Monday, March 25, 2013

Importance of a Common Programming Language on Test Teams

How can a technical team work together on techy stuff if they don't understand the same language?  On our team, the native languages are English, Polish, Spanish, and possibly Jive (<-- funny Airplane reference).  Fortunately, everyone speaks English (even though the native English speakers  don't speak Polish, Spanish, or Jive -- other than enough Polish to get me slapped).  We are able to work together in English on business facing testing issues.  To work as a technical test team, we need a technical lingua franca.

A lingua franca is a common language shared by people from different backgrounds so they can understand each other and they can work together.  At home, different languages are used; at work (or at market or international diplomacy), an agreed upon, common language is used.  The common language is no better than the others, but it enables people to communicate better.

Programming teams are typically formed with a built-in lingua franca.   If the team is developing web apps in Java, then all the programmers hopefully share a working knowledge of Java.   At home or on side projects, these same developers may switch a language that is more comfortable for them, such as Python, F#, or Zimbu.  Even though these programmers may speak Zimbu at home, they can still communicate with other programmers at work in Java.

Test teams don't often have the same advantage.  Testers often range from non-technical to super technical.  And because there is no industry standard for testers (not advocating this), it is more challenging for test teams to work together on technical solutions.  For example, members of our test team  have experience with VB (VBA/VB Script), Ruby, Python, Java, C#, and a few other languages.

We are literate, but if we are not literate in the same language, what good is it?  We can build things for ourselves, but we cannot leverage ourselves and our influence.  We cannot grow greater than one.   If we each build tools and testing applications in VB, Ruby, Python, Java, and C#, we cannot take advantage of each other's work, understand each other's work, develop significant tools, or maintain that work.  With a common programming language, we can become more powerful team.

There are a few considerations in picking a common language. It might make sense to form around the common development language in your shop (C#, in our case), go with the most common language on your team (probably VB) , or select from open-source languages commonly used in the test space, such as Ruby or Python.  Anyway you go, pick a language, and go with it.

We selected Ruby as our lingua franca.  When we started, none of us had any experience with it.  Part of our shared experience was learning to use it.  We worked together before and after work and at lunch to learn the basics of the syntax and understand the personality of the language.

As a team, we work together, challenging and motivating each other.  This common language is helping to pull us together as a team.  We work together on skill-building challenges and building applications to help us with our jobs.  Simple tools are becoming more ambitious as we grow skills and gain confidence.

A side benefit of our experience with Ruby as our shared language is that it helped many of us on the test team better understand technology discussions related to our application development.  For instance, when our .net development team talks about MVC frameworks, ASP files, and reconciling NuGet references, we can translate to our language to understand:  Rails type framework, .erb or .haml files, and RubyGems.  We can understand others better, and we now have a vocabulary talking about these things.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How to Write a Testing Framework

Sometimes, test frameworks seem to be a dime a dozen.  There are many commercial and homegrown frameworks.  All have the same general goal – make automated testing easier.  This is an awesome goal.  When done well, it enables testers to focus on high-value work and lets the framework take care of low-value stuff (important but low value for people to do).

Over the course of the several posts, I will share the story of a services testing framework that several members of my test team and I wrote (with some technical and design help from friends and well wishers).  We started with a few goals and principles and we are driving toward an open-source release of the tool.

To give you a sneak peak, here is the current start page of Cham (there is more than a start page -- we have  a working system with high levels of abstraction and fast, scalable performance). 

Start page of Cham
From this view, you can see some of the things that are important to us when we think about frameworks.
  • Separate the technical stuff from the tests.  This is the difference between the templates section and the build tests section.  Hide technical stuff where you can and build awesome tests using business words (also known as people words).  Test built using people words are easier to share, to discuss, and to maintain.
  • Focus on making everything understandable by a wide audience.
  • Results are easy to share with people who care.  In Cham, we do this a couple ways.  One is by simply making it easy to pass specific results to people (our pages are RESTful and you can simply give someone a URL). Another way (not seen here) is by making the tests work with the developer workflow.  For example, programmers can use Cham to test services before code is checked in.
  • Make it easily accessible.  You can’t see this here, but everything is done with open-source code (go Ruby) and libraries so there are no licensing issues limiting access.
  • Make it look nice – this gives users more confidence in the tool.  And it makes you feel better about yourself.  We can all use that.