carefully removing a Jenga piece
PHOTO: John Moeses Bauan

Agile practices have become both ubiquitous and essential in the management of software development. Some would even say that we have entered the Age of Agile.

The adoption of Agile has been on the rise for a number of years. And, at present day, many companies involved in software development have adopted Agile practices, or, at least, attempted to do so. According to Harvard Business Review, 80% of organizations have committed to adopting Agile, with more than half currently in the process of implementing Agile principles.

There certainly is no mystery shrouding the motivation behind the rush to Agile. The benefits are well-known and substantial. As the HBR article noted, Agile “can play a crucial role in delivering the right products and services, accelerating decision-making and speed to market, while also improving the customer experience and staying ahead of the competition.”

As you might have noticed, however, there was one glaring omission from the above list of Agile benefits: product quality. Agile is designed to release software quickly. And when speed of development becomes a cultural priority, QA often becomes regarded as somewhat of a speed bump. But what driver will go over a speed bump when a way around the speed bump can be found? So QA teams often become "victims" of the rush to Agile as careening development teams attempt to steer around them. The results are predictable: a noticeable (sometimes substantial) plummet in product quality.

But with just a simple change of mindset along with a minor modification in feedback loops, QA can not only survive, but thrive, in the Age of Agile.

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A Mindset That Reflects the True Value of QA

With the emergence of Agile, the mission of QA teams has morphed from “test everything” to “test as fast as you can.” As a result, the importance of QA teams has been minimized within many organizations. The primary focus of Agile and DevOps, after all, is speed. Quality, all too often, becomes a secondary consideration. Though QA remains a component of Agile sprint teams, QA is rarely afforded the time necessary to conduct thorough and proper testing and validation workflows.

There is, of course, still a place for QA in the Agile world — along with the product quality that proper testing enables. But, within most Agile-adopting organizations, a change in mindset will be required.

Consider how QA is currently regarded in your organization. Is QA perceived as just a pitstop for ambitious professionals seeking a more glamorous position such as scrum master, developer or product manager? Is QA considered little more than a speed bump that forces the throttling-down of Agile sprints? If so, the mindset at your organization must change; QA must be welcomed into the Agile fold as an essential and equal component of the Agile development process.

QA teams, too, must bear some of the burden for shifting the organizational mindset toward QA. They should readily embrace new ideas that mesh well with Agile methodologies to better enable the QA team to perform quality testing with greater speed. Ultimately, QA teams must be capable of keeping pace with the Agile-powered speed of development. Relatively new QA options such as crowdtesting and automation can help accelerate testing to Agile-like speeds without sacrificing product quality. As a bonus, these new testing techniques can reduce internal QA teams’ workloads while simultaneously expanding test coverage, increasing testing speed, and enhancing the teams’ ability to quickly react and scale to the ever-evolving demands of Agile.

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Shifting Feedback Left Is the Right Approach

The traditional feedback loops deployed in non-Agile methodologies typically limit the options of development teams. A team might develop partial functionality, for example, limiting the testers on the test coverage they are able to deploy in completing the development process. Another option in a traditional feedback system might require developers to complete iterative milestone builds which then go to General Availability testing.

These traditional feedback loops often force QA teams to perform testing simply as a finale to the development process, incurring, as a byproduct, weeks or months of QA team thumb-twiddling as they await the delivery of the final product for testing. And then, of course, the pressure is on as the QA team is squeezed in the ever-tightening vise of fast-approaching delivery dates and an immense testing workload. Regression testing often becomes little more than an afterthought as the harried QA team is forced to focus limited time and resources on testing new features.

Tighter feedback loops are a key component of the Agile methodology. And shifting feedback left by injecting testing earlier into the SDLC is a can’t-miss means of increasing agility. The earlier testing is involved in the process, the earlier development teams can receive crucial feedback.

Setting the stage for shifting feedback left requires organizations to perform two key chores:

  1. Plan Your Shift: A game plan must be devised before attempting to begin the shift. Plans should be formulated for running sprint cycles that will each generate sufficient finished-quality software to test every two or three weeks. (Each sprint cycle must create enough software to make the testing worthwhile.)
  2. Invest in Testing: Brands must invest in dedicated testers. Simply nabbing members away from other teams temporarily to perform testing — pulling them away from the essential tasks of their day-to-day jobs — will place a development team on a path toward failure and may lead to a complete loss-of-control of the development process. The efficiency of the entire development team will plummet, and missed software bugs will quickly multiply. Dedicated QA teams will prove invaluable to any organization’s attempt to shift feedback left and discover quality issues earlier in the development process.

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Cultivate Your Culture

Organizational cultures don’t develop haphazardly. The company culture is always steered and defined by key players and leaders within the organization. That’s why every organization has the opportunity, and the ability, to morph the culture in a direction that is more inclusive of QA, and that fully embraces the value of QA in the Age of Agile.