Effort estimation is a necessary evil and will never go away…

Not AcceptableThe reason for any tester to get sucked into test estimation is a simple one. Your manager at some point in your career, will ask you how much time it will take to test the next release, project, product. You’ll probably do what I did: check what is – planned to be – in it, compare it to the previous thing you tested and come up with a number. A bit less than before if you’re more comfortable with the way of working and the system under test. A bit more if you’re feeling unsure about the quality. As a result, your manager won’t like it and you’ll probably get less than you’re asking for. Maybe, because it is an experienced manager that tricks you into believing this release is less complex or critical. Maybe because you’re not able to substantiate your estimate. Call it character, call it ambition, when this happened to me, I was not happy so I started my “quest” for a more reliable effort estimate. This quest is still going on…

I do realize that there is a discussion “against” test effort estimation in the traditional form, maybe even in “any” form. The arguments are valid as many start with “I don’t know…” (see one of my previous posts). On the dots you can put any item: my team, the product, the development team, the business, the business case, the target, the aspects to tests, where the defects are, what the deadlines are, … This is a non-limitative list and I know you can come up with many more items.

The awful truth is that we have to come up with an estimate anyway. Either we need to tell our manager what time we need to test or we need to show him what we can do within the available time. Including a high-level description of how, when, what, …. Whether we want to or not, because if we don’t do it, he will. Since I believe that craftsman are able to better estimate their work and to discuss, argument and agree about it, I think testers should do it themselves. It’s better than being told and sigh…

Estimation Philosophy Especially for a tester, an estimate is an approximation, nothing more or less. We know that all kinds of things will happen that will disrupt progress, require additional time to investigate or explore, lead to a major change in the scope of the project and/or the product. I know we don’t control most of the factors that influence the required effort. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take them into account! In my opinion, we need to “collect” these factors and show the impact on the test estimate.

And by the way, against all current discussions and opinions, I do believe there is a “best practice” in estimation: you need to discuss, monitor, update, change and adapt your effort estimate continuously.

Why improvement usually fails…

If you want to improve you have to invest time and money. What usually happens, is that you look for what everyone at that moment considers to be the right thing to do. So you tend to adopt the test approach, including tools and templates, that is “hot”.

Head in HandsLet’s say, you decide to implement risk based testing. You learn how to translate business risks into an appropriate test approach, including techniques, and create a beautiful plan and strategy.  And then? Your (pilot) project starts and fails…
Why, you wonder. You applied everything you learned, went to conferences, listened to the gurus, read the books, hired expensive consultants, …

As a test consultant I had the privilege to work in different organisations and projects and discovered a trend in “failures” and “successes”.  It boils down to one common denominator: did you or didn’t you involve the people who do the “real thing” in the test process? Yes, the ones that do the actual work a.k.a. the testers.  Somehow, they do not get involved in the early stages of test improvement.

We tend to start with test management, make the test organisation more professional, develop a test strategy, follow a lifecycle (plan, prepare and execute), use the right tools, select adequate test design techniques … According to the book! Don’t we make the same mistake at the start of a project? Forget to involve those same testers in the early stages?  When we define a test strategy and write a test plan, we talk to the business, the developers, all of our stakeholders, …

Don’t forget: the testers are the most important part of your test process and improvements, they have to learn to apply the new methods, tools and templates. In fact, they are the ones that have to change the most!

27-teamworkI found out the hard way that a few days training – even from the guys that wrote the book – is not enough for that senior business tester that has been there for over 10 years and knows the system inside out… And what about the “fire fighters” that have become heroes because they find, fix and retest defects quickly? They will not be convinced, they won ’t even attend!

So it’s all about people and how you involve them.  Take into account the capabilities and potential of your test engineers. Listen to what they have to say.  On the short term, you might end up at a maturity level you do not like. Or your approach is not exactly what you want it to be. But you know what, if you help them manage the transition, they will reward you with the highest level possible in the shortest possible time.  You will become truly successful.

It’s not your test management approach that decides how successful you are, your test engineers make it or break it. TMap? ISTQB? RST? As long as your people are able and capable to apply it in their day to day work.

The awful truth about estimation revisited

Last Friday I submitted my presentation The Awful Truth About Test Estimation – Have I been wrong all along? to EuroSTAR. Turns out there is a lot to say, discuss, consider, think, explore,… about estimation and that 45 minutes, including loads of interaction, is pretty short.

Awful truth?

According to wikipedia, “Estimation is the process of finding an estimate, or approximation, which is a value that is usable for some purpose even if input data may be incomplete, uncertain, or unstable. The value is nonetheless usable because it is derived from the best information available.” To make life a little easier, wikipedia explains that “An approximation is anything that is similar but not exactly equal to something else. The term can be applied to various properties (e.g. value, quantity, image, description) that are nearly but not exactly correct; similar, but not exactly the same.”

