I’ve been trying to make with the examples above is that, like with so many things in life, being the best possible automation engineer isn’t a matter of choosing A over B. Of being able to do X or Y. What, in my opinion, will make you much better in your role is being able to do, or at least understand, A and B, X and Y. Then, extract their commonalities (these will often take the form of the previously mentioned principles and practices) and learn how to apply them. Study them. Learn more about them. Fail at applying them, and then learn from that.

I’m convinced that this is a much better approach to sustainable career development than running after the latest tool or hype and becoming a self-proclaimed expert at it, only to have to make a radical shift every couple of years (or even months, sometimes).

Don’t become a one trick pony. Choose both/and, not either/or.

On the 2018 Romanian Testing Conference

So, last week I had the pleasure of attending the 2018 edition of the Romanian Testing Conference. It was my second visit to Cluj: after having delivered a workshop at the conference last year I was invited to do another workshop for this year’s edition. I told Andrei, one of the organizers, that I would gladly accept if he:

  1. could schedule my workshop for the Thursday (Wednesday and Thursday were pre-conference workshops days, the conference itself was on the Friday), and
  2. would make it at least as good an event -and if possible, better- than last year.

Challenge mutually accepted!

During the time when the CFP was open, I sneakily submitted a proposal for a talk as well, and was quite surprised to see it accepted too. Yay! More work!

I left for Romania on Wednesday and arrived around 7 PM at the hotel Grand Italia, which again was both the place where the speakers had their rooms as well as the venue for the conference itself. I cannot stress how awesome it is to be able to pop in and out of your room before, during and after workshops and talks without having to go to another place. Need a rest? Go to your room. Forgot something? You’ll have retrieved it in minutes. Want to check if there’s anyone up for a chat and/or a drink? Just ride the elevator down.

Again, the organization went to great lengths to make us speakers and workshops hosts as comfortable as they could. Always someone around if you have questions, picking you up from and bringing you back to the airport in dedicated RTC cars (even at stupid o’clock), it is a wonderfully organized event.

Thursday – workshop day
Like last year, I hosted a workshop around API testing and automation. Where I only used REST Assured last year, I decided to give the participants a broader overview of tools by including some exercises with SoapUI, as well as a demo of Parasoft SOAtest, a commercially licensed API testing tool. Also, compared to last year, I threw in more background on the ‘why?’ and the ‘what?’ of API testing.

Me delivering my workshop

I had 30 participants (like all other workshops and the conference itself, it was sold out) and after a bumpy start, including a couple of power outages, we were off. Like with all workshops, it took me a little time to gauge the level of experience in the room and to adjust my pace accordingly, but I think I got it right pretty quickly. With several rounds of instructions > exercise > feedback, time was flying by! Breaks were plenty and before I knew it, the working part of the day was over.

We were invited to a wonderful speakers dinner in the hotel restaurant, which provided plenty of time and opportunity to catch up with those other speakers I met before, as well as to meet those that I hadn’t had the privilege to meet yet. After a day of teaching and all the impressions from dinner, I decided to be sensible and make it an early night. Mission failed, because once in my room it still took me hours to fall asleep. My brain just couldn’t shut off..

Friday – conference day
Friday morning came quickly and that meant conference day time! The programme was strong with this one.. So many good talks on the schedule. Yet, like with many conferences, I spent most of the day in the hallway track, preparing for my talk (I wasn’t on until 4 PM) as well as having a chat with speakers and attendees. For me, that’s often at least as valuable as the talks themselves.

Still, I saw three talks: first Angie Jones’ keynote (I met her a month earlier in Utrecht but had never seen her speak before), then Viktor Slavchev’s talk and finally Maria Kedemo’s keynote. All three were very good talks and I learned a lot from them, both in terms of the message they conveyed as well as their presentation style.

This day flew by too and before I knew it, it was time for my own talk. Now, I’m a decent workshop host (or so I’d like to think…) but I am not an experienced speaker, so doing a talk takes a lot out of me, both in terms of the time it takes to prepare as well as the energy I spend during the talk itself. Still, I was pretty pleased with how I did, and the feedback afterwards reflected that. Maybe I just need to do this more often…

Me during my talk

After the closing talk, which I skipped in favor of going outside, enjoying the beautiful weather and winding down, the conference was already over. To round it all off, we went out for a bite with some of the speakers before we attended the conference closing party. The organization had one final surprise in tow for me there when they gave me an award for the best workshop of the conference. Seeing the list of amazing workshops that they had on offer this year, I certainly did not expect that!

Since my flight back home left at an ungodly hour the next morning, I decided not to make it too long an evening (not everybody followed my example judging from my Twitter timeline the next morning..). Travels home were uneventful (which I consider a good thing) and suddenly, it was all over again.

