Why my User Stories suck

Experience Reports, Software Testing

I keep on hearing how Testers must make excellent PO’s, because they’re so awesome at specifying acceptance criteria. People tell me how tester-now-POs can mold their user stories in such a way that they must be perfectly understandable and unambiguous.

I’m sad to break it to you, but my user stories are nothing of the sort. I know full well that when I feel ‘done’ with them, they still suck.

Possibly equally surprising, testers with a lot more product knowledge than me were unable to lay bare where my stories, acceptance criteria,… were lacking.

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The hills of Brighton – Devil’s Dyke

How can you live with yourself?

I accept various degrees of uncertainty. I don’t know everything, and neither does anyone else. Typically, at least in my experience, a concept has to go through several phases and through different hands to improve, to grow, to become something valuable.

This is also why the distinction between a User Story and Requirement is made:

  • A Requirement is something unambiguous, 100% clear and never changes. (Reality often proves to be different)
  • A User Story is a placeholder for a lower level of detail, often a discussion between people of different roles.


The examples you often read in blog posts or books that say: ‘As a user, I want to be able to filter on “name” so that I can easily find the product I need’ are relatively easy and make up very little of the actual work. In real projects, user stories are seldom as straightforward.

Most of my backlog is filled with stories that cover learning, investigating, building a proof of concept,… for quality aspects outside of the purely ‘functional’.
Before you can start building a filter, you must first have a minimum amount of security, stability, performance, reliability, observability, user experience… especially if you want to go live frequently and get feedback as soon as possible.

 

Most of my backlog is filled with stories that cover learning, investigating, building a proof of concept,… for quality aspects outside of the purely ‘functional’.

My hands are usually not the first ones our concepts go through. I get them by discussing problems and ideas with stakeholders. This could be a customer, a team member, a different team, anyone who might need our help to achieve something.

The concepts can be in a variety of different states: from very detailed and exactly described so that it’s hard to think about them differently,… to so vague that they hardly make sense.

 

My hands are also definitely not the last ones our concepts go through. As I pass my concepts on to the team, an 8-headed monster tears it apart with their questions, remarks, ideas, alternatives, examples, negative uses,… Which usually results in a stronger, clearer and all-round better view of the goal. Several additional tasks and potentially stories are created with this new information.

Then it gets built, tested, released, used, …

At any of these stages a concept can fall apart, need to be rethought, redefined, holes exposed, unexpected dependencies identified but also opportunities, ideas for innovation, strengthening, or additional business value found.

You have to start over so many times?

It can be frustrating, but this is exactly the strength a User Story has over requirements. They get better over time, they invite discussion and controversy and they result in better software.
From a PO perspective, it can be quite frustrating to get the feeling of having to ‘start over’. I’ve frequently thought ‘Why haven’t they thought of this SOONER?’, ‘why didn’t I think of this?!’.

We all learn new things over time. This is a core principle in agile software development. If we want to build better, we need to allow ourselves and the people around us to gain more and better insights over time.

Stories seldom end. Sometimes they are the beginning of something new, other times they have several spin-offs. The interesting ones, those that bring the most value, often sprout from several stories coming together.

They are not straightforward and that’s perfectly OK.

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Painting of a shipwreck in Church of Piedigrotta

What advantages does a previous tester have?

 

As a PO, I’m grateful for my previous experiences as a tester. Not because of my awesome acceptance criteria specification nor my powers of unambiguously writing down what a feature should do.
Instead, I’m grateful that during my tester years, I learned that:

  • Good software & software creators need time and several feedback-loops to be great.
  • Value is created by intellectual and creative people working together on a problem, not by following instructions to the letter.
  • My input should trigger discussion and controversy, rather than dismiss it.
  • Being able to hear solutions and problems from different people and asking the right questions.
  • Gathering and communicating information in a structured and understandable way to people with different backgrounds and expectations.

Combining these skills and knowledge with a vision & a strategy is how I enjoy being valuable as a PO.

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Monastary in Swietokrzyskie, Poland

RiskStorming Experience Report: A Language Shift

Experience Reports, Software Testing, TestSphere
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RiskStorming @AgileActors; Athens, Greece

RiskStorming is a format that helps a whole development team figure out the answer to three important questions:

  • What is most important to our system?
  • What could negatively impact its success?
  • How do we deal with these possible risks?

