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Software QA in the time of Coronavirus

What’s changed for software testers in the last few months? Beyond the need to set up a home office, that is.

When the COVID-19 coronavirus led to stay-at-home orders in the U.S., nearly every industry was affected, but Software QA teams have been impacted more than many.

At first glance, you wouldn’t think that the work-from-home orders issued by most of the state governors in the U.S. would have much of an impact on QA testing. After all, testers can use their computers at home and continue their work. But, of course, there’s more to it than that.

We typically had 10 to 20 percent of the people working from home at any time” before COVID-19 became a factor, says Vishal Gupta, CTO of Unisys. After the lockdown, “We were able to turn in a week and a half from 10% remote to 95% remote from software development perspective and a testing perspective,” Gupta says.

Making the change from working in the office to working at home was a significant effort for Unisys, but such adjustments have been necessary for companies of every size, from tiny firms to those with a global presence. Perhaps especially for the latter. As COVID-19 became a pandemic, it was clear that its response needed to be global, so Unisys started moving its employees home. But the move was complex and challenging.

Employees may not have computers at home, and depending on their geographical region they may lack fast internet connections. Even when an employee might have a computer, it may not be suitable for software development or QA. And getting an internet connection fast enough to be useful can be problematic.

The working-from-home change

Even more complex is the social dynamic that, in the perception of large organizations, aids collaboration and builds teamwork. “When you’re in an office together, you can walk over to the next person and talk to them,” Gupta explains. Now employees are using the enterprise version of Zoom, where Unisys has its own rooms and channels.

“The silver lining of this pandemic is that so many businesses are allowing work from home,” says Lisa Crispin, co-author of Agile Testing Condensed and cofounder of the Agile Testing Fellowship. “It takes more effort, but I hope they realize that it can work.”

It can be a little difficult for home-based workers to integrate with an existing team, Crispin says, but now that everyone is working at home, those issues are less of a problem. “It forces more proactive communications. That forces everybody to be in the loop,” she said.

At Unisys, managers are working deliberately to help the social dynamic fit into the work-from-home environment. “We’ve instituted virtual lunches,” Gupta explains. “They are hosted once a week with no agenda. The team can come together and talk about issues and find solutions to common problems.”

But a number of factors must be considered when making QA work remotely, whether from home or elsewhere, warns John MacMenamin, user experience director for Block.one.

“We are literally all in a form of isolation right now,” MacMenamin says. “That lack of the co-located human element needs to be compensated for in some way if your culture is to remain healthy within a software team. Whether you are in a shelter-in-place region or not, we are all sharing a goal to social distance and defeat this common enemy. Providing one-to-one feedback sessions and end-of-week virtual happy hours helps in a small way to supplement this missing factor.”

Don’t take connectivity for granted

But before any of that can work, there must be connectivity at home. For U.S.-based companies, the internet is holding up well. However, in companies with global reach, as is the case with Unisys, managers need to make sure that the employees at home can still collaborate. Gupta says that this could mean arranging for some form of high-speed internet for employees that didn’t have it, helping them set up adequate home networks, or even providing hardware to those that need it.

“We had about 20 to 25 cases where we had a problem. We made a list of what the choices were; then shipped them wireless internet [radios] if that’s what they needed,” Gupta says.

Oleg Donets, RealEstateBees founder, faced a similar challenge helping his development staff work from home. “The people are pretty accepting,” he says, noting that it required some compromises on the part of the company. “Some of them took computers from the office.”

Are home offices and tools secure enough?

One advantage of sending techies into a home office is that they aren’t bewildered by technology. Most can cope with collaboration tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and they probably can access the existing development environment without a call to technical support.

“Thankfully we have talented IT and network engineers who quickly were able to provide a solution,” Donets says. “They set up a virtual environment on Microsoft Cloud infrastructure in which every QA engineer can securely login and access our central system right from their home computer.”

Security may be a significant problem for most home offices. However, a commercial-grade VPN generally can handle the remote access requirements, using a VPN gateway into the company network. Some IT departments may need to scurry to add licenses and adequate capacity for the number of users working from home.

Questions have been raised about Zoom’s privacy policies (which the company has hastened to address). These are less of an issue for larger companies, however. “The Zoom enterprise edition has better security,” says Gupta. “The key is to use passwords.” Even if someone gets the address of a Zoom session, they still can’t get into it.  “The enterprise edition has stronger encryption,” he adds.

Gupta noted that Unisys has another weapon in its security arsenal, a product called Always On Access which uses the company’s hyper-secure Stealth micro segmentation technology. So those Zoom sessions can be protected using AOA and Stealth.

Can developers and testers use the test environment remotely?

Accessing the test environment adds another complication for QA at home. The choices boil down to accessing the test environment remotely, either through an on-premises server or through a test environment running in a cloud service. Fortunately, the move to cloud-based development and test environments has made this less of an issue for most software teams.

“Cloud services make it easier,” Crispin says. “In pre-cloud days we were so limited in terms of test environments. Now you can stand up the test environment you need in the cloud when you need it.”

“All our tools we use every day for software testing are cloud based, user friendly, and collaborative,” says MacMenamin. “As for SaaS startups, they must be thinking very hard about how remote work compatibility will play into their features and how businesses will choose vendors in the future.”

There are exceptions, of course. For test environments that are machine specific, it may require bringing a device home for testing or it may mean an occasional trip to the office, if local laws allow that.

The long-term cultural changes… are too early to tell

So far, the unexpected requirement for software teams to work from home seems to be working out pretty well. But it is not yet clear if companies will send staff back to their offices once the coronavirus restrictions are gone. Everything depends on the nature of the work that the developers and QA staff do, the company culture, and the security requirements of the work involved.

You may have a hard time getting the testers and developers to move back into the office. Many of them are absolutely comfortable working remotely.

“This virtual environment has proved its viability and effectiveness so far,” Donets says. “It allows our QA team to continue their testing processes going without any interruption while at the same time, it provides management a complete control over every employee.”

“If this continues functioning the way it does, we even started considering moving our QA team to a permanent ‘work from home’ basis,” Donets says, “which will bring significant savings in office expenses in the long run.”

Wherever your QA team is working, more than ever you need to operate efficiently. This white paper can get you started by reviewing common software tests, their evolution, and how automation can help.

Wayne Rash

by Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is based in Washington and has been writing about science and technology for nearly 40 years. He is a contributor to Forbes.com and a columnist for eWEEK. He is a frequent speaker on technology and has been a guest on NPR, NBC, PBS, CNN and Fox News.