Friday, 2 August 2013

Stop Doing Too Much Automation

When researching my article on testing careers for the Testing Planet a thought stuck me about the amount of people who indicated that ‘Test’ Automation was one of the main learning goals of many of the respondents.  This made me think a little about how our craft appears to be going down a path that automation is the magic bullet that can be used to resolve all the issue we have in testing.
I have had the idea to write this article floating around in my head for a while now and the final push was when I saw the article by Alan Page (Tooth of the Angry Weasel) - Last Word on the A Word  in which he said much of what I was thinking. So how can I expand on what I feel is a great article by Alan?
The part of the article that I found the most interesting was the following:

“..In fact, one of the touted benefits of automation is repeatability – but no user executes the same tasks over and over the exact same way, so writing a bunch of automated tasks to do the same is often silly.”

This is similar to what I want to write about in this article.  I see time and time again dashboards and metrics being shared around stating that by running this automated ‘test’ 1 million times we have saved a tester running it manually 1 million times and therefore if the ‘test’ took 1 hour and 1 minute to run manually and 1 minute to run automated it means we have saved 1 million hours of testing.  This is so tempting and to a business who speaks in value and in this context this mean costs.  Saving 1 million hours of testing by automating is a significant amount of cost saving and this is the kind of thing that business likes to see a tangible measure that shows ROI (Return on Investment) for doing ‘test’ automation.  Worryingly this is how some companies sell their ‘test’ automation tools.

If we step back for a minute and go back and read the statement by Alan.  The thing that most people who state we should automate all testing talk about the repeatability factor.  Now let us really think about this.  When you run a test script manually you do more than what is written down in the script.  You think both critically and creatively , you observe things far from the beaten track of where the script was telling you to go.  Computer see in assertions, true or false, black or white, 0 or 1, they cannot see what they are not told to see.  Even with the advances in artificial intelligence it is very difficult for automation systems to ‘check’ more than they have been told to do.  To really test and test well you need a human being with the ability to think and observe.   Going back to our million times example.  If we ran the same test a million times on a piece of code that has not changed the chances of find NEW issues or problems remains very slim however running this manually with a different person running it each time our chances of finding issues or problems increases.  I am aware our costs also increase and there is a point of diminishing returns.  James Lyndsay has talked about this on his blog in which he discusses the importance of diversity   The article also has a very clever visual aid to demonstrate why diversity is important and as a side effect it helps to highlight the points of diminishing return. This is the area that the business needs to focus on rather than how many times you have run a test.

My other concern point is the use of metrics in automation to indicate how many of your tests have you or could you automate.  How many of you have been asked this question?  The problem I see with this is what people mean by “How many of your tests?”  What is this question based upon?  Is it...
  • all the tests that you know about now?
  • all possible tests you could run?
  • all tests you plan to run?
  • all your priority one tests?
The issue is that this is a number that will constantly change as you explore and test the system and learn more. Therefore if you start reporting it as a metric especially as a percentage it soon becomes a non-valuable measure which costs more to collect and collate than any benefit it may try to imply.  I like to use the follow example as an extreme view.

Manager:  Can you provide me a % of all the possible tests that you could run for system X that you could automate.
Me:  Are you sure you mean all possible tests?
Manager: Yes
Me: Ok, easy it is 0%
Manager:  ?????

Most people are aware that testing can have an infinite amount of tests even for the most simple of systems so any number divided by infinity will be close to zero, therefore the answer that was provided in the example scenario above.  Others could argue that we only care about of what we have planned to do how much of that can be automated, or only the high priority stuff and that is OK, to a point, but be careful about measuring this percentage since it can and will vary up or down and this can cause confusion.  As we test we find new stuff and as we find new stuff our number of things to test increases.