At TestBash Brighton, Martin Hynie told me about another benefit:

It changes the language

The closer we can bring postmortem language into planning language, the closer we get having healthier discussions around what testing can offer and where other teams play a role in that ability.

Martin was so kind as to write down his experiences for me and allowing me the publish them:


Riskstorming as a tool to change the language around testing

One of the most fascinating things to observe is the language that is highly contextual when others speak of testing. Most specifically:

While a project is ongoing, AND a deadline approaches:

  • The general question around testing tends to be about reducing effort
  • “How much more testing is left?”
  • “When will testing be done?”
  • “How can we decrease the time needed for remaining testing?”
  • “Testing effort is a risk to the project deadline”

Once a project is done, or a feature is released… AND a bug is found in production:

  • “Why was this not caught by testing?”
  • “Testing is supposed to cover the whole product footprint?”
  • “Why did our testplan not include this scenario?”
  • “Who tested this? How did they decide what to test?”

There are two entirely different discussions here going on.

  • One views testing as overhead and process to be overcome… because risk somehow discrete is something to be mitigated. This is false, but accepting uncertainty is a hard leap for project planning.
  • The second is retrospective and viewing any failure as a missed step. Suddenly the pressure is an expectation that any bug should have been tested/caught, and the previous expectations and concerns around timelines feel insignificant, now that the team is facing the reality of the bug in production and the impact on customers and brand.

Riskstorming Experiment

By involving product, engineers and engineering management in RiskStorming questions, we were able to reframe planning in the following manner:

  • Where are the areas of uncertainty and risk?
  • What are the ranges of types of issues and bugs that might come from these areas?
  • How likely are these sorts of issues? Given the code we are touching… given our dependencies… given our history… given how long it has been since we last truly explored this area of the code base…
  • How bad could such an issue be? Which customers might be impacted? How hard could it be to recover? How likely are we to detect it?
  • Engineers get highly involved in this discussion… If such an issue did exist, what might we need to do to explore and discover the sorts of bugs we are discussing? How much effort might be needed to safely isolate and fix such issues without impacting the release? What about after the release?

Then we get to the magic question…

Now that we accept that in fact these risks are real because of trade-offs being made on schedule pressure vs testing (and not magically mitigated…):

If THIS issue happened in production, do we feel we can defend

  • Our current schedule,
  • Our strategy for implementation,
  • Our data, and environments for inspecting our solution,
  • Our decision on what is enough exploration and testing
    when our customers ask: “How did testing miss this?

What was interesting, is that suddenly, we were using the same language around testing before the release, that we only ever used after we released knowing that a bug actually happened in production. We used language around uncertainty. We starting using language around the reality that bugs will emerge. We started speaking around methods to perform the implementation that might help us make better use of testing in order to prioritize our time around the sort of issues that we could not easily detect or recover from.

We started speaking a language that really felt inclusive around shared responsibility, quality and outcomes.

I only have one data point involving RiskStorming… but took a similar approach with another team simply with interviewing engineers, and reporting on uncertainty, building a better sense or reality on trade-offs regarding these uncertainties, and options to reduce uncertainty. It had similar positive outcomes as RiskStorming, however required MUCH more explaining and convincing.

 


Martin Hynie

MartinhynieWith over fifteen years of specialization in software testing and development, Martin Hynie’s attention has gradually focused towards embracing uncertainty, and redefining testing as a critical research activity. The greatest gains in quality can be found when we emphasize communication, team development, business alignment and organizational learning.

A self-confessed conference junkie, Martin travels the world incorporating ideas introduced by various sources of inspiration (including Cynefin, complexity theory, context-driven testing, the Satir Model, Pragmatic Marketing, trading zones, agile principles, and progressive movement training) to help teams iteratively learn, to embrace failures as opportunities and to simply enjoy working together.

