Confessions of a Test Strategist: Part 1 – Beginnings

It all started quite innocently really. I was enjoying a coffee (alright, the coffee is a pseudonym for a beer) with an old mate of mine and he asked me about my strategy for an upcoming client meeting. I wasn’t sure what he meant by my strategy, so I asked him to elucidate. He response wasn’t what I was expecting. He said that he just happened to have a pair of tickets to this sell-out gig just around the corner at the Elephant and Wheelbarrow (yep, another pub). He added that a hero of mine was performing there and that we were going to hear some very dark secrets that only a select few would be party to. This was the day I met Kevin Sheedy – the eponymous AFL coach of my beloved Essendon Bombers footy club. This was indeed a seminal moment in my life, let alone my career. Kevin waxed lyrical throughout the evening (as only he can) introducing us to wheely bins, static defenders, blonde midfielders, seagulls and wind-socks. He was talking Strategy!!

By my reckoning, that evening was almost 20 years ago. Before the ubiquitous Internet. Before Agile. Before social media. Before iEverythingunderthesun. It was a generation ago. It was a time when every major corporation was re-inventing it’s back-office. It was a time when mainframes were being consigned to the rubbish heap – again. It was also a time when the world was waking up to best endeavours, blue-sky thinking, customer intimacy, moving goal-posts and rubber meeting roads. Heady days indeed!! I was on the cusp of joining the new kings of the project world. I was about to become a Consultant. And all I had to do was understand Strategy. Such was my transformation to strategic consultant that a close friend of mine (Maddy Oldfield) insists that I am now totally incapable of functioning in any sort of operational capacity.

Simply put, I think strategically when I need to work ON a business and I think operationally or tactically if I’m working IN a business – which, according to Maddy, isn’t very often!!

So, where do we start? Let’s look at a simple Case Study (not related to Testing) that will hopefully highlight the various (strategic) thought processes that I go through when assessing a situation.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine (I’ll refer to him as “David” – because that’s his name) wanted to restructure his veterinary supplies business. David has a successful business that had been operating for over 25 years, but he is now in his early 60’s and wants to slow down in preparation for retirement. He also wants to run his business from his rural homestead in country Victoria (as opposed to suburban Melbourne). How do I approach this exercise? How do I develop a Strategic Plan that will enable David to achieve his goal?

The first task is to understand what happens in David’s business today. How and why does his business function the way it does – the WHY is by far the most important aspect of this exercise. So, I build a model of David’s current business (using Post-it Notes). Then I get everyone in his business to verify my picture (of the business). This usually takes several iterations, but is a very simple exercise whether it’s a small, medium or large company – I also use the same approach for defining the Test Strategy of a major bank or telco….

Once I’ve got a high-level view of the business, I ask lots of questions about WHY things are done this way and that – I want to understand the context within which the business operates. I then conduct a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of the business and build a Mindmap, in order to visualise the current challenges for the business. A SWOT analysis is an excellent activity to tease out differing views of what people see as the various characteristics of a business. It is very rare to get a single view from the outset and several iterations/debates are required before a consolidated view is achievable. Incidentally, David’s business is now the most profitable it’s been in over 10 years as a result of strategically re-positioning it.

I’ve developed and written far more Test Strategies than I can recall (probably at least 50). Some have been for major Programs of Work (Bank Mergers, Telco Transformation, the launch of an online Supermarket, the implementation of a Smart Ticketing system – NOT Myki in Melbourne :). Some have been more technically focused (Test Automation, Data Conversion, Test Environment Management), while others have focused on industry-based Accreditations or Standards. I approach them all exactly the same – I ask lots of questions. I ask lots of questions and speak to lots of people and draw lots of pictures. I often take over the largest room the organisation can spare (a Training facility is quite often appropriate) and use it as a giant whiteboard within which to share my ideas.

A simple strategy I adopted just a few years ago was related to developing Project documents in a quick and cost-effective way. Rather than have a single person develop and distribute documents, we built them as a team. The way I tested this approach was to set my small team (of 4) the goal of publishing (and gaining sign-off) of a Test Strategy within 10 working days. The sign-off needed to be from the Board of the company, so it was going to be a tough ask. This is how we did it……

I gave them a simple set of guidelines:
The document must not exceed 25 pages
There must be a 2-page Executive Summary
The document must be physically visible 24/7 – from inception to completion (to ensure maximum feedback)
The document must be signed-off by the Board within 10 working days
We would review progress every morning at 8:30

I gave no more information than this. I didn’t tell them what to write or how to write it. I didn’t tell them who to interview or what needed to be highlighted or examined. The only formal assistance I gave them was to be available for brainstorming ideas and attendance at the daily reviews.

This is how you provide strategic guidance for a strategic outcome!! Strategy is about providing a vision (the WHAT). Strategy is about enabling efficiency and effectiveness. It is not about organising the team and telling them what their duties are. It is not about telling them who is to interviewed at what time and by which team member. They are tactical decisions. The team knew the goals and therefore had to organise themselves to achieve them. This approach provides maximum support with minimum interference and (in the majority of situations) the most creative and usable outcome.

NOTE: This post has been adapted from an article that first appeared in the July 2013 issue of OZTester Magazine. If you have any questions regarding the development of Testing Strategies please let me know and I’ll endeavour to address them in future Blog posts.

Dateline: Friday July 19, Melbourne, Australia


4 thoughts on “Confessions of a Test Strategist: Part 1 – Beginnings

  1. I agree with Rikard. There are few real good examples “out there” – often for the very good reason they’re client confidential – but still.

    Strategy is a dark art – getting enough detail that “you can test” whilst also realising the process of testing is going to throw out unexpected things, and you’re likely going to learn as you test. A project last year had a wonderful strategy, but as it was delivered we learned to do things we had no idea we could (to aid our testing), whilst other simpler things turned out to be incredibly tricksy.

  2. For future postings it would be marvellous if you could share a test strategy (either the written, or the actual one)
    There are so few examples of such available, especially “good” ones.
    Full context is not necessary, just seeing what things are there, and how it is communicated, would be very interesting.


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