Test Smarter, Not Harder – A Detailed Article

Scott Sehlhorst

developer.* has just published a 15-page article, Test Smarter, Not Harder by Scott Sehlhorst on test automation. We present the background for that article here (why you should read it) as well as a summary of what is covered in the article. Check it out at developer.*, and thanks to Dan Read, both for starting developer.* (which is a GREAT site) and for publishing the article. Skip to the end of this post to see how you can help.

Automated Testing Must Be a Core Competence

Automated testing has become a critical component of software product success. Processes like continuous integration require test automation to be effective. Unit testing requires automated testing to be effective as a rapid-development tool. Whitebox testing is almost always done with automation. More and more blackbox testing is being done with automation. A team without a good approach to automated testing is working at a severe disadvantage, and is arguably doomed to extinction.

Functional Testing (or system testing) is where a team can achieve process differentiation with automation. 80% of teams rely on manual functional testing today. These teams argue that automating functional tests is too expensive. The reasons most cited are complexity and rapid change in the underlying product.

Testing Complex Software

Complex software presents very challenging problems for test automation. First – how do we deal with the extreme complexity of many of today’s software applications? Billions or trillions of combinations (scripts) of user actions can be made. And software that works with one combination may be buggy in hundreds of others.

We can’t realistically test all of the combinations. Even if we did have the hardware needed to run them we would not be able to validate the results of all of those tests. So we can’t achieve exhaustive test coverage.

Without exhaustive test coverage, how do we know when we’ve tested enough?

Test Smarter Not Harder

The article starts with an analysis of the complexity of modern software and a brief discussion of the organizational realities and typical responses. Then the article explores common approaches and techniques in place today:

  • Random Sampling
  • Pairwise Testing
  • N-wise Testing

The article explores the math, benefits, and limitations of each approach. While N-wise testing is the most effective approach in common use today, it has a limitation – it assumes that the user’s actions (input variables) happen in a prescribed sequence or are irrelevant. In most complex software this assumption is invalid. The article presents a technique for incorporating order-dependence into the statistical approaches for developing test coverage.

The article also demonstrates techniques for simplifying the testing representation using whitebox testing techniques to redefine the problem space, and then applying blackbox testing (statistical) approaches to execution of the resultant test parameters.

By combining the statistical techniques explained in the article with a communication plan for sharing the appropriate quality metrics with stakeholders, we can deliver higher quality software, at a lower cost, and with improved organizational support and visibility.

Why developer.*?

While many Tyner Blain readers are interested in test automation, most of our readers would not want to go into this much depth. The audience at developer.* has a more technical focus, and their site is a more natural place for this article. Personally, I am honored to be included as an article author there – and all of you who want more technical depth than we go into at Tyner Blain should really check out the stuff Dan Read has put together. They’ve also just published their first indie-publisher ‘real book‘, which you can get via their site. My copy is on the way as I type.

How can you help?

This is a great opportunity for PR for Tyner Blain – please share the article with your associates because we want our community to grow. Also, it would be great if you ‘digg’ the article at digg (just follow the link, and ‘digg it’), del.icio.us, blink, or any other networking site. In addition to being good content, I hope to make this an experiment in viral marketing. Lets see if we can collectively reach the tipping point that brings this article, and the Tyner Blain community to the next group of people.

[update: the article just made the front page at digg and has 374 diggs and 32 brutal comments :). Welcome to all diggers, mobile, agile, or hostile!]

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