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Tuesday, 9 June 2015

"The Selenium Guidebook" and Thoughts on my Learning Process

"The Selenium Guidebook: How To Use Selenium, successfully" by Dave Haeffner does not specifically set out to teach you how to automate elements on web pages with the WebDriver API. What it does set out to do - as the full title suggests - is show how you can practically implement WebDriver automation to add business value, avoiding common pitfalls in the process.

And in that vein, this post doesn't exactly review the book. It does a bit of that, but it's more about my personal experience of working through it, and reflects on how I might improve my learning process in the "code" domain going forward.

Some basics about the book
I worked on the Ruby version of the book. A version for Java is also now available.

Topics the book covers include:
  • Formulating an automation strategy
  • Understanding what constitutes the right approach to writing your checks
  • Using Page Objects/abstraction to make a more robust suite that your team will trust
  • Running your checks against multiple system and browser configurations on Sauce Labs
  • Parallelisation to keep large suites running in sensible time-frames
  • How to set up suites which run automatically as part of continuous integration
  • Multiple examples of how to approach specific automation challenges
What's great about the book:
  • Haeffner's style is ultra-clear
  • He provides not just a download of code from the book to compare yours with, but a real website to automate and practice on
  • There is also additional supporting material, eg. videos, available to purchase
There were points when I was working through The Selenium Guidebook that I felt frustrated - not with the book, which is very good - but with my own lack of progress.

The frustrations came when something wasn't working for me and I felt I didn't have the knowledge to understand why or fix it.  I tried to think about why I was allowing myself to get frustrated.

Coping with a lack of coding knowledge
First, a slightly boring aside to explain where my knowledge stood when I started the book. 

I had studied WebDriver using Alan Richardson's excellent Java-based course about a year before working through this book. However, in the intervening time I had taken a job that didn't involve web testing and so my knowledge had gone stale. In resurrecting it, I decided to go back to coding with Ruby - which I had been learning the basics of previously - because I felt the less intuitive syntax of Java hadn't helped my learning of WebDriver.

Haeffner advises that an ability to code is not necessarily needed upfront. Whilst that is certainly true, in my experience learning is slower if you don't have a lot of coding knowledge.

I think the biggest problem caused by my lack of coding experience was not always being able to make good guesses about the cause/nature of errors - and error messages - I encountered, and therefore struggling to correct them.

Troubleshooting hints for the examples in the book could be helpful, but are probably impractical given the variety of problems students might face.

It might have been useful to know exactly which versions of particular Ruby gems Dave had tested his examples with. I'm not sure if it was ever really the cause of a problem I hit (there are still a few examples that I haven't managed to get working) but I did wonder at times whether an issue might relate to my having installed the latest version of gem X whereas Dave possibly had been working with an earlier one.

Putting in the hours
Dave Haeffner does very generously offer up his own contact details in the book to answer questions. I deliberately resisted that because I didn't think it was fair on the author; and not helpful to me to have the answers provided too easily.

Mostly I got failing examples working by putting in the hours and using the routes you might expect: - Google and StackOverflow to look up error messages
- seeing if the provided sample files ran on my setup and, if so, comparing that sample file with what I had written to find the difference.

And in one extreme case using a file comparison tool to try and find what the hell was different between my failing project and the provided one. (The difference turned out to be not in my Ruby code but with gems I was using not being listed in my gemfile.)

Of course, this "pain" is actually good for learning and I need to remember that when the frustration bites. When I eventually managed to get the HTTP status codes example (with browsermob proxy) working there was a real sense of achievement because I had had to do research/thinking/work on my own to get there.

By the time I had gone through all the material in the book I felt it had been a really good investment and I had stopped worrying about whether I should have been able to get through it more smoothly. I shall certainly be keeping The Selenium Guidebook on hand and coming back to it.

Finding the right IDE/Editor
Something practical that I think would have helped me, and that I still need to sort out, was either a better IDE or better knowledge of the one I was using.  (I suppose this too falls under the heading of a lack of coding experience.)

After looking for free Ruby IDEs, I went with Aptana Studio. Quite possibly I don't have Aptana set up correctly - I struggled even to find useful documentation - but I found it of limited use beyond picking up syntax errors.

For Alan Richardson's Java course I had used the suggested IDE, Jetbrains' IntelliJ.  And I missed its extensive code completion suggestions here, and its ability to pick up basic typos on top of syntax errors.  Sadly, Jetbrains' "Rubymine" IDE is not free.

I also found that running commands with Aptana Studio's built-in terminal (running Git Bash) wasn't always helpful. Like the time when I could not get my first Sauce Labs checks to run and wasted an hour or more trying to figure out what the syntax/structural error was that Aptana seemed to report. When I ran the check in a simple Windows command prompt instead I straight away saw more useful feedback that I simply had my Saucelabs credentials wrong.

Give myself a chance
But the simplest way I could have improved the process for me was to relax a bit. Not to feel I was working against the clock to get through the material. Not to overly criticise myself when I might spend a whole evening on a few pages but still not get the example working by bedtime.

And to give myself more credit when I eventually did chase down, and correct, my errors.

This is a generic flaw I sometimes show in my learning process - unrealistic expectations of how quickly and how fully I can process something.  It's something I will blog on separately in my next post .....

"The Selenium Guidebook: How to use Selenium, successfully" by Dave Haeffner is available now as an e-book in both Ruby and Java versions. A range of packages with extra supporting material are also available at the same link. 

Haeffner also produces a free weekly Selenium tips email .


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. Dave's book The Selenium Guidebook is a bit expensive compared to some of the stuff available out in the wild. So, I wasn't sure if I want to spend so much. Your review definitely adds weight to the book positively. Cheers.

    1. Hi. Kind of you to take the time to comment. I'm just pleased/surprised that my ramblings have turned out to have some value to someone else. :-)

      I too was resistant to the cost of the book - because I had to self-fund it, as it sounds like you do. And I definitely couldn't afford to purchase any of the extras that Haeffner offers.

      If I was comparing the two I would say that Alan Richardson's online WebDriver course offers better value for money. But the course and the book do different things - are complementary in fact.
      For detailed exercises on how to find and automate elements of a page with WebDriver, Richardson is better. But Haeffner is good on structure/framework and sensibly implementing your automated checks in a project.