Test Automation in Agile

Although both agile development and automated testing have more or less independently come into more widespread use with each passing year, it seems they were made for each other from the start. The advantages of both are derived from the same desire to increase software production efficiency overall.

Both work best when there is a high degree of collaboration between development and testing although they offer significant benefits to all project stakeholders. You often see a high usage of each approach wherever organizations are growing their continuous integration and continuous delivery capabilities.

Test Automation in Agile versus Traditional Waterfall

There certainly is no reason that teams employing waterfall methods cannot take advantage of test automation too. Typically, however, automation tends to be of lower priority in those scenarios due to the ingrained “throw it over the wall” mentality. Such a back-end loaded scenario is unfortunate because automation, especially test-driven coding, can be used quite effectively during development phases.

In agile, however, the questionable “luxury” of developers shedding testing responsibility is simply anathema to a process of two week scrums in which planning, designing, coding, testing and deployment all happen nearly at once. Without thorough development and testing automation, the productivity and quality of agile cycles would consistently fail to meet project goals.

When Automating Tests, Choose Wisely

Despite the brevity of agile development cycles, there can exist a tendency to over-automate testing. This is where careful planning and in-cycle flexibility are both necessary. Tests will naturally be categorized as to their type, whether that be functional, white box, black box, performance and so on. Within categories, however, individual test tasks need to be sorted by how likely they are to be reused repeatedly in order to optimize automation.

Any test that will be repeated more than twice, especially if it appears it will carry over to the next scrum, is a prime candidate for automation. That pretty much eliminates automation of exploratory testing and perhaps some boundary testing if the boundaries are still in flux and are not easily parameterized. On the other hand, even one-off tests might be amenable to automation in the sense that they are ongoing placeholders within an automation framework test suite for future software revisions.

Avoid Automating for Automation’s Sake

With more sophisticated test automation tools and frameworks, it is uncannily easy to become lost in the forest without seeing the trees. This is especially true of homegrown test frameworks, where the framework development effort might rival that of the applications it is meant to test. It pays at all times to bear in mind that meaningful, reusable tests must be the top priority.

An additional potential trap is not paying enough attention to the ebb and flow of value within your test suites. They naturally become cluttered with marginally valuable test scripts that may have lost relevance and eat up undue cycles of execution time. That is why it is important to set clear criteria for what does and does not get automated plus regular reviews of the test code base.

Staying One Step Ahead

Due to the rapid pace of agile development, anything to gain a leg up will pay dividends. Crisp, detailed planning is one key to getting ahead of the game, but in addition you should implement testing and its automation as early in the development cycle as possible.

The use of pair programming with one developer and one tester simultaneously working on the same code is an innovative practice in this regard. It is especially effective when combined with test-driven development in which the tester first writes the unit tests based on the specification and the developer follows with application code that turns each test “green.”

Actually, the underlying concept of first creating acceptance criteria as test code and then programming the software to make that test succeed can be applied at most points throughout the development cycle. These “live” requirements should be captured in an automated test environment that can be accessed and run by all stakeholders in the project to further increase collaboration.


Test automation is a key tool in agile development project success. As development organizations naturally evolve their entire production team from agile development to continuous integration and continuous deployment, the use of build and test automation becomes ever more critical.

Test automation in an agile development environment, however, has to be finely tuned to a greater degree than when employed in waterfall environments. Precise planning, a shift-left of testing responsibilities, keen maintenance policies and a sharp weather eye for when and when not to use automation are the most important elements for extracting the highest value from test automation.