Time and time again I get asked the question: “Who should write the tests?”
Most times this is a trap-question, when this is asked in an attempt to end some sort of tribal internal black-and-white discussion between those who argue it should be the developer and those who argue that the developer is precisely the last person on earth who should do it.
Both have sound arguments, and as usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, which in this particular case seems an almost impossible concept.
This is not just about who writes the tests. It’s about the inner driver of quality assurance. There are two approaches to quality assurance in software projects, that although complementary, are looked upon as contradictory and incompatible, which, in my experience, frequently leads to failure. They are:
- Certification QA - Made by another person/group/entity/process providing an independent confirmation of quality, which can’t be safely done by who has the vices and assumptions of whoever develops the solution
- Improvement QA - Techniques used by whoever is developing the solution, that lead it to improve the quality of its work, namely by emulating being another person/group/entity on the perspective of the user of the work produced.
This is the classical approach, and the one you’re more likely to find in big corporations. But, isolated from Internal QA has a massive track record of failure after failure.
It looks at QA (and in particular testing) as a way for entity
A to assess
the work of entity
B, in order to ensure (and sometimes to formally certify)
that the work produced has NO problems. The tester must be external,
independent and unbiased.
One limitation of this is that its output is mostly binary: it either passes or it doesn’t. When on earth have you seen quality defined as existing or nonexisting?
It has the advantage of better preventing that developer deceives himself (or others) on whether its work meets certain requirements or not. But the result is rarely to identify improvement opportunities as much as it is to identify what needs to be fixed.
On the other hand, by being binary, creates clear incentives to simply sweep under the rug and do whatever it needs for the quality control process to pass, instead of focusing on improving the quality. Piles of trash keep accumulating…
I argue that, if only this sort of QA is done, and is not reinforced with internal QA, it very quickly leads to unmaintainable rotten code. It leads to watermelon software: green on the outside, red on the inside
This is the approach that is somehow more encouraged by modern agile practices such as TDD or XP.
Within Improvement QA, entity
A executes some practices that force it to
emulate itself as being an external
B, in order to be more self-critical
and immediately improve the quality of its work.
For example, when a team does internal code-review, it forces itself to imagine being a future programmer, which will have to evolve and change it, or imagine doing support and tracking a bug across a piece of code. This makes it easier to self-criticize and improve the names of the variables, the architecture, etc. and immediately improve it.
When developing a unit test, the developer is forcing itself to being a future user of its unit (outside of its current issue), and thinking about its public interfaces, instead of just thinking on how to solve their immediate problem.
Notice that, the primary output of this sort of QA is not binary, the unit test development is not as much focused on checking that the new unit complies or not with what it should do. Instead, its focused on validating if its interface is clear, easy to use (the test uses it), flexible (it’s hard to test coupled code), and thus proactively improve its internal quality.
But isn’t the unit test validating its specification?
Sure, but that’s a byproduct. In addition to the primary output (improved internal quality), that you get during its development, you can then add the automated test into the set used for regression checking, and thus it acts as the “external, independent, unbiased”.
Improvement QA promotes awareness of the importance of quality (internal and external) within the development team and the growth of know-how and experience on how to do higher quality work in smaller iterations.
Additionally, I argue that when verification isn’t seen as an external
process, testing code is less likely to be treated as
leading to an higher quality, easier to maintain and therefore less likely to
become a burden of false positives and confusing outputs.
This approach does not necessarily imply that the test must be made by the developer, but above all that QA shall feed quality into development instead of just monitoring for the lack of it.
|Type of QA||Improvement||Certification|
|To eliminate the bias of the problem-solver…||the team changes hats||another entity controls it|
|It mainly aims to…||improve quality||control minimum quality|
|It identifies…||opportunities to improve||problems|
|Its output is…||subjective, range||objective, binary|
|Focuses on…||internal quality||external quality|
|Leads to…||sustainable projects||green on the outside|
|Best done by…||the developer itself||a robot|
|The quality of the testing code itself becomes…||as good as the rest of the code||a second-class citizen|
To achieve sustainable quality, start with a focus on Improvement QA. Add Certification QA when its cost is residual (as in the case of reusing the developed tests for regression), or whenever they are considered high risk (billing, authentication, deployment, etc.).
So, who writes them, then?
Improvement QA should be done by those that can directly impact the development. When viable, by the developer itself.
Certification QA should be done by another entity. When viable by a BOT that simply reuses tests developed by the development team.