The End of a Bug’s Life

I recently wrote an article describing five best practices that will increase the odds of your bugs getting fixed. If you were killing time at work, you might have read it. One  practice I suggested was closing your Resolved bugs as early as possible. Although I follow this practice now, I didn’t always do so.

Not long after I became a Microsoft SDET, I was assigned to a project that was approaching its release date. Two weeks before our deadline, it looked like we were in trouble. (I’ve since learned it always looks like you’re in trouble two weeks before a deadline.) There were a lot of bugs that had been Resolved by Dev, but not validated and Closed by Test.

A couple of days before our deadline, the Program Manager emailed the team a status update. We were making great progress, and there were only a few bugs left to Resolve and Close. The email had a chart that looked like this:

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The graph showed we went from over 300 Resolved, but un-tested, bugs to almost zero in two weeks. How did we do this? A lot of long days. Working over the weekend. Meals at the office. Little sleep. Lots of stress. As good teams do, we rallied together to meet our deadline. It felt good.

It felt good until our next deadline, when we repeated this cycle all over again.

I’ve since learned there’s a simple solution to avoid the stress that comes with validating so many bug fixes just before a deadline: don’t wait until the last-minute to close your bugs!

Closing your bugs should be part of your weekly routine, not something you do in batch before a deadline. This approach has six advantages.

  1. You won’t have to work long hours to close bugs at your deadline.
  2. You’ll never be tempted to cut corners to close bugs at your deadline.
  3. Bugs are easier to close when they’re fresh in your mind; if you wait too long, you’ll have to re-learn them.
  4. If you find a problem with the bug fix, it gives the developer more time to resolve it.
  5. If you have to re-open the bug because it still doesn’t work, it won’t be rejected because the “bug bar” has been raised.
  6. When a bug isn’t closed, it’s not known whether it’s fixed or not, or whether the fix breaks something else. The more Resolved bugs you have, the less you know about the real state of your software.

Since there are so many advantages to closing your bugs in realtime, rather than in batch, why don’t more testers do it? Let’s create another list.

  1. It’s not very interesting to close your bugs. After automating a test, finding the bug, and investigating the root cause, all the interesting work is done. Verifying the fix is either a matter of running an automated test, or manually testing the feature again; neither of which are favorite pastimes of most testers.
  2. Although many organizations encourage the timely resolution of bugs, few encourage the timely closing of bugs.  I’ve worked on many teams that had guidelines on how quickly bugs must be Resolved, such as P0 bugs within 24 hours, P1 bugs within a week, and P2 within the current milestone. However, there were rarely similar guidelines for testers to verify and Close these bugs. It seems reasonable that testers should be held to  the same standards as developers, and have to close P0 bugs with 24 hours of them being Resolved. One way I’ve seen teams encourage the Closing of bugs is by having a “bug jail”. Once a tester or team exceeds a pre-defined number of Resolved bugs, they have to close these bugs before moving on to other tasks.
  3. Some testers work on teams that reward employees based on the number of bugs they find. What effect does this have on testers? It encourages the finding of bugs, not the Closing of them. If anything, testers should be rewarded based on the number of bugs fixed and closed, which would at least encourage the resolution of quality bugs.
  4. Sometimes testers don’t Close their bugs in a timely manner because they’re disorganized. Most testers have a hectic schedule, and it can be hard to keep track of which bugs you need to Close. Fortunately, Microsoft testers have access to a tool called Bugger. Bugger docks on your desktop, queries the bug database, and displays the number of bugs assigned to you. Clicking on Bugger shows the details. With Bugger docked on your desktop, it’s almost impossible to forget which bugs are assigned to you.

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If you work at Microsoft, install Bugger and avoid some of the stress that comes at project deadlines. If you don’t work at Microsoft, consider writing your own version of this tool. Your manager and co-workers will appreciate it.

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How to Get Your Bugs Fixed

Fixing a bug.

One of the worst kept secrets in Test is that all released software contains bugs. Some bugs are never found by the Test team; others are found, but the cost of fixing them is too high. To release good quality software, then, you not only have to be proficient at finding bugs, but you also have to be proficient at getting them fixed. Unfortunately some testers are good at the former, but not the latter.

