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 automation implementation frustration

Recently (as in, in the last couple of months) I’ve wrapped up a few automation projects that have left me less than satisfied. Not because there were no technical challenges – there were plenty. Not because I felt bored – if I’m getting bored, I simply move on. Not because I didn’t learn anything new – I’ve become a much better engineer in the last couple of months and learned lots about creating useful automation efforts.

No, my dissatisfaction was caused by something different. Something I should have seen coming. Something I, in retrospect, should have addressed earlier.

But before I explain what caused this dissatisfaction, first, let’s take a quick look at what a typical project I’m working on looks like. Usually, it starts with a client with a test automation-related challenge. Sometimes they’re just getting started. Sometimes they’ve tried some things already, only to see it fail. In any case, at some point in time, they decide it’s a good idea to hire me (maybe that’s where things go wrong, no comment.).

I then get to work, usually starting out by asking a lot of questions. What does the application under test do? What does the software development process look like? What do the testers do? Where’s the (perceived) risk? What do the stakeholders think to gain from introducing test automation? What have they tried already and why did it fail? All questions that are important for me when deciding on the best possible next step(s).

Then, I usually start getting involved in the actual automation. Sometimes that means building a brand new solution. Sometimes it’s training others to do so, or to maintain and extend what I built. In other projects, it’s running awareness workshops to remind people why they’re implementing test automation in the first place, and to help them get realistic about the expectations around it. Often, it’s a mixture of all of these activities.

I’m not one to boast, but most of the time, things tend to go well during the project. I’ve seen and written enough horrible automation in the past to recognize and know what works and what doesn’t, and as a result, most of the time, I’m able to figure out an approach that brings value to the development process instead of being a time and money drain. So, that’s not the problem. There IS a problem though, and that’s when I start wrapping up.

Too often, by the time I am preparing for my exit from the project, I get the feeling that a lot of the work I’ve done has been in vain. There are no tangible clues that support this feeling, but still, I sometimes just know that once I walk out of the office for the last time, the automation I’ve created will become shelfware. The most important reasons for that? Teams that do not see test automation as software development, and teams that continuously give priority to feature delivery, often pushed by management setting deadlines. The latter is especially cruel when those same organizations claim they ‘do Agile’ and by that are able to ‘deliver software faster’. Sure, that might work in the short term, but it’s not a strategy that will result in a sustainable pace of delivery in the longer term. But I digress.

Now, I’ll be the first one to (at least partly) blame myself for the test automation starting to gather dust once I’m gone. In retrospect, in these past projects I did things right, like deciding on what to automate before starting out, and deciding what approach would be the most effective in terms of coverage, speed of execution and maintainability. However, in some cases, I seem to have forgotten something even more important: creating the right level of awareness and setting the right expectations for the automation. Looking back, I should have made a bigger effort showing the teams and organizations I work with that test automation isn’t something you do once. Or when you have the time. Instead, it’s a software development project within a software development project, and therefore it should be treated as such.

Writing about this here and now means I’ve learned a valuable lesson. But more importantly, I hope to remind you to not make the same mistakes I made too often in the past, by just getting started without keeping the end in mind. I know I will do better in the future. I hope you do too. Start asking questions like ‘who will be responsible for maintaining and extending the automation once I’m gone?’, ‘how are we going to make and keep automation an integral part of our development process?’, and so on. Don’t repeat my mistakes. Start with the end in mind.

As I said, I learned my lesson here. In the project I’m working on at the moment, I am currently working hard at creating the right amount of awareness, and helping the organization decide who is going to take ownership of the automation solutions I create once I’m gone. I set my last day of working at this project on April 26th, so there’s plenty of time. But as with a lot of things, time flies, and making your exit as smooth and as fulfilling as possible isn’t something you can start doing two weeks before you’ll bring the goodbye cake. And this project has an additional complicating factor in that it is the first time that they are executing a software development project on this scale. It’ll make for an interesting three months, I’m sure. But I’m also sure that once I do say goodbye to this team, I know that the automation I delivered will be in good hands. I’m looking forward to walking away much more satisfied this time.

On looking back on 2017 and looking forward to 2018

As I like to do every year, now that 2017 has almost come to an end, I’m carving out some time to reflect on all that I’ve been working on this year. What has been successful? What needs working on? And most importantly, what are the things I’ll put my energy towards in 2018?

