Why Should I Test Your Sh*t? (The 5-Minute Sniff Test)
If you can’t spend five minutes testing your work, then don’t make me.
I’ve spent 18 years in the software engineering industry, and have been called a programmer, then a developer, and now a software engineer—next is “delivery demon,” mark my words. In that time, I’ve tested my fair share of code. I’ve worked as a part-time tester, tested code I’ve written, ran QA groups, and poked my nose into systems I shouldn’t have.
There are many titles for those who professionally test software. You might be called a Tester, a Quality Assurance Analyst, or an Engineer in Test. You might be creating incredibly advanced automation scripts that produce beautiful reports via SonarQube, or you might be doing fully manual testing. Regardless of your title or approach, you are trying to discover issues before they make it to production, and users discover them.
A Tester is an Engineer’s partner in crime. Just like the editor of a book, you take what others (i.e. Engineers) have written and make it greater. As Steinbeck said of his editor Pat Covici, “He was much more than my friend. He was my editor. Only a writer can understand how a great editor is a father, mother, teacher, personal devil, and personal god. For 30 years Pat was my collaborator and my conscience. He demanded more than I had, and thereby caused me to be more than I should have been without him.”
Testers help Software Engineers go from Good to Great.
Over the years I’ve come to believe two things about testing:
- First, what a tester does is hard. Their task requires the application of precision to a project’s specific requirements, unconventional thinking (box, what box?), channelling the end user, and a holistic/system-level view. Testers do an amazing job and have been critical to my success in releasing awesome software.
- Second, a Tester’s job is made even harder by Software Engineers, because engineers hand over shit code that doesn’t pass what I call the “5-Minute Sniff Test.”
The 5-Minute Sniff Test
As a Software Engineer, you chose a career building great software. You love solving fun and interesting problems using the latest frameworks, the coolest algorithms, and rainbows & unicorns. On a daily basis, “You Crush It!” However, all that screeches to a halt if you have to stumble through the muck of poorly defined (sometimes incomprehensible) requirements just to get to the heart of the problem.
Your progress is delayed, your time is wasted, and you’re pissed off! All of this could have been avoided if the Product Manager had just put a little more care into what they handed you. Doesn’t the PM take pride in their work? Do they even know what they are doing? Garbage in is garbage out.
When it is the Software Engineer’s turn to hand over their work, the code quality determines the efficiency, success, and morale of the person testing. The Tester expects the same level of quality as the Software Engineer expected from the PM. This doesn’t mean your code is bug free—we don’t want to be putting anyone out of a job—but it does mean your code meets a certain level of quality and professionalism.
How do we quantify the quality and professionalism expected? Enter the 5-Minute Sniff Test. Basically, if a someone (Tester, QA, Spouse, or Priest) can find major and obvious bugs in the first five minutes of testing your code, then you didn’t spend enough time testing. You’ve wasted your time, disrespected the Tester’s time, and started to build a reputation for delivering sloppy work (question: do you even know what you’re doing?). You laid a rotten egg that smells bad, everyone knows it is you, and you should be embarrassed. Garbage in is garbage out.
A Lesson from the Front
That “I want to crawl under a rock” feeling
My team and I once built an awesome new feature in our iPad app that was technically challenging and had the coolest design, and I was very proud of the work we did. It rocked and we had crushed it!
With a cheshire cat grin, I presented the app to our CTO of Asia (senior guy with about 10,000 people reporting to him). He started clicking everywhere except where I wanted him to click.
No. Don’t! STOP!
But he just kept clicking. The app crashed, data wouldn’t load, and mayhem ensued. He eventually handed the iPad back to me and grumbled, “This doesn’t look ready.”
He never actually saw the new features we had built. I was devastated, embarrassed, and wanted to crawl under a rock, but I had also learned an important lesson.
Take Care of Your Stuff
Typically I’ll hear software engineers argue that it’s too hard to change their mindset from coding to testing.
That is why we have a testing team, right?
I’m not asking you to walk, rub your tummy, and chew gum at the same time (it is harder than you think). I’m asking you to literally spend five minutes testing what you built and what you should be proudly standing behind.
Just because the city has street cleaners, doesn’t mean you should toss your candy wrapper onto the ground.
Don’t make someone else pick up after you.
We need to do better.
And we can.
How To Perform Your Own 5-Minute Sniff Test
The 5-Minute Sniff Test is the first line of defense against the “I will just hand over anything” mentality.
It means before you hand over your feature, stop, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and for the next 300 seconds, test what you just built.
- Outside the Box – 90 Seconds: Did you step outside of your engineering shoes and test from a user’s perspective? Does the feature look nice and feel right, aside from the requirements? I’ve painted myself into corners arguing a feature is valid because it is “what the requirements asked for.”
- Check Your Unit Tests – 30 Seconds: Do all the unit tests pass, and is there full code coverage? You can’t test everything by hand, so automated unit tests are vital for code quality. The 30 seconds allotted isn’t to create the unit test, but just to verify they pass. You should also consider failing the build if the unit tests don’t pass, which would allow more time for the obvious.
- The Obvious – 190 Seconds: Did you test all the obvious cases? For example, if the pressed button should cause unicorns to dance across the screen, be sure to test if pressing the button actually makes unicorns dance across the screen. Do I get any errors in the logs, do rainbows show even though that isn’t part of the requirements (although it should be, because that would be awesome), and what happens if I double click the button? Review the requirements and make sure everything adds up. For example, did you catch that the total number of seconds listed here equals 310 instead of 300 seconds? Let’s correct “The Obvious” to 180 seconds.
Five minutes is all it takes to make sure you’re not handing over shit. If all else fails, grab a colleague and ask them to sniff around.
In his book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell relates the story of interviewers making snap judgements about the quality of a candidate within the first five seconds of meeting. The interviewer continues to subconsciously reinforce their initial impression by subjectively weighing the candidate’s answers towards their bias.
In other words, your first impression is your last impression. I don’t believe I ever fully recovered my reputation with the CTO of Asia after that bad first impression.
Performing the 5-Minute Sniff Test to check your shit takes very little time, but it can be of tremendous benefit to you, your colleagues, and your company:
- It helps you build a Reputation for excellence and quality,
- It Respects your partner in crime, the Tester, and
- It is more Efficient with everyone’s time.
When everything looks and feels right after the 5-Minute Sniff Test, go ahead and hand off the feature you are proud of and can stand behind. You’ll have a thankful Tester, and have built yourself a reputation as an awesome engineer.
Speaking of reputation, you can get tips on progressing your career from our Simple Programmer course: How to Market Yourself as a Software Developer.