Tuesday 30 January 2018

A stability strategy for test automation

As part of the continuous integration strategy for one of our products, we run stability builds each night. The purpose is to detect changes in the product or the tests that cause intermittent issues, which can be obscured during the day. Stability builds give us test results against a consistent code base during a period of time that our test environments are not under heavy load.

The stability builds execute a suite of web-based user interface automation against mocked back-end test data. They run to a schedule and, on a good night, we see six successful builds:

The builds do not run sequentially. At 1am and 4am we trigger two builds in close succession. These execute in parallel so that we use more of our Selenium Grid, which can give early warning of problems caused by load and thread contention.

When things are not going well, we rarely see six failed builds. As problems emerge, the stability test result trend starts to look like this:

In a suite of over 250 tests, there might be a handful of failures. The number of failing tests, and the specific tests that fail, will often vary between builds. Sometimes there is an obvious pattern e.g. tests with an image picker dialog. Sometimes there appears to be no common link.

Why don't we catch these problems during the day?

These tests are part of a build pipeline that includes a large unit test suite. In the build that is run during the day, the test result trend is skewed by unit test failures. The developers are actively working on the code and using our continuous integration for fast feedback.

Once the unit tests are successful, intermittent issues in the user interface tests are often resolved in a subsequent build without code changes. This means that the development team are not blocked, once the build executes successfully they can merge their code.

The overnight stability build is a collective conscience for everyone who works on the product. When the build status changes state, a notification is pushed into the shared chat channel:

Each morning someone will look at the failed builds, then share a short comment about their investigation in a thread of conversation spawned from the original notification message. The team decide whether additional investigation is warranted and how the problem might be addressed.

It can be difficult to prioritise technical debt tasks in test automation. The stability build makes problems visible quickly, to a wide audience. It is rare that these failures are systematically neglected. We know from experience that ignoring the problems has a negative impact on cycle time of our development teams. When it becomes part of the culture to repeatedly trigger a build in order to get a clean set of test results, everything slows down and people become frustrated.

If your user interface tests are integrated into your pipeline, you may find value in adopting a similar approach to stability. We see benefits in early detection, raising awareness of automation across a broad audience, and creating shared ownership of issue resolution.

Thursday 18 January 2018

Three types of coding dojo for test automation

The Test Coaches in my organisation provide support for our test automation frameworks. We create tailored training material, investigate new tools in the market, agree our automation strategy, monitor the stability of our suites, and establish practices that keep our code clean.

A lot of this work is achieved in partnership with the testers. We create opportunities for shared learning experiences. We facilitate agreement of standards and strategy that emerge through conversation. I like using coding dojos to establish these collaborative environments for test automation.

When I run a coding dojo, all the testers of a product gather with a single laptop that is connected to a projector. The group set a clear objective for a test automation task that they would like to complete together. Then everyone participates in the code being written, by contributing verbally and taking a turn at the keyboard. Though we do not adopt the strict principles of a coding dojo as they were originally defined, we operate almost exactly as described in this short video titled 'How to run a coding dojo'.

When using this format for three different types of test automation task - training, refactoring, and discovery - I've observed some interesting patterns in the mechanics of each dojo.

Three types of coding dojo for test automation


Where there are many testers working on a product with multiple types of test automation, individuals may specialize e.g. user interface testing or API testing. It isn't feasible for every person to be an expert in every tool.

Often those who have specialized in one area are curious about others. A coding dojo in this context is about transfer of knowledge to satisfy this curiosity. It also allows those who don't regularly see the code to ask questions about it.

The participants vary in skill from beginner to expert. There may be a cluster of people at each end of the spectrum based on whether they are active in the suite day-to-day.

Training dojo

Communication in this dojo can feel like it has a single direction, from expert to learner. Though everyone participates, it is comfortable for the expert and challenging for the beginner. In supporting the people who are unfamiliar, the experts need to provide a lot of explanation and direction.