My final worry with ‘test’ automation is the amount of ‘test’ automation we are doing (hence the title of this article) I seen cases where people automate for the sake of automation since that is what they have been told to do.  This links in with the previous statement about measuring tests that can be automated.   There need to be some intelligence when deciding what to automate and more importantly what not to automate. The problem is when we are being measured by the number of ‘tests’ that we can automate human nature will start to act in a way that makes us look good against what we are being measured. There are major problems with this and people stop thinking about what would be the best automation solution and concentrate on trying to automate as much as they can regardless of costs. 

What ! You did not realise that automation has a cost?  One of the common problems I see when people sell ‘test’ automation is they conveniently or otherwise forget to include the hidden cost of automation.  We always see the figures of the amount of testing time (and money) being saved by running this set of ‘tests’ each time.  What does not get reported and very rarely measured is the amount of time maintaining and analysing the rests from ‘test’ automation.  This is important since this is time that a tester could be doing some testing and finding new information rather than confirming our existing expectations.  This appears to be missing whenever I hear people talking of ‘test’ automation in a positive way.  What I see is a race to automate all that can be automated regardless of the cost to maintain. 

If you are looking at implementing test automation you seriously need to think about what the purpose of the automation is.  I would suggest you do ‘just enough’ automation to give you confidence that it appear to work in the way your customer expects.  This level of automation then frees up your testers to do some actual testing or creating automation tools that can aid testing.  You need to stop doing too much automation and look at ways you can make your ‘test’ automation effective and efficient without it being a bloated, cumbersome, hard to maintain monstrosity (Does that describe some peoples current automation system?)  Also automation is mainly code so should be treated the same as code and be regularly reviewed and re-factored to reduce duplication and waste.

I am not against automation at all and in my daily job I encourage and support people to use automation to help them to do excellent testing. I feel it plays a vital role as a tool to SUPPORT testing it should NOT be sold on the premise that that it can replace testing or thinking testers.

Some observant readers may wonder why I write ‘test’ in this way when mentioning ‘test’ automation.  My reasons for this can be found in the article by James Bach on testing vs. checking refined.


  1. John,
    Excellent post! You've hit on a lot of the same things I talk about and try to get across to a lot of my clients.

    Automation is not the magical silver bullet that will solve all testing problems. It is a tool only, how it is used give the solution. As I like to say "It's automation, Not automagic!".

    These problems with automation have been around a very long time. I've been working with these tools for over 20 years now and what you listed have been prevalent during that time.

    I too agree that the emphasis upon automate everything and play a numbers game is simply stupid. This has happened before, and will again after this surge in the automation tide subsides. Our goal as professionals is to help to temper the manic desire.

    Again, great posting. I could go on for a lot longer on my experiences and views about this line of work (and it is my main area of work), but you cover the points well.


    Jim Hazen

    1. Many thanks for your comments Jim, it is nice to hear things like this since it give me encouragement to do more.

      With regards to your comment about I could go on for a lot longer about your own experiences. Why not blog it? I for one would be interested in reading it.

  2. John,

    I had a blog off of SQAForums a few years back, and with their recent site revamp it looks like it got whacked. Oh well...

    But I did do a presentation at STPCon 2013 San Diego this last April that was called "It's Automation, Not Automagic" and it covered a lot of what you talk about here (and what I've experienced) plus some other things.

    So I've pretty much said it there, and at other times in discussions in groups on various sites like LinkedIn.

    I think the biggest thing for me is trying to dispel the misconceptions of what automation is, what it is used for, and who should be implementing it. Typically this means getting management to drop their expectations and take a reality pill.

    That to me is what causes 85% of the headaches in this line of work.


  3. Very Nice post. Also good to see Alan inspires several of us.

  4. John,

    I am a automation analyst but I totally agree with what you have to say here. As an architect I always try and emphasize to various clients abouth what amount of automation is good. The argument in most cases is "lets automate almost everything so that we can have quick regression cycles and faster releases" continous integration and so on.. With agile and automation as buzz words almost all projects want to include these two words in their project!