A Range of Errors

Ah… data values within a range. So many possibilities for fun. Ran into one of those today while reviewing a potential work item being proposed. As presented:

Add "Length of Incarceration" range

Select from a list
* Less than 1 year
* 1-3 years
* 3-5 years
* 5-10 years
* 10-20 years
* More than 20 years

Spot the problem? What happens if the length of incarceration was 1, 3, 5, or 10 years? Which of the two ranges that include these values should be chosen?

Presumably we’re grouping this data into ranges for reporting purposes.

At what point does it become statistically significant that given a situation where an offender spent 5 years incarcerated, Elizabeth always chooses 3-5 years, Ross always chooses 5-10 years, and Eduardo sometimes chooses one range and sometimes chooses another?

In any system with user-entered data, GIGO can apply, but let’s help the users by designing a system which makes it harder to input garbage.

Software Behaviors: When I Log In, the Browser Spawns a New Window

The longer I work as a tester, the more that I realize that to provide the most value for my team I need to not only be able to report on what’s happening, but also to be able to report in an intelligent fashion, synthesizing what we’ve seen in the software along with supporting information to provide context.

Last week a fellow tester reported an interesting bug in a web application’s login form: after he entered his username and then his password, when he hit Enter to submit the form, the application opened in an entirely new browser window.

This wasn’t behavior built into the system design… when operating normally, the software should have presented him with the application’s landing page after login.  I wasn’t able to immediately reproduce the behavior, and none of the system’s users had reported the issue.  Yet this tester insisted that it happened nearly every time he accessed the application.

You Know This One

Even without knowing our application… you probably have information to solve this puzzle.

Once I figured out what was going on, I decided to see if I could lead folks to the same conclusion.

I asked the tester: “Is the last letter of your password a capital letter?”  He said no… but it was a symbol.  “A symbol accessed via the Shift key on your keyboard?”  Yep.

What happens when you click a link in Chrome while you hold down the shift key?

You get a new window.

So when you’re still holding down Shift from the last character of your password, then hit Enter which activates the form submission… boom.  New window.

Testing is Information with Context

As testers, we provide information.  In this case, we can provide more information beyond “sometimes this thing happens.”  We can provide information of “This thing will happen every time, but in this set of circumstances.”  That’s useful.

The Tester Must Understand the Stack

As testers, we test a piece of software against a variety of both written and unwritten functional and nonfunctional requirements.

One of the key tools in testing that software is having an understanding of the environment under which that software will run. We need to understand the pieces of the stack. We don’t need to be experts on every bit of it, but we need to understand what components are involved, and how they work together. I’ve found that often may folks will forget about parts of the stack, which can lead to red herrings or bad information when describing a situation or troubleshooting a problem.

Full Stack Testing, by Flickr user prettyinprint

For example, in my environment I’m usually testing web applications. For a given application, the following things are in place and need to be working correctly:

  • a web server (virtual) running on a host machine (physical)
  • a database server (virtual) running on a host machine (physical)
  • external (network) storage for the database
  • a working network between all of these servers and the client machine
  • DNS servers translating names into IP addresses to access the servers
  • a load balancer managing traffic between multiple web servers
  • IIS working correctly on the application server
  • zero or more APIs that are available and working
  • a web browser on the client machine that supports JavaScript

Even with this list, there’s a chance I’ve omitted something. Depending on the testing being performed or the issue being investigated, there’s a chance that any one of these components could be the culprit. Don’t forget about the entire stack.

Image by prettyinprint, used under Creative Commons licensing

Testers Don’t Just Test the Code

Kate Falanga chimed in recently with some thoughts around titles for testers, QA folks, and the like in Exploring Testing Titles in Agile. She lays out a few good reasons why the term Quality Assurance is a bad one, mainly that the role can’t really assure quality. I believe this. Heck, in the tagline on this site I refer to “(The myth of) Quality Assurance.”

