Blog Posts for the ‘Preparation’ Category

Drop the Crutches

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

This post is adapted from a recent blast of tweets. You may find answers to some of your questions in the links; as usual, questions and comments are welcome.

Update, 2017-01-07: In response to a couple of people asking, here’s how I’m thinking of “test case” for the purposes of this post: Test cases are formally structured, specific, proceduralized, explicit, documented, and largely confirmatory test ideas. And, often, excessively so. My concern here is directly proportional to the degree to which a given test case or a given test strategy emphasizes these things.


I had a fun chat with a client/colleague yesterday. He proposed—and I agreed—that test cases are like crutches. I added that the crutches are regularly foisted on people who weren’t limping to start with. It’s as though before the soccer game begins, we hand all the players a crutch. The crutches then hobble them.

We also agreed that test cases often lead to goal displacement. Instead of a thorough investigation of the product, the goal morphs into “finish the test cases!” Managers are inclined to ask “How’s the testing going?” But they usually don’t mean that. Instead, they almost certainly mean “How’s the product doing?” But, it seems to me, testers often interpret “How’s the testing going?” as “Are you done those test cases?”, which ramps up the goal displacement.

Of course, “How’s the testing going?” is an important part of the three-part testing story, especially if problems in the product or project are preventing us from learning more deeply about the product. But most of the time, that’s probably not the part of story we want to lead with. In my experience, both as a program manager and as a tester, managers want to know one thing above all:

Are there problems that threaten the on-time, successful completion of the project?

The most successful and respected testers—in my experience—are the ones that answer that question by actively investigating the product and telling the story of what they’ve found. The testers that overfocus on test cases distract themselves AND their teams and managers from that investigation, and from the problems investigation would reveal.

For a tester, there’s nothing wrong with checking quickly to see that the product can do something—but there’s not much right—or interesting—about it either. Checking seems to me to be a reasonably good thing to work into your programming practice; checks can be excellent alerts to unwanted low-level changes. But when you’re testing, showing that the product can work—essentially, demonstration—is different from investigating and experimenting to find out how it does (or doesn’t) work in a variety of circumstances and conditions. Sometimes people object saying that they have to confirm that the product works and that they have don’t have time to investigate. To me, that’s getting things backwards. If you actively, vigorously look for problems and don’t find them, you’ll get that confirmation you crave, as a happy side effect.

No matter what, you must prepare yourself to realize this:

Nobody can be relied upon to anticipate all of the problems that can beset a non-trivial product.

fractalWe call it “development” for a reason. The product and everything around it, including the requirements and the test strategy, do not arrive fully-formed. We continuously refine what we know about the product, and how to test it, and what the requirements really are, and all of those things feed back into each other. Things are revealed to us as we go, not as a cascade of boxes on a process diagram, but more like a fractal.

The idea that we could know entirely what the requirements are before we’ve discussed and decided we’re done seems like total hubris to me. We humans have a poor track record in understanding and expressing exactly what we want. We’re no better at predicting the future. Deciding today what will make us happy ten months—or even days—from now combines both of those weaknesses and multiplies them.

For that reason, it seems to me that any hard or overly specific “Definition of Done” is antithetical to real agility. Let’s embrace unpredictability, learning, and change, and treat “Definition of Done” as a very unreliable heuristic. Better yet, consider a Definition of Not Done Yet: “we’re probably not done until at least These Things are done”. The “at least” part of DoNDY affords the possibility that we may recognize or discover important requirements along the way. And who knows?—we may at any time decide that we’re okay with dropping something from our DoNDY too. Maybe the only thing we can really depend upon is The Unsettling Rule.

Test cases—almost always prepared in advance of an actual test—are highly vulnerable to a constantly shifting landscape. They get old. And they pile up. There usually isn’t a lot of time to revisit them. But there’s typically little need to revisit many of them either. Many test cases lose relevance as the product changes or as it stabilizes.

Many people seem prone to say “We have to run a bunch of old test cases because we don’t know how changes to the code are affecting our product!” If you have lost your capacity to comprehend the product, why believe that you still comprehend those test cases? Why believe that they’re still relevant?

Therefore: just as you (appropriately) remain skeptical about the product, remain skeptical of your test ideas—especially test cases. Since requirements, products, and test ideas are subject to both gradual and explosive change, don’t overformalize or otherwise constrain your testing to stuff that you’ve already anticipated. You WILL learn as you go.

Instead of overfocusing on test cases and worrying about completing them, focus on risk. Ask “How might some person suffer loss, harm, annoyance, or diminished value?” Then learn about the product, the technologies, and the people around it. Map those things out. Don’t feel obliged to be overly or prematurely specific; recognize that your map won’t perfectly match the territory, and that that’s okay—and it might even be a Good Thing. Seek coverage of risks and interesting conditions. Design your test ideas and prepare to test in ways that allow you to embrace change and adapt to it. Explain what you’ve learned.

Do all that, and you’ll find yourself throwing away the crutches that you never needed anyway. You’ll provide a more valuable service to your client and to your team. You and your testing will remain relevant.

Happy New Year.

Further reading:

Testing By Percentages
Very Short Blog Posts (11): Passing Test Cases
A Test is a Performance
Test Cases Are Not Testing: Toward a Culture of Test Performance” by James Bach & Aaron Hodder (in

Very Short Blog Posts (7): Planning vs. Preparation

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Imagine a software project. Imagine the things that you want to accomplish, the problems you might encounter, the workarounds you could apply, the accidents (both happy and sad) that might happen, the missteps you may take, the steps you can take to prevent them; all of the actions you can perform to manage the project. Now, make a detailed plan that takes all of your expectations into account.

The more detailed your plan, the more likely it will differ from reality in important respects. Unexpected things will happen, some positive, some negative, and many of them out of your control. You can’t predict future events reliably, but you can prepare to respond to them. Therefore: you might want to relax your effort on specific plans somewhat, and emphasize developing skills and resources that will help you to deal capably with surprises.