Automation

A term thrown randomly in lots of software development shops, to describe different things. Why? Automation is a simple term, that use to mean a process that can run without (or with minimal) human intervention. Now it means lots of things and, in most cases, it’s a lie. Let me explain what I mean, through a software development skit:

Alice: Bob, where do we stand with the QA automation for this release?

Bob: We’ll probably have to modify 40% of the regression suite, ’cause lots of tests are failing.

Alice: Do you think we’ll make it in time?

Bob: We could bring in 5 guys from John’s team to help.

Alice: Sounds like a good idea. Let’s do that!

No one ever…

I’m sure you’ve never seen this in practice, ever… Right? “Good idea” what!??? Of course, Alice is acting purely based on her project management targets, but she’s completely missing out on what automation should do for them. That is: reduce the intervention of humans in the process and get faster feedback from that regression suite (as opposed to people playing keyboard monkey roles).

What happened back there? Well, 40% of 10 tests is nothing, so bringing in 5 guys would be one person per test that could help, plus an extra one. The problem could be solved in a matter of minutes…? maybe hours…? Ok, good call Alice! But the elephant in the room, in this scenario, is that the regression suite is actually a joke, not real automation. I mean 10 tests? (yes, I just decided that there were 10 tests, don’t scroll up)

The problem in the large, is that the regression suite has hundreds, if not thousands of tests. This means feedback comes late (hours, sometimes days) after running the suite. Feedback is not clear most of the time, false positives, flakiness and all that good stuff.

Alright. QA automation. But there are other kinds, right? Oh, sure there are. Let’s take the famous “dev-ops pipelines” for example. “What does that even mean? Dev-ops pipeline, pfff…” you say? Stop pretending and just accept you already know what I’m talking about: pull source from GIT onto some jenkins machine, run some stuff from some other jenkins machine and then some stuff on this jenkins machine and then “promote” the buid to some other machine and chop a virgin’s head and make sure all is being pushed to Kibana and kill yourself.

Isn’t that THE automation? Well yes, it is, it’s just that… more often than not it goes wrong at different steps in the process. When was the last time you’ve seen a pipeline like this run well for weeks or months at a time, without human intervention. I can already hear the audience… “months? we’re stepping in a couple of times a day”.

We can see a pattern here: “automation” that hurts rather than helping. Ok, by “hurts” I mean that it does so for the business goals: late deliveries, buggy software products, etc. It totally does NOT hurt the persons which created the “automation” to begin with. To them, it’s an industry standard and if you’re not doing it, you’re so not worth living and must crawl with shame under your desk (not standing desk, of course, ’cause you’re a loser and you’re not trendy). They will defend it to their deaths (that is, until they move to a more trendy company, with bean bag chairs and super-expensive espresso machines).

There are many other kinds of “automation” which generate similar results to the above. Bottom line is: if it constantly hurts the business goals, you’re doing it wrong. “Yes, but my special case…”. NO! Just throw it away (YES, away it should go) and rethink the whole thing. I mean really rethink it in such a way that you won’t have to touch it afterwards, not just use a different technology to do the same thing all over again. It will probably take a bit of time (weeks, months…), but the business will certainly thank you for it.

P.S. What are you doing when you give business a software product? You automate its processes. Why? So they don’t have to do it manually. That business may just as well be you.