Monday 19 December 2016

The temptation to split dev and test work in sprints - don’t do it!


About 3 and a half years ago, I was new to sprints and scrum. Coming from the videogames industry, I was used to a process where I would test code that came from developers and return bug reports. I had heard the words “sprint” and “scrum” before but I had no idea how testing fit into them, so I joined a company where I could figure that out. This is what I figured out.

What’s a sprint?

If you’re not familiar with scrum or agile, then a sprint is effectively a short-term project plan where a team of people decide the work that they can complete within a 1, 2 or 3 week window. Work is “committed” (promised) to be completed in that time frame and the team tracks their progress. After each sprint, reviews and retrospectives are held to help the team find what works well and what helps them complete more work to a higher standard while still maintaining their commitment. The main focus of sprint work is to complete the work and trying to avoid leaving work unfinished.

Where does testing fit?

So normally teams set up a task board with columns titled something similar to “To Do, In Progress, Done”. Sometimes people add more columns or use different names but the usage is similar. Anyone from the same background as me would be tempted to then suggest that an additional column could be added between “In Progress” and “Done”. The logic being that “when you’ve finished your development work, I’ll test it”. In my head, this was trying to work with what I knew already in this new environment. We ended up with columns similar to “To Do, Build/Dev, Testing, Done”.

Bad idea

So at first, I thought things were working ok, I feel one of my strengths is learning and picking up things fast so I got stuck in and kept up with the 5 developers in my team. Most of the time I was fortunate that the work dropped sequentially or wasn’t particularly time consuming to test. This didn’t last long though and eventually we started to fail to complete work on time. This happened either because I was testing it all at the end of a sprint or because the work was highly dependant upon each other and the problems with integration weren’t found until very late.
This meant we had to continue some work in future sprints. Now I no longer had plenty of time to write my test plans at the start, but I was busy testing last sprint’s work and then testing this sprint’s work! I no longer had time to spend learning more automation or exploring newer areas to me like performance testing. All of my time was consumed trying to test all of this work and I couldn’t do it. What went wrong?

A change in approach

I would love to say I quickly realised the problem and fixed it but it took me a long time to realise the issue. I think part of this I will put down to not knowing any better and partly working with developers who didn’t know any better. Either way, a while later I realised that the problem was that I was trying to test everything and the developers started to rely on me for that. I’ve since realised that there is a fair bit of psychology involved in software development and this was one of my biggest lessons.
We eventually decided to stop splitting up work between roles, mainly because we found that developers tended to treat work that was in “test” as “done” to them, freeing themselves up to work on even more development work. This created a bottleneck, as the only tester as I was testing work from yesterday while they were busy with today. Instead, I came to the realisation that there is little benefit to splitting the work up in this way, at least not through process. We should be working together to complete the work, not trying to focus on our own personal queue. I shifted from testing after development was thought complete, to trying to test earlier, even trying to “test” code as developers were writing it, pairing with them to analyse the solution.

Understanding what a “role” means

I think for me this lesson has been more about realising that playing the role of “tester” does not necessarily mean I carry out all of the “testing” in a team. It does mean I am responsible for guiding, improving and facilitating good testing, but I do not necessarily have to complete it all personally. An additional part of this lesson is that I cannot rely on other people to define my role for me - as a relative newbie to testing I relied on the developers to help me figure out where I should be. While I’ve learnt from it, I also know that I may need to explain this learning again in future because it is not immediately obvious.

So where does testing really fit?

Everywhere, in parallel and in collaboration to development. Testing is a supportive function of the team’s work, it now doesn’t make sense to me to define it as another column of things to do. It has no set time frame where it’s best to perform, and it doesn’t always have a great deal of repetition in execution. It is extremely contextual.
In addition, that’s not to say you shouldn’t test alone or separately to ongoing teamwork. You absolutely must test alone as well, to allow you to focus and to process information. It’s just that you must choose to do this - where it is appropriate.

Definition of “Done”

One of my recent approaches was to define the definition of “Done” as:

“Code deployed live, with appropriate monitoring or logging and feedback has been gathered from the end user”

Others may have different definitions, but I liked to focus the team on getting our work in a position where we could learn from it and take actions in the following sprint. For me, it meant we could actually pivot based on end user feedback or our monitoring and measure our success. Instead of finishing a sprint with no idea whether our work was useful or not, planning a new sprint not knowing whether we would need to change it.


  • Avoid using columns like “Dev” and “Test” in sprint boards. It seems to lead to a separation of work where work is considered “Done” before it is tested.
  • Instead, try to test in parallel as much as possible (but not all of the time), try to test earlier and lower down a technology stack (such as testing API endpoints before a GUI is completed that uses them).
  • Encourage developers to test still and instead try to carefully pick when and where to personally carry out the bulk of the testing. Try to coach the team on becoming better at testing, share your skills and knowledge and let them help you.
  • Altering the definition of “Done” seemed to help for me, it was useful to focus the team on an objective that meant we really didn’t have to keep returning to work we had considered completed. In other words, make sure “done” means “done”.

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