She then outlines why she doesn’t like the title of Tester, feeling that it’s not broad enough to reflect all of the work that we do, and that it’s reactive:

It gives a very reactive rather than proactive connotation. If someone is a Tester then it is assumed that something needs to be tested. If you don’t have anything to be tested then why do you need a Tester? Why include them in planning or the project at all until you have something for them to do?

Quality Assurance / Testers / Job Title Adventures

The bad assumption here is that code is the only thing being tested, and that testing is the only thing done by a tester. Sure, once there’s code being written, a tester will probably spend a majority of her time exercising that code, but the tester participates in testing activities prior to the code. Time spent in requirements discussions helps the team write better requirements or user stories. Time spent learning about the business environment or the end user’s use cases will help the tester get into the right mindset for testing activities.

These activities aren’t testing in the sense of testing new code that’s been writing, but they’re testing activities. If testing allows us to learn information about the software being tested, and we use that information to improve product quality, all methods of learning could be considered test activities, could they not?

Do we continue the search for a better title than Tester, or do we work to help the broader software industry understand that Tester doesn’t just mean exercising code changes?

Image by Ruth Hartnop, used under Creative Commons licensing

Curiosity Killed the Cat, But It’s the Lifeblood of a Tester

My employer partners with a local university as part of an internship program; computer science students have an opportunity to participate in a series of six month paid internships with local software development groups. As a result, we’re now about three weeks into working with our latest intern. We’ve had two previous testing interns.

It’s interesting to see how they begin testing. With each of them I’ve set things up with an introduction to context driven testing and the ideas of software exploration and working with various heuristics to exercise the program.

It’s interesting to note if the new intern has an innate curiosity to explore.

Our current intern started at the beginning of the month. On her first day, as she began to explore one of our applications, she caught a bug that appeared when you altered a URL query string.

Curiosity: the lifeblood of a tester.

When Quality Loses

Context: agile development with prioritization and release decisions being made by a product owner.

There’s often a false understanding of software quality (and the responsibility for software quality) in our industry. This falsehood isn’t helped by the “Quality Assurance” job title. With modern development practices, it’s misleading to presume that software testers are responsible for the quality of the released software.

QA as a Quality Advocate

As a software tester, we identify potential changes to the software. Sometimes it might be an obvious bug, where the software is not producing the response that’s clearly expected. Other times we might find potential enhancements such as new features or usability improvements. Either of these categories provide opportunities for improving the software. As a software testing and quality professional, I feel that I have an obligation to suggest that the software could always be better. When quality wins, users will have a better experience, and data will be in a quantifiable better state.

As a tester, I advocate for quality.

Testing != Release Decisions

Ultimately while I advocate for quality in the software I test, the ultimate decision on when to release (given whatever is known – or not known – about the quality of the software) belongs to someone else. In the agile world that’s usually the Product Owner; in other environments it might be a project manager, release manager, or other similar role.

That person – the one making the release decision – is the one who ultimately decides what level of quality is acceptable for a software release. Testers can help inform, but testers can’t insist.

Sometimes, we’ll advocate and our voices will be heard and the quality threshold will be raised prior to release. Sometimes, our voices will fall on deaf ears, or be drowned out by other voices or pressures.

Parked Cars, San Bruno Gas Line Explosion, 2010

The Release Where Quality Loses

When the quality isn’t up to par but the software is released anyway, expected repercussions will possibly and predictably include:

  • increased number of bugs-found-after-release
  • increased number of user support tickets
  • increased number of data or application hotfixes to resolve problems
  • PR or perception problems

Nobody in the development and product teams should be surprised by these results.  Sometimes there’s value in having the software released, even in a state of lessened quality, rather than holding it back to resolve more bugs.  The quality factor is one of many factors weighed in the release decision.  Sometimes quality loses.

As testers, we have to be okay with this, with the caveat that it’s not okay for the product team to blame the testers for the quality level of the product.  While many of us have the misnomer of “quality assurance” in our job titles, we can’t assure the quality when the release and budget decisions are out of our hands.

image via Thomas Hawk; used under Creative Commons licensing