What do we mean by a “test”?

So this article’s title is pretty vague. What do we mean by test? Do we mean a manual test? Do we mean an automated ui test? Do we mean a unit test?

In an Agile organization, it is understood that automation is utilized for various things including systems engineering and testing. So for the purposes of this article, we are talking about automated testing unless otherwise stated. So assuming that we are Agile, let us think in broad terms of testing efforts in the context of an Agile team. And let’s define attributes and characteristics that define bad tests. Once this is understood, we can start discussing what are our ideal tests.

What makes a “bad” test?

When I think about bad tests this is what comes to mind:

  • Low value-add
  • Slow
  • High Maintenance
  • Expensive
  • Lack of Team Ownership
  • Flaky

Let me try and explain what exactly this means and some of the ways of addressing these problems.

Low value-add

How do we define low value-add? From a business point-of-view, I define low-value tests as tests that don’t actually test the requirements or does it in a way that isn’t reflective of the customer expecation.

Arguablly, all the things listed in the above section would make a test low-value. But for this section consider the actual intent of the test and its implementation. There are a few things that always stick out to me. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Not actually invoking the code that your are testing or claim to be testing
  • Overly relying on Mocks
  • Very poor defined assertions (assertEquals(myThing.size(), 17) or assertNotNull(myThing));

Does this ring a 🔔?

Tests and the act of testing should be high value-adding activity. Otherwise, why waste your time doing them? Tests should enable you and your team to know that your code works as advertised. Now there are different ways to incoporate tests into your SDLC.

One measure of a scrum team’s productivity is its velocity. And one of the things that affects velocity is handling the unknowns that come up during a sprint. This would include issues found by QA and worse: production 🐛s. One of the things that should be a discussion point for your retrospectives (or Kaizen if you practice Kanban) is: how do we limit these unknowns and regressions found by QA or potentially as 🐛s by your customers? Handling unknowns is a topic for another day.

We can limit regressions if we have test suites that we can depend on and test suites that run as a part of feedback loop that matches the needs of your organization’s velocity.

depend on

Can we depend on our tests? Should we depend on our tests?

Have you ever seen a test like this?

public void testMyClassDoesStuff() {
    // MyClass is an internal class we own and not an external API
    MyClass dependency = mock[MyClass]
    TestClass testClass = new TestClass(dependency)
    assertEquals(testClass.methodThatDependsOnDoesStuff(), "works!");

Can we depend on this code to tell us how MyClass functions? No. This is because we mocked out MyClass. This is a very simple example at a very micro-view of our potential codebase. How does this look like in your codebase but at the macro level? Does your codebase have tests for all of your MyClasses where it makes sense?

What are the value-add of your tests? Can you say that you currently depend on your tests?

In order to be able to depend on tests they need to be high-value add. How do we do this?

Some of the following talking points contribute to idea of understanding the value-add proposition of your tests. If you have flaky, slow, and high maintenance tests, they might not be high-value add even if they test all if the MyClasses in your codebase and provide extensive regression coverage.


Slow is a relative term. It depends on the test, the team, and the organization. For some teams, a unit test that takes 100ms might be considered slow while a system test that takes 100ms is considered incredibly fast. But a test of any form that takes 5 minutes is considered slow vs for example 2 minutes. What about 500 integration tests that take 5 minutes to run (0.6 seconds per test) vs 500 system tests that each take 2 minutes to execute? How fast (or how slow) is that test suite? What about 1000 tests?

How do you define a slow test? How does your team or organization define slow? Is slow acceptable? When is slow unacceptable? Is slow acceptable when we are debugging that test locally? Or is unacceptable when monitoring the build server? Is slow acceptable while implementing them vs maintining them?

What is this slow test actually even doing?

In my experience, many slow tests are system tests or integration tests that either require optimization or are unnecessarily testing multiple things too late in the software lifecycle. In terms of expressing complex requirements, integration tests should be your goto. Integration tests are also easier to optimize becuase we can more control over what part of the app we test and how we initialize our context. For our slow tests can we move them further down the stack? Can we move our testing from system tests that take 2-5 minutes to execute down to our integration tests that only take .06 seconds to run? Or even further down to our unit tests? Does it make sense to test it at a unit level without doing some crazy mocking? Is crazy mocking worth it? More on this in another article.


What are flaky tests? They are tests that randomly fail. Have you wrote a test and it passes locally but it fails on the build server immediately? Or on the build server a weeks later? But it passes locally?!? Or it fails remotely on the server but only occasionally or right before a release cut-off window?

How do we make our test less flaky? I’ll go into more detail on that in another article but here are a few tips:

General Best Practices

  • Be Dry instead of Wet
  • Don’t rely on hard-coded values to do your assertions.
  • Create data on the fly so you can test that directly vs stale data
  • Don’t rely on seeded data (this becomes something to maintain)
  • Eliminate unnecassary entropy from your tests when not the point of your tests
  • Ensure your build server and test environments are optimized to actually run your tests
  • Ensure that when tests run locally they match your build server and your build server is reflective of production within reason
  • Swap out flaky dependencies with test-friendly implementations and test flaky dependencies in isolation or have their idiosyncrasies documented and understood.
  • Don’t rely on system testing when you can write unit or interation tests instead.
  • Use mocking where it makes sense not where it makes things easier/quicker to implement.

