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5 keys to building a highly effective test automation team

Greg Paskal Director of Quality Assurance – Automation, The Dave Ramsey Show

Successful test automation requires far more than simply writing code. It entails building a team that is innovative, has discipline, and can create long-term, sustainable automation.

Here are the key factors to consider when building a highly effective test automation team.

1. Do a reality check

Unfortunately, test automation is often misrepresented as a silver bullet that replaces people and gets everything done at the speed of light. Much of this fallacy comes from endless sales pitches on how easy it is to record and play back automated test cases that will run endlessly.

It's time for a reality check. Sustainable test automation that reliably serves a team won't be built easily or quickly. Instead, successful test automation follows many of the same disciplines as developing any type of software. Test automation must be built so it can easily be maintained and enhanced to account for new features and functionality in the future.

Building a successful test automation team requires understanding the landscape of what’s ahead and the types of obstacles you'll encounter along the way. If you were a car manufacturer designing a vehicle that needs to operate in mountainous terrain in mud, snow, and ice, would you build a tiny commuter car? More likely, you would create something resembling an off-road vehicle, with rugged suspension, traction control, and features to navigate rough terrain.

Likewise, assembling a team to design your automation framework and automated test scripts means hiring experts who know the terrain your test automation must traverse. Likely it's going to be dynamic, always changing and evolving with the applications you'll be testing.

A word about consultants

Many organizations hire consultants to build their test automation without consideration for what's going to be needed in the long run. If you decide to build your automation with the help of a consultant, find a reputable person or company that communicates a sustainability plan for the tools the consultant will build.

I've seen too much automation built by consultants that had to be rewritten because it was not built for sustainability. Ask the important questions up front, before hiring any consultant to build your test automation.

2. Find your team leader

The team leader is the most critical hire you will make when building your test automation team, because the leader sets the tone. The ideal candidate should have a track record of building test automations that have had multiple years of use.

A few important questions to discuss during the interview with candidates include:

  • How do you build test automation that can be easily maintained over time? Key answers here include using reusable code, leveraging functions, and creating or using methods that are well-documented, with an intuitive naming convention.
  • Share something you've learned about developing test automation that has changed the way you build things now. Here you want to observe a passion for improvement and growth in the candidate's craftsmanship. Look for a willingness to learn, grow, and share with others.
  • Who have you trained to develop and maintain test automation? The capability to train others is important for the team's success.

Beware these red flags when searching for an automation team leader:

  • The candidate mentions record-and-playback as part of the test automation development process. Move on and look for another person.
  • The candidate favors keyword-driven approaches that emphasize nontechnical users building test automation. This adds excessive abstraction and rarely produces any return on investment.
  • The candidate has regularly replaced manual testers with automated testing. It's not an either-or proposition; manual testers leverage automation as a tool for efficient and consistent test-case execution.

3. Add team members

Team members should be interested in learning and conforming to the approach and framework already decided upon. When considering new team members, find out about previous teams they've worked on and where they brought the greatest benefits.

Be cautious about hiring people who say they knew better than their previous leaders what was best for success. Ask about practices they've picked up from previous leaders and team members that they've applied going forward.

Look for a willingness to learn, and watch out for people with a lack of history or a tendency to go rogue or do their own thing, regardless of the direction of leadership.

4. Bring on the specialists

Initially you'll want to hire people to build automated tests, but there are other areas to explore that enhance testing. That’s where specialists come in. Here's who to look for:

  • A principal developer with a strong methodology background. This person helps build the development to account for growth and scalability. You want people who know their craft yet are humble enough to teach others.
  • A junior engineer to support maintenance of existing test automation. This would be a good candidate to train for future growth.
  • Infrastructure specialists to focus on the health and development of the framework, test management, remote execution, etc. As the team grows, these areas will become more critical to your team's success.
  • Niche specialists in areas such as reporting, analysis, project management, and administration. Also consider sharing these niche areas as opportunities across the team for individual professional development.

5. Right-size the team

What is the right size for an automation team? At a minimum, you should ensure adequate coverage if someone's sick or you lose a team member.

The area most likely to catch you off guard is not accounting for the ongoing maintenance that's required once you build test automation. Plan on maintenance from the start and avoid this common pitfall.

The smallest automation team you can have will have two members. You can start your test automation as a proof of concept, with one automation engineer. But as soon as your team starts to depend on the test automation, ensure that you have a second automation engineer trained and ready to help keep efforts going.

While it's hard to predict the perfect size of your automation team, here are some pointers to consider:

  • Having only one test automation engineer is asking for trouble. It will get you through a proof of concept but will not be sustainable over the long haul.
  • Test automation teams should probably be much smaller than the manual testing team. Think of the automation team as an equipper of tools for the manual testing team.
  • You always want at least one individual designated for maintaining the automation already built; this will likely be a daily, ongoing task.
  • You will want someone focused on the automation framework and successful execution of the automation that has already been built.
  • You'll want someone paying attention to the versions of tools and languages being utilized throughout the automation process and ensuring that the team is staying current with these tools.
  • Hire or work with quality assurance leaders; they can monitor the usage of the automation, identifying problems that lead manual testers to stop using automation due to too much complexity or flaky tests.

Start building your team

A good automation team works like a company within the company, creating testing products that measure quality and raise awareness of risk for internal customers.

Apply these principles and you'll have the makings of an effective test automation team. In the comments field below, share some of the areas you have identified that helped you build an effective team.

Want to know more about highly effective test automation teams? Come see my presentation, "Seven Fundamentals of a Successful Testing Team," on Thursday, October 4, at STARWEST. The conference runs from September 30 to October 5, 2018, in Anaheim, California.

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