Testers: get out of the quality assurance business

The other day, Cory Foy tweeted a challenge: “Having a QA department is a sign of incompetency in your Development department. Discuss.”

Here’s what I think: I’m a tester, and it’s time for our craft to grow up. Whatever the organizational structure of our development shops, it’s time for us testers to get out of the Quality Assurance business.

In the fall of 2008, I was at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference (AYE), assisting Fiona Charles and Jerry Weinberg with a session called “Testing Lies”. Jerry was sitting at the front of the room, and as people were milling in and getting settled, I heard him in the middle of a chat with a couple of people sitting close to him. “You’re in quality assurance?” he asked. Yes, came the answer. “So, are you allowed to change the source code for the programs you test?” No, definitely not. “That’s interesting. Then how can you assure quality?”

A good question, and one that immediately reminded me of a conversation more than ten years earlier. In the fall of 1996, Cem Kaner presented his Black Box Software Testing course at Quarterdeck. I was a program manager at the time, but the head of Quality Assurance (that is, testing) had invited me to attend the class. As part of it, Cem led a discussion as to whether the testing group should really be called “Quality Assurance”. His stance was that individuals – programmers and testers alike – could certainly assure the quality of their own work, but that testers could not assure the quality of the work of others, and shouldn’t try it. The quality assurance role in the company, Cem said, lay with the management and the CEO (the principal quality officer in the company), since it was they – and certainly not the testers – who had the authority to make decisions about quality. Over the years he has continued to develop this idea, principally in versions of his presentations and papers on The Ongoing Revolution in Software Testing, but the concept suffuses all of his work. The role for us is not quality assurance; we don’t have control over the schedule, the budget, programmer staffing, product scope, the development model, customer relationships, and so forth. But when we’re doing our best work, we’re providing valuable, timely information about the actual state of the product and the project. We don’t own quality; we’re helping the people who are responsible for quality and the things that influence it. “Quality assistance; that’s what we do.”

More recently, in an interview with Roy Osherove, James Bach also notes that we testers are not gatekeepers of quality. We don’t have responsibility for quality any more than anyone else; everyone on the development team has that responsibility. When he first became a test manager at Apple Computer way back when, James was energized by the idea that he was the quality gatekeeper. “I came to realize later that this was terribly insulting to everyone else on the team, because the subtle message to everyone else on the team is ‘You guys don’t really care, do you? You don’t care like I do. I’m a tester, that means I care.’ Except the developers are the people who create quality; they make the quality happen. Without the developers, nothing would be there; you’d have zero quality. So it’s quite insulting, and when you insult them like that, they don’t want to work with you.”

Last week, I attended the STAR East conference in Orlando. Many times, I was approached by testers and test managers who asked for my help.

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Testers: get out of the quality assurance business