Why Do You Enjoy Testing?

My first career was as an educator. I worked for 10 years with youth of all ages, in and out of the school system. One of my favorite jobs was running leadership training programs for teenagers at Hidden Villa. I had some very gratifying times, but was feeling ready for a change just as a grant-funded position of mine was drying up. That was September of 