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Quality is eating software

It's time to recognize how important quality software is to the modern world.

By Lorinda Brandon, Quality Evangelist

By now, we’ve all heard Marc Andreesen’s statement that "Software is Eating the World," and most of us recognize that we live this every day. Our daily lives are powered by software in ways we don’t even stop to think about anymore.

If you are tapped into the API industry today, you may also be familiar with Steve Wilmott’s “APIs are Eating Software” talk, in which he points out that in this connected world, software itself is being reinvented in ways we could not have imagined a decade ago. APIs are the muscle behind so many of those interactions listed above, as well as much of the newer technology being built into cars and appliances.

Let’s take my day today, for example. I stumbled downstairs while it was still dark out and was relieved to find my coffee already brewed and waiting for me. That’s good, because I had an early appointment in the city and needed the extra time to get ready and hit the road before traffic. Checking my phone on the way to the car, I saw there was a chance of rain (grabbed my umbrella) and that there was a backup on the main highway (that second cup of coffee would have to be in a travel mug on the way then). In my car, I dropped the address into my navigation system, picked an alternate route that kept me off the clogged highway, and settled in with my favorite satellite radio station. At some point during the day, I checked my email, transferred money for my son in college via my banking app, checked the news online, and did a little social networking online. It was a normal day for a normal business person and parent, all of it powered by software… software that I expect to work.

Few people take the time to process how software has revolutionized so many of their activities and what would happen if that software stopped working.

What does this mean to testers?

This is the kind of conversation that normally takes place among developers and business leaders as they create new ways to build intelligence and automation into our daily lives. But what is the corresponding conversation we should be having on the Quality Assurance side? With more people relying on software to power critical needs like navigation systems in planes, trains and automobiles or doctor-patient systems within hospitals and healthcare facilities, how do we make sure those systems work on Day 1 and continue to work on Day 100?

Add in the complication of how rapidly these applications are being built and deployed, especially with the availability of APIs that make the software development process that much faster. You can’t avoid the fact that today’s tester is critical path for the success of these systems, but in an environment that puts high value on speed of deployment. We need to take more seriously the need for testers to focus on API testing as a regular part of the application testing process – if the API is the strength behind an application, it’s critical that it meets the needs of the application.

The New Conversations in Testing

Certainly, there are new methodologies being developed these days to deal with aspects of software development like Agile and distributed teams. Rapid Software Testing is designed to keep testers fast on their feet as features come out and they are asked to test simultaneously with development. The key concept here is to know how to approach a feature when you have very little documentation to rely on and when the feature itself is only partially built when you start testing it. That’s the new world of testing, and it’s imperative that testers learn how to get this right – after all, our daily transportation and communications rely on these products.

Context Driven Testing is also a way to provide intelligence to project stakeholders by understanding what is vital in the context of the application and the project rather than approaching each project the same way. Testers provide important insights to the state of the product but without relying on ‘best practices’ and ‘standard metrics’ that may not work from one project to another. I think we would all agree that our bug tolerance is a bit higher for our digital recording devices than for our on-board navigation systems. Asking a tester to adhere to the same priorities and practices when testing those applications doesn’t make sense.

Then, there’s the mobile testing conundrum. How do you accurately test mobile applications whose network connectivity, device settings, and application interoperability needs are so unpredictable? The industry is still experimenting with testing tools and methodologies in this space, but we don’t have too much more time to figure it out. Already, the reliance on smartphone applications for POS payments, navigation, banking, and healthcare is a reality for some people, and all predictions point to this reliance continuing to expand to more and more sectors of the population. This is another area where testing APIs can have a much more fundamental impact than testing at the GUI level, for example.

In some cases, the rapid deployment process leaves testing behind completely… at least until after the fact. Some companies are using a methodology called Testing in Production (TiP), opting to push their products to production with only developer testing as their barometer. They then keep an eye on production data from their monitoring systems and react to errors that are generated there. While this gets your code to your users faster, you need to decide whether your application fits a business model that can incur this level of risk.

Think Think Think

But, more important than any specific approach is the fact that the testing industry is thinking again. Just as the API Revolution has injected a new vitality and creativity into the software development process, the “Software Eating the World” concept has injected a new urgency and philosophy into the testing industry. We have some hard problems ahead of us and we need to find the right balance between speed, innovation, and quality – not an easy trio to manage. As someone who has been involved in this industry for decades, it is refreshing to hear the new testing philosophers whose strong voices are helping to lead the way.

About Lorinda

For almost 30 years, Lorinda Brandon has worked in various management roles in the high-tech industry, including customer service, quality assurance and engineering. She has worked at some of the leading companies in the industry, including SmartBear, RR Donnelley, EMC, Kayak Software, Exit41 and Intuit, among others. She specializes in rejuvenating product management, quality assurance and engineering teams by re-organizing and expanding staff and refining processes used within organizations. Follow her on Twitter @lindybrandon.

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