My thoughts on this wonderful conference, the organization and the volunteers can be summarized by this tweet, I think:

So, did the organization deliver? Well, I did get to do my workshop on the Thursday, and I had an amazing time again, so yes, I’d say mission accomplished.

Who knows, we’ll be seeing each other there next year?

On creating reasonable expectations in test automation – A TestBash Netherlands workshop

Last week, I had the incredible pleasure of co-facilitating (with Ard Kramer) a workshop on creating reasonable expectations in test automation at the second edition of TestBash Netherlands. In this post, I’d like to tell you a little more about how we got there, what the workshop was all about and, of course, how it all went down on the big day.

The build up
The adventure started when I was contacted by Huib Schoots, who has been responsible for organizing the conference, with the question if I’d be interested to host a pre-conference workshop. We discussed several subjects back and forth and, in the end, decided upon a workshop that would help people create better test automation strategies. Since I do have a lot of experience with hands-on test automation workshops where people work on exercises on their machines, but much less so with coming up with and organizing workshops where facilitating group discussions plays a big role, we thought it was a good idea to bring someone on board that has much more experience with this type of sessions. Ard was very high on both of our lists, and luckily, he was up for it as well.

Our combined experience in test automation, testing and facilitating workshops turned out to be a great match. During a number of preparation sessions (for those of you thinking of hosting similar workshops: it sure takes a lot of time to prepare!) we came up with a series of exercises, carried out either individually or in smaller groups, that ultimately would result in people coming up with three or four actionable items that they could take back to their jobs on Monday, answering tangible problems and addressing real issues that they faced in their test automation efforts.

The workshop
As said, the workshop consisted of a number of exercises that would help people identify and address gaps and opportunities in their test automation strategy. It would take way too long to describe the entire workshop, but here’s the gist of it..

We started out by having the attendees come up -individually- with strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (indeed, a SWOT analysis) in their current test automation efforts. To help them on their way, we presented them with six aspects of a test automation strategy, with some example questions that you could ask to help identify strengths or pain points. These six categories (or aspects that we think make up a solid test automation strategy) are:

  • Technical
  • Knowledge and experience
  • Means and resources
  • Process and methodology
  • Organization
  • Business value

As you can see, in our opinion there’s a lot more to creating and implementing a successful test automation strategy than throwing tools at problems!

We then had the attendees discuss the challenges that resulted from the SWOT analysis in five different rounds, organized in groups based on the aforementioned categories. Each participant had the opportunity to address a subject in four different categories. For the fifth round, they had to play the role of facilitator on a subject they felt knowledgeable or comfortable about. These discussion rounds made up the larger part of the day.

Cards and forms for the discussion rounds

Finally, we had the attendees pick and pitch their most interesting improvement point and create a 99 second pitch for it, which they presented to their group of 5-6 people. Each group would then pick the best or otherwise most interesting pitch, which would be presented to the entire group, on stage. The intention behind this (and basically, behind the setup of the entire workshop) was to have people discuss with and learn as much from as many other attendees as possible.

The big day
For the day, we had a total of 27(ish, I’m not 100% sure tbh) attendees, which made for perfect group sizes. It’s always exciting to see how a new workshop or training course turns out in practice, you can think of a lot of things that might happen – and we sure did think of a lot of scenarios – but in the end, you never know what’s going to happen on game day!

As the day unfolded, Ard and I were very happy to see that the group went about our exercises with enthusiasm. Of course, there are always things that could have gone better, but all in all, discussions were going strong throughout the day and we didn’t have to correct course much.

Participants hard at work during the workshop

It does help that the general audience of TestBash conferences is made up of people that are willing to open up to, discuss with and learn from their peers. In this, these conferences are of a truly high quality, and we as facilitators learned just as much as the participants.

The part of the day I am probably most proud of is that at the end, we had some great 99 second pitches presented on stage, and at least two of the people presenting their pitches to the workshop participants repeated their talk on conference day, in front of an audience of 150-200. We sort of hoped that this would happen, but you never know how it turns out. It was truly rewarding to see this unfold in the way we intended it to do. The only downside is that I wasn’t there in person as I wasn’t able to make it to the conference day, but I can assure I lived it vicariously through my Twitter feed!

The aftermath
The workshop day flew by, and at the end, we asked the people to do a ‘dot vote’ and give us some honest feedback on what they liked, what they were indifferent about and what we could have done better. As you can see in the picture below, I think we did a decent job overall..

Feedback on our workshop

For me personally, preparing and delivering this workshop has been a great learning experience as well. As I said, the exercises in my training courses are mostly completed individually, on laptops. I’ve learned a lot about this type of workshop from Ard in the process, something that I’m sure will be of great value to me in the future (thanks again, Ard!).

I’m already looking forward to facilitating this workshop many more times in the future!