Suppose an organization has been in place for eight years. All testing is manual. There are no test plans, no documented testing procedures, no requirements documents, no design documents, no comments in the code; and, over most of the organization's history, no bug-tracking system.
This is a real company. It's similar to many companies I observe. These stories are always told with an air of exasperation and disbelief. Is this a hopeless situation for a software tester? Or perhaps a fixer-upper, just waiting for you to help them recover from their slovenly ways?
I've gone through an evolution in my thinking as a tester, starting out enthusiastic and then becoming frustrated. I tried my hand at process improvement, but that didn't make me happy or successful. Since then, I've learned that it's important to achieve a Zen-like acceptance of the status quo before drawing any conclusions about how it needs to change. As Jerry Weinberg said in The Secrets of Consulting (quoting Kenneth Boulding), "Things are the way they are because they got that way."
It's not uncommon for testers to become frustrated with the processes that produce the bugs that they find. They read literature that says how software development and testing should be done, and they see that their organization isn't doing it the "right" way. These testers may have QA in their titles, but this often isn't an accurate appellation. They are taught that quality assurance is about error prevention, so they want to get involved in improving the company's processes.
Most of the companies that are the subject of these horror stories are surviving, even making a profit. Perhaps they could be more efficient, but there might be good reasons for all of the things they are (and are not) doing.
Assess the current situation, and determine what it would take for you to get your job done. Challenge all of your assumptions: Must everything be tested? Does test execution have to be automated? Can tests benefit from some type of automation? Do you really need to document all of your test cases in great detail? Discover the risks, and test accordingly.
Make your plans such that you don't expect other people in the organization to change what they're doing. If there's no product documentation, do exploratory testing. If there's no unit testing, plan for additional functional testing. If there's no bug-tracking tool, keep your own records of the bugs you report. Once you have that plan laid out, then you can show how you could save a major amount of effort if someone else makes a small change to how they do their work. But when you don't get all the cooperation you ideally would like to have, you still have a workable plan.
If you're being asked to do something that you think is impossible, counteroffer with something that is possible. Find out which sides of the old scope-schedule-resources triangle are fixed, and expand the flexible sides as needed. If all three of these are overly constrained and you can't get your estimates accepted, you're better off leaving than trying the impossible and failing. But if you're creative, you can often negotiate a feasible plan.
Improvements Aren't Verboten
There's always room for improvement in an organization. Start small; concentrate first on things that directly affect your work. Using an incremental approach is crucial, because it's easy to get distracted on an improvement project and fall behind on your primary responsibilities. If some sort of process or infrastructure change is critical for your success, include it in your schedule. Also, if