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How Testers Can Find the Valley of Success

By Titus Fortner, Senior Solutions Architect, Sauce Labs

There's something about testing that seems to attract analogies. Everywhere you go, every presentation you watch, someone is talking about how similar testing is to this, or how much testing reminds them of that. Now, if I say that with a twinge of negativity in my voice, it's because the most popular of those analogies also happens to be my least favorite: the mountain top.

It isn't even just testing; chances are you've seen or heard someone talk about how some task is analogous to climbing a mountain, with imagery of needing to cross a hazardous chasm and overcome obstacles before eventually reaching the mountain top and achieving victory.

Here's the problem with that analogy, though, and it's kind of a big problem: there's often no mountain top, especially not in testing. If you're doing it right, testing is a continuous activity. There's no end state; no ultimate achievement that renders your work complete. There's nothing you can do or accomplish today that can't conceivably be undone by something released tomorrow.

Remember, effective automated testing is essentially about avoiding the risky and the unpredictable. In that sense, the mountain top isn't just the wrong analogy for testing, it's the antithesis of what testers should strive to achieve. Let's agree to ditch the mountain once and for all, and instead, focus on finding what I call the Valley of Success. (Credit where credit is due: Rico Mariani first coined a similar term - The Pit of Success - when discussing the development of low-level software code in the early 2000s.)

The Valley of Success is about sustainability, flexibility, and repeatability. It's the place where testers have the reliability and equilibrium they need to make the best possible decisions in the name of making the most possible progress while incurring the least possible cost. The Valley of Success is where effective automated testing happens. Let's examine four key strategies testers can implement to help them get there.

Favor long-term flexibility over short-term success

Whatever it is you hope to achieve with your test implementation, there's almost certainly more than one path to getting there. With that being the case, there's no reason to sacrifice flexibility and resilience in the name of short-term success. When you focus entirely on short-term success, you inevitably wind up with an implementation that's brittle and prone to long-term failure. Rather than thinking about what's going to make my project successful right now, think instead about designing an implementation that provides the best insulation against long-term issues. Remember, short-term success is the easy part. Staying in the Valley of Success, however, requires an implementation that's built to last. 

Don't get too clever

Let's start with a basic premise about most testers: we love a challenge. We wouldn't be testers if we didn't. The thrill of a challenge is often more alluring to us than something simple and straightforward. Now consider the reality that you can make just about any process "work" when it comes to designing a test implementation, and you wind up with a world in which test engineers often create extremely complicated approaches.

Now, with the requisite resources and expertise, these complex approaches can be entirely successful (and leave said tester extremely satisfied). But just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Designing a test implementation that works right now is not the same as designing one that's built to last. When it comes to finding the reliability and repeatability of the Valley of Success, the simpler and more straightforward implementation is almost always the preferred path.

Consider other implementers as well as end-users

One of the biggest reasons to eschew the complex in favor of the simplistic is that the code's author is unlikely to be the only person who will ever have to maintain it. Framework design choices built around conventions that make sense only to someone with the author's history and frame of reference are bound to fail when another maintainer inevitably takes the reins.

Instead of promoting continuity and consistency - hallmarks of the Valley of Success - this personalized approach leads subsequent users to find creative but ultimately unsustainable workarounds rather than using the framework as designed. If and when the framework author leaves the company, all their hard work is scrapped in favor of a new approach that fits the new author's personal frame of reference, thus perpetuating the cycle of wastefulness and inefficiency. Don't just think about yourself when creating a framework. Think instead of the next user.

Don't follow prescribed object-oriented design principles

Overdeveloping your code in the name of following preordained design principles is often worse than having "bad" development practices in the first place. Consultants make a lot of money convincing people that they aren't following the correct rules (as decided by various luminaries such as themselves, of course). But it's much easier to fix underdeveloped code than overdeveloped code, and in my experience, too many developers wind up becoming focused on strictly following predefined rules rather than understanding the purpose behind them and applying them thoughtfully to their specific circumstance.

A good design principle is one that makes the code you're writing easier to work with and easier to maintain. What that ultimately looks like is much more context-dependent than any preset rules can account for. That doesn't mean you shouldn't understand the various design principles and why they exist, but following them blindly and without considering context tends to result in more harm than good.

Finding your valley

One of the unique things about testing is that it requires us to make decisions every single day, and those decisions are what ultimately determine our fate. It's up to us to block out the noise and focus on test implementations that are both simple and sustainable. We need to resist the urge to start climbing mountains and stick to the valley of success.

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About the Author

Titus Fortner, Senior Solutions Architect, Sauce Labs 

titus fortner 

Titus Fortner is a senior solutions architect at Sauce Labs, where he works with customers and the community to facilitate testing best practices. He is also a  core contributor to the Selenium project and the maintainer of the Ruby bindings. Titus spends a significant amount of time writing open source testing software built on top of Selenium. He is the project lead for Watir and is active in supporting these projects on Stack Overflow, message boards, and in the Selenium Slack and irc.

Published Thursday, November 05, 2020 7:39 AM by David Marshall
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