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.