Computing Applications

The Goal of Software Testing


You gather up your team of testers. You throw them some money. You give them on a schedule. And then you sit back and watch them go, tearing through your product trying to break it. They find bugs, report them, find more bugs, report those too. Soon enough they'll leave you with the perfect product ready to ship without any worries and total customer satisfaction. Right? Wrong.

In The Art of Software Testing (2011), Dr. Glenford Myers explains that "testing is the process of executing a program with the intent of finding errors." Testing fails because the intentions behind the task are very often misplaced. Finding errors is not the same strategy as making sure that a product works. Instead of focusing on whether the product functions under parameters, the main focus of a testing team must center on discovering bugs. This "destructive, even sadistic, process," as Dr. Myer's calls it, focuses on breaking the product, looking for various inputs to crash under stress.

However, most testers feel like they're helping ensure the product's success when, in fact, they're missing that component altogether. Dr. Myers notes this misguided focus stating, "You cannot test a program to guarantee that it is error free." Software by nature has an unlimited number of bugs. Boris Beizer said in Software Testing Techniques (1995): "The probability of showing that the software works decreases as testing increases; that is, the more you test, the likelier you are to find a bug. Therefore, if your objective is to demonstrate a high probability of working, that objective is best achieved by not testing at all!" Most testers fail to understand this. They tend to see it as a neatly packaged product that only needs a bit of polishing to run smooth.

The real number can be limitless. No matter how big or small, simple or complex, old or new a product is, the potential for bugs is astronomical. Dr. Myers underscores this arguing that "it is impractical, often impossible, to find all the errors in a program." Even with limitless time and funding, testers cannot find all the bugs. Bill Hetzel in his book The Complete Guide to Software Testing (1993) said that "we cannot achieve 100% confidence no matter how much time and energy we put into it!" William E. Lewis in his book Software Testing and Continuous Quality Improvement (2009) even calls this a "testing paradox," which has "two underlying and contradictory objectives: to give confidence that the product is working well and to uncover errors in the software product before its delivery to the customer." And if this is the case, then what do you do?

There has to be a certain point where testers stop looking for bugs. Dr. Meyers points out that "one of the most difficult questions to answer when testing a program is determining when to stop since there is no way of knowing if the error just detected is the last remaining error." Finding bugs motivates testers, and they'll keep looking for them. At some point, you have to launch the product. But what happens though if you launch a product before you find all the bugs? If you do that, then won't you launch it with bugs? Yes!

Despite all that work, all that money, all that effort, you still launched a program riddled with bugs. It seems rather pointless. Your product is out there flawed. Filled with bugs. But you have to ask yourselves, how many critical bugs remain? You could have provided your team more time to complete the impossible task of finding all the bugs, but would they have found more critical bugs?

It's better to launch a product that you have confidence in than waste time and resources trying to make it perfect. Quality control will always find itself pressed hard against the deadline, but there are solutions you can take to make sure testing benefits the product. Instead of allowing testers endless time to find errors as they tear apart the programming, give your testers a goal. Dr. Meyers notes that "since the goal of testing is to find errors, why not make the completion criterion the detection of some predefined number of errors?" This enforces the need to find bugs, but limits the total amount and draws focus towards critical bugs rather than general ones.

Once testers pass that marker, you then have clear confidence that the product will successfully launch. "Software is released for use, not when it is known to be correct," David West in Object Thinking (2004) points out, "but when the rate of discovering errors slows down to one that management considers acceptable." At some point, there needs to be a line, a limit, a goal. If your testers lack a goal, then they end up wasting time and money finding bugs that most likely don't improve the overall quality of the product. Steve McConnell in the Software Project Survival Guide (1998) even suggests that "by comparing the number of new defects to the number of defects resolved each week, you can determine how close the project is to completion."

By setting a definite limit for the testers, you guide their targeted approach to product testing with a pre-determined goal. This goal helps testers rid the program of enough bugs for it to run smoothly after launch. If you don't do that, you could end up spending unnecessary time and money finding and removing bugs that may not even be a problem. I briefly described this concept in my blog post When Do You Stop Testing? (2015).

Yegor Bugayenko is founder and CEO of software engineering and management platform Zerocracy.

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