A Typical Developer Day

Here’s a typical day from the perspective of a BillingCenter developer (link for LOLcat fans). Hopefully, it demonstrates some of my favorite things about the environment at Guidewire: emphasis on tests, Agile-style feedback, code branching, and an appetite for humility:

9:00: As I do each day before my commute, I pull code from the Stable branch to my team’s Active branch via a shell script. Every team has at least one Active branch on which they submit code changes and manage tests, and code from each of these Active branches is pushed to the Stable branch once a week. The Stable branch is our zero-test-break version of source code and a crown jewel of our company, with which we can release code to customers on a weekly basis… few non-Web2.0 companies can do this.

9:30-12:00: Since we completed our 2.0 feature cycle, we’ve shifted focus to refining existing functionality before we officially ship a more polished product. I am currently working on a story for refactoring the APIs for determining commission rates. This one comes from our Services professionals, who are a great driver of feature refinement. Reading through their correspondence, it looks like they had become confused by the half-dozen methods called getCommissionRate() and about which method did what. This occasionally happens in large software projects, but frankly it’s embarrassing and definitely needs refactoring. I spend the rest of the morning thinking through the best way to organize a clean, refactored, and centralized method.

11:00-11:10: My full team stand for our daily sprint meeting, during which we briefly tell what we did the previous day and what we planned to do that day. At 10 devs, 3 PMs, 6 QA, and 1 documenter, my team has doubled since 1.0 development.

12:30-5:30: Having consulted with our Services people and my team lead, I’ve decided to push all commission rate-related logic into a configurable GScript method. This means that in addition to removing most of the Java implementations of getCommissionRate(), I repackage logic from those Java methods to a file that is externally read-writable so that Services and customers will never again wonder which version of getCommissionRate() does what.

Normally, QA is involved with the story from start to finish since there are tests to write before we consider ourselves done with the feature, but in the case of this refactor there were no new tests to write – thanks to TTD (test-driven development) and QA for test coverage.

5:30: I learn from our test harness, which had just completely a cycle, that I had broken a few tests with my most recent code check-in. From the snapshot stack traces, the fix looks fairly easy. Usually, I would quickly submit a fix before finishing my work day, but it’s time for our weekly Thirsty Thursday social hour. This is always a good time to catch up with coworkers and discuss what’s new with, say, GScript or Studio (internally developed IDE for GScript and webpage editing) – we tend to keep talking about software and Guidewire except over beers.


Quality Assurance in Guidewire’s Agile World

The goal of quality software development is to release a product which will meet or exceed customer expectations. Sounds simple, but few software companies (especially those developing enterprise applications) ever achieve this goal and even fewer do so on a consistent basis. From it’s inception Guidewire adopted aspects of Agile Development and Extreme Programming with the objective of high quality and on-time, customer-relevant releases. My ambition with this blog entry is to share the experience of the QA team working in Guidewire’s Agile model with the hope of sharing lessons learned, how we work, and what we strive for.

There’s no QA in XP

QA and Agile/XP are not natural bedfellows. This issue has been discussed ad nauseum in various forums (see http://www.theserverside.com/news/thread.tss?thread_id=38785 for a relatively entertaining discourse on the matter). In synopsis, Kent Beck (the creator of Extreme Programming) did not see a role for a QA team or testers in general. In From Extreme Programming Explained Beck stated: “An XP tester is not a separate person, dedicated to breaking the system and humiliating the programmers.” Rather, in Agile/XP, programmers develop extensive unit tests and the end-customers decide whether the resulting product (or feature) is acceptable or not. In fact, the founders of Guidewire debated whether or not to have a QA team, based both on the ideals of XP in addition to negative experiences with the effectiveness of QA teams at prior companies. However, Guidewire has consistently maintained a 2-to-1 developer to QA Engineer ratio, a very high investment in QA as compared to the software industry as a whole. Why the disconnect? Is Guidewire really an Agile/XP company? Is Agile/XP too idealistic?