So in fact, test effort estimation is a the process of defining a number – hours, man days, lapse time, … – that is nearly but not exactly correct AND is based on incomplete, uncertain and unstable information.
For me that is awful yet true.

Should we stop doing it?

Unfortunately, for most of us that is not an option. We need to provide some insight into the necessary effort for testing, because (project)management needs it to establish a budget request, (line)management wants insight into the resources needed for a project, et cetera.

Question marks

…if you don’t know what to do
…if you don’t know how to do it
…if you don’t know who will do it
…if you don’t know where to do it
…if you don’t know with what to do it
…if you don’t know when to do it
…if you don’t know when to stop
…if you don’t know what to do first, last, in between

We should however always treat it as an estimate: nearly but not exactly correct, based on incomplete, uncertain and unstable information. And share the uncertainties, instabilities and incompleteness!

You should never stop doing it!

One of the most important lessons to learn about estimation is that you’re never done with it. Each day one of the uncertainties can become a certainty, decisions are made that remove instabilities, etcetera. As a tester you should continuously look at your estimates and adjust them to the new situation.

Biggest challenge: you need to convince (project)management that an estimate is an incomplete, uncertain and unstable number. And that fixed deadlines sometimes just mean that not all of the testing work is done… You could compromise but my suggestion is to do the best you can within the given restraints. And be open and honest about it. One of the best results I got was in a project where the project manager decided to stop detailing the requirements and start coding immediately to save time and effort on the development side (approximately 200 man hours). I did not complain or blame. I just told him that I expected that as a consequence the test effort would go up by at least 300 man hours due to the fact that we needed to find out about the requirements ourselves now and we expected more defects… After a prolonged discussion, he withdrew his decision.

See you in Gothenburg?

Register for my track at EuroSTAR

If you are coming to Gothenburg and are interested in attending my talk, please register here

You can also do so by visiting this page on the EuroSTAR website: “W9 – The Awful Truth About Test Estimation

Triggers for Improvement? Opposites attract!

The result of the poll I held amongst fellow testers and on this blog, is in line with my expectations: most test improvement initiatives start when quality issues occur. So in that sense, management treats testing like any other discipline: why invest in change or improvements when there is no (obvious) reason for it.

In my experience, motivated testers continuously look for ways to change and improve themselves and the way they work. And they are not afraid to look for help. They’re active on the internet, participate in Special Interest Groups, and meet with each other quite frequently. That’s why most improvement initiatives start at the operational level: the testers want to improve.

The first hurdle is to convince management that it is worthwhile to invest in change and improvement, a.k.a. business case. Unfortunately, currently the focus is on numbers: what are the benefits (in Euro’s please)? what are the costs? And by the way, we want Return on Investment within 6 months. Again, management treats testing like anything else: most companies  only start a project if it is beneficial within 6 months.

Quality versus Time versus Costs
Testers focus on qualitative benefits:
– the right test at the right moment;
– deliver what was promised;
– the right coverage at the right spot.

Management on quantitative benefits:
– reduced time-to-market;
– deliver what is necessary;
– increased productivity.


Funny thing is that also in this situation opposites attract: management will never get what they want without achieving what testers strive for; testers will never be able to reach their goals without meeting management needs. I’ll even go one step further: by helping management to achieve its goals, testers will achieve their own goals as well. Without the right test with the right coverage at the right moment at the right spot, reduced time-to-market and increased productivity is impossible. The only thing we can and have to discuss is scope: deliver what is promised or deliver what is necessary?

The awful truth about estimation – EuroSTAR 2013

I’m invited by EuroSTAR this year to give a challenging talk about estimation.

The Awful Truth About Test Estimation – Have I been wrong all along?

Abstract
Throughout my career, I tried to make effort estimation reliable.
With colleagues, I created a formal approach linked to function point analysis. That didn’t catch on. Was it too difficult? I worked on an informal approach based on questions about size, strategy, resources, and etcetera. Still only small successes. Does “Garbage in, garbage out” apply? Have I been asking the wrong questions?

Please join me in my quest for the right questions to ask. Help me to deal with this once and for all and solve this issue through our collective experience and do what testers are good at: asking questions in search for an answer.

Video message
A new phenomenon is that you promote your talk in a video message. For those of you who do not follow EuroSTAR or visit the website regularly, please check my message here:

 

See you there!

Register for my track at EuroSTAR

If you are coming to Gotenborg and are interested in attending my talk, please register here

You can also do so by visiting this page on the EuroSTAR website: “W9 – The Awful Truth About Test Estimation

Hope to see you in Gotenborg!

