A Deep Dive into Open Source Tools and Tellurium: An Interview with Mike Sparks

[interview]
Summary:

In this interivew, Mike Sparks, the CEO of Tellurium, does a deep dive into open source tools. He tackles why so many people assume these products are free, how non-developers can use these tools, and where he sees the industry going in the very near future. 

Josiah Renaudin: First, could you tell us about your experience in the industry?

Mike Sparks: I’ve been involved in software testing for almost a decade now, but got started in technology after graduating with an engineering degree from the University of Pittsburgh. At that time, I went to work for a software company where I coded a few programs, then switched gears to focus more on the project management/user-experience side of things. This shift inevitably led me to software testing, where it became clear to me that there was a serious lack of creative tools to help testers. That was when we decided to create Tellurium.

Josiah Renaudin: As the CEO of Tellurium, you work with open source tools on a daily basis. To open, can you just discuss the importance of open source products in our industry?

Mike Sparks: Open source tools are vital to the way that many of us do our jobs, whether we know it or not.

The testing industry has become somewhat stagnant in regards to the types of tools that we use. There are a number of testing tools available, but they all do pretty much the exact same thing. This stagnation actually paved the way for one of the most commonly used open source testing tools, Selenium. Selenium’s rapid rise is indicative of a need for simple, affordable tools that can easily be shaped and built upon to fit each company’s unique needs—which of course is what open source is all about.

We’re now seeing more and more open source tools, like Cucumber and Watir, built on top of Selenium to help extend its capabilities. These tools, like Tellurium, are helping to push testing forward and give the QA industry vital resources that previously weren’t available.

Josiah Renaudin: Why do you think so many people instantly think an open source product is free? What can we do to change the perception?

Mike Sparks: Most people think that open source tools are free because of how open source is presented: It’s code that’s given away for free. And so from an upfront-cost standpoint, there’s no investment needed to acquire the code. But there’s a hidden cost that most people overlook, and that’s time.

Let’s go back to Selenium. Selenium is an amazing open source tool used by massive corporations. But when you look at what Selenium actually does, it’s not very much. It basically takes some commands and uses them to automate a web browser. What if you want to run more than one test at a time? You’ll need a developer to spend time configuring that for you. What if you want your testers to be able to easily manage and share their tests and results? You’ll need to invest the time and resources to develop that type of collaborative framework since Selenium, out-of-the-box, doesn’t include management.

People will make the argument that the cost of that setup is still less than what you’d be paying for non-open source tools. It really depends. If you’d like to build a tool that has the management layers and sharability of some of the commercial tools available, then the investment that you’re going to end up making to build and support that home-grown solution is most likely going to exceed what you’d pay for the commercial offering. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that until they’ve already made the investment and are in too deep.

Josiah Renaudin: Now, we often hear that most open source tools are used by someone with a development background. Can that trend be bucked? Can people without development experience take advantage of open source tools?

Mike Sparks: At this point, it’s true that using open source tools requires some sort of a technical background, and that’s unlikely to change in the near future. This is mostly because open source tools are created by developers to fill a need that they have. So solutions are optimized for developers.

There’s potential to make open source tools usable by the masses, but it’ll require a mindset shift. When developers look at the bigger picture—namely what the general public is having trouble with—and work together with the end-users to create better solutions, then the results are more likely to be tools that people without development experience can use.

We actually see this happening quite a bit these days, and it’s the reason we created Tellurium. Even though Tellurium is built on top of Selenium, an open source tool, there’s no way a non-developer could have created all of the additional features that we included. But people without a development background can use the tool to solve a problem in their own lives.

In that sense, the trend is being bucked as we speak and everyone is benefiting from open source tools, with or without technical backgrounds.

Josiah Renaudin: What steps need to be taken to make open source tools seem less intimidating to the layman?

Mike Sparks: It comes down to two things: accessibility and education.

As I mentioned earlier, as long as developers are creating open source tools for other developers, then those tools won’t be easily installable or have the “user friendliness” that a layman requires. In order for open source tools to be more accessible, they’ll need to be client-driven rather than individual-driven.

In terms of education, there’s definitely an incomplete understanding among non-developers or laymen about what open source means, and what challenges and opportunities it opens up. Many people think that once you install an open source tool, anyone from anywhere can change what you have. That’s simply not true. This is why resources like StickyMinds and the Test Talk Blog are so important for providing information about new technologies within our industry to people from technical and non-technical backgrounds alike.

Ultimately educating people about open source—how it works, the costs, the benefits—could go a long way towards producing more quality open source applications that anyone could use, regardless of development expertise.

Josiah Renaudin: If you were trying to convince a traditional developer to use an open source tool, what three major benefits would you present?

Mike Sparks: The first is that the problem that you’re trying to solve has most likely been solved before. It’s like building a car. You don’t want to have to go and find a rubber tree, harvest the rubber, process it, and mold it to get your tires. That adds massive overhead. Instead you buy the tires that someone else made and focus on other tasks.

Second is that if someone hasn’t solved your problem before, sharing what you’ve done with the community is a great resume booster.

Third is the support that’s available, whether you open source something you created or you’re using an open source tool. Others are constantly providing good and bad feedback about your tool and often provide enhancements for free. So while you may create something by yourself, the community helps to foster it and help it grow.

Josiah Renaudin: And what additional value propositions does Tellurium, the tool you’ve been working on, offer?

Mike Sparks: Tellurium helps to bridge the gap between free but hard-to-configure open source tools and expensive but non-customizable licensed solutions. It eliminates the need to have two, three, four different tools that a developer has to hack together and maintain. Instead, users have a single web application where they can create, manage, run, and report on their tests and results without needing to install or configure anything.

We also have an open API so that developers can customize it to fit their needs or the needs of their company.

Josiah Renaudin: What about the future of open source tools has you the most excited? Where do you see these products going in the coming years?

Mike Sparks: I think that the most exciting thing about open source tools is their unlimited potential. I was recently listening to an interview with Peter Diamandis, the Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE competition. For those who don’t know, X PRIZE issues challenges and provides the winners with large-cash prizes. The current X PRIZE Learning Challenge involves developing a software platform that will teach children in impoverished nations to read, write, and do math without the assistance of a teacher.

As part of the X PRIZE guidelines, the winning platform will be open sourced. The decision to open source the software means that anyone, from anywhere in the world, can not only use it, but can also build upon it and share what they’ve done. This has the potential to significantly change the way that we educate future generations. Pretty amazing stuff.

Within the testing industry, I see these types of open source tools becoming more common. They have the potential to reach a much wider audience, which means more people using and refining the tools so that they’re ultimately better for us all. When we work together, we all win.

Mike SparksMike Sparks is the CEO of Tellurium, a cloud-based automated testing tool for web apps. He swore he wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and become an engineer, but the problem-solving bug bit him early on in life and it didn’t let go. Mike has been plying his trade in the QA field since the late 2000s, specifically with an eye towards automated testing. When he isn’t “working” he also enjoys coaching and playing soccer, spending time with his wife and kids, and writing for the Test Talk Blog and Testing Experience Magazine.  

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