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”.

Which languages are best to learn for testing?


I’ve seen this question raised quite a lot in testing circles regarding which programming language is best to learn. Like it or not, the current trend in the industry seems to be asking much more of testers, with a view to creating more automation and having a much greater understanding of the technology they are testing.

Why learn a programming language?

What is your motivation for wanting to learn a programming language? In order to test well, you don’t need to know any programming language. There are very particular situations or contexts where programming may be useful to me as a tester, such as wanting to write some automated checks, learn more about what the product I’m testing is actually doing under the surface or simply wanting to save time by creating tools to help myself. However, these situations don’t arise all of the time.
It’s also worth highlighting that to write programs, I need to understand a lot about the domain I’m working with. If I want to write an automated check, I need to test the product first to understand what is worth checking. If I want to read some code, I need to understand the context that code is used for, what its purpose is.
So even if I did have something that is worth programming, I still need to “test” to identify it, understand it and consider whether it is worth it. Simply learning to program is not enough, which is why as a tester you can bring a lot to the design of automated checks and why developers cannot easily test the product themselves.

Automated checks

So it seems the usual reason testers are looking to learn a programming language is to create automated regression suites for speed and reliability. Typically I find the advice tends to be that you should learn and use the same language as your back-end developers (so if they use Java to build the product you test and Java to write unit tests, then you should learn Java too). The argument being that by using the same language, you can access their support and help more easily when you need it. However, this depends upon your current relationship with your developers and their location. Perhaps you may not be very close to your developers and won’t benefit from their support - this may not be something you can easily change.
You are going to have judge for yourself which language, but the biggest factors that affect my choice would be:
  • How comfortable am I writing code in this language?
  • What support can I get from the developers I work with?
  • What support can I get from other testers?
  • How well supported is the language in terms of libraries or capabilities? (for example, if you want to write Selenium checks, is there documentation on how to use Selenium in that language?).
  • Can I write programs in this language in a way that makes them easily understood by other people?
There is no easy answer to these questions so I wouldn’t recommend any particular language. However, to help narrow your research, I would suggest focusing on these languages to consider:
  • Java
  • C#
  • Python
  • Ruby
  • Javascript
At the time of writing, these are some of the more popular languages to learn with regards to automated checks.


Maybe you’re interested in simply being able to make use of a programming language to create your own tools. A “tool” in this context can be something small like a script that rapidly repeats a certain action over and over. For example, I once created a script that compared two sets of 100 invoices with each other. It looked at each invoice total and compared the old total with a new one and saved the difference in a text file. This meant I could rapidly compare and identify obvious errors, saving my own time and helping me perform this particular action more accurately. However, it didn’t replace the testing I performed, it simply augmented it, allowing me to focus on more interesting tests.

I created tools like this in a programming language called Python. I personally love using this language because it’s very easy to read, has a lot of support in terms of libraries and documentation and can allow you to experiment with ideas very rapidly. I very much recommend Python as a starting point for building simple tools and it can be used to write automated checks if you so wish.

There’s a great tutorial on getting started with Python here.

Alternatives to programming

Do you want to become a more technically capable tester? Not really keen on learning a programming language but feel like you need to learn? Well perhaps you can find value in learning other technologies and concepts. While programming is a very powerful tool, it’s not the only one that a tester can learn in order to become more technically capable.
  • Test lower - maybe you could understand more about the technologies powering the product you’re testing and test lower and earlier? For example, many web services are built upon APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), perhaps you could learn how to test these? A place to start interacting with APIs is trying out Postman.
  • A similar approach to testing lower is learning about databases and how to operate them using languages such as MySQL or Postgres.
  • Research tools that can help you test or provide more information. For example, Google Chrome DevTools have lots of very useful tools for interacting with websites and debugging problems or emulating mobile devices.
  • Talk to developers! Ask them to draw diagrams explaining how the product works technically and ask them explain things you don’t understand. It can be difficult at first knowing what is important to remember and what can be forgotten but simply taking an interest in their work and asking questions can even help them understand their own work better. I find there is no better test of my own understanding than having to explain myself!


  • You don’t need to learn a programming language to be a great tester.
  • There is no one particular language that is “the best”, but there are some popular ones that are good to get started with.
  • There are other ways to become a more technical tester that don’t involve learning programming.