Assessments by external consultants have major benefits too!

Although I personally believe that doing it yourself is one of the best ways to successfully improve, in-house assessments have severe drawbacks as well.

SEPNumber one: you are part of the team that is being assessed and are therefore biased. No matter how rational and objective you try to be. During one of my assignments, I came across an effect called “Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP)”. I think this describes best what the consequences of being biased can be. Maybe we even use a so called SEP-field generator to help overlook issues within our own approach and team.

Number two: your coworkers are hesitant to share their weak spots with you because they fear you might use anything they say against them in the next project. As a consequence you will not find the root cause of recurring issues or the real issues preventing things to improve.

Number three: experienced consultants have performed assessments many times before, understand the assessment models, and are efficient in surveying organizations. Because of their independence, they can dare to ask questions about “everything you’ve always wanted to know but were afraid to ask.”

Number four: external consultants bring a wealth of experience form other organizations. They have helped other organizations improve their testing and usually have access to several good practices that might help you make that next step. I’ve also learned that as an external consultant it’s easier to point out that certain existing habits should change.

Number five: when you’re leading an improvement initiative yourself, you might overdo it and strive to become the best in test. But your companies focus is on delivering the right product and/or service to your customers. Which implies that being efficient in testing might be enough. External consultants can help you decide what level is enough based on their experience at similar organizations.

Number six: even if you’re a craftsman, well-trained, experienced and knowledgeable, it is always good to have someone else come in and discuss with you what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

CloutNumber seven: your findings and recommendations, no matter how well reasoned and well-presented they are, do not have the “clout” that an outside assessor brings. This is a strange phenomenon that I’ve encountered quite often: an in-house group has performed an assessment and has made recommendations to management that are simply ignored. Later, when we are asked as external consultant to perform an assessment, we make in essence the same recommendations, management responds positively to our report, and the recommendations are implemented.

The hints, tips and tricks I listed in my previous blog also apply to anyone performing an assessment. One additional, crucial tip when using an external assessment team. Make sure that you do not focus on knowledge of and experience with process improvement models, but please check if the assessment team incorporates a wealth of experience in testing at any level.

In-house assessments have major benefits!

Digging through my personal archive, I found “Is There an Assessment in the House? Diagnosing Test Process Ailments in House”, an article Better Software published in December 2006. Re-reading the article, I decided it contained tips about performing an in-house assessment that are still very true.

Better Software - December 2006Performing an assessment in house is a less expensive initiative than hiring outside consultants. Maybe not as inexpensive as the Low Budget approach I described in my previous post, but still. And it has other substantial benefits. An in-house assessment team knows the organization, its people, its processes, and its habits in substantially more detail than an “outsider” could learn during the relatively short assessment period. And the process improvement suggestions might be more realistic, better tuned to the situation, and more achievable.

Here are some – slightly updated – tips for leading a successful in house assessment:

  • Define why you are performing the assessment and what you hope to accomplish.
  • Choose a test process assessment model that suits you and your organization. Use it to make sure your assessment is objective and your conclusions are legitimate.
  • Create questionnaires to ensure that you cover all major topics when talking to people.
  • Familiarize yourself with all parts of the organization and how it actually tests software. Look for discrepancies between process information – the way they claim to do things – and project information – what they really do.
  • Make sure you choose a representative sample of people to talk to. It’s easier to sit down with friends, coworkers, and people nearby, but they may not be the best sources of information.
  • Don’t just talk to testers. Testing is part of software development, decisions made by any discipline significantly impact testers. So be sure to include people from these areas.
  • If you organize a group interview, make sure they are peers. Otherwise, you’re bound to get “right” answer – what the manager wants said – instead of the truth.
  • Arrange to meet in their offices. People feel more comfortable on their home turf and may be more open to your questions.
  • Be an effective listener. You may be more of an expert in an area than the person you are talking to, but don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t fill in the blanks or use your words rather than theirs. It’s crucial not to interpret – just listen, learn, and record.
  • Ask what problems exist in the software testing process and how they think those problems could be solved. You will discover a wealth of information.
  • Keep confidences. You may hear some interesting things during your interviews. Don’t attach names to negative comments. Remember, you are trying to gather information, not set people up for punishment later.
  • Take detailed notes even if you’re getting the answers you expected. You won’t be able to remember all the details later, and your notes will be vital.
  • Don’t become enamored with certain people. They may be handsome or beautiful or powerful or famous or charismatic, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.
  • Work with a partner. While you are asking the questions, he records the answers. After a while, switch roles. I’ve always found my partner notices things I miss and asks questions I tend to forget.
  • Stop regularly to evaluate what you’ve learned and what is still unknown. Use that knowledge to guide your next interviews.
  • Present your findings to all who contributed to the assessment.
  • Tell the truth. As testers, the only lasting power we have is our integrity. Don’t do anything to damage yours.

