Our Test Automation Has Problems. Should We Start Over?

Test automation is the cornerstone for continuous software delivery pipelines. Automation repeatedly hits new features with a barrage of tests that could never be completed manually in time. From my experiences, though, test automation code can be some of the worst code in the software industry. Teams frequently overlook its importance, its workload size, and its unique technical challenges. The resulting code can become a heapin’ mess! You might even call it “bankrupt.”

In this situation, should a team give up on their current test automation solution and just start over from scratch? Maybe, but maybe not. Don’t be quick to nuke everything and start over! No project is perfect, and some can be recovered. Starting a whole new test automation solution is not a light decision.

Red Herrings

Here are a few problems that should be addressed within the existing test automation solution instead of starting over:

  • Tests don’t add value? That’s easy to fix: just remove the low-value tests. The framework is separate from the test cases.
  • Tests are flaky? Find the root cause. Typically, flaky tests can be fixed with small updated to the test case or to an aspect of the framework. If the feature under test itself is flaky, then fix the feature or consider testing it manually instead of with automation.
  • The original authors are gone? Figure out their code before writing your own. Their code might be good once you understand it.
  • The team uses poor practices? Fix the practices before fixing the code. Otherwise, the new code won’t be any better than the old code.

Signs to Consider

Nevertheless, there are times when a team should start over. Look for these signs, and proceed thoughtfully.

  • The test frameworks and packages are deprecated. Although the tests may run today, they may not run tomorrow. Finding others to work on it will be difficult, too. For example, nose was once the Python framework of choice, but now it’s dead. Pick a more modern framework. Hopefully, parts of the old tests can be salvaged.
  • Test case independence is systemically violated. Each test case must be independent. It should not depend upon the outputs of any other tests. It should not interrupt any other tests. The litmus tests for independence is that tests should be able to run successfully in any random order. Interdependent tests are not scalable, difficult for reruns, and potentially dangerous. The only way to fix them is to completely rewrite them.
  • There is no separation between unit tests and feature tests. White-box unit tests cover code, whereas black-box feature tests cover live features. They occupy different Testing Pyramid layers and should happen at different stages in a CI/CD pipeline. An automation solution with no separation between these types of tests reveals a lack of planning and strategy, and continuous testing will be much tougher to achieve.
  • The framework lacks cohesive architecture, designs, and patterns. Good solutions are designed, not hacked. Designs scale. Hacks don’t. Building new tests on a shaky platform will yield shaky tests.
  • Critical fixes would require a majority of tests to be rewritten. Some issues are pervasive, especially when code is repeatedly duplicated. If framework problems are so widespread that tests would need to be rewritten anyway, then it might be easier to start fresh with a new solution.

The Nuclear Option

If you feel like you really do need to start a new test automation solution from scratch, make sure to do it right. You won’t want to redo everything again in a few years! Here’s some advice:

  1. Define your goals. What problems do you want to solve? How can testing and automation help? What can you reasonably achieve? Are you willing to make necessary changes to achieve these goals?
  2. Treat test automation as a project. Test automation is software and requires the same rules and practices. It takes time and expertise. Make sure to allocate time, money, and resources to its development and execution.
  3. Learn how to develop test automation well. It’s not “just writing scripts” – it’s a special domain. Take courses from Test Automation University. Read more Automation Panda articles. Attend webinars and conferences. Seek consulting help if necessary.
  4. Draw a line in the sand between the old and new solutions. Commit to writing all new tests in the new solution. Meanwhile, continue to run tests from the old solution as appropriate – there’s no need to axe its test coverage. Decide if migrating old tests to the new solution is worthwhile for your team. This could also be an opportunity to clean up old tests and cut out low-value areas.

Starting a new test solution is a lot of work, but it can also be rewarding. Good luck!

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