Building Quality in via Testability

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Tech wall at the design museum

7 minute read

Back in March 2018 I visited The Design Museum in London and came across the above installation.

What you can see is technology design classics all the way from the first transistor radios on one side to the very first digital clocks on the other. With everything else in-between.

If you stand back far enough you begin to see that they are not just randomly placed on the wall but in a particular order. As each piece of technology progresses in its evolution you begin to notice that it starts acquiring functionality from the technology around it. Not only that but they start to shrink in size at the same time. Eventually you realise that all of that technology has been assumed into one device: The mobile phone which is placed right in the centre of the wall.

With the older technology its size and its complexity was on show for all to see. The mobile phone however is different. It actually looks quite simple on the outside with only a screen and a few buttons. But once you turn it on you begin to realise that this is something quite different to what has come before. It can not only provide all of the functionality from the technology that came before it but much more through the use of the internet. This isn’t just limited to mobile phones but pretty much all technology that comes after. From TV’s, speakers and wrist watches everything is slowly being interconnected via the internet.

The interesting thing about a lot of this new technology is that it is actually been developed and controlled by only a handful of companies. Who on average have more resources than a lot of other more traditional companies combined. On top of that they have oriented themselves around the users unlike any other company before always working to provide them with best experience they can come up with. It’s almost like they know every users is a click a way from moving onto the next thing but something keeps those users coming back. It sometimes look hopeless competing against them, so what do we do?

Software is eating the world

Marc Andreessen back in 2011 wrote that “Software is eating the world” which actually gives us some hope. Software allows us to compete again and perhaps tempt those users away. Remember just as the competition we are only a click a way too. But what is going to get those users to click something new?

We need to be able to try different ideas and get them in-front of our users to start seeing what works and what doesn’t based on real data and not just what people think is working.

Leadership to build Collaboration and Purpose

However to be able to start doing that we need to start working better together as software teams. Simply having the best developers is not going to cut it. Research from Google’s Aristotle project showed that this wasn’t the case but 5 other team dynamics where better predicators of well functioning teams. These being psychological safety, dependability, structure & clarity and meaning & impact.

Side note: Psychological safety is all about leadership and interpersonal risk taking and not just saying this is a safe space. Read The Fearless Organisation to learn more.

Once we can collaborate more effectively we can build psychological safety, dependability and structure into the team. From there we can start working on the teams purpose. What is the teams reason for being, what are they trying to accomplish, how will this help the organisation? Purpose is all about providing the team clarity, meaning and impact. But simply asking people to collaborate and giving them a purpose isn’t going to build the team dynamics set out earlier. It’s going to need leadership to build the type of collaboration we need that has those characteristics. Leaders will need to be more hands on demonstrating interpersonal risk, building dependability between team members and setting up what the initial structure to the team is.

What is quality?

For arguments sake let say you’ve been able to get someway to doing that. Now what? Do the user of your systems just magically start appearing? Team collaboration is only one part, now you need to start iterating on the system. You could just get the team to build whatever they think is a good idea and get them to do it as fast as they can. The risk is releasing half-baked systems that end up causing you or worse, your users more problems then before. The thing is users tend to want a quality product, but quality is subjective and so means different things depending on your view point. From the lenses of quality :

For your Organisation quality could be whatever helps them reach their targets for that quarter or year.

For your Product owner their measure of a quality product could be a system or feature released on time.

For your Team it could be a system that they can build, deploy, maintain easily.

For your Users, well it could be something as simple as it just works. – Lenses of quality

Building Quality in via Testability

If quality means different things to different people how can you build quality into a product? By building in testability instead. What testability does is start to make your system objective. Meaning that instead of people saying the system feels easier to work with or they think it works correctly you use tests to back up those feelings. Those tests have to be built into the system during development. It is not something that can be added on very easily after the fact and especially by people who haven’t built the system in the first place. Testability is not about testing the system end-to-end but piece-by-piece. Each piece being a specific type of behaviour the system provides and tested in isolation from the other pieces. The scope and definition of the behaviours should be decided on by the team collaboratively. Unit testing can help with testing like this but everyone has a different opinion on what a unit is and therefore have very different approaches to testing a unit:

What do the unit test test?

4\ Everyone seems to have a different opinion on what makes a unit but also what makes a a good and bad unit tests

Which is why I have a problem with calling them unit tests and outlined how you could define them by calling them code tests first and then building a team understanding of what they are.

This type of testing is what I think gets us towards what W Edward Deeming (1900-1993) known in his time as the leading management thinker on quality when he said we should

“Cease dependence on mass inspection. Build quality into the product from the start” – W Edward Deeming

So do we just need to work better together and building in testability to solve all our quality issues?

Software ate the world, so all the worlds problems get expressed in software

It’s been 9 years since Marc Andreessen wrote Software is eating the world. Ben Evans (a business analyst who worked for Andreessen) recently said in his presentation Standing on the shoulders of giants

“Software ate the world, so all the worlds problems get expressed in software” – Ben Evans

You can build in all the quality measures you want but that doesn’t address any of the problems we’ve intentionally encoded into the system. You are going to need someone who understands how the team works (and how the problems are encoded into the system), knows how the system is deployed into the real world (and the domains in which it is used) and who those users are (and what they expect of it). That someone already exists within teams but most teams have simply been using them as a safety net to check their work and to channel my inner Deeming “Carry out mass inspections of our systems”. We’ve called them Testers but maybe it’s time we start to think of them as something else?

Software levels the playing field again and allows us to innovate in ways that no other tool before it has ever allowed. However to do so we need to work collaboratively as teams to build testability into our software systems and testers to raise awareness of what quality is for our products. From this foundation we can begin to compete again and really start offering ours users that temptation to click something new.

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