The start of On Test Automation – the sole proprietorship
Perhaps the most significant change I made this year was to quit working with The Future Group to venture out on my own under the On Test Automation name. On the other hand, nothing much has changed at all since then. I’m still working as a freelancer, I’m still doing a bit of consulting, some teaching, some writing, pretty much what I’ve been doing before I made this move. The only thing that has changed is the financial side of things, and the fact that I’m now really working for myself instead of mostly for myself. It’s just that little extra bit of freedom, albeit only psychologically. I would be very surprised if, at the end of 2018, I won’t still be freelancing like this. It has proven to be the optimal way of working for me, with total freedom over what I’m working on at what time and with whom. I’d like to further reduce the time I spend commuting a little more in 2018, though.

Consulting
On the consulting side of things, it has been a pretty strong year. I’ve been working on projects for 5 or 6 different clients, mostly as the person responsible for developing automation solutions, but also sometimes acting more like an automation coach of sorts. I’ve been lucky enough never to have to look for a new project for long. The job market for experienced automation engineers and consultants is so good over here I’ve had to turn down more projects than I’ve been able to accept. I’m considering myself a very lucky person in this respect, although I do like to think that the time I invest in learning, spreading my knowledge and networking has at least partly brought me to where I am now.

Where 80-90% of my working hours in 2017 was spent on consulting work, however, in 2018, I would like to slowly bring that down to around 50% to free up time for other activities.

Teaching
This year, I’ve written a couple of blog posts, most notably this one, about what I’d like to see changed in education around test automation and what I think good test automation training should look like. As you might have seen elsewhere on this site, I currently offer a couple of courses, and I am looking to expand my offerings in 2018. More importantly, I’d like to deliver significantly more training next year. Counting quickly, I’ve delivered about 10 days of training in 2017, mostly with clients, but I also did a very enjoyable workshop at the Romanian Testing Conference.

For 2018, I’d like to work towards teaching 5 or more days each month. This will require significant effort from my side, not only in actual teaching, but more importanty in marketing and promotion to make sure that I can deliver them in the first place. I’ve front-loaded some of that work by closing partnerships with a couple of other players in the field, and I’ve landed a couple of teaching gigs already (more on that in a future blog post, undoubtedly), but there’s much more work to be done if I want to achieve the ‘5 days of teaching per month’ goal.

Conferences
2017 was a relatively quiet year for me with regards to conferences. In the Netherlands, I only attended 2 (both organized by TestNet). Abroad, there was the previously mentioned Romanian Testing Conference in May as well as the splendid TestBash Manchester in October, making for a grand total of 4 conferences.

I expect 2018 to be busier on the conference front. In fact, I’ve got my agenda for the spring conference season pretty much filled up already with TestBash Netherlands (where I’ll be doing a workshop together with Ard Kramer), the TestNet spring conference (where I probably won’t be speaking or hosting a workshop for the first time in a while), my second Romanian Testing Conference (where I’ll be doing both a workshop and a talk this time) and the Test Automation Day (which I missed this year due to being on holiday and where I hope to be accepted as a speaker for the first time this coming year). So that’s four conferences before the summer. And that’s not counting the Agile Tour Vienna meetup in March, to which I’m invited to do a talk / live coding session as well. And I haven’t even started to think about the fall conference season yet (that’s a lie, some negotiations are underway).

Writing
Including this one, I’ve published 46 blog posts on this site in 2017. I started out with the promise of publishing a blog post every week, and I’ve kept true to my word for most of the year, but last month I came to the conclusion that I’ve been spreading myself a little thin on the writing front. Apart from these blog posts, I also wrote and published 15 articles on other websites, including TechBeacon, StickyMinds and LinkedIn. That’s a lot of writing, I can tell you.

Next year, I’ll probably be blogging less, in an effort to create higher quality output. I’ll also still be doing articles for other websites (I’m working on two of those as we speak). I’m aiming to publish at least one quality blog post on here each month, plus some reviews of conferences, books and other resources whenever I feel like it. That should free up some time to invest in other interesting things that I encounter.

All in all, 2017 has been a great year for me, I’ve met many interesting people and worked on a lot of interesting stuff. 2018 will hopefully be a year of spreading myself a little less thin, instead focusing more on the good stuff. As always, I’ll keep you posted.