Test Automation Myth-Busting

Test automation is a vital part of software quality assurance, now more than ever. However, it is a discipline that is often poorly understood. I’ve heard all sorts of crazy claims about automation throughout my career. This post debunks a number of commonly held but erroneous beliefs about automation.

Myth #1: Every test should be automated.

“100% automation” seems to be a new buzz-phrase. If automation is so great, why not automate every test? Not every test is worth automating in terms of return-on-investment. Automation requires significant expertise to design, implement, and maintain. There are limits to how many tests a team can reasonably produce and manage. Furthermore, not all tests are equal. Some require more effort to handle, or may not be run as frequently, or cover less important features. Just because a test could be automated does not mean that it should be automated. Using a risk-based test strategy, tests to automate should be prioritized by highest ROI.

Automated testing does not completely replace manual testing, either. Automated testing is defensive: it protects a code line by consistently running scripted tests for core functionality. However, manual testing is offensive: it uses human expertise to explore features off-script, test-to-break, and evaluate wholistic quality. Returns-on-investment for the same tests are often opposites between automated and manual approaches. Automated and manual testing together fulfill vital, complementary roles.

Myth #2: Automation means we can downsize QA.

Executives often see test automation as a way to automate QA out of a job. This is simply not true: Automation makes QA jobs more efficient and all the more necessary. Automation is software and thus requires strong software development skills. It also requires extra tools, processes, and labor to maintain. The benefit is that more tests can be run more quickly. QA jobs won’t vanish due to automation – they simply assume new responsibilities.

Myth #3: Automation will catch all bugs.

By their very nature, automated tests are “scripted” – each test always follows the same pre-programmed steps. This is a very good thing for catching regression bugs, but it inherently cannot handle new, unforeseen situations. That’s why manual, exploratory testing is needed. Automation, being software, may also have its own bugs. Automation is not a silver bullet.

Myth #4: Automation must be written in the same language as the product code.

Automation must be written in the same programming language as the product code for white-box unit tests. However, any programming language may be used for black-box functional tests. Black-box functional tests (like integration and end-to-end tests) test a live product. There’s no direct connection between the automation code and the product code. For example, a web app could have a REST service layer written in Java, a Web UI frontend written in .NET and JavaScript, and test automation written in Python using requests and Selenium WebDriver. It may be helpful to write automation in the same language as the product so that developers can more easily contribute, but it is not required. Choose the best language for test automation to meet the present needs.

Myth #5: All tests should be such-and-such-level tests.

This argument varies by product type and team. For web apps, it could be phrased as, “All tests should be web UI tests, since that’s how the user interacts with the product.” This is nonsense – different layers of testing mitigate risk at their optimal returns-on-investment. The Testing Pyramid applies this principle. Consider a web app with a service layer in terms of automation – service calls have faster response times and are more reliable than web UI interactions. It would likely be wise to test input combinations at the service layer while focusing on UI-specific functionality only at the web layer.

Myth #6: Unit tests aren’t necessary because the QA team does the testing.

The existence of a QA team or of a black-box automated test suite does not negate the need for unit tests. Unit tests are an insurance policy – they make sure the software programming is fundamentally working. In continuous integration, they make sure builds are good. They are essential for good software development. Many times, I caught bugs in my own code through writing unit tests – bugs that nobody else ever saw because I fixed them before committing code. Personally, I would never want to work on a product without strong unit tests.

Myth #7: We can complete a user story this sprint and automate its tests next sprint.

In Agile Scrum, teams face immense pressure to finish user stories within a sprint. Test automation is often the last part of a story to be done. If the automation isn’t completed by the end of the sprint, teams are tempted to mark the story as complete and finish the test automation in the future. This is a terrible mistake and a violation of Agile principles. Test automation should be included in the definition of done. A story isn’t complete without its prescribed tests! Punting tests into the next sprint merely builds technical debt and forces QA into constant catch-up. To mitigate the risk of incomplete stories, teams should size stories to include automation work, shift left to start QA sooner, or reduce the total sprint commitment size. Incomplete test automation often happens when product code is delivered late or a team’s capacity is overestimated.

Myth #8: Automation is just a bunch of “test scripts.”

It’s quite common to hear developers or managers refer to automated tests as “test scripts.” While this term itself is not inherently derogatory, it oversimplifies the complexity of test automation. “Scripts” sound like short, hacky sequences of commands to do system dirty-work. Test automation, however, is a full stack: in addition to the product under test, automation involves design patterns, dependency packages, development processes, version control, builds, deployments, reporting, and failure triage. Referring to test automation as “scripting” leads to chronic planning underestimations. Automation is a discipline, and the investment it requires should be honored.

 

Do you have any other automation myths to debunk? Share them in the comment section below!

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