Talia Nassi on Testing in Production
Talia Nassi chats with Kent about knowing the product as a tester, testing in production, and tools for testing.
What does it mean to test in production? Simply put, testing in production means testing your features in the environment where your features will live. So what if a feature works in staging, that's great, but you should care if the feature works in production, that's what matters.
An excellent tool for testing in production is feature flagging. Feature flagging allows you to separate your code deployment from your feature release. So, when you use a tool like future flagging, you're able to target specific users to see your feature, and you can test your feature and make sure it works and fix any bugs.
Kent C. Dodds: Hello, friends, this is your friend Kent C. Dodds, and I am super excited to be here with my friend, Talia Nassi. Say Hi, Talia.
Talia Nassi: Hi, guys.
Kent C. Dodds: So Talia and I are new friends, just in the last few months, I met Talia on Twitter through some, I think it was tweets about the talk that we're going to talk about a little bit, but I was just really interested in some of the things that Talia has to say and I'm super excited for her to share those things with you. But before we get to that, I want you to get to know Talia. So Talia, could you just introduce yourself to everybody and let's get to know you a little bit?
Talia Nassi: Yeah, absolutely. So I'm Talia, I'm a Dev Advocate at Split, and my background is mostly in testing, in software testing. I started out in QA and I've worked in automation and QA in places like Visa, and then Forbes, and then WeWork. So I have a really strong testing background and that's where I kind of found this passion of testing and production. My favorite language is Python, and I'm also an office prankster, so if you've seen me in the office wrapping things, or playing with people's desks, I definitely like pulling pranks on people. So, if I haven't gotten you, then I will, don't worry, but it's kind of a crazy time right now and no one can get into the office, so.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah.
Talia Nassi: Yeah.
Kent C. Dodds: Well, when the office is back open again, then you can sneak in early before anybody else and just like saran wrap everybody's desk or something.
Talia Nassi: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, for someone's birthday, a couple of years ago I wrapped his entire desk in newspaper. It was fantastic. It took me so long though.
Kent C. Dodds: That's super fun. It sounds like you'd be a fun person to work with.
Talia Nassi: I am.
Kent C. Dodds: Very cool.
Talia Nassi: I am [inaudible 00:01:56] your tech starts working again.
Kent C. Dodds: I definitely learned valuable lessons about locking my machine anytime I left my desk. You learn that pretty quick on the job you get desktop backgrounds of My Little Pony and whatever else.
Talia Nassi: Yeah, exactly.
Kent C. Dodds: Well good stuff. So Talia, so you actually started in the QA engineer side. Did you start with manual testing or did you start with automated testing on the QA side?
Talia Nassi: So I started with manual testing and that was at Visa and the reason was because they have a lot of audits and you have to document all of your test cases and you have to document all of your findings and there's a really kind of strict process of which test cases that you ran and which test cases passed. So it's a really vigorous manual process, but you get to learn a lot about the testing documentation that's expected for you to know. So because of that I can write a really great test strategy document and I can write a really great test report because of that foundation. And after that I was able to have that foundation to be able to do more automated testing. So I started with manual and then after Visa it was basically just automation.
Kent C. Dodds: Hm, yeah. So the reason I ask is I almost got my start into QA when I got into things, because one of my first internships I got, I barely slipped in. This guy was like, "I can't give you a job but I want you here so I'll find you something." And they found me a QA position and then just through certain happenstance I ended up being a business intelligence engineer that didn't work out either. But so, I remember working with other QA manual testers and they knew the product upside down backwards. They knew so much more than anybody else about the product and I found that to be really interesting just through their experience of testing literally every case. Well you kind of alluded to this, but your experience as a manual tester has impacted your empathy with the user or your ability to understand what is important in the process of testing in an automated way?
Talia Nassi: I think just being a tester in general and being responsible for executing the test cases, you are the person who should know the product inside and out because when you're a developer and you're implementing the code for the functionality, I feel like that's just a little part of a big puzzle. But when you're writing end to end test cases or you're running integration tests or whatever the tests are, you have a more big picture kind of outlook. So you are expected to know what's supposed to work how, because, in my opinion, I think the tester and the product person should be best friends. You should know the requirements from the product person and if you have questions you should talk to them. I always think that QA and product should be sitting right next to each other, they should be talking the most, they should have the most meetings together. They need to be in sync the most because you're testing someone else's product requirements.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And you mentioned something that just made me think about this. And so with developers, lots of us are really proud of the unit tests that we write and we're like sweet, this button is so well tested, but then the QA are like, "I don't care how well tested button is, the page isn't working. I can't check out. This is a problem." Have you ever noticed a difference in the way that you view testing from other developers and just the way that you've done it?