A project I worked on a couple of years ago illustrates the point. We were working hard to resolve our large backlog of active bugs as the release deadline approached. Just before our deadline, I received an email declaring that we were successful, and our backlog had been resolved. This meant every bug had either been fixed, postponed, marked as a duplicate, etc. Congratulations were seemingly in order–until I looked more closely at the chart included in the email, which looked like this:

How we resolved our backlog of active bugs.

I noticed the size of the green Fixed wedge was rather small. The chart represented 150 bugs, so only 4 or 5 were fixed. I wondered why it wasn’t more. Perhaps many of those logged “bugs” weren’t product bugs at all. This turned out not to be the case, however, as the small size of the Not Repro, By Design, and Duplicate wedges tell us.

Now look at the size of the Postponed and Won’t Fix wedges; they make up almost the entire pie! It turned out that although most of the bugs were “real”, they were too trivial to fix that late in the development cycle. For example, there were misaligned UI buttons and misspellings in the product documentation.

I agreed we made the right decision by not fixing these bugs. However, each legitimate bug that was reported, but not fixed, suggests that some amount of test effort didn’t affect the released product.

It takes a lot of effort to log a bug! You have to set up the test environment, learn the product, find the bug, check if it was already logged, investigate the root cause, and file the bug. Let’s be pretentious and call this effort E. Since we had 150 bugs, we had:

150 * E = 5 bugs fixed

In a perfect world, this would be:

150 * E = 150 bugs fixed

I’m not saying that our test effort wasn’t valuable. If the Fixed wedge contained just one security flaw, it would easily justify our work. It did, however, seem as if the ratio of test-effort to bugs-fixed was less than ideal.

Some testers might blame this low ratio on the program manager who rejected their bugs. Others might blame it on the developers who either caused the bugs or never got around to fixing them. These are excuses.

Testers should take responsibility for their own bugs-logged to bugs-fixed ratio. If you think one of your bugs should be fixed, it’s up to you to make sure this happens. You’ll probably never get to the point where every one of your bugs has a positive impact on the product, but here are five “best practices” we can follow to improve our odds.

Account for Bugs in the Schedule

All software contains bugs. Your Test schedule should account for the time it’ll take to find and investigate these bugs. Similarly, the Dev schedule should account for the time it’ll take to fix them. If you don’t see this time in the Dev and Test schedules, kindly call it out.

Start Testing as Soon as Possible

The earlier your report a bug, the better chance it’ll be fixed. Not only will Dev have more time to fix your bugs, but it’s also less likely they’ll be rejected because the “bug bar” is too high. A common mistake is waiting until the end of the release cycle to schedule your bug bashes or performance testing. If you schedule these activities close to the release date, you’ll end up logging a bunch of bugs that never get fixed.

Log Detailed Bugs

When you log a bug, make sure you include all the information necessary to reproduce the issue. This should include repro steps, environment information, screenshots, videos, or anything else that may help. Be sure you also describe the customer impact as detailed as possible; this is often the biggest factor in the decision about whether to fix or defer the bug. For example, detailing real exploits for security bugs, instead of hypotheticals, can help push for fixes. Finally, use reasonable spelling, grammar, and punctuation; it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be understandable by the triage team. Poorly filed bugs are often resolved as Not Repro, Won’t Fix, or Postponed because the triage team doesn’t understand the true impact of the issue.

Close Your Resolved Bugs as Soon as Possible

Although testers love finding bugs, they don’t like verifying bug fixes. Some testers consistently keep a large backlog of resolved bugs, and have to be “asked” by management to close them as the release date approaches. Their theory is that it’s better to spend time finding new bugs than closing old ones. The problem is that by the time they get around to verifying the bug fix, it’s often too late to do anything if the fix didn’t work.

Push Back on Bugs You Feel Strongly About

If you believe a bug should be fixed, don’t be afraid to fight for it. Don’t put the blame on the triage team that closed your bug as Won’t Fix or Postponed. Take ownership of the issue and present your case. If you can successfully push the bug through, both you and the customer win. But even if you can’t push it through, you’ll be respected for fighting for what you believe in and being an advocate for the customer. (Just be smart about which battles you pick!)

If you have other best practices that improve the odds of your bugs being fixed, please share them below. I would love to hear them.

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