How I first met Robot Framework - and what happened then

Feb 22, 2021 / by Esko Hannula

It was late 2005. I was preparing for my new job at Qentinel, a small software quality assurance shop. My future team members were each presenting those big, important, and exciting things they thought I should know before I officially start as the CEO of Qentinel in January 2006.

Harri Töhönen, then Chief Technology Officer at Qentinel, told me about a recent master’s thesis he had been co-guiding. A smart young man, Pekka, had made an ambitious MSc project about test automation. The theme sparked my curiosity, because I, too, had written my master’s thesis about test automation, although quarter a century earlier.

At the time, typical test automation tools were either low-level API automation tools or record-and-playback GUI automation tools. Pekka’s tool was different. He had adopted a novel approach known as keyword-based automation, based on pioneering works by Hans Buwalda. Pekka had built a nicely layered architecture where the test interface, the execution engine, the script language, and the test script itself were all nicely separated. The tool was designed to be an extensible framework that can be expanded with different test interfaces and generic as well as application-specific keyword libraries. As an architecture freak I was impressed by the clean separation of concerns and soon understood the potential of the tool.

The software was called Robot Framework and the just graduated master of science was Pekka Klärck. The concept was first piloted in a customer project and then implemented for serious use in a Nokia R&D program that Qentinel was part of. In addition to Pekka and Harri, at least Kalle Huttunen, Teppo Koskinen of Qentinel, contributed to the ideas of Robot Framework. In the customer’s organization, Petri Haapio, had a key role as the main sponsor of the work.

Robot Framework evolved into a minor dilemma at Qentinel. It was easy to understand the huge potential of the software. On the other hand, it did not make sense for a small consulting company, as Qentinel was back in 2006, to invest alone in promoting the further developing the technology. Moreover, the software was locked in Nokia as a proprietary software asset.

Harri came up with the idea of publishing Robot Framework under an open source license. Remembering how jealous Nokia was of all IP back then it was a small wonder- and big effort- for Petri, Pekka, and Harri to persuade Nokia to go open source. Although Robot Framework was not Nokia’s first open source effort it took a lot of negotiation and several corporate lawyers to get it done.

Pekka, already dedicated to his mission of reinventing test automation and becoming Mr Robot Framework, left Qentinel to become a free lance software guru and dedicate his effort on making Robot Framework a success. Several active contributors, such as Juha Rantanen, then a master’s thesis worker at Qentinel, and Elisabeth Hendrickson helped Pekka get started with the open source site.

Robot Framework did not take off like a storm. The user community grew slowly, and mostly in Finland, the home country of Robot Framework. Gradually, slowly but surely, it began spreading all over the world. Robot Framework foundation was formed later on to accelerate the adoption of Robot Framework and create a community, a necessary prerequisite for the wide adoption of any open source software.

Robot Framework is now in its late teens, and going stronger than ever. Such a life span is quite an achievement for any piece of software. I believe the secret sauce of Robot Framework is in its design. Keyword based automation has proven to be a successful concept and grown in popularity. More important, as an open framework Robot Framework enables software innovation around it. A master’s thesis has grown into an ecosystem.


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Topics: Software Testing, Test Automation, Robot Framework, Software Development, Test design, Test architecture

Esko Hannula

Written by Esko Hannula