My 2 cents

My first assessment is that Guidewire indeed does try to emulate Agile/XP goals. My second assessment is that strict adherence to Agile/XP is simply unrealistic. Following are several reasons why Guidewire has required a dedicated QA effort:

  • Unit testing, test-first development, and pair-programming fit into that category of ideas that most everyone agrees are worth the investment. However, the intense dedication involved to successfully and consistently implement XP practices means the reality of XP projects often fall short of ambitions.
  • Unit tests generally fail to take into account both integration between features as well as the final packaged customer deliverable and the various environments the product will operate within. Without an effort to exercise the application in it’s end-customer state, including against all supported platforms, too many issues will be missed by unit testing alone.
  • From a psychological point-of-view it’s difficult to objectively critique your own creation (i.e. your own code). An interesting case study would be to contrast the tests a developer implements versus tests defined by a QA Engineer. It’s likely the developer unit tests would cover the obvious use cases that the code was designed for, but how likely is it that the tests would exercise the uglier aspects that lurk in the boundaries?
  • Automation (specifically unit tests) can not always be applied to all features or situations. Some amount of manual testing is realistically unavoidable.
  • QA Engineers live in a world of higher abstraction than a typical developer and are exposed to a broader view of the product and it’s public requirements. Considerations that are obvious at the customer-level are often not made aware to a developer focused on a specific block of code.
  • The customer feedback loop is not always ideal. Agile depends on customers willing to invest heavily in the product development effort, communicating to development their priorities and whether or not the product being built fits their needs. Many customers are unwilling or unequipped to make this investment. It’s arguable whether this is the best decision on the customer’s part, but the reality is that in Agile you’re asking customers to engage in what amounts to beta testing on steroids. As a result, some intermediary is necessary (namely QA) to determine if a feature meets it’s stated requirements.
  • Finally, in the world of mission critical insurance applications it is simply unacceptable to rely on the end customer to discover product issues. Of course some bugs will exist in a release which will be caught by customers, but keeping the number of issues to a minimum is key to successful deployments and content customers.

Hmmm. We do need QA. Now, what is QA again?

So, given that QA has shown to be justified at Guidewire, what has proven to be it’s most effective application? First off, I feel a little guilty using “we” when describing the QA team. A separate QA organization truly only belongs in a waterfall development model where testing is a stand-alone stage and code is delivered wholesale from development to QA. In addition, a team expressly associated with ensuring quality inherently defeats the purpose of the Agile/XP process where testing/quality should be addressed by everyone in the organization and at all points of development. My belief is that implementation of QA in an Agile/XP environment should follow general Agile/XP tenets (when in Rome…), namely establishing and maintaining core Agile/XP ideals, specifically a passion for continual improvement. Following are some guiding principles that I feel are inherent to any successful QA effort within an Agile/XP environment:

  • Never outsource QA. Luckily, this has never been an issue at Guidewire. The fact is that no salary differential (nor no communication device) will compensate for the collaboration that occurs when Engineers sit in the same room with no barriers to conversation.
  • There is no substitute for a good Engineer. Hiring is key.
  • Strive for tightly integrated development and QA teams. Ideally, QA Engineers sit next to their developer counterparts and the testing effort is shared and occurs in lockstep with code development. As well, the automated testing infrastructure should be common. At Guidewire we have what may be the ultimate automation solution. Tests developed by QA are run 24/7 by a harness which assigns broken tests to those who are responsible for their regression (usually development). Thus, a valid automated test is maintained ad infinitum. Simply checkin your test and walk away…
  • Make holistic quality-related decisions. Involving Development and Product Management with decisions impacting testing resources allows for more effective use of limited time. QA should focus on areas known to be of high risk, for example new features where unit testing is known to be lacking or the code base is likely to exhibit buggy behavior based on inherent complexity. As well, the likely customer impact of a bug in a given area (knowledge usually unique to PM) is valuable in terms of determining whether or not that feature deserves special attention.
  • Establish a model of continual training and leverage your knowledge base to keep Engineers up-to-date. At Guidewire we send all QA Engineers through training courses developed for Field Engineers. The expense is rather large (3 weeks of full-time training) but the payoff is Engineers exposed to the entire product and it’s customer-facing interface. Without this training it would likely take years for each Engineer to attain the same broad base of product knowledge.
  • Develop good tests, whether manual or automated. A bad test (defined as either being redundant, poorly defined, trivial, or at worst deceiving) is expensive in terms of maintenance and misrepresented confidence levels.
  • Automate, automate, automate. Guidewire strives for 100% automated test coverage. This is a brash goal and oftentimes the reality is far from ideal, but if you don’t shoot for the moon…
  • Treat test code as production code. Follow good coding conventions, comment well, and refactor each test such that it remains relevant. This is another example of a pinnacle of testing that is difficult to reach.