If you ensure that you’re not biased and you make everyone share their weak spots, you’ll achieve wonderful things through an in-house assessment.

Test Process Improvement for a Low Budget

At the start of the current economic situation (some would call it an economic crisis), we were asked to create and present a workshop on test process improvement “on a shoestring” a.k.a. for a low-budget. Companies nowadays do not have the time and the means for extensive improvement initiatives. However, they are in dire need of improvements that help them in achieving cost reduction, shortening time-to-market and achieve a higher quality level. In other words: do more with fewer resources, in a shorter period of time and with higher quality, without (almost) any investment. Challenging, yet not impossible.

Do what is necessary When you have been working in an organization for a while, several actions and activities turn into routine: you perform them without really thinking about. For the majority of actions, that’s fine because they are necessary steps you routinely perform to get where you need to be. For some actions however, you need to fight the routine and perform them consciously every time. Because sometimes they’re not necessary, over the top or counterproductive. Most of us know that, yet do not take the time to discuss and implement changes to the way of working. Because “no one challenges the Way We Work” and this is, by the way, part of human nature. We do comment on the way we work and criticize things we want to be different, but don’t always act.

Another part of human nature however is that we knowingly and unknowingly collect ideas for improvement and ways to solve recurring issues. They just don’t always take the time or have the platform to turn those ideas into actions and go further than fighting the symptoms. By just doing that: creating a platform for collecting ideas to turn them into actions and for solving the root cause of the issues, you can improve your testing.

I’ve learned that an interactive workshop to gather improvement suggestions and select the most suitable measures with all involved parties, enables an organization to get the best out of their test team and create support for change and effectively improve the test process. All involved parties are needed, not just testers or test managers. So invite anyone who is working together with testing, from business to operations, from project management to developers. Crucial advantage: commitment is guaranteed by involving all parties.

Stop nagging

Gather ideas in small multidisciplinary teams. Ground rule: any idea or suggestion is welcome. Bad ideas don’t exist, even the suggestion to stop testing is fine! So, anything is OK.

Next step is to collectively cluster the ideas and set priorities: When do improvement ideas have effect? And what is the impact? What are the related costs (and benefits)? Last but not least, the easier it is to implement the measures the more successful it will be. The search is for “silver bullets”: Free measures that have immediate effect, high impact and are easy to implement. The workshop wraps up with an action list where each selected measure directly leads to concrete actions on the list.

Test Improvement for a low-budget does help, but is limited. Renowned test improvement models like TI4Automation®, TI4Agile®, TPI® Next and TMMi® as well as extensive experience in test improvement projects, still is needed to achieve improvements beyond picking the “low hanging fruit”. And by the way, any improvement initiative can only be successful if the people who need to do it are not only involved but are heard…

Test Improvement Revisited

I don’t know exactly when I got involved in test improvement for the first time, but it was way before models were introduced for it. Maybe it was even before people started calling it Test Improvement… I’m actually in testing long enough to have been involved in the pioneering stages of it and, as an author, played a part in defining the profession. What I do know is that helping people and/or organizations to get better at (software) testing still is a major motivator for me. I think it is (one of) the most rewarding jobs within the testing craft there is. That’s why I decided to start a series of blogs on test improvement to share my experiences.

MY FIRST MESSAGE

Truly helping a person and/or organization is not forcing them to do it your way. It is all about enabling them to do the best they can in their context: give them the means they can use in their situation. Wherever you put the emphasis “means they can use” has to be true. THEY have to use it, so it has to be in line with their skills, not yours. Whether they CAN use it depends on their abilities and if they are allowed to use it. I’ve worked in organizations where, due to regulations, the tests had to be designed and approved before execution (otherwise the test results were considered void and the product was not allowed to be shipped). Exploratory Testing was not considered an option by management. If people choose to USE something it’s because they think/know/feel/hope/expect/… that using it enables them to do it better, faster and/or cheaper. So the MEANS have to help them achieve what they want. In my opinion, “fit for context” says it all.

That’s also why I’m convinced that “one model to rule them all” does not apply to Test Improvement. I learned “through damage and shame” (sorry for the Dunglish) that the characteristics of each test improvement model define it’s added value. And it’s limitations. If you want to help improve testing and use a model, the improvement model has to be “fit for context”.

Context Driven TPI

Keep you posted!

I promised myself to improve my blogging and share my experiences in the area of test improvement through this blog. I already started working on the next post…