An experiment in creating better tool-centered automation training

Last week, I delivered the second part of a two-evening API testing training at my former employer. They contacted me a while ago to see if I could help them in offering test automation training for their employees, as well as for their clients and other contacts. When I was still working with them, I used to deliver automation training as well, and it felt really great to be asked back, even though I have left them almost three years ago now.

But that’s not what this post is about.

This API testing training was in some ways an experiment I have wanted to conduct for a while now. I see a lot of individuals and organizations offering automation training, and most of it is specific to one single tool. In itself, this isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I’ve got one big problem with a lot of these tool-centered courses: instead of teaching you how to create a sound automation approach around one or more tools, they simply go through the most important features of a single tool and teach the participants some (sometimes useful) tricks. I know. I’ve delivered those courses in the past as well. If you’re a tool vendor / creator, I can understand why you would want to do that. But I think there’s more to good automation education than teaching you all the ins and outs of a specific tool. Let’s call them the 3 C’s:

  • Context – A tool is often only useful in a specific context. This context includes the skills of the people that will use the tool, the development and delivery process that the tool is to be made part of, and much more. Without context, it’s very hard to decide if a specific tool is the right one for the job.
  • Competition – For nearly all tools out there, there’s at least one competitor on the market (but often much more) that can be used to complete the same task. It is therefore essential for good training to introduce more than one option, have the participants get some hands on experience with all of them and let them decide what would work best for their tasks and team.
  • Cutting the crap – Tool-specific training might give the idea that the tool the participants are being trained in is the best thing since sliced bread. Which in turn leads people to try and automate anything and everything with a single tool. Which in turn all too often leads to crap. In other words: what’s the point in knowing all different types of waits available in Selenium if you don’t know how to decide what is a good scenario to automate using Selenium in the first place?

So, instead of delivering my API testing training around REST Assured alone (which I’ve done a number of times in the past), I decided to introduce three different tools to the participants: REST Assured, the open source version of SmartBear SoapUI and Parasoft SOAtest. After an introduction into what constitutes API testing, why it is useful and what you can test using APIs, I let the participants create a number of basic API tests with each of these tools (pretty much the same tests three times over), so they could experience firsthand how the features provided by each of the tools compare. Moreover, since I chose tools that are at opposite ends of the API test tool spectrum (REST Assured is a Java library for RESTful APIs, SOAtest is a commercially licensed enterprise-grade tool that supports a wide variety of protocols and message types, with SoapUI somewhere in between), participants get a much broader view of API testing than they’d get by learning REST Assured alone.

The feedback I received afterwards confirmed what I hoped to achieve with my experiment: all the attendees thought it was great to see more than a single tool, and since I gave them pointers to material for further exploration, they could decide for themselves in which direction their further education will take them.

I recently launched another course in which I try to do something similar, although in another fashion: instead of teaching people how to use Selenium WebDriver (i.e., teaching them the API and some useful Selenium-only tricks), I explain what types of tests should be created using Selenium, and I teach them how I would approach creating readable, maintainable and reliable tests with Selenium, Cucumber/SpecFlow, JUnit/NUnit and ExtentReports. Again: providing context and cutting the crap (you can argue about whether or not I’m covering ‘competition’ in this one) instead of teaching people all of the methods and features of a single tool.

I hope to deliver this type of automation training much more often in the future, and I’d love to see other automation training providers follow suit. For those of you who’d like some more details on the training objectives and subjects covered in this API testing training, please click here.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What to you constitutes good automation training?

Lessons learned while training

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to deliver a couple of workshops to various groups of people. First, there was the REST Assured workshop I hosted at the Romanian Testing Conference, then after that two separate versions of my ‘test automation awareness’ training. I can now safely say that I enjoy teaching hugely, and that it is something I want to pursue further in the future.

