Friday, July 17, 2009

Counter to "No Spec=Waste of Time"

What’s a QA team without a spec? A goddamned nuisance and a waste of time, that’s what.

In this article the author rants about Elder Games' Asheron’s Call 2 (an MMO) defect issues more than anything else. The author's opening sentence points to his emotional bias in the succeeding thoughts. Pretty powerful emotional stuff there. Distilling his gripes, I find he takes issue with:

1) Low Priority Bugs in the Bug Tracking System (noise)
2) Too many severe bugs released to production
3) Not enough time for the volume of work

The rest of his post is simply an attempt at assigning causation for those issues. It is his causation analysis that I take issue with. A lack of formal written specification does not result in a higher volume of "noise" in the bug tracking system. Testers innately have other references or oracles by which to evaluate software. Those can be prior experience, technology experience, genre experience, etc... Of course any material, even email, can serve as a reference point. In systems where the oracles used by the testing team are nearly universal to both the team and the software - more common in simple systems, very little documentation would be needed to have a successful test effort, with normal noise levels. In systems - more common in complex systems, where oracles are not universal, you will see more noise in the bug tracking system. It isn't the lack of documentation that is a problem; it is a lack of universally acceptable oracles. There are ways to achieve that without volumes of documents, such as collaboration, pair testing with another developer in the group. In the end these are just ways to communicate and agree on a common oracle; after all, documentation is just a proxy for, or the remembered result of, a discussion. The failure to recognize the gap in common oracles may result in increased noise in the bug tracking system and a reduction in severe bugs being caught.

Another aspect "noise" in the bug tracking system that wasn't addressed is the all too common problem of not monitoring what is being logged. All too often, testers log bugs and they don't get reviewed by anyone until some coordinated meeting. The span between the meetings represents the window of opportunity to log bugs where monitoring does not occur (this does not occur in all places and/or is not all that severe everywhere). There are two aspects I would like to address:

1) Approval signals importance - Testers log bugs they find important, again based on their own oracles. If it wasn't important to them, they would never see it as a bug. Importance must be defined in terms of value judgment and not severity. Approval in defined in terms of consensus acceptance and not a formal status assignment. Agreement by any stakeholder that a logged item is a bug signals to the team, "Hey, go ahead and find more of those because we like them." I believe this because it is societal behavior to fear rejection and pursue acceptance. So, approved bugs breeds more similar bugs. If a strong severity/priority system is NOT used, then testers can be led to believe some types of bugs are more significant/valuable than others. Without this correction and in combination with approval it is easy to establish conditions that magnify noise in the system.

2) Number of bugs - Bugs logged into a bug tracking system form another oracle for a tester, see #1. Because of that, the value of those bugs tends to decrease as more bugs are added to the system. In the face of numerous, especially uncategorized and unchanged status, bugs testers tend to skim the list for cursory information instead of diving deep into them to understand what has and has not been covered and uncovered. Therefore, a growing volume of unmanaged bugs degrades the value transferred to the testers by having the repository in the first place.

Finally, the issue of too much work and not enough time is simply a reality of software development. There are numerous estimation models, development methodologies, tools, etc... that all center around dealing with this specific issue of how to get more done with less money, time, and resources. Just because this condition exists doesn't mean there aren't ways to still achieve a solid development and testing effort. At the end of the day, if you don't communicate, and agree on common oracles, you will always incur more work to overcome this obstacle; because, software development is always collaborative no matter how hard you try to fight it.

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