Monday, February 2, 2015

Tester To Developer Ratio Should Be 1:1 For A Typical Embedded Project

Believe it or not, most high quality embedded software I've seen has been created by organizations that spend twice as much on validation as they do on software creation.  That's what it takes to get good embedded software. And it is quite common for organizations that don't have this ratio to be experiencing significant problems with their projects. But to get there, the head count ratio is often about 1:1, since developers should be spending a significant fraction on their time doing "testing" (in broad terms).

First, let's talk about head count. Good embedded software organizations tend to have about equal number of testers and developers (i.e., 50% tester head count, 50% developer head count). Also, typically, the testers are in a relatively independent part of the organization so as to reduce pressure to sign off on software that isn't really ready to ship. Ratios can vary significantly depending on the circumstance.  5:1 tester to developer ratio is something I'd expect in safety-critical flight controls for an aerospace application.  1:5 tester to developer ratio might be something I'd expect on ephemeral web application development. But for a typical embedded software project that is expected to be solid code with well defined functionality, I typically expect to see 1:1 tester to developer staffing ratios.

Beyond the staffing ratio is how the team spends their time, which is not 1:1.  Typically I expect to see the developers each spend about two thirds of their time on development, and one-third of their time on verification/validation (V&V). I tend to think of V&V as within the "testing" bin in terms of effort in that it is about checking the work product rather than creating it. Most of the V&V effort from developers is spent doing peer reviews and unit testing.

For the testing group, effort is split between software testing, system testing, and process quality assurance (SQA).  Confusingly, testing is often called "quality assurance," but by SQA what I mean is time spent creating, training the team on, and auditing software processes themselves (i.e., did you actually follow the process you were supposed to -- not actual testing). A common rule of thumb is that about 5%-6% of total project effort should be SQA, split about evenly between process creation/training and process auditing. So that means in a team of 20 total developers+testers, you'd expect to see one full time equivalent SQA person. And for a team size of 10, you'd expect to see one person half-time on SQA.

Taking all this into account, below is a rough shot at how effort across a project should break down in terms of head counts and staff.

Head count for a 20 person project:
  • 10 developers
  • 9 testers
  • 1 SQA (both training and auditing)
Note that this does not call out management, nor does it deal with after-release problem resolution, support, and so on. And it would be no surprise if more testers were loaded at the end of the project than the beginning, so these are average staffing numbers across the length of the project from requirements through product release.

Typical effort distribution (by hours of effort over the course of the project):
  • 33%: Developer team: Development (left-hand side of "V" including requirements through implementation)
  • 17%: Developer team: V&V (peer reviews, unit test)
  • 44%: V&V team: integration testing and system testing
  • 3%: V&V team: Process auditing
  • 3%: V&V team: Process training, intervention, improvement
If you're an agile team you might slice up responsibilities differently and that may be OK. But in the end the message is that you're probably only spending about a third of your time actually doing development compared to verification and validation if you want to create very high quality software and ensure you have a rigorous process while doing so.  Agile teams I've seen that violated this rule of thumb often did so at the cost of not controlling their process rigor and software quality. (I didn't say the quality was necessarily bad, but rather what I'm saying is they are flying blind and don't know what their software and process quality is until after they ship and have problems -- or don't.  I've seen it turn out both ways, so you're rolling the dice if you sacrifice V&V and especially SQA to achieve higher lines of code per hour.)

There is of course a lot more to running a project than the above. For example, there might need to be a cross-functional build team to ensure that product builds have the right configuration, are cleanly built, and so on. And running a regression test infrastructure could be assigned to either testers or developers (or both) depending on the type of testing that was included. But the above should set rough expectations.  If you differ by a few percent, probably no big deal. But if you have 1 tester for every 5 developers and your effort ratio is also 1:5, and you are expecting to ship a rock-solid industrial-control or similar embedded system, then think again.

(By way of comparison, Microsoft says they have a 1:1 tester to developer head count. See: How We Test Software at Microsoft, Page, Johston & Rollison.)









2 comments:

  1. Phil - I've never worked anywhere with a ratio approaching 1:1. I've worked at relatively small companies and we seemed to get by, but certainly could have benefitted from additional testing resources. How would you convince a smaller organization to make the investment in these additional resources?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for your work, I read it with great interest. Do you have examples of 5:1 (or so) tester to developer ratio in mission-critical software development teams, such as space shuttle or B-1B bomber flight computers (similar hardware).

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