Talia Nassi: Yeah, absolutely. Some developers I've worked with will absolutely hate testing and they'll just tell me, "I don't want to write a test. I'm not writing for this." So I think it's just about having them understand you don't want things to come up in the future. You want to know that your product and your features are working right now and you don't want to be reactive rather than being like proactive and just testing whatever you need to test now. But yeah, there's definitely so many personalities. There's developers that I've worked with who write tests for everything. They write a million unit tests and a million integration tests and end to end test. And then there's developers who refuse to write any tests. It's a little hard, but they learn. After working with me, they learn.
Kent C. Dodds: You end up wrapping their desks in newspaper and whatever else.
Talia Nassi: Yeah, yeah.
Kent C. Dodds: Very good. I'm actually curious, so I have some opinions on where you get the most value for the time that you put into when we're testing and so we have that traditional testing pyramid where it's like ETE top whatever, and I kind of throw that away. I don't buy into that idea. And so I created what's called a testing trophy. And I don't know if you've noticed that or seen that before, but end to end tests are a little more valuable than you'd see in the pyramid. A unit tests are still useful, but they're not the biggest part of the trophy. The biggest part is the integration tests. And I'm curious since you mentioned there some developers will write thousands of units and integration and where do you see the most value for the effort when we're talking about these different layers of tests?
Talia Nassi: Yeah, I think you get the most value from end to end test and that's because you're thinking like the user, like how would your end user interact with your product? How is the end user going to go through your website or your app? So you're putting yourself in the position of your customer and when you do these end to end tests, you're thinking in a different persona. So I think that's what gives me the most value. And I generally would spend more time on end to end tests then unit tests or integration tests, but they're all important. I just think end to end tests give you the most value.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, I definitely agree with you there that a single end to end test provides you with way more useful information than a single of any other type. So yeah, I totally buy into that. So I'm curious, before we get to the tools, I want to bring up this other unique aspect, which is kind of the thing that turned me on to this idea in the first place, and this was your talk that you gave at Nordic JS 2019, and I think maybe you've given it a couple of times, but it's a testing in production and this is marvelous and I don't want to mess it up so I'll go ahead and let you explain what this is. What does it mean to test in production and why should people care about this?
Talia Nassi: Yeah. Okay, great. So testing in production means testing your features in the environment that your features will live in. It means testing your features where your users will use those features. So it means not using a dummy environment, staging and not using a test environment. It means you're testing your code in production and you're doing it safely. And the reason that you should do this is because I don't care if my feature works in staging, that's great, but I care if my feature works in production, and that's what really matters. So I think a lot of people are scared and hesitant when it comes to this topic. But if you do it correctly and safely and you use the right tools, it really is super beneficial.
Kent C. Dodds: Absolutely, and I think this is brilliant. So one of my biggest guiding philosophies for everything that I do with testing is this concept that the more that your test resemble the way your software is used, the more confidence they can give you.
Talia Nassi: Absolutely.
Kent C. Dodds: And the way that your test would resemble the way software is used is like you're a manual tester actually filling out the form, but we don't do that. I mean people do that, but we want to automate this because it scales better. We can't just run every permutation on every change. I worked at a company where we did that. Development was shut down for two days. It was not fun for anyone. And humans are notoriously bad at that, especially developers who just want to get back to their regular jobs.
Kent C. Dodds: So then we automated, but as soon as we automate, we take a step away from that as the closer your test resemble the way software is used, but it's worthwhile. And so every step that we take away from that, we're kind of trading off confidence for some sort of ease or ... what's the word I'm looking for? Convenience.
Talia Nassi: Yes.
Kent C. Dodds: But when hearing about your idea of let's run our tests in production, that's like, "Yeah, sure. Why not?" There's no real value in actually running it in staging. So long as you are using the proper tools and you're testing safely. And so I want to dig into that a little bit, but that gets us one step closer to the way our software is used, which [crosstalk 00:11:58] confidence.