Of course, even though I’ve been in the whole workshop and teaching business for a while now, there’s still a whole lot to learn. I’ve delivered (tool-specific) automation training for my previous employer, and since I’ve taken the freelance route, several opportunities have come my way as well, but I’m still not the teaching master I’d like to be. There’s still so much to learn, and for me, one of the best ways to learn is to reflect on and write about my experiences. So, that’s what I’m going to do here… Who knows, maybe these experiences are valuable to others as well. Let’s take a look at some of the lessons I’ve learned in my teaching efforts so far.

Tool-specific workshops are popular
Most of the requests I see or hear about are for workshops that cover one specific tool, be it on an introductory or an advanced level. The most in demand at the moment is Selenium, but I’ve been receiving multiple requests for REST Assured workshops as well. At the moment, I only offer these in house, in person, so I have to decline most of them, unfortunately. It’s highly unlikely that one individual requesting training is able to cover travel, lodging and my training fee. This means I’m mostly delivering training in the Netherlands (where you can get everywhere in an hour or two), or occasionally at a conference abroad (where occasionally means once, so far).

Of course, most training requests don’t even reach me, since I don’t offer training preparing for specific certifications (ISTQB, CAT, PSM, you name it), nor do I have the desire to start doing so. Test automation is my game, and I’d like to stick to that. And when people think of automation, they tend to think in terms of specific tools. How I feel about that? Well…

Tool-specific workshops can be good, but…
While I think it’s very useful to attend workshops and classes to learn either the basics or more advanced features of specific tools (again, Selenium being the most popular), I feel there’s something missing. In my opinion, even the best tool workshops are useless in the long term if they’re attended by people that are unaware of the ‘why?’ to use the tool (or automation in general) in the first place. Good tool-specific workshops teach you this. Not all of them do.

The risk you run as an attendee, or as an organization sending a group of your employees to a tool training that fails to provide the necessary background and context, is that you’re likely to end up with people that have been given a shiny new hammer and start to think that suddenly, everything is a nail. Not good.

Again, I’m not saying that all tool-specific workshops are like that, but at least some of them are. I know, because I’ve delivered them as well in the past. I’m still learning, too.

Tool-agnostic workshops work well. For the right audience.
As a counter-initiative to the aforementioned tool-specific workshops, I’ve started to develop, promote and deliver a ‘test automation awareness’ workshop. In this workshop, I teach some of the principles behind test automation and try to debunk common myths. After the workshop is over, I (hopefully) have achieved two things with this workshop:

  • Teach people that test automation is a craft, requiring skills that need to be developed, and principles that need to be adhered to.
  • Give people a solid basis for asking the right questions once they enter a tool-specific training. With this awareness workshop, I’d like to answer the ‘why?’ and the ‘what?’ of automation, so that they can safely move on to the ‘how?’ in, for example, a Selenium workshop.

After having delivered my awareness workshop a couple of times now, in different formats and for different audiences, I’ve learned a couple of valuable things that will definitely help me improve it further:

  • The workshop works best for people that have had some prior exposure to automation. I’ve presented the subject, the principles and my trains of thought to several audiences, ranging from business analysts and project managers to experienced testers, and the people that aren’t working in and with automation on a regular basis tend to zone out after a while. For those people, a (half) hour presentation might work better. For testers (and probably for developers, too), it has worked out nicely so far.
  • You can offer people an exercise or two teaching them something about automation without there being programming involved. And I’m not talking about codeless automation tools. It has taken a bit more work and imagination, but I’ve come up with some exercises that have people think about proper automation implementation and discussing this among themselves without putting them in front of a keyboard. Again, there’s a lot to be covered related to the ‘why?’ and ‘what?’.
  • There is definitely a need for workshops like these. I’d gauged that from the popular Lego Automation workshop offered by the Ministry of Testing, but after a couple of runs of my own workshop and the feedback received both during and after, I can confirm that there IS a market for training that provides some realism with regards to automation.

As the year moves on, I’ll be working on improving my current training offerings and developing new ones. I’ve got some dates lined up already, but there is always room for more. Feel free to contact me with feedback, ideas for training or opportunities!

