Leadership Role in Adding Test Automation to Existing Environments

Leadership is the foundation for all agility. I’ve written elsewhere extensively on a model that works well for the new environment in which we find ourselves: the need for tens or hundreds of very smart people, doing things that have never been done before with new tools, working with people they may not be familiar with.  These creative, expert people make dozens of decisions a day that few others see in real-time, turning ideas into code that must run flawlessly and execute complex business processes. Quite a leadership challenge.

The leadership model I’ve articulated is simple. Leaders at all levels should focus on rigor (good decisions based on options and data), alignment (everyone rowing in same direction) and efficiency (respecting everyone’s valuable time). Getting the right people, with the right skills and the right kinds of interactions, is more valuable than having the right process and tools.

For software agility, we know reducing the friction between development and productive use is a powerful leverage point. This general area we now call DevOps. Coming from the application space as I do, my primary focus has been on test automation. How can we at very low cost continually ensure that our evolving software is ready to be deployed to production (or production staging, if we are doing periodic bundled software deploys)?

I’ve recently watched a team introduce test automation into an existing application environment. Great leadership was demonstrated throughout by multiple team members. Let’s examine the steps taken and point out the leadership that made it happen.

Set the Target

Team and organizational leaders laid out a clear vision of the business benefits and their support for the initiative. This was the culmination of several months of learning, communication and cost/benefit analysis. Leaders gained alignment based on rigorous analysis.

Ensure Adequate Leadership and Technical Skills Are in Place

In the run up to the inception of the work, leaders hired an experienced testing leader, who in turn hired a couple engineers to do the work. Because the environment was a common one in the industry (Salesforce was a big part of it), the leaders sought the best expertise they could find, and wound up engaging an external specialist firm to get them going. People over process.

Define the Technical Architecture

The new team leveraged the knowledge of the consultants and some of their engineering partners to examine options and select an approach. They shared the options and analysis with their team and leaders and gained consensus and understanding. In the process the approach was fine-tuned. The team demonstrated rigor and efficiency and gained alignment. One key of their success was the “towering technical expertise,” a lean product development term, brought by the consultants.

Deliver Incrementally

For this item, I will describe the solution chosen, since the specifics will be of interest to this audience. The vision was to train the product owner/systems analysts to write acceptance criteria for each user story (which was the unit of development here) in the stylized language Gherkin. As the development was done during a sprint period, the test team would take the Gherkin and write automated tests for the test tool Cucumber, which would drive execution in Selenium. The execution would be automatically connected to the deployment of new code using Jenkins.

The team wanted to avoid disrupting the existing flow until the risk was reduced based on proven results. Accordingly, they began by building automation for existing software, proving that the vision worked in practice, and gradually completed the regression suite and started to catch up to work in process that hadn’t been released. Excellent leadership for agility was demonstrated again, driving rigor through proof of the concept and laying the groundwork to get the rest of the team aligned.

Get the Rest of the Team to Change

Once the test team caught up to being able to do in-sprint automation, they needed to tackle the training and acceptance of a new way of writing acceptance tests (in Gherkin). The great results they demonstrated helped influence the product owners and systems analysts to give it a try.

Continuously Improve

As the creative period of designing the test automation approach and getting into production came to an end, a new period of measurement and continuous improvement began. Here we have another foundational element of leadership for agility: understanding where we have repeatable flows where process really is the key, and where we have a creative endeavor in which the focus on people and interactions must rule. In a sense, the team transitioned from a product development effort to a manufacturing-like flow, and they accordingly changed their approach.


Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that getting to efficient DevOps is all about tools and processes. My experience is that to the contrary, leadership is the key. As the first value of the 2001 Manifesto for Agile Software Development states, “People and interactions over process and tools.”

Michael K. Levine

Michael K. Levine

Michael K. Levine is an expert on lean and agile software development and information technology. He conducted international trade negotiation at the US Commerce Department, was a corporate banker for First Bank System and became divisional CIO at Norwest Bank. After a stint at Wells Fargo he joined US Bank to deploy a new branch banking system (bringing lean and agile to a highly structured waterfall environment), then became technology lead for US Bank Home Mortgage. He now leads all consumer lending and business banking technology. His previous books are "Tale of Two Systems: Lean and Agile Software Development for Business Leaders" and "Tale of Two Transformations: Bringing Lean and Agile Software Development to Life." His third book is "People Over Process: Leadership for Agility."

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