Talia Nassi: Exactly. Yeah. Because your users and your customers, they don't go into your staging environment and use your product staging, they use your product in production. So it just makes so much more sense to me to test in production. I didn't know about testing in production. I didn't use it. I only tested in staging up until I had an interview at a company a couple years ago and they told me that they test in production and that's how I got into it because I started working at that company, but I was just like everyone else who didn't know about this thing and was so freaked out about it at first and now I'm talking about it.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. Yeah. It's one of those things where it's like, well this is just the way that we do it. You don't know that it could be better.
Talia Nassi: Exactly.
Kent C. Dodds: Now this is just life. So I'm really interested to dig into some of the methods to this and hopefully we've established for the people listening why this is beneficial. It should make total sense that if you test in production that's more realistic. The first thing that I want to ask though is how do you know it's safe to deploy code if you don't wait to test it until after it's deployed? I think that's probably the biggest question that I have about this.
Talia Nassi: Yeah. So there is a magic little thing that's called feature flagging, and feature flagging allows you to separate your code deployment from your feature release. So if you think about a bubble and you think about the specific people being put into that bubble and having your feature also being put in that bubble, only the people who are in that bubble can see that feature. So when you use a tool like future flagging, you're able to target specific users to see your feature and you can test your feature and make sure it works and fix any bugs. And then once you know that it's working in production, then you pop the bubble or you turn on the feature flag, so that the entire world can see this feature.
Talia Nassi: It really provides a safe way to test your code in production because if there's a bug or something's wrong, your real end users aren't going to see that issue because they're not targeted in the flag. So this is kind of a layer of protection that says I'm going to give you a little bit of production space and in that space you can do whatever you want and you're not going to affect anyone.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, that makes so much sense. So none of this testing and production would be a really feasible thing without feature flags. But of course this isn't the only benefit to feature flags, there are so many benefits. Do you want to talk about why feature flags are such a good idea?
Talia Nassi: Yeah. Feature flags allow you to do so many different things. Some of the things that I've used feature flags for are just to have a kill switch in case something goes wrong. So if I release something and I don't know, two weeks later there's a huge bug and I need to kill that feature, I can use feature flags to turn that feature off. I've also used it for AB testing. So if I'm working with a product owner and he decides, "I don't know if I want this product to work in this way or in that way." So we do an experiment and we test both ways and we see which one gives us a higher conversion rate. You can also use feature flags to migrate your monolith to microservices, do it safely in a controlled manner.
Talia Nassi: There's so many things, but obviously I have a testing background, I'm passionate about the testing side of it.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, absolutely. So you have a blog post about this specific for React and I think that it is for anybody who's not already used to feature flags. I think for lots of companies, feature flags are just a fact of life. But there's probably plenty of companies that haven't done any feature flags before or maybe some people who aren't really happy with the way they're doing it. There's a quick blog post that we'll add to the show notes for people to take a look at to learn about feature flags.
Kent C. Dodds: So you have the feature flags in place and for the test. You just enable it for the test and the test can run with the feature enabled and then eventually the feature flag goes away and you just continue to test in production.
Talia Nassi: Right, so something that I generally recommend to do is to create test users that will be in production and you can target them inside of your flag. So if you have whatever automation framework that you use, you can automate so that your test user that's in the flag, gets the same treatment as a normal user would. And then once you're done testing, once you turn the feature flag on, then your test will continue running in the same way because your user was already targeted in that flag. So you don't have to make any changes, you don't have to update the test because you used the same test user that was targeted inside of the future flag.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. Perfect. That's awesome. So another question that I have about testing and production is so I talk about this, the better your test resembles the way software is used, whatever, but at some point you do have to mock things out. When we're doing these integration tests or end to end tests, we want to have some sort of mocking so that if I am testing the checkout flow, I'm adding products to my cart, I've got like \$2,000 worth of stuff in my cart and I go to checkout, I don't want my credit card to be the one that we're entering into that credit card information because those are very expensive tests. So what is the solution for that kind of scenario? Because in a staging environment you can have it point to a different Stripe thing or whatever for your testing, but in production it should be hitting the production Stripe or whatever credit card processing you do. So how do you work around that when you're testing in production?