What does good test automation training look like?

As I’m moving away from by-the-hour work and more towards a hybrid of consulting, training, writing and speaking, one of the things I’m working on is slowly building up a workshop and training portfolio around topics I think I’m qualified to talk about. I have created a couple of workshops already, but so far, they are centered around a specific tool that I am interested in and enthusiastic about. This, however, has the downside that they’re probably targeted towards a relatively small group of interested people (not in the least because these tools are only available for a specific programming language, i.e., Java).

To extend my options with regards to delivering training and workshops, I am currently looking at developing workshops and training material that contain higher level and more generic material, while still offering practical insights and hands-on exercises. There are a lot of different approaches and possible routes that can be taken to achieve this, especially since there is no specific certification trajectory around test automation (nor do I think there should be, but that’s a wholly different discussion that I’ll probably cover in another blog post in time). So far, I haven’t figured out the ideal contents and delivery format, but ideas have been taking shape in my head recently.

Here are some subjects I think a decent test automation training trajectory should cover:

Test automation 101: the basics
Always a good approach: start with the basics. What is test automation? What is it not (here’s a quote I love from Jim Hazen)? What role does automation play in current development and testing processes and teams? Why is it attracting the interest it does? To what levels and what areas can you apply test automation and what is that test automation pyramid thing you keep hearing about?

Test automation implementation
So, now that you know what test automation (sorta kinda) is, how to apply it to your software development process? How are you going to involve stakeholders? What information or knowledge do you want to derive from test automation? How does it fit into trends such as Agile software development, BDD, Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery?

Test automation, the good the bad and the ugly
It’s time to talk about patterns. Not about best practices, though, I don’t like that term. But there are definitely lessons to be learned from the past on what works and what doesn’t. Think data driven. Think maintainability. Think code review. Think (or rather, forget) code-free test automation. Think reporting. Think some more.

Beyond functional test automation: what else could automation be used for?
Most of what we’ve seen so far covers functional test automation: automated checks that determine whether or not some part of the application under test functions as specified or desired (or both, if you’re lucky). However, there’s a lot more to testing than mere functional checks. Of course there’s performance testing, security testing, usability testing, accessibility testing, all kinds of testing where smart application of tools might help. But there’s more: how about automated parsing of logs generated during an exploratory testing session? Automated test data creation / generation / randomization? Automated report creation? All these are applications of test automation, or better put, automation in testing (thanks, Richard!), and all these are worth learning about.

Note that nowhere in the topics above I am focusing on specific tools. As far as I’m concerned, getting comfortable with one or more tools is one of the very last steps in becoming a good test automation engineer or consultant. I am of the opinion that it’s much more important to answer the ‘why?’ and the ‘what?’ of test automation before focusing on the ‘how?’. Unfortunately, most training offerings I’m seeing focus solely on a specific tool. I myself am quite guilty of doing the same, as I said in the first paragraph of this post.

One thing I’m still struggling with is how to make the attendants do the work. It’s quite easy to present the above subjects as a (series of) lecture(s), but there’s no better way to learn than by doing. Also, I think hosting workshops is much more fun than delivering talks, and there’s no ‘workshop’ without actual ‘work’. But it has to be meaningful, relevant to the subject covered, and if possible, fun..

So, now that I’ve shared my thoughts on what ingredients would make up a decent test automation education, I’d love to hear what you think. What am I missing (I’m pretty sure the list above isn’t complete). Do you think there’s an audience for training as mentioned above? If not, why not? What would you do (or better, what are you doing) differently? This is a topic that’s very dear to me, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Your input is, as always, much appreciated.

In the meantime, I’ve started working on a first draft of training sessions and workshops that cover the topics above, and I’m actively looking for opportunities to deliver these, be it at a conference or somewhere in-house. I’ve got a couple of interesting opportunities lined up already, which is why I’m looking forward to 2017 with great anticipation!