Introducing Thread-Based Test Management

Most of the testing world is managed around artifacts: test cases, test documents, bug reports. If you look at any “test management” tool, you’ll see that the artifact-based approach permeates it. “Test” for many people is a noun.

For me test is a verb. Testing is something that I do, not so much something that I create. Testing is the act of exploration of an unknown territory. It is casting questions, like Molotov cocktails, into the darkness, where they splatter and burst into bright revealing fire.

How to Manage Such a Process?

My brother Jon and I created a way to control highly exploratory testing 10 years ago, called session-based test management (SBTM). I recently returned from an intense testing project in Israel, where I used SBTM. But I also experimented with a new idea: thread-based test management (TTM).

Like many of my new ideas, it’s not really new. It’s the christening (with words) and sharpening (with analysis) of something many of us already do. The idea is this: organize management around threads of activity rather than test sessions or artifacts.

Thread-based testing is a generalized form of session-based testing, in that sessions are a form of thread, but a thread is not necessarily a session. In SBTM, you test in uninterrupted blocks of time that each have a charter. A charter is a mission for that session; a light sort of commitment, or contract. A thread, on the other hand, may be interrupted, it may go on and on indefinitely, and does not imply a commitment. Session-based testing can be seen as an extension of thread-based testing for especially high accountability and more orderly situations.

I define a thread as a set of one or more activities intended to solve a problem or achieve an objective. You could think of a thread as a very small project within a project.

Why Thread-Based Test Management?

Because it can work under even the most chaotic and difficult conditions. The only formalism required for TBTM is a list of threads. I use this form of test management when I am dropped into a project with as little a day or two to get it done.

What Does Thread-Based Test Management Looks Like?

It’s simple. Thread-based test management looks like a todo list, except that we organize the todo items into an outline that matches the structure of the testing process. Here’s a mocked-up example:

Test Facilities

  • Power meter calibration method
  • Backup test jig validation
  • Create standard test images

Test Strategy

  • Accuracy Testing
    • Sampling strategy
    • Preliminary-testing
    • Log file analysis program
  • Transaction Flow Testing
  • Essential Performance Testing
  • Safety Testing
    • warnings and errors FRS review
    • tool for forcing errors
  • Compliance Testing
  • Test Protocol V1.0 doc.

Test Management

  • Change protocol definition
  • Build protocol definition
  • Test cycle protocol definition
  • Bug reporting protocol definition
  • Bug triage
  • Fix verifications

This outline describes the high level threads that comprise the test project. I typically use a mind-mapping program like MindManager to organize and present them.

So, you should be thinking, “Is that it? Todo lists?” right about now. Well, no. That’s not it. But that’s one face of it.

What Else Does Thread-Based Test Management Look Like?

It looks like testers gathered around a todo list, talking about what they are going to work on that afternoon. Then they split up and go to work. Several times day they might come together like that. If the team is not co-located, then this meeting is done over instant messaging, email, or perhaps through a wiki.

Is That All it Looks Like?

Well, there is also the status report. Whether written or spoken, the thread-based test management version of a status report lists the threads, who is working on the threads, and the outlook for each thread. It typically also includes an issues list.

Other documentation may be produced, of course. TBTM doesn’t tell you what documents to create. It simply tells you that threads are the organizing principle we use for managing the project.

Where Do Threads Come From?

Threads are first spawned from our model of the testing problem. The Satisfice Heuristic Test Strategy Model is an example of such a model. By working through those lists, we get an idea of the kinds of testing we might want to do: those are the first of the threads. After that, threads might be created in many ways, including splitting off of existing threads as we gain a deeper understanding of what testing needs to be done. Of course, in an Agile environment, each user story kicks off a new testing thread.

Which Threads Do We Work On?

Think priority and progress. We might frequently drop threads, switch threads, and pick them up again. In general, we work on the highest priority threads, but we also work on lower priority threads many times, when we see the possibility for quick and inexpensive progress. If I’m trying to finish a sanity check on the new build, I might interrupt that to discuss the status of a particular known bug if the developer happens to wander by.

Major ongoing threads often become attached to specific people. For instance “client testing” or “performance testing” often become full-time jobs. Testing itself, after all, can be thought of as a thread so challenging to do well, and so different from programming, that most companies have seen fit to hire dedicated testers.

