Blog: “Why Didn’t We Catch This in QA?”

My good friend Keith Klain recently posted this on LinkedIn:

“Why didn’t we catch this in QA” might possibly be the most psychologically terrorizing and dysfunctional software testing culture an organization can have. I’ve seen it literally destroy good people and careers. It flies in the face of systems thinking, complexity of failure, risk management, and just about everything we know about the psychology involved in testing, but the bully and blame culture in IT refuses to let it die…”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with this: what is “QA”?

If “QA” is quality assurance, then it’s important to figure out who, or what, assures quality—value to some person(s) who matter(s).

Confusion abounds when “QA” is used as a misnomer for testing. Testing is not quality assurance, though it can inform quality assurance. Testing does not assure quality, no more than diagnosis assures good health.

In terms of health, there’s no question that we want good diagnoses so that we can become aware of particular pathologies or diseases. If we’re in poor health, and we’re not aware of it, and diagnosis doesn’t catch it, it’s reasonable to ask why not, so that we can improve the quality of diagnosis. The unreasonableness starts when someone foolishly believes that diagnosis is infallible, or that it assures good health, or that it prevents disease—like believing that lab technicians and epidemiologists are responsible for COVID-19, or for its spread.

Once again, it is high time that we dropped the idea that testing is quality assurance. Who perpetuates this? Everyone, so it seems, and it’s not a new problem. At very least, it would be a great idea if testers stopped using the label to describe themselves. As long as testers persist in calling themselves “QA”, the pandemic of ignorance and blame will continue.

What, or who, does assure quality, then?

In one sense, everyone who performs work has agency or authority over it, which includes an implicit responsibility to assure its quality, just as everyone is responsible to maintain the health of his or her mind and body. Assuring the quality of our work a matter of craft; self-awareness; diligence; discipline; professionalism; and duty of care towards ourselves, our clients and our social groups. If we’re adults, no one else is responsible for washing our hands.

In everyday life, we make choices about lifestyle, diet, and hygiene that influence our health and safety. As adults, those choices, whether wise or reckless, are our responsibility. At work, our agency affords freedom and responsibility to push back or ask for help when we’re pressed to do work in a way that might compromise our own sense of quality. And our agency enables us to leave any situation in which we are required to behave in ways that we consider unprofessional or unethical.

Part of maintaining personal health is maintaining awareness of it. That means asking ourselves how we feel, and soliciting the help of others who can sometimes help us become aware of things that we don’t see, like personal trainers, doctors, or counsellors. Similarly, assuring quality in our work involves evaluating it—often with the help of other people—to become aware of its state, and in particular, its limitation and problems.

Other people might help us, but as authors of our own work, we are responsible for making those evaluations, and we are responsible for what we do based on those evaluations. Choices that bear on our health, or on the quality of our work, are ours to make.

So, in this sense, “why didn’t we catch this in QA?” would mean “why did we not assure the quality of our own work?” And at the centre of that “we” is “I”.

In another sense, responsibility for the quality of work and workplace resides in the management role. While we’re responsible for washing our hands, management is responsible for providing an environment where handwashing is possible—and for ensuring that people aren’t pushed into conditions where they’re endangering themselves, each other, or the business.

Insofar as management engages people to do work and make products, management is responsible for determining what constitutes quality work, and deciding whether the product has met its goals. Management decides whether the product it’s got is the product it wants—and the product it wants to ship. Management can ask testers to learn about the product on management’s behalf, but management is ultimately responsible for assuming the risk of unknown problems in the product.

Management is responsible for setting the course; for co-ordinating people; for marshaling resources; for setting policy; for providing help when it’s needed; for listening and responding and acting appropriately when people are pushing back. While testers help management to become aware of the status of the product, management is responsible for evaluating the quality of the work and the workplace, and for deciding (based on information from everyone, not only testers) whether the work is ready for the outside world.

Management assures quality by creating the conditions that make it possible for people to assure the quality of their own work. And management fails to assure quality when it sets up conditions that make quality assurance impossible, or that undermine it. In that case, “why didn’t we catch this in QA?” would mean “why didn’t management assure the quality of the work for which it is responsible?”

When people get sick, it’s reasonable to ask how people got sick. It’s reasonable to ask what they might need and what they might do to take better care of themselves. It’s also reasonable to ask if government is providing sufficient support for individual health, public health, and public health workers. It’s even reasonable to ask how better epidemiology and diagnosis could help to sound the alarm when people and populations aren’t healthy. It’s not reasonable to put responsibility for personal or public health on the epidemiologists and diagnosticians and lab techs.

So “Why didn’t we catch this in QA?” is a fine question to ask when it means “Why did we not assure the quality of our own work?” or “Why didn’t management assure the quality of the work for which it is responsible?” But don’t mistake testing for quality assurance, and don’t mistake the question for “Why didn’t testers assure the quality of the product?” And if you’re a tester, and being asked the latter question, reframe it to refer to the previous two.

Want to learn how to observe, analyze, and investigate software? Want to learn how to talk more clearly about testing with your clients and colleagues? Rapid Software Testing Explored, presented by me and set up for the daytime in North America and evenings in Europe and the UK, November 9-12. James Bach will be teaching Rapid Software Testing Managed November 17-20, and a flight of Rapid Software Testing Explored from December 8-11. There are also classes of Rapid Software Testing Applied coming up. See the full schedule, with links to register here.

Want to know more? Learn about upcoming Rapid Software Testing classes here.

5 responses to ““Why Didn’t We Catch This in QA?””

  1. Robert Day says:

    In other words, the “we” in “Why didn’t we catch this in QA?” has to include the person asking the question.

  2. […] “Why Didn’t We Catch This in QA?” Written by: Michael Bolton […]

  3. Creative Scapegoat Specialists charges by impact.

    “I’ve seen it literally destroy good people and careers.”

    “… but the bully and blame culture in IT refuses to let it die…”

    Physics does not require you to be offered fair, or even sane work. You’ll be offered nuts situations sometimes through ignorance, often through convenience, rarely through overt malice. What you do with that is on you.

    How you engage your situation is up to you. This isn’t unique to testing, or QA.

  4. Christoffer Willenfort says:

    This is why i refere to QA as Quality Assistance.

    Because my jobb is more then tesing and all of it is geared against improving quality. I cannot assure it but I can assist management in their efforts to assure it.

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