What is Shift-Left?
“Shift left” encapsulates the idea that by moving or tackling tasks earlier in a process’ timeline (i.e. “further left”), you can significantly increase efficiency and better prepare your organization’s operations.
While the term originated with software development, it can be applied to shifting any testing, verification, preparation, or execution earlier within a process.
When it comes to IT service management, adopting automation, delegation, and self-service help your organization to “shift left” by pre-configuring processes (e.g., provisioning & role-based access control), letting Tier 1 employees handle Tier 2 tasks via delegation, and enabling employees execute minor self-service tasks.
Shift Left Origins
A product or service can seem perfect on the drawing board. A company can have the best software engineers, programmers, designers, and more involved in a product’s development. Everything is on schedule. Then testing begins, issues are uncovered, and you’re back at square one.
Failure to identify these issues until the end of the development process can be costly to a company in terms of time, investment, and reputation. This is where the concept known as “Shift Left” first came into play.
At its most elementary, Shifting Left means testing software early in the development process to find, fix, and prevent flaws in the product instead of waiting to test until the software was complete.
The Shift Left concept harkens back to the mapped, drawing-board version of software development. During these early days, requirements of the software build were listed on the left side of the development plan. Testing and delivery requirements were listed on the right side. Generally, this means that product development followed these steps in this order:
Requirements > Design > Coding > Testing > Delivery i
Developers realized that not discovering flaws until just before the release date could, and often did, put a dent in the company’s budget, product usability, and brand reputation.
The philosophy of Shift Left testing
The philosophy of Shift Left is shifting the testing phase from the extreme right of the development process to the left.
Shift Left thinking means testing and deployment are done continuously throughout the development process rather than just at the end. Shift Left also requires a shift in communication and collaboration between development teams and stakeholders, meaning that software testers are involved in not only the critical stages of development, but in all stages.
Advantages of Shift Left
The advantage of putting a shift-left process into place is that roadblocks and bottlenecks may be identified early in the development process, though the concept is just as applicable to your organization’s IT service management and workflow processes.
According to Capers Jones’ analysis Applied Software Measurement: Global Analysis of Productivity and Quality, about 85% of defects in software are introduced during the coding process when using traditional software development processes. The same study found that these defects were more likely to be found during the system testing process. The disconnect is apparent.
It also costs much less to discover and fix a problem earlier. If the cost of fixing a problem during the coding stage is “x,” then the cost of fixing a problem in the system testing phase is around 40x, according to the Capers Jones analysis. ii
If that bug makes it all the way until deployment? It might cost 600x to fix it.
When an organization embraces a Shift Left approach, problems and hurdles get addressed earlier. Underappreciated advantages of Shift Left include reduced risk, increased communication, and reduced human errors. By giving employees the ability to address issues earlier, there are fewer surprises, which means a better product or service and happier business partners.
The role of management and IT in Shift Left
Adapting and adopting this approach for IT service management and organizational processes allows technical staff to focus on the employee experience from the start. Try asking yourself “Is there a process, service, or resource my employees can more easily use identify and solve workflow challenges? Can this help them complete tasks more efficiently?”
A simple example would be password resets. When an employee gets locked out or forgets their password, they typically submit a helpdesk ticket. Until resolution, the employee can’t work and the helpdesk has yet another menial task. A self-service password reset tool keeps the employee working and minimizes the amount of password related helpdesk calls.
In this particular “timeline”, the self-service tool “shifts the reset left” for faster resolution and elimination of any cascading effects or externalities caused by an inactive employee.
This may help encourage management and IT staff to create and optimize various work process to be more employee-friendly. Achieving such means more efficient workflows supported by technology, which in turn allows your entire organization to focus on delivering optimal services and products to your customers.
Challenges of Shift Left
This culture change is often the first hurdle that must be overcome. This may not be something that can be implemented from the top down, but requires complete support of management. The change to a Shift Left philosophy means teams must consider how to make this new system work, and what techniques and tools need to change in order to do so.
Another risk of the Shift Left process is the possibility that new bottlenecks will arise and need to be addressed. Whenever you change processes, unintended results and externalities may occur. This doesn’t mean that the new process is broken, just requires more tweaking.
Getting started with Shift Left
Everyone involved in the process must understand and buy-in to the adoption of Shift Left. This means understanding the functional and organizational requirements, the planning strategy, the timeline, test plans, and more.
Everyone involved in adjusting processes and trialing software tools should report their findings at regularly scheduled meetings (and more frequently when necessary). Any issues, along with an analysis and resolution, should be recorded. This will create an information base for future development.
Accountability in Shift Left
It is important to remember that saying your organization is committed to Shift Left testing doesn’t ensure a quality process. It takes time, the right people, and the right tools. For instance, does your organization have the necessary automation, delegation, or self-service systems in place? Is your organization committed to overcoming the inevitable technical, communication, and teamwork issues that will arise as your team embraces a new process?
Shift Left requires everyone involved in the process to be accountable for the project’s success, not just their part. Shift Left thinking doesn’t recognize the phrase “not my problem.”
Shift Left also requires organizational leaders to be committed to the process. Leadership needs to be as committed to the process as departments and individual team members. If this is accomplished, Shift Left outcomes are likely to occur.
i Shift Left Testing: A Secret Manta for Software Success
ii Jones, Capers. (2008). Applied Software Measurement: Global Analysis of Productivity and Quality. McGraw-Hill Education, 3rd Ed.