Fear of Automation


Can a pan create an award-winning meal without the chef? Can a scalpel perform surgery without a skilled surgeon to lead it? Can a paintbrush create a work of art without the artist? These tools and test automation are only as good as those who use them. In this column, Linda Hayes debunks the popular idea that streamlining through test automation will mean certain termination for employees. Linda explains that test automation can actually equate to becoming an indispensable team member.

It's hard enough to succeed at test automation given its technical complexity, but it is downright impossible to succeed if team members aren't motivated. Unfortunately some are still afraid of automation because they think it might replace them. Not only is that simply not true, but the opposite is actually true: automation provides a golden opportunity for us to become indispensable.

More Productivity = Higher Value
When I hear a manual tester or analyst say that test automation will replace them, my knee jerk reaction is to wonder if Stephen King is afraid that MS Word will replace him. After all, both are tools in which you capture your knowledge (or imagination) and replicate it. Both literature and test automation are only as good as the writer, so it's your expertise that counts—not the tool.

Look at it this way: Stephen King's net worth increases each time a copy of his work is sold; it doesn't decrease. Your productivity increases each time your automated tests are executed; as your productivity goes up, so does your value to the company.

One of my favorite examples of this formula in action is of an automation consultant who developed thousands of hours of automated executions for several applications—single-handedly. He survived five layoff rounds in the company over a five-year period, and the initial layoff was for all non-employees. Each time the layoff list was drawn up, his name was on it. Each time multiple managers sprang to his defense, mustering the budget to keep him because he was so productive.

It Can't Replace What You Don't Do
There is an even better reason why automation will never replace you: it automates the tests you aren't doing, not the ones you are.

Let's be honest...one can barely keep up with the rate of change in most systems, testing fixes and enhancements—sometimes over and over—for each release. There is no way you can manually execute all of the tests from prior releases. It's basic math: the inventory of application functionality and the portfolio of applications is constantly on the rise, while your staff and schedule remains flat or shrinks. There's a reason that the most pressing quality problem for most companies is regression testing...or the lack thereof.

Automation is your only hope, not a threat. By using automation for regression testing, it frees your mind and hands from repeating the past so you can focus on the present and plan for the future. Your value goes up as your test coverage expands and product quality improves. You are free to spend more time with the business, understanding their needs and translating them into test requirements and cases, which enhances your contribution and exposure even further.

And even when all of your regression tests become automated—if it ever happens—there is still the ever-present maintenance overhead. Changes usually affect both new and existing functionality. The test library is a living asset that must keep pace with the business and the application, which requires consistent care and feeding to stay viable and valuable. After all, the reason we test software is because something has changed.
Less Staff, More Work
Now I won't deny that some managers believe they can slash their testing staff with tools, but those managers are becoming more and more rare. In most cases staff reductions have already happened anyway, leaving the same amount of work but fewer people. Managers are not trying to figure out how to reduce staff even further; they are trying to figure out how to get the job done with what they have.

In fact, I can count on one finger the number of cases I know of where automation reduced the testing resources significantly. It was a medical products company where their test coverage was FDA mandated and regulated, so they had no choice but to execute tests every time. As a result, they had thirty full-time testers. Automation reduced the full-time testing staff to six. What is interesting is that the other twenty-four testers were microbiologists, and once they were freed from manual execution, they weren't laid off. They were able to return to their real job, which was to work on product requirements, design, and specifications.

I have seen automation save massive amounts of time—converting weeks of manual labor into days or hours of automated execution. The net result was that it enabled the team to meet the schedule with a stable solution instead of cutting corners and performing triage on test cases. Making the schedule while meeting coverage goals means you get brownie points, not a pink slip.

Let's Get the Facts
Obviously, I am an automation fanatic. So you might think I am biased, and you are probably right. But don't take my word for it. I'll just ask, "Who among you has been replaced by a test tool?"

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