Speaking to Management: Coverage Reporting

Test coverage is important. In this post, I will reflect about communication issues with test coverage.

The word coverage has a different meaning in testing than in daily language. In daily language, it’s referring to something that can be covered and hidden completely, and if you hide under a cover, it will usually mean that we can’t see you. If you put a cover on something, the cover will keep things out.

Test coverage works more like a fishing net. Testing will catch bugs if used properly, but some (small) fish, water, plankton etc. will always pass through. Some nets have holes through which large fish can escape.

What’s so interesting about coverage?

When your manager asks you about test coverage, she probably does so because she seeks confidence that the software works sufficiently well to proceed to the next iteration or phase in the project.

Seeking confidence about something is a good project management principle. After all: If you’re confident about something, you are so because you don’t need to worry about it. Not having to worry about something means that you don’t have to spend your time on it, and project managers always have a gazillion other things that need their attention.

The word is the bug

So if confidence comes out of test coverage, then why is it that it managers often misunderstand us when we talk about coverage?

Well, the word actually means something else in daily language than it does when we use it in testing. So the word causes a communication “bug” when it’s misunderstood or misused.

We need to fix that bug, but how? Should we teach project managers the ”right” meaning of the word? We could send them to a testing conferences, ask them to take a testing course, or give them books to read.

That might work, but it wouldn’t solve the fundamental communication problem. It will move higher up in the organisational hierarchy.

An educated manager will have the same problem, not being able to make her peers and managers understand what ”test coverage” means. After all, not everyone in the organisation can be testing experts!

STOP mentioning coverage

A good rule of thumb in communication is: When your communication is likely to be misinterpreted, don’t communicate.

I, as a tester knows what test coverage means and more importantly what it does not mean, but I cannot expect others to understand it. Thus, if I use the word, I will probably be misunderstood. A simple solution to this is to stop using the word. So I won’t say sentences like: Our testing has covered some functionality.

The thing I can say is: We have carried out these tests and we found that.

This will work well until someone asks you to relate your testing to the business critical functionality: Ok, then then tell me, how much of this important functionality do your tests cover?

Uh oh!

Stay in the Testing Arena – or be careful

American circuses have enormous tents and two, three or even four arenas with different acts happening at the same time. A project is always going on in different arenas as well: For example we might have a product owner arena, a development arena, a test arena, and a business implementation arena.

Some people play in several arenas: I think most testers have at some point in the career made the mistake of telling a developer how to code. Likewise, we can probably all agree that there’s nothing more annoying than a developer telling a tester how to test.

Confidence belongs in the product owner arena, not in testing. This is because testing is about qualifying and identifying business risks, and since confidence does not equal absence of risks, it’s very hard for us to talk about confidence. And coverage.

This doesn’t mean you can’t move to another arena.

You can indeed look at things from the product owners perspective, that’s perfectly ok! Just make sure you know that you are doing it and why you are doing it: You are leaving your testing arena to help your product owner make a decision. Use safe-language, when you do.

Talk facts and feelings

Confidence is fundamentally a feeling, not a measurable artefact. It’s something that you can develop, but it can also be communicated: Look confident, express confidence, talk about the good stuff, and people around you will start feeling confident.

Look in-confident, express worry, talk about problems, and people around you will start feeling worried.

Testers always develop feelings about the product we’re testing, and we can communicate these feelings.

I know two basic strategies in any type of test result communication:

  • Suggest a conclusion first, then tell’m what you’ve done
  • Give them all the dirty details first, then help your manager conclude

Which communication strategy you pick should depend on the context, e.g. your relation with the manager. If everything looks pretty much as-expected (whether that’s good or bad), your manager has trust in you, and you have good knowledge of the business risks, then I wouldn’t worry too much about serving the conclusion first, and then offer details later mostly to make sure you and your manager doesn’t misunderstand each other. And that nobody will later be able to claim that you kept silent about something.

But if something is way off, or your manager doesn’t trust you (or you don’t trust her), peoples lives may be at stake, or you just have no idear what’s happening, then stick to the details – do not conclude. And that, I think, implies not using the term ”testing coverage”.

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