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Debunking test CoE myths

QA expert Gerie Owen debunks myths about test centers of excellence and talks about the real benefits and challenges of a test CoE.

In an effort to reduce cost, increase speed to market and improve quality, many organizations look to the test center of excellence as a solution. Some do so without really understanding what it is, what the benefits are and how to get there. Before implementing a test center of excellence, it is important to debunk some myths surrounding them. Forgoing these fallacies will allow developers to understand what a test center of excellence is and what it is not. Once that is clear, the development team can determine if a test center of excellence could be beneficial to their organization.

Test CoE myth 1: A test center of excellence is just a term for outsourcing testing

In reality, a test center of excellence (CoE) is a framework of people, processes and technology governing how software testers deliver highly effective testing services to the greater organization. It is comprised of quality experts providing leadership and shared consulting services to ensure clearly established goals, well-defined processes, a governance mechanism and common tools and technology. Test CoE processes should be established by the organization, and the governance mechanism should not be outsourced, as this leads to miscommunication and mistakes.

Test CoE myth 2: Test centers of excellence require engaging offshore teams

Forgoing these fallacies will allow developers to understand what a test center of excellence is and what it is not.

Most test centers of excellence are built around knowledge, skills and resource sharing that allow for capacity management through the core/flex model. In the core/flex model, onsite test leads are aligned with and become subject matter experts in the organization's core business verticals. In addition to managing the project testing in their respective areas, the core test leaders become mentors for the flex team members.

Flex team members are deployed to and released from projects based on the project's staffing requirements. Although flex team members are not always on-site, they are also not always offshore. Offshore teams located in India or China are usually the most cost-effective; however, teams may also be located near shore in South America or in the United States or Canada.

Test CoE myth 3: Test centers of excellence only provide scalable test teams

Resource scalability through the core/flex model is a feature of a test CoE. However, a highly effective test CoE provides not only project testing services but also consultative services in test estimation, methodology and design, test environment and data management, and performance and functional test automation frameworks. Test engineers and test architects in specialties such as performance and load testing, functional automation, security and mobile device testing complete the core team. A very successful test CoE provides business value by consistently improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire test process.

The real challenge and rewards of a test center of excellence

A good test CoE can improve speed to market. At the same time, it can reduce cost and increase quality due to its focus on resource scalability and 24x7 availability; streamlined, efficient processes; and effective use of tools and automation. However, establishing a test CoE requires a substantial investment of time and money. The process must be run like a project with a sponsor in a leadership position, definition and establishment of quality process and roles. The development of automation frameworks and purchase of tools require a significant financial investment.

Therefore, it is critical to carefully assess whether the value of a test CoE will outweigh the costs to the organization. The first step in the evaluation process is to assess the test maturity and effectiveness of your current test organization. The assessment should focus on three areas: people, processes and tools.

Assess people with the following questions. Does your test organization have highly competent testers, a competency model and a plan for professional development? Do you have on staff or contract with mobile device test specialists skilled in automation, performance and load? Is the resource level appropriate to the volume of work, and is the volume of work steady or does it fluctuate? If the answers are primarily "no," a test CoE would be of value from a people standpoint.

Next, assess processes and tools. Does your organization have clearly established testing processes and procedures? Is there a test methodology that is consistently followed for every project? Are there established test roles including those with responsibility for managing overall test operations? Does your organization have a test automation strategy and framework, as well as the appropriate tools to provide efficient and effective testing? If the answers are primarily "no," then a team needs to be established to develop these processes as a first step to a test CoE.

In conclusion, a test CoE can provide scalable, efficient testing services; however, the true value of a test CoE lies in delivering business value through effective management and integration of people, processes and tools.

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How developed is your current test CoE? What was your experience with the TCoE? What are the benefits and drawbacks you've seen?
Let me suggest avoiding the pretentious ‘center of excellence’ term. Too often the center turns out not to be excellent, even if only once, which is all it takes to deflate inflated claims. Better to refer to it as a ‘resource center’ or ‘specialists center’ or some similar term.
From what I've seen and heard of organizations that put together a center of excellence for this or that, it seems to only happen when the organization is struggling with this or that. If Company X is already excelling at testing, it's not very likely that anyone at Company X is going to suggest that they need to introduce a new testing program. But if Company X struggles with testing, then there's a reason to put forth some effort and funding and make improvements. So at first, "test center of excellence" might translate into "remedial testing" (at least to the cynics among us). Ideally, the TCoE lives up to its name more and more as time rolls on. I think the name "center of excellence" might be an attempt to add a spoon full of sugar to the medicine of effecting real change. I know I'd rather be on a team that's 'pursuing excellence' than a team that 'needs remediation' - even if the two teams are going through the same exact changes. Of course neutral terms like "resource center" or "specialization" may be easier to swallow, depending on how the company culture reacts to the language.