January 28, 2021
Shift Left Benefits in Software Development
Identifying and fixing defects early in the software development lifecycle unlocks some game-changing benefits. This includes cost-savings, faster deployments, and just an all-around better end-product.
Shift left testing plays a key role in helping organizations reap those benefits by detecting errors early in the software development process—well before there are any obvious problems.
Below, we’ll explore the benefits of testing earlier and involving testers/QA in the entire process.
What is Shift Left Testing?
The term “shifting left” is a response to Waterfall’s linear development model, which moves from left to right, one step at a time—and never looks back.
In essence, shift left testing operates under this idea that prevention is the best medicine. Testing early and often means development teams and stakeholders always know where things stand at any given moment.
By introducing QA early in the software development process, the shift left approach allows you to uncover as many issues as possible as soon as possible; it injects testing into the entire development process. This enables informed decision-making throughout the development cycle, more control over spending, and the ability to improve the quality of products delivered to end-consumers.
Shift left isn’t exactly new. The concept dates back to the 1950s and was designed for a much different technological landscape than what we’re working with in the 2020s. Yet, it remains relevant—essential, even—for modern development teams—with a few adjustments, of course.
The reason it still works after all these years is that Shift Left is ultimately about designing teams, organizing workflows, and optimizing whatever resources you’ve got, rather than the specific tools you use to get results.
It means a tighter collaboration between coding and validation as well as the elimination of coding and testing silos.
In an Agile or DevOps environment, shifting left involves testing small components of the software as early as possible rather than waiting until the end of the sprint. It’s important to note that shift left testing doesn’t just mean moving testing closer to the beginning of the release cycle. Rather, it brings testing into every step of every iteration and relies on automation to ensure speed and accuracy throughout the process.
While some testing may still happen at the end of the process, it’s much faster because you’ve already identified and resolved problems during earlier sprints.
According to 3Pillar’s Angel Almada, “exposing QA to early stages of product definition allows testers to have an impact on acceptance criteria definitions, implement ATDD/TDD and play an important role in creating a product.”
He adds that “modern technologies enable continuous testing within the CI/CD umbrella, connecting to the automation framework to trigger automated responses or actions for failed test cases in both, the branching strategy/pipeline definition, and bugs creation for further corrective actions—and even better, some auto repair actions.”
Shift Left Testing Benefits
We asked 3Pillar experts what they thought were the biggest benefits of shift left testing. Here’s what they said:
Enables a proactive approach to testing. According to Angel Moreno, “prevention is key. As we introduce the testing phase earlier in the project, benefits start to show. You’re saving time, increasing development speed, getting to market faster, and it’s easier to properly handle internal resources.”
Streamlines workflows. Rodolfo Carmona says, “with companies moving towards CI/CD, shifting testing left isn’t optional. It already needs to be part of the process to constantly release code.”
Octavio Islas says, “while shifting left is hard to implement, it gives testing teams that extra time to go deeper into a product, work on business cases, penetration testing, performance testing, implement smarter testing solutions, and so on.”
Cesar Galindo adds, “shifting left offers the advantage of identifying bugs sooner. With more time to fix them, the development process becomes more efficient. It makes it easier to submit deliverables on time.”
Henry Martinez points out that shifting left can also make it easier to streamline certain aspects of the development process. For example, “testing earlier supports stronger unity between business requirements and QA scripts. Often, this motivates teams to automate more test scripts as part of the requirements gathering process.”
Improves code quality. Per Abel Gonzalez Garcia, “shifting left allows teams to reduce the number of bugs as well to improve the code of the software. Also, bugs found earlier in the process are easier and cheaper to fix.”
Unlocks cost-savings. Shift left testing prevents a lot of the waste and harm that can happen when quality testing is introduced late in the game. Francisco Carvajal explains, “finding defects earlier makes them cheaper to fix. It’s cheaper to correct the position of a wall on the blueprint than once it has been laid out.”
Shifting Left and its Impact on QA
Traditionally, QA testing happens after developers finish writing the code, right before the product moves into production. In other words, testing served as a final product inspection before hitting the market.
It’s also not uncommon to see Agile teams follow this approach, though teams are increasingly being asked to move faster and improve quality with each subsequent sprint. At the same time, they’re also under increased pressure to cut testing costs—all without sacrificing quality or speed.
Organizations are coping by bringing several testers into the process—with different skill sets—as soon as it kicks off. Human testers are now involved in a collaborative process with developers, engineers, operations, etc., and embracing automation—which is replacing some roles while changing and augmenting others.
It’s important to note that automation plays a critical role in unlocking the benefits of shift left testing for key reasons.
3Pillar’s Jorge Gaona explains, “anytime you deploy an application manually—regardless of environment—that process is prone to human error most of the time. It’s not a matter of “if it happens,” but “when.” I’ve seen many problems in deployments caused by a missing configuration or a step that someone forgot to perform. While having a well-defined and documented process, automation makes it much safer to do this work, especially when we are moving to one deployment every quarter to multiple deployments within a day, week, or month.”
Automated testing also enables a two-shift distributed team work paradigm wherein one team is coding in one timezone, checks it all in, and the “second shift” (using automated testing) works at night with oversight from another small off-shore team.
That said, in order for automation to streamline the testing process, you’ll need to define and document quality standards and implement proper controls at each stage in the development lifecycle. This will ensure that developers, testers, and anyone else involved in the process stick to QA standards and avoid automating bad habits. It also allows you to quickly identify instances of noncompliance and take corrective action before a serious issue develops.
Shift Left Testing Requires a Cultural Shift
Culture is huge, here. Don’t do anything else until you’ve established an internal culture capable of supporting shift left testing—otherwise, the whole strategy falls apart.
3Pillar’s Jorge Gaona says, shift left can be challenging “because it’s a cultural change. It involves moving validation tasks (testing, security, etc.) left in the chain. Developers and project managers need to be aware of those tasks and actively work on them, not simply let them fall on the next person downstream as we’ve seen historically.”
Miguel Campuzano adds that shifting left can be hard “since it requires the entire product team to take on a QA mindset. Now, it’s not just the QA team that’s responsible for improving product quality—everyone must contribute. All are making sure they verify quality at every step—not just during developer handovers. Instead, it’s about making sure that the business objectives are understood by all involved and reflected in the tech requirements, documentation, and other deliverables and measured against the initial goal.”
You’ll also need to make sure that everyone is involved in the process from the beginning.
Often, the QA team is less involved in the initial planning process (which, by the way, is bad practice). In turn, this can mean that fewer resources go toward testing. As a result, it becomes harder to detect defects in requirements, architecture, design, etc., and those issues slip through the cracks undetected. Later, when the end-user discovers a problem, developers will then need to do a lot more digging to track down and fix the problem. Ultimately, shifting left allows organizations to avoid hours of backtracking and rework that wastes resources.
It’s undeniable—a shift left testing approach can have a dramatic impact on the development process, no matter what you’re trying to build. By identifying and eliminating bugs early in the development process, it becomes easier and cheaper to deliver high-quality products to market in less time.