How Do Threads End?

A thread ends either in a cut or knot. Cutting a thread means to cancel that task. A knot, however, is a milestone; an achievement of some kind. This is exactly the meaning of the phrase “tying up the loose ends” and marks either the end of the thread (or group of threads) or a good place to drop it for a while.

How Do We Estimate Work?

In thread-based test management, there is no special provision or method for estimating work, except that this is done on a thread-by-thread basis. Session-based test management may be overlaid onto TBTM in order to estimate work in terms of sessions.

How Do We Evaluate Progress?

In thread-based test management, there is no special provision or method for evaluating progress, either, except that this is done on a thread-by-thread basis, and status reports may be provided frequently, perhaps at the end of each day. Session-based test management is also helpful for that.

So What?

This form of management is actually quite common. But, to my knowledge, no one has yet named and codified it. Without a convenient way to talk about it, we have a hard time explaining and justifying it. Then when the “process improvement” freaks come along, they act like there’s no management happening at all. This form of management has been “illegible” up to now (meaning that it’s there but no one notices it) and my brother and I are going to push to make it fully legible and respectable in the testing arena.

From now on, when asked about my approach to test management, I can say “I practice Rapid Testing methodology, which I track in either a thread-based or session-based manner, depending on the stage of the project, and in a risk-based manner at all times.”

How is TBTM Any Different From Using a TO-DO List?

Michel Kraaij questions the substance of TBTM by wondering how it’s different from the age-old idea of a “to-do” list? See his post here.

This is a good question. Yes, TBTM is different than just using a to-do list, but even so, I don’t think I’ve ever read an article about to-do list based test management (TDBTM?). Most textbooks focus on artifacts, not the activity of testing. Thread-based test management is trying to capture the essence of managing with to-do lists, plus some other things in addition to that.

The main additional element, beyond just making a to-do list, is that a traditional to-do list contains items that can be “done”, whereas many threads might not ever be “done.” They might be cut (abandoned) or knotted (temporarily parked at some level of completion). Some threads maybe tied up with a bow and “done” like a normal task, but not the main ones that I’m thinking of. As I practice testing, for instance, I’m rarely “done” with test strategy. I tinker with the test strategy all the way through the project. That’s why it makes sense to call it a thread.

Once again: Thread-based management is not focused on getting things “done.” In this way it is different from KanBan, Scrum, ToDo lists, Session-based test management,  etc., all of which are big into workflow management of definite units of work.

Another thing to recognize is that the main concern of TBTM is how to know what to put on your thread list. The answer to that invokes the entire framework of Rapid Software testing. So, yeah, it’s more than having an outline of threads, which does look very much like a to-do list– it’s the activity (and skills) of making the list and managing it. If you want to talk about to-do list based test management, then you would have to invent that lore as well. You couldn’t just say “make a to-do list” and claim to have communicated the methodology.

[You can find Jonathan’s take on TBTM here.]

[I credit Sagi Krupetski, the test lead on my recent project, for helping me get this idea. His clockwork status reporting and regular morning question “Where are we on the project and what do you think you need to work on today?” caused me to see the thread structure of our project clearly for the first time. He’s back on the market now (Chicago area), in case you need a great tester or test manager.]

What Exploratory Practitioners Are Called

An exploratory DOCTOR is known as… a “doctor.”
An exploratory WELDER is known as… a “welder.”
An exploratory PILOT is known as… a “pilot.”
An exploratory WRITER is known as… a “writer.”
An exploratory SCIENTIST is known as… a “scientist.”
An exploratory TRUCK DRIVER is known as… a “truck driver.”

A non-exploratory doctor is known as… “irresponsible.”
A non-exploratory welder is known as… “irresponsible.”
A non-exploratory pilot is known as… “killed in a plane crash.”
A non-exploratory writer known as… “a plagiarist.”
A non-exploratory scientist is known as… “a tobacco company scientist.” (also “Creationist”)
A non-exploratory truck driver is known as… “lost.”

Can you spot the pattern here?

There is no such thing as an “exploratory tester” except inasmuch as a good tester obviously can and will do exploration as a basic part of his work.