Talia Nassi: Yeah. Yeah. Great. Okay. So there's a couple of things. So the first thing is when you're working with third parties, I would say work with a third party and let them know, "Hey, we're going to test. We're going to start testing in production, so if you get any requests from these users, these are test users, don't actually process the transaction or use another card or whatever." You can work with the third parties. You can also set up a header on the API request that you send to them and say, "Hey, if you get anything with this specific, holler if you see this, just mark this as a test or do whatever. You can work with them to make something that works for you. I would also say if it's something that you absolutely can not test in production, you can use a Canary release and just release it to a very, very small population and you can gain confidence in that and then slowly roll it out to everyone.
Kent C. Dodds: Hm.
Talia Nassi: Yeah.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, that makes sense. So at some point, if you really can't make anything else work, then just releasing to a very small set of people, they can be your guinea pigs. It's the best you can do in that scenario.
Talia Nassi: Right. So then you would still use staging and test as much as you can and then release it to production, but only to a very small population.
Kent C. Dodds: Sure. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Cool. And actually, I hadn't ever considered actually just talking to the third party and being like, "Hey, we want to test."
Talia Nassi: Yeah, when you're doing business with them, you guys should work together.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Very cool. So great. So we've got our tests running in production. What are some of the tools that you have used to do these tests in production or getting down to the specific tools that we're using?
Talia Nassi: Cool. So for feature flagging, I've used Split and LaunchDarkly. For automation, I mean you definitely need to have an automation framework in place when you're testing in production. It's just the test. You're in a really high risk environment. You don't want to have to test everything manually. So I've used Robot Framework, Puppeteer with Jest and also Protractor. And then you also need a job scheduler. So like Jenkins or CircleCI or Travis and then some sort of alerting system that will alert you when a test fails, so PagerDuty or even just like a Slack message. Yeah, those are the main tools that you need.
Kent C. Dodds: Well what is your preferred tool for authoring these end to end tests?
Talia Nassi: So for automation, just specifically for the test, I love Robot Framework. That's my favorite testing framework ever. It's just so easy to use. They have a keyword driven testing approach. So even if you're not a developer, even if you don't know specifics of syntax or you're not a developer full time or whatever it is, Robot Framework is so easy to learn and it just makes the most sense because you can work with product people and designers and they don't have to understand code to understand your tests, so that's my favorite. I love Robot. Shout out to Robot Framework.
Kent C. Dodds: And it helps that it's implemented in Python, which happens to be your favorite language.
Talia Nassi: How cool is that?
Kent C. Dodds: Cool. Another thing that just popped into my mind is a challenge that I've had when I'm testing, as I closed the gap between my test and the reality of the world, is registration. So when I register, typically there's going to be an email flow before I get an activated account or something. Have you ever come across that particular scenario and how do you solve for that?
Talia Nassi: Yeah, so in that case, I would not automate those flows. I would test those manually, but I would still create test users to use. I just wouldn't automate those.
Kent C. Dodds: I see. Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. Cool. Yeah. In the past I typically took a couple of different approaches like either just automatically enable those users or activate those users or have the email and go to some other service that automatically clicks the link or something.
Talia Nassi: Yeah, that would work.
Kent C. Dodds: But it's so much work.
Talia Nassi: We've done similar things where if we're testing in production and it's supposed to send a confirmation email or something, something is supposed to get sent to the end user, we'll just write a little thing in our code that says if the request comes from this user, don't send the email. Or once we test it manually a few times and we know that it's working, we'll put that little thing in there.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. Yeah. I think that sometimes people want to have a rule that's always applies and it's perfect and we're in a perfect world and as great as that would be, it's just all a big bucket of trade offs. Either a ton of work and maybe it's pretty flaky versus maybe taking a small shortcut to make it more practical.
Talia Nassi: Yeah. Yeah. Now that you said flaky, I hate the word flaky tests. I think either a test works and it does what it's supposed to do or there's something wrong with the code or there's something with the test.
Kent C. Dodds: Hm.
Talia Nassi: I don't like it.
Kent C. Dodds: Let's dig into that a lot because I know that a lot of people when they think ETE, they think flake. And I have a similar feeling around that as you described, but what are some of the strategies that you've implemented to make tests less flaky?
