Friday, January 6, 2023

Contemporary Regression Testing

One of the first things I remember learning about testing is the repeating nature of it. Test results are like milk and stay fresh only a limited time, so we keep replenishing our tests. We write code and it stays and does the same (even if wrong) thing until changes, but testing repeats. It's not just the code changing that breaks systems, it's also the dependencies and platform changing, people and expectations changing. 

An illustration of kawaii box of milk from my time of practicing sketchnoting

There's corrective, adaptive, perfective and preventive maintenance. There's the project and then there's "maintenance". And maintenance is 80% of products lifecycle costs since maintenance starts with first time you put the system in production. 

  • Corrective maintenance is when we had problems and need to fix them.
  • Adaptive maintenance is when we will have problems if we allow for world around us to change and we really can't stop it, but we emphasize that everything was FINE before the law changes, the new operating system emerged or that 3rd party vendor figured out they had a security bug that we have to react to because of a dependency we have.
  • Perfective maintenance is when we add new features while maintaining, because customers learn what they really need when they use systems. 
  • Preventive maintenance is when we foresee adaptive maintenance and change our structures so that we wouldn't always be needing to adapt individually. 

It's all change, and in a lot of cases it matters that only the first one is defects and implying work you complete without invoicing for the work. 

The thing about change is that it is small development work, and large testing work. This can be true considering the traditional expectations of projects:

  1. Code, components and architecture are spaghetti
  2. Systems are designed, delivered and updated as integrated end-to-end tested monoliths
  3. Infrastructure and dependencies are not version controlled
With all this, the *repeating nature* becomes central, and we have devised terminology for it. There is re-testing (verifying a fix indeed fixed the problem) and regression testing (verifying that things that used to work still work), and made it a central concept in how we discuss testing.

For some people, it feels regression testing is all the testing they think of. When this is true, it almost makes sense to talk about doing this manual or automated. After all, we are only talking of the part of testing that we are replenishing results for. 

Looking at the traditional expectations, we come to expectations of two ways to think about regression testing. One takes a literal interpretation of "used to work", as in we clicked through exactly this and it worked, and I would call this test-case based regression testing. The other takes a liberal interpretation of "used to work" remembering that with risk-based testing we never looked at it all working but some of it worked even when we did not test it, and thus continuing with risk-based perspective, the new changes drive entirely new tests. I would call this exploratory regression testing. This discrepancy of thinking is a source of a lot of conversation in automated space because the latter would need to actively choose to pick tests as output to leave behind that we consider worthwhile repeating - and it is absolutely not all the tests we currently are leaving behind. 

So far, we have talked in traditional  expectations. What is contemporary expectation then?

The things we believe are true of projects are sometimes changing:
  1. Code is clean, components are microservices and architecture creates clear domain-driven architecture where tech and business concepts meet
  2. Systems are designed, delivered and updated incrementally, but also per service basis
  3. Infrastructure and dependencies are code
This leads to thinking many things are different. Things mostly break only when we break them with a change. We can see changes. We can review the change as code. We can test the change from a working baseline, instead of a ball of change spaghetti described in vague promises of tickets. 

Contemporary regression testing can more easily rely on exploratory regression testing with improved change control. Risk-based thinking helps us uncover really surprising side effects of our changes without using major efforts. But also, contemporary exploratory testing relies on teams doing programmatic test-case based regression testing whenever it is hard for developers to hold their past intent in their heads. Which is a lot, with people changing and us needing safety nets. 

Where with traditional regression testing we could choose one or the other, with contemporary regression testing we can't.   

Monday, January 2, 2023

The Three Cultures

Over the last 25 years, I have been dropped to a lot of projects and organizations. While I gave up on consulting early on and deemed it unsuited for my aspirations, I have been a tester with an entrepreneurial attitude - a consultant / mentor / coach even within the team I deliver as part of. 

Being dropped to a lot of projects and organizations, I have come to accept that two are rarely the same. Sometimes the drop feels like time travel to past. Rarely it feels like time travel to future. I find myself often brought in to help with some sort of trouble, or if there was no trouble, I can surely create some like with a past employer where we experimented with no product owner. There was trouble, we just did not recognise it without breaking away from some of our strong-held assumptions. 

I have come to categorize the culture, the essential belief systems around testing to three stages:

  1. Manual testing is the label I use for organizations predominantly stuck in test case creation. They may even automate some of those test cases, usually with the idea speeding up regression testing, but majority of what they do relies on the idea that testing is predominantly without automation, for various reasons. Exploratory testing is something done on top of everything else. 
  2. Automated testing is the label I use for organizations predominantly stuck in spearing manual and automated testing. Automated testing is protected from manual testing (because it includes so much of its own kind of manual testing), and the groups doing automation are usually specialists in test automation space. The core of automated testing is user interfaces and mostly integrated systems, something a user would use. Exploratory testing is something for the manual testers. 
  3. Programmatic tests is the label I use for whole team test efforts that center automation as a way of capturing developer intent, user intent and past intent. Exploratory testing is what drives the understanding of intent. 
The way we talk, and our foundational beliefs in these three different cultures just don't align. 

These cultures don't map just to testing, but the overall ideas of how we organize for software development. For the first, we test because we can't trust. For the middle, we test because we are supposed to. For the last, we test because not testing threatens value and developer happiness. 

Just like testing shifts, other things shift too. The kind of problems we solve. The power of business decisions. Testing (in the large) as part of business decisions. The labels we use for our processes in explaining those to the world. 

This weekend I watched an old talk from Agile India, by Fred George on 'Programmer Anarchy'. I would not be comfortable taking things to anarchy, but there there is a definite shift in where the decision power is held, with everyone caring for business success in programmer-centric ways of working. 

The gaps are where we need essentially new cultures and beliefs accepted. Working right now with the rightmost cultural gap, the ideas of emergent design are harder to achieve than programmed tests. 

Documentation is an output and should be created at times we know the best. Programmed tests are a great way of doing living documentation that, used responsibly, gives us a green on our past intent in the scope we care to document it.