Alpha, Beta and gods willing, Omega

Posted on Posted in Everything, Software Testing

Jeff Atwood recently wrote a post about phases of software development/release. He wondered where the terms come from and why we rarely use ‘gamma’ – I wondered if these terms actually have any relevance to what actually goes on in software development anymore.

To me, these terms are used to broadly group stages of software stability as simplifiers to people who don’t necessarily understand the finer details of software development (or don’t particularly want to). These labels seem to equate these days to marketing wank for shops that still do big design up front. It’s easier to say ‘we’re at alpha release’ than saying ‘we’re two-thirds feature complete with no current showstoppers, have a bug trendline that indicates a find-rate approaching zero and we’re satisfied that testing to date has adequately mitigated the risks identified so far’.

My issue with these terms is that they oversimplify a process that should be viewed as difficult. Alpha/Beta/Gamma (or whatever other pre-release signifiers you like) imply a linear, production-line progression of software. Anyone that has worked on any project of significance knows that the development of software is anything but. I worry that this oversimplification helps tie us in to a flawed mental model that invites us to fail over and over again.

There is no guarantee that half way through ‘beta testing’ your testing team won’t find a showstopper that requires you to go back to pre-alpha. How well does your ‘A->B->Ship it’ model stack up then? It seems that because we have this simplified mental model of development, decision makers think that a) we can reliably estimate up-front the time and budget required to put together complex systems and b) when, close to completion neither of these estimates prove even remotely accurate, makes them insist on kludging their way through so that the immutable ship date can be met.

The problem with this mental model is that while it probably works well for automatons that churn out identical widgets time and again, software development is not that. Software development is about human beings turning out solutions to difficult problems in a non-uniform manner. Human beings each with their own individual strengths, weaknesses, passions, neuroses and everything else that makes us human. The fact that these people are not producing identical widgets day in, day out means that the production line model is entirely inappropriate, as is the model of big design (and estimation) up front.

This is a can of worms that you could (and some have) write a book about. Entwined with development is software testing. Another very challenging craft done by humans. Testing is an oft-misunderstood profession. The alpha/beta/ship it model doesn’t help. I worry that this model locks people into thinking that testing is something that happens once the developers have finished doing what they do, at which point the testers are left to find whatever bugs they are able to in between that point and the shipping date.

Then, depending on the nature of the project and the people they’re working with, they’re possibly blamed for finding too many bugs, or flaws that, if properly fixed, would extend the length of the project well beyond the date where the PM gets his nice fat bonus for bringing this thing in on time. The PM shoots the messenger because what other choice is there at that point?

This is a stupid way to make software. This is a stupid way to think about making software.

Scrum appears to be intended to make transparent the human issues that crop up in software development and it sounds great in theory, but I wonder how many software shops are prepared to invest in the up-front discomfort of changing over and are prepared to have (on a daily basis) the open, honest and frank dialogue necessary for a framework like that to work. My guess is not many. This is perhaps a subject for another post.

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