Talia Nassi: Yeah, I think the most important thing is to just make sure that your test runs continuously and it doesn't fail. So like if I'm a tester and I'm writing a test and it's failing for me, I'm not going to upload that to Jenkins so that it can fail for everyone else. I'm going to make sure it works for me and it works consistently. And after I watch the test run and pass 20, 50 times, then I'll upload it to Jenkins and it'll run with the rest of the build pipeline. But if a test fails, it should be because there's something wrong. It should be because there's a bug or there's something going on. It shouldn't be the case where a test fails and everyone thinks, "Oh, there's something wrong with the test." So yeah, that's my 2 cents.
Kent C. Dodds: People end up ignoring the tests and turning them off, which is not what we want either. That makes a lot of sense. All right, well, Talia, I feel like there was one other thing that was just in the back of my mind that I really wanted to ask you and talking about flakiness just got me. Oh, oh actually, it was I think that part of the problem with flakiness is the tools that people have been using in the past. I've never used Robot Framework before, but I transitioned from Selenium to Cypress and that was a night and day difference.
Talia Nassi: Good. Yeah. [inaudible 00:25:36].
Kent C. Dodds: I don't know how many people are fans of Selenium at this point. So yeah, improve testing frameworks can help with that flakiness too. And another thing that occurs to me, is that when I was doing lots of end to end tests in staging, I don't have a product anymore, so I don't do a whole lot of end to end tests on products anymore, but half of the time when the test was being flaky, it wasn't the test, it was the environment that I was working in. We were always just like, "Well, it's staging, so who cares?" But if you're testing in production, then that actually is really important information that the test can tell you that you've got a flaky environment.
Talia Nassi: Exactly. Yeah. One of the things I talk about in my presentation also is that because the environments are different and because the data is different in both places, the test results will most likely be different. So if a test passes in staging, it doesn't mean that it's going to pass in production and vice versa. The load also in production doesn't match staging. There's just so many differences and it's just better to know that your feature is working in the place that your users are going to use it.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah, absolutely. And you probably have more resources dedicated to keeping production up and so your tests are probably going faster and then if they ever go slow, then you're like, "Oh, that actually means something to me." It's not just like, "Oh, we have a really slow staging environment." It actually like, "Oh wow, something happened in production. Let's go fix that."
Talia Nassi: Exactly.
Kent C. Dodds: Just so much confidence. I love that. That's awesome. All right, well, Talia, as we get down to the end of our time here, is there anything else that you wanted to mention that we haven't gotten to hear yet?
Talia Nassi: The biggest thing is I would say just don't be scared of testing in production. If you do it correctly and safely, it's really beneficial. And obviously, I'm here for questions and yeah, just don't be scared. Just try it.
Kent C. Dodds: Another thing that occurs to me about testing in production, or let's pretend you're a developer today and you're like, "I have no end to end tests. How am I ever going to do this?" That's always the biggest challenge is how do I get started with this? It's just such a huge thing. But if you have got an app in production, then that is the easiest thing to start testing because you don't need to worry about provisioning some weird extra environment or getting some extra CI thing or whatever else. It's all just you've got an app and it's up and running and just start hitting that app for tests.
Talia Nassi: Yeah, exactly. And if you have to set up an automation framework, like Robot Framework, and I know Cypress also is just really easy setup, so you don't have to worry about extra time for setup and then training people. It's just super intuitive.
Kent C. Dodds: Yeah. Yeah, it's a good world that we live in now. All right, so for the homework for everybody as we just wrap things up here, we have two items of homework. The first is to watch Talia's talk, testing in production. It is a great talk. You'll enjoy that. And then the second one is to read the blog post about how to set up feature flags with React in 10 minutes. That's on the split.io/blog and the link will be in the notes here. So those are your pieces of homework. It shouldn't take you a whole lot of time and I think that you'll enjoy doing that. Talia, what's the best place for people to reach out to you if they want to ask you any questions or anything?
Talia Nassi: Yeah, if you want to reach out to me on Twitter, you can do that. It's just my first name, underscore, last name, Talia_Nassi and also email me Talia.Nassi@split.io.
Kent C. Dodds: Awesome. Cool. Thank you so much. This has been such a good time. Hope everybody's doing awesome and we will catch you all later. Thanks, Talia.
Talia Nassi: Bye. Thank you.