Reflecting on the last project

Experience Reports, Software Testing

This is a post written by Geert van de Lisdonk about a project he worked 1,5 year on as a Test consultant.99-Geert.png

My last project was in the financial sector. The product we made was used by private banks. Our users were the Investment Managers of those banks. They are called the rock stars of the banking world. Those people didn’t have time for us. We could get little information from them via their secretaries or some meeting that was planned meticulously. And in that meeting only 1 or 2 of our people could be present, to make sure they didn’t spent too much time. Getting specs or finding out what to build and build the right thing was not an easy task. Our business analysts had their work cut out for them but did a very good job with the resources they had. Getting feedback from them was even more difficult. Especially getting it fast so we could change the product quickly. Despite all that, we were able to deliver a working product to all clients. This blogpost is a reflection on what I think I did well, what didn’t do well and what I would have changed if could have done it over.

 

What we did well

Handovers

One of the best things we did, in my opinion, were the handovers. Every time something was developed, a handover was done. This handover consists out of the developer showing what has been created to me, the tester, and the product owner.
This moment creates an opportunity for the PO to verify if the correct thing has been build or point out possible improvements.
As a tester this is a great source of information. With both the developer and the PO present,  all possible questions can be answered. Technical, functional and everything in between can be reviewed and corrected if necessary.

Groomings

Getting the tester involved early is always a good idea. When the Business Analysts had decided on what needed to be made, a grooming session was called to discuss how we could achieve this.
Most of the times there was already some kind of solution prepared by the Product Manager that would suit the needs of several clients. This general solution would then be discussed.

For me this was a moment I could express concern and point out risks. This information would also be a base for the tests I’d be executing.

Teamwork

The team I was in is what I would describe as a distributed team. We had team-members in Belgium, UK and 2 places in Italy. Working together wasn’t always easy. In the beginning most mass communication was done using emails sent to the entire team. This didn’t prove very efficient so we switched to using Microsoft Teams.

There was one main channel which we used the most. Some side channels were also set up that would be used for specific cases. People in the team were expected to have Teams open at all times. This sometimes didn’t happen and caused problems. It took some getting used to, but after a while I felt like we were doing a decent job!

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What we could have done better

Retrospectives

When I first joined the team the stand-ups happened very ad-hoc. You could get a call between 9am-3pm or none at all. Instead a meeting was booked with a link to a group Skype conversation. Everybody was now expected to join this conversation at 10am for the stand-up. This was a great improvement! Every sprint we would start with a planning meeting and set out the work we were supposed to do.

But there were also ceremonies missing. At no point in time was there a sprint review or a retrospective. This meant that developers didn’t know from each other what had been finished or what the application is currently capable of.

The biggest missing ritual in my opinion was the retrospective. There was no formal way of looking at how we did things and discussing on how we could improve. Having a distributed team didn’t help here. Also the high pace we were try to maintain made it difficult. But if the PM would have pushed more for this, I think the team could have benefited a lot.

Unit testing

There was no incentive to write unit tests. So there were only a handful of them. Not because the developers didn’t want to. They even agreed that we should write them! There was just nobody waiting for them so they didn’t write them.
There were multiple refactorings of code that could have been improved with unit tests. Many bugs were discovered that wouldn’t have existed if only there were some unit tests written. But since nobody asked for it, and the pace was to high, no time was spent on them.

Less pressure

This project was ran at a fast pace. Between grooming and delivery were sometimes only 3 sprints. 1 for analysis, 1 for development, 1 for testing/fixing/deploying. This got us in trouble lots of time. When during development raised new questions or requirements emerged, there was little time for redirection. Luckily we were able to diminish the scope most of the time, but I still feel we delivered lower quality than we would have liked.

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What I would have done differently

Reporting

Looking back, it was difficult for the PM to know exactly what I was doing. We used TFS to track our work, but it wasn’t very detailed. The stand-ups did provide some clarity, but only a partial message.

My testing was documented in a OneNote on the SharePoint, so he technically could verify what I was doing. Although admittedly this would require a lot of energy from him.
I think he would have preferred pass/fail test cases, but I didn’t deem that feasible with the high pace we were trying to maintain.
In hindsight I could have delivered weekly reports or sprint reports of what was done and what issues were found or resolved. This would would of course take some time at the end of the sprint, that could be an issue. I did look for a decent way to report on my testing but never found a format that suited me.

Fix more bugs myself

We were working CRM Dynamics that was altered to fit the needs of our customers. Both the system and the product were built in such a way that most setting could be altered in the UI. It took me a while to learn how these things worked but managed to resolve bug myself. Sometimes I didn’t know how to resolve them in the UI. I would then take this opportunity and have the developers explain to me how to resolve it next time I encounter something similar.

