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Building the Automated Testing Culture

Sean Calarco

Director of Engineering at Reddit

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Problem

As we were rapidly growing, it became increasingly hard to work with the codebase because of a lack of automated tests. The problem was that most of the engineers didn't understand the value of automated testing and were resistant to the change. They hadn't seen it before in practice and it took significant effort to buy them into it and build a culture that would support that practice.

Actions taken

To start with, I developed a visible measurement of where we were by creating a page that would display for each team the number of tests that were being written every sprint and setting a target of having 50 percent of our commits accompanied by automated testing. This would make things more visible and get people thinking about the problem.

We also celebrated people that were writing the automated tests. In all-hands, we would praise and talk about systems and teams that had been doing well in terms of having automated tests. I identified a testing champion on one of my teams who didn't need any convincing at all and embraced the testing unquestionably. Their advocacy on the ground was persuasive and they were able to show the value to their peers in real-time. Our testing champion came up with another thing that I ended up incorporating into my all-hands -- the test of the week contest.

We would have engineers submit their automated tests and then before a meeting, everybody would vote for their favorite one based on a handful of criteria. I would announce the winner in all-hands and they would be rewarded with $10. In addition, anytime I saw an opportunity to showcase a concrete benefit of testing, I would communicate it broadly. For example, “This test prevented us from having a massive outage” or “This test showed us right away where we were missing key acceptance criteria.” I would send out an email or announce it at all-hands explaining how things could blow up if our automated tests hadn’t caught it before it reached production or before we left for the weekend.

Over the course of about a year, we continued with celebrating small wins and acknowledging our champions’ effort. By the end of the year, almost every change that went out was accompanied by automated tests. It became a habituated practice that engineers didn't question anymore. Product managers also understood the value and weren't pushing back against us. Through all of those things, we were able to change the culture and have the team genuinely buy into automated tests.

Lessons learned

  • When you are trying to change your culture, it is vital to celebrate positive momentum. Celebrate broadly anything that aligns with the change that you're trying to make.
  • Finding a champion or champions on your team that would buy into the vision could help efficiently advocate for the change.
  • Try to show the value wherever possible. People should buy into it for the intrinsic value, not just because they're being asked to or being rewarded for it.

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Sean Calarco

Director of Engineering at Reddit


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