Books, beer, toilets and testing

by Nils Tillmann - 19 Aug 2014

At Zalando we are growing rapidly, facing big challenges, and constantly integrating new technologies, while committed to maintain software quality. Through the creativity, motivation, and diversity of each Zalando Tech employee matched with the external innovations, ideas, and improvements we adopt, we accomplish this successfully.

I was seeking exactly this kind of external input at the 6th World Congress of Software Quality the other day in London – and lucky for me I ran into Antoine Picard. A seasoned Software Engineer at Google, he reflected on his career and shared insights going back more than 10 years – stories which had many similarities to our work here at Zalando.

After its IPO in 2004, horizons were endless for Google and software quality was great. Not unlike Zalando and other successful startups Google's Technology department had a rapid growth. However, integrating everyone and maintaining established conventions and guidelines, while also staying versatile and innovative was the challenge. Google managed to stay innovative, but seemed to lose focus on basics such as proper testing - releases got blocked and software quality seemed to suffer on the way.

Something seems not right? Get on it!

To remedy this fading focus on testing, a group of engineers (including Antoine) led by his colleague Bharat started a testing “grouplet” - equivalent to our kaizen user groups - whose goal was to make testing become part of the developer's culture!


While the group soon realized that many engineers did have a special interest in placing the focus on testing, the group still needed to reach all the other engineers, so on a regular basis they brainstormed about how to do this.

They first targeted the new engineers (“Nooglers”) and put together a two-day orientation programme - similar to our mentoring weeks for newbies - about unit testing, its essentials, its how-to’s, its benefits, and its needs.

Don’t Be Satisfied Too Quickly!

While this was a great first step, the group still had tons of more folks to reach. Next they organized a series of Tech Talks about unit testing, inviting several authors and experts to speak, providing free books to the attendees so they could read up on each talk.

After the Tech Talks, they came up with fixed “test-it” days – dedicated days where everyone in the company focused only on testing! Like our Shop Team and their Quality Fridays, whether it was fixing or refactoring existing tests, working on tests for legacy code, or pepping up the documentation, you name it. They did it as we do it. These days came along with incentives like “test-it” t-shirts, larger monitors, nicer chairs, or even dedicated parking spots.

Stay creative!

While very successful, the grouplet was still not satisfied and moved on to organizing designated beer and ice cream testing events, whose goal was to raise awareness and encourage dialogue – these were also very successful, partially due to the refreshments!


While a huge success, they were still not completely satisfied, and moved on to the next idea: creating a 5-minute teaser that demonstrated how testing worked and how much fun it was – a movie that even starred executive officers.

But still, the movie was not enough and they needed to keep the momentum going. Next idea: a lending library in the bathroom! Engineers loved the books from the Tech Talks, so why not provide books to everyone – even those who missed the Tech Talks?

This idea drew huge attention and caused a bit of controversy. At the end of the day, do you really want to read a book that 300 other folks went through before you on the toilet?

You Are Not Sure Where This Road Will Take You – But It Feels Right? Continue The Journey!

Though this was not an ultimate success, the grouplet knew they were headed in the right direction - where else could you reach a bigger audience than on the toilet! Thinking back to his college days, Antoine came up with the idea: “Why not rip one page out of the book and place it on the wall like a flyer? Or better yet, create our your own flyer? Why not test on the toilet?”

The idea was born: “Testing on the Toilet”. The flyers would need to be brief and meaty. They would talk about testing tools, testing methodologies, and so on. But they also needed code – engineers tended to have a short attention span when it came to regular text.


So they went for it: printed out their first flyers and posted them in the bathrooms. The feedback was astonishing: people talked about the flyers’ content and even whether it was possible to test things in a better way than described on the flyers – engineers even wanted to contribute personal testing stories. Testing on the Toilet was an immediate success.

Use your toilet monopoly!

Testing on the Toilet spread its message not only to Silicon Valley, but also to the rest of the world - Imagine that in our offices in Berlin, Dortmund, Erfurt and Mönchengladbach the same flyers would be read as in our London and Paris offices!

Their original mission was finally accomplished: make testing become part of the developer's culture! It was even over-accomplished, since testing did not only become part of the developer's culture, but part of the company’s overall culture.

Do Not Stop Pushing

However, the grouplet would never be finished and in the same spirit as also lived here at Zalando – were never satisfied and strived for more. There was still legacy code out there and engineers still wanted more advice on how to test the best way.

Antoine’s grouplet created a Google internal Test Certification consisting of different achievement levels which engineers could gain when fulfilling certain test levels and criteria, a testing mercenaries programme which provides 20-25 experts that teach teams about best practices of workflows, releases, continuous build, etc., as well as initiated and established several additional testing tools simplifying the monitoring and fixing of jobs and tests.

Today they are still not finished and spread their message at international congresses about software quality – where I was lucky enough to attend.

This story is extremely encouraging because it demonstrates what we are currently experiencing at Zalando on a daily basis: single people, single user groups, can make a difference and can have an impact on the company’s culture.

Give It A Try Yourself

I hope this story that Antoine shared with me and that I am now sharing with you, may contribute to your work: going out there spreading your message, making a difference and influencing the way we work and feel at Zalando.


Also, dear Zalando colleagues, be aware: testing topics might be crossing your path in unexpected locations as well, sooner than you might expect ;-)

P.S.: If interested in reading TotT stories please check out this link and feel free to contribute there as well:

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