Since the framework restricted us in some ways, we also made use of a C# middleware to deal with more complex things. The middleware issues were harder for me to resolve so I don’t think I would be able to fix those by myself. The middleware developers being in Italy also complicated things. Pairing on the bug fixes could have taught me a lot. This did happen from time to time, but not frequently enough so I could dive in and sort things out myself.
Additionally, having more insights into the application would have been a nice luxury to have. Through tools such as ‘Dynatrace’, Application Insights,… I could have provided more information to the developers.

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To summarize

Despite the high pace this project was ran, we still managed to do very good things. The people on the development team were very knowledgeable and taught me a lot. Sure there were some things that I would have liked to change, but that will always be the case. To me the biggest problem was that we didn’t reflect on ourselves. This meant we stagnated on several levels and only grew slowly as a team and a product.
I learned that I value (self-)reflection a lot. More than I previously knew. I started looking for other ways to reflect. At DEWT I got advised to start a journal for myself. This is something I plan on doing for my next project. Currently I have a notebook that I use for all testing related events. Not yet a diary, but a start of this self-reflection habit!
I also learned how I like to conduct my testing and where problems might have risen there. Focus on people and software instead of documentation. I would add some kind of reporting to show of my work. I’ve been looking in good ways to do this report, but am yet to find a format that suits me.
                           

 

A Changing Mindset

Experience Reports, Software Testing

Ever since I left my short stint at the meat factory, I’ve been a Software Testing Consultant for all of my modest career. Until a few months ago, when fate threw me into a Product Owner role.
5 months in, I feel my priorities, my thinking, my mindset… change.

This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is a necessary thing. First, I was Product Owner of Test Automation. But as that team disbanded due to too much overhead for a reasonably small team, I became Product Owner of a 8-headed SCRUM team of developer-architects, a tester, a test automation specialist, a DevOps specialist and soon a new junior developer.

My previous two blog posts were about helping a relatively small team learn more, move them forwards and become confident.
My new role is again different and it’s providing me insights about myself, how I adapt to these dynamics.

Mindset

My mindset has changed drastically. Where I was focused on risks, oversights and possible problems before, I am now looking at ‘good enough’ and going forward with the things ‘that matter’. Because of my Testing background and my now PO role, I realise that those two things are very different for me than other team members. I don’t know the risks well enough, I don’t know the scope too well (as the product is very new to me) and I can only guess at the value our changes bring.

Yet, this doesn’t seem to stop me forming opinions and making decisions.

It frightens me to take steps forward into this vast uncertainty of unknown unknowns knowing that I’m probably on top of the Dunning-Kruger ‘Mount Stupid’.
I caught my self disregarding several risks people mentioned, just because they intervened with my plans…
I have critisised many Product Owners before, when I was a tester, that I could see they had no clue what they were doing or where they were going.

 


I’m beginning to believe that this uncertainty is a big part of the role.
I need a tester to keep my feet on the ground.
I need this done as early as possible.

My priorities lie with keeping the team happy and delivering business value to the stakeholders. Not in risks, maintenance or changes…

Because of that, I’m not thinking of 3 out of 4 types of work.


Four Types of Work

When you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know enough or feel inadequate, start learning, reading and discussing. That’s what I do at least. I needed to ‘up my game’.

One extremely important finding for me were the four types of work featured in ‘The Phoenix Project’: Business Projects, Internal IT, Changes and the highly destructive Unplanned Work.

This connected several frustrations of mine into one model.
My current customer is quite good at pinning down Business Projects. At the very beginning, we do a three-amigo kind of thing where we lay the fundamental vision for the project and immediately try to cut down all the surrounding waste.

Internal IT is handled reasonably, though the responsible people seem to live on a well frequented island. We have two Admins who seem to troubleshoot and fix several major problems a day.

Changes are frequently happening, but are largely unmanaged. I’ve added a blank User Story in our sprints to capture ‘surprise tasks’. This should create a good baseline to see where these change requests come from and how much time they soak up. From there on out we can create procedures to mitigate, ignore, prioritise, escalate… What exactly we’ll do with the data, I don’t know yet, but we’ll have a better idea on how to tackle these changes.