Finally

Hopefully this is a decent primer on the often misunderstood and historically maligned area of software development called Quality Assurance, especially as applied to Agile. There are many topics that apply to quality software development I’d like to eventually delve into or expand upon. Test coverage is a fascinating pseudo-science that’s fun to debate. The evolution of the QA Engineer from a key-banging monkey to a fully-fledged Object-Oriented programmer is interesting, as well (especially from a staffing point-of-view where said QA programmers are as rare as an early Triassic mammal). I would also like to further explore whether it may in fact be a healthy goal of a development organization to reach a state where QA is superfluous. In addition I’d like to cover what perhaps is the greatest challenge of Agile development – scaling what works well on a small team to a much larger organization. Finally, it’s fun for me to reminisce on the history of the Guidewire QA team, from pure manual testing to a nascent Test Harness and limited test automation, to the world today where GScript tests and the ToolsHarness infrastructure allow for near limitless automation potential.


Enterprise Agile Testing – Part I : Introduction

The idea of “Enterprise Agile Testing” has been in my head for several months now, result of what I have learned at Guidewire and based on my previous XP experience at ThoughtWorks. I am planning on a proposal to Agile 2008 on this topic. Before I can choose my proposal topic, I need to write everything down first, kind of like a project engagement.

Actually, project engagement is not a bad analogy. I must define what my proposal is about and what it not about — what is out of scope if you will. My approach is to write a series of blog posts, each cover a specific topic and look back to see what I end up with when I am done. If I approach it as if I like writing a book or even like that agile 2007 paper, I might never finish it.

The Enterprise in Agile Testing

Enterprise here means large scale software development. The large scale can come about through a large code base or a large team. Here I am ignoring the controversial topic of whether or not large code base or large team are problems that should be avoided in the first place. They exist, I just want to point out two things that result from them with regarding testing in such an environment.

First, with a large code base, a tester cannot clearly hold onto the code’s design in his or her head, let alone the intention of the test. Instead, agile testing in enterprise environments requires a comprehensive testing framework. This framework must do more than what JUnit does out-of-the box, so that anyone (including you) can come back to a test at any time and understand it.

Second, with large team, it is pretty much impossible to ensure everyone is aware of how important testing is. This is not to say that you should give up on a large team’s continuous improvement on treating testing seriously and writing better tests, but I have found out that the line of “Zero Test breakage” is extremely hard to hold. As a result, some middle ground must be reached between complete awareness and total ignorance. Only in this way is it possible to see results in testing improvement efforts.

Agile

Since Rob and Jim pulled me away from the EJB madness and introduced me to the wonderful world of XP in 2001, “Enterprise” has slowly restored its place in my vocabulary. At the same time, the term “Agile” is getting closer and closer to my list of red flag words.

Agile here refers to the situation where the code is constantly under changes. This can happen because the requirements keep changing, or the development is done iteratively through story driven development. Constant change makes the ability to write concise tests more important. Additionally, the tests status of project must be treated as more than a binary state if testing is to keep pace with development. In this way, the development would not be paralyzed because there will almost always a test broken here and there, and the turn-around time for testing the checked-in code is not as short as 10 minutes.

Testing

So you have a large project code base that you keep changing, with a team of members with mixed skills. You need to ensure that the code (including the tests) you write is of high enough quality so that two moths from now you can still read them, understand what they do, understand why they do that, and change them. At the same time, you want to give others the time and tools to adjust to test infected development and hopefully test-driven development eventually.

Content and Structure

So, the above is the introduction. The items that are in my mind are as following, I’ll update the links as I post them.

  • Test utilities like assertion, builder
  • TestBase with annotations for test environment configuration
  • ToolsHarness, a continuous integration server that treats tests individually
  • Active and stable branch, localizing the damage