UI Tests

API Tests

  • Don’t hard code message assertions unless you are testing in the same code base as the messages

Lack of Team Ownership

This is point that I don’t think gets discussed enough. A question to ask is: who owns your tests? Do you own the tests? Does that super smart team member own the tests? Does QA own the tests? Do the developers own the tests? Most importantly…

Does the team own the tests?

In many organization’s I’ve worked with I’ve seen that test owership is either poorly defined or that tests are owned by particular individuals or isolated teams. While it’s good that someone wants ownership of your testing efforts. I always wonder if focusing on individual ownership is actually counterproductive to the team’s efforts? Instead of collectivelly understanding your testing efforts, does your team depend on one person or a team for testing? How does this affect your feedback loop? Is your team waiting weeks, waiting a week, or a few days for feedback? Or is your test feedback immediate? Are QA resources free to test other things? Work on new tests and collaborate with product? Free to do exploratory testing? Or are they heads down “writing tests”? Did your developers write tests? Is QA and the development team duplicating testing efforts?

What if the team collectivelly owned your tests? And your developers collaborated with QA in the automated testing efforts? What if they broke down where they tested and what was tested? What if feedback was immediate and a part of your build process?

What is the value proposition of your current testing process(es)? What is your team’s and organization’s ideal value proposition around testing?

High Maintenance

Not going to talk about this much. But if you write a test and you find yourself having to revisit it outside of changing requriements perhaps there is a problem. Maintenance is tied to Flakiness. The less flaky your tests are the less maintenance you will have to do on them. That being said, flakiness isn’t the only component of high or unnecassary maintenance. Good design is also critical. Did a field change and now you have to update 30 tests? Are you abstracting your APIs in such a way that changes are minimal and related to functional requirements vs having to update tests because are having to do refactoring each time something changes? Are you following SOLID principles?

A note about refactoring

Good tests should help you drive your development process. Perhaps you practice TDD or some variation of it like ATDD or BDD. Refactoring during test creation is expected and abnormal otherwise. Tests allow you to question design decisions and requirements and reaffirm them. It may take a few iterations, but utilizing testing practices will always result in higher quality code. That being said if you are having to constantly refactor tests across multiple requirements perhaps you are missing an abstraction to simplify essential complexity vs taking on the costs of accidental complexity. Learn more about the “No Silver Bullet” for more insight on complexity in software development.

A Note on Readibility

Tests that are hard to read present a few problems:

  • People may confuse an actual requirement hidden in obsecure test setup/design and accidently delete meaningful and well-intentioned tests or worse yet refactor a test to pass and no longer capture the original intent of the test
  • People spend more time reverse engineering a test’s design and intent vs updating tests based on updates requirements
  • People accept hard-to-read as normal (¯\(ツ)/¯) and copy-paste not-fully-understood code elsewhere instead of properly deconstructing its true intentions


Personally, I’ve always found that it’s hard to quantify the true costs of your tests. I think there are a lot of things to consider when it comes to costs and ROI:

  • Costs to Implement
  • Costs to Run
  • Cost to Maintain
  • Costs of Regressions
  • Costs of Re-Occuring Regressions

Are these all costs? Are all these costs required? You should be probobly be looking at some of these as investments first and then consider the costs. Everything has a cost. But not everything needs an investment. It is definitely possible to invest too much into your testing or misinvest into your testing processes.

Does your team view implementing testing an investment or a cost first? Is it both? In that list above do you see any costs that can be avoided or reduced? Are these costs that your team currently have? Are these costs understood or even discussed by your team members? Are the costs of your testing strategy been something your team has agreed to? Are there costs that your team is working on reducing them (e.g. adding missing regression, reducing execution time)? Does your team realize the return on investment on testing? Or is the return on investment diminished based on other things (e.g. maintinance or weeklong or more feedback loops).

Ok… Enough about the bad tests! Tell me about the good tests

With the above in mind, what do you consider a good test? Where do your good tests end up? What about your bad tests? Do all tests go to test heaven? Are bad tests acceptable? How can we utilize industry best practices and standards around effective test automation?

In your organization you should have a SME on testing and automated testing and/or team leads with experience that include software practices that include testing to ensure testing is properly utilized throughout your SDLC. The first steps to embracing industry-standards and best practices towards software testing is:

  1. Understanding your organization’s needs
  2. Understanding where the organization is currently at
  3. Identifying the steps needed to achieve your organization’s needs.

These steps may be very complicated and involved. Some of this may be a culture thing as opposed to a right tool for the job type-of-thing.

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Do you recognize where that’s from? Instead of purchasing the latest and greatest tools for your organization and relying on that to improve process, what about the individuals and interactions in your organization? Are you empowering your colleagues to foster the culture to promote high-value add activities including testing in your SDLC?

A future article will go over reducing the costs associated with “bad” tests, maximizing your ROI on your tests, and understanding the biggest bang for your buck when approaching automated testing.