This can create quite different individual experiences within the same shared environment. A beginner may feel flooded by new information while an expert may become bored by the slow pace. Even with active participation and rotation of duties, it can be difficult to facilitate this session so that everyone stays engaged.


When many people contribute to the same automation suite, variation can emerge in coding practices through time. Occasionally refactoring is required, particularly where older code has become unstable or unreadable.

A coding dojo in this context is useful to agree the patterns for change. Rather than the scope and nature of refactoring being set by the first individual to tackle a particular type of problem, or dictated by a Test Coach, a group of testers collectively agree on how they would like to shape the code.

Though the skill of the participants will vary, they skew towards expert level. The audience for refactoring work is usually those who are regularly active in the code - perhaps people across different teams who all work with the same product.

Refactoring dojo

Communication in this dojo is convergent. There are usually competing ideas and the purpose of the session is to reach agreement on a single solution. As everyone participates in the conversation, the outcome will often include ideas from many different people.

In this example I've included one beginner tester, who might be someone new to the team or unfamiliar with the code. Where the context is refactoring, these people can become observers. Though they take their turn at the keyboard, the other people in the room become their strong-style pair, which means that "for ideas to reach the computer they must go through someone else's hands".


As our existing suites become out-dated, or as people hear of new tools that they would like to experiment with, there is opportunity for discovery. An individual might explore a little on their own, then a coding dojo is an invitation to others to join the journey.

The participants of this dojo will skew to beginner. The nature of prototyping and experimentation is that nobody knows the answer!

Discovery dojo

Communication in this dojo is divergent, but directed towards a goal. People have different ideas and want to try different things, but all suggestions are in the spirit of learning more about the tool.

The outcome of this dojo is likely to be greater understanding rather than shared understanding. Though we probably won't agree, but we'll all know a little bit more.

For training, refactoring, and discovery, I enjoy the dynamics of a coding dojo format. I would be curious to know how these experiences match your own, or where you've participated in a dojo for test automation work in a different context.

Thursday 4 January 2018

30 articles for tech leaders written by women

When I was first promoted to a leadership role in tech, I looked for leadership resources that were written by women with advice targeted to a tech environment.

It took some time to discover these articles, which resonated with me and have each contributed to my leadership style in some way. They are written by a variety of women in the US, UK, Europe and New Zealand, many have ties to the software testing community.

This list includes several themes: leadership, communication, learning, inclusion, and recruitment. I would love your recommendations for other articles that could be added.

Why we should care about doing better - Lynne Cazaly
Follow the leader - Marlena Compton
Dealing with surprising human emotions: desk moves - Lara Hogan
You follow the leader because you want to - Kinga Witko
Entering Groups - Esther Derby
Agile Managers: The Essence of Leadership - Johanna Rothman
Recovering from a toxic job - Nat Dudley
Yes, and... - Liz Keogh
Ask vs. Guess cultures - Katherine Wu
"I just can't get her to engage!" - Gnarly Retrospective Problems - Corinna Baldauf
Eight reasons why no one's listening to you - Amy Phillips
Don't argue with sleepwalkers - Fiona Charles
What learning to knit has reminded me about learning - Emily Webber
Effective learning strategies for programmers - Allison Kaptur
Five models for making sense of complex systems - Christina Wodtke
The comfort zone - Christina Ohanian
WTF are you doing? Tell your teams! - Cassandra Leung
We don't do that here - Aja Hammerly
Here's how to wield empathy and data to build an inclusive team - Ciara Trinidad
Tracking compensation and promotion inequity - Lara Hogan
The other side of diversity - Erica Joy
Hiring isn't enough - Catt Small
'Ladies' is gender neutral - Alice Goldfuss
Where does white privilege show up? - Kirstin Hull
Better hiring with less bias - Trish Khoo
1000 different people, the same words - Kieran Snyder
Why do women try to get ahead by pulling men down? - Missy Titus