I finally can put into words why I as a tester was often a source of frustration for a Product Owner: Unplanned Work. This type of work disrupts your whole flow, motivation, plans and ultimately, can destroy your project. Call it, bugs, risk, oversights,… it’s everything that suddenly requires someone’s attention and who can therefore no do anything that was planned. It eats your plans. It tears apart your flow and energy. It makes sure people get frustrated.

When Work In Progress is often called the silent killer, Unplanned work is the loud bloody zombie apocalypse that comes to exterminate your project. It terrifies me.
… enter the jolly testers who tell us we forgot about something important.

We just had two sprints torn up by the walking dead. Project management: ‘oh, we forgot to include these highly crucial features that need to be in production by the end of the month.’
Nor I, nor the team, was amused.

A Change in Thinking

A year ago, when I was a tester in this situation I would raise many bugs, make them visible and be loud about the frustrations I could notice in the team.
In similar occasions, I’d have given up and watch the train ride into a wall (again) to then see what we could make of the pieces.

Being in this situation as a Product Owner I try to make the best of the situation. Hope for the best and try to plan for the worst.
As a contingency, I put machinations in place that will bring more insight:

  • We will capture the ‘surprise tasks’ that weigh on the team to manage Changes
  • We will analyse the bugs found after development (and initial testing) from the past 6 months to build a checklist that can help us identify Unplanned Work
  • I need to keep a buffer to allow for Unplanned Work

The data in 1 will be a baseline to come up with certain Change Procedure(s).
From the data in 2, we can build automated checks, monitoring, alerts and ‘have you thought about/talked to X’-checklists for management.

I’m now in a role where I don’t have to be the 20-something-year-old screaming bloody murder anymore. It might sound strange or unfair, but my words have more impact these days. I won’t complain.
This phenomenon has given me the power to actually strategise and bring change while being very obvious about it. I’m not trying to persuade people to follow my ideas anymore. I’m gathering them by being direct.


I want to avert future disasters like we’re now in. I want the team to be on top of things. Maybe in the future, we’ll simulate our own disasters, while we’re still in control. Just for fun. And learning.

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Product Owner of Test Automation 2

Experience Reports, Software Testing

In my previous post, I explained the strategy I envisioned for the team. Comparing it to a boardgame.

What this post lacked thoroughly, was a clear focus on team learning. I feel like an idiot for not noticing this earlier.

Learning Objectives as part of the sprint

What has become abundantly clear to me is that the Team Members are the heart of your team. They need to be nurtured, grown.
In our team, we’ve been actively investing into people to become more confident and knowledgeable. ‘Learning objectives’ have become about 50% of our sprint stories.

I add in: Spikes, Proof of Concepts, Blog Posts, Challenges,… to have people work through material and produce reports, concepts, demo’s or anything that reproduces the acquired knowledge. After that, they ask feedback from other team members, discuss or teach. The aim is to achieve two things: new learnings and something valuable for the team, project or product. This keeps our stakeholders happy and our team in learning-mode.

But 50% is a lot of time… how do you explain this to stakeholders?
Test Automation is a valuable endeavor. Though in uncertain conditions it can be rendered useless, time consuming or time wasting even. That’s where we are now with the team. Many different things are changing. The application, the architecture and the development teams are all getting a good shake. This is not a good moment to heavily invest in UI or even API checks. Instead, I shift the focus of the team in a different direction.

Whereto now?

I see a lot of opportunities to coach, train and pioneer automation strategies, as a team.
Once the dust settles from all the management decision-making and architecture workshops it’ll fall on the automation people to strongly improve our release pipeline.
To achieve this, we need to become better at what we do, need to become more confident in what we say and become more respected for the value we bring.
As a team.

Instead of building more automation, our focus shifts to coaching, training and knowledge sharing. The issue, however, is that we first need to do knowledge gathering and train ourselves. The good thing is, we’re more of a team now than before and we can help each other out. We also have some time to invest in ourselves, which will pay off tenfold in the future. Hopefully.

In congruence to the team building up their skills, I’m monitoring progress of these changes and looking for opportunities to help out. Whether it’s now or in the future, I want to know where we can add business value fast. Additionally, I’m collecting examples of good practices in our context and using those as a basis to build an automation strategy.

Changes are coming our way, but we’re preparing to deal with them.

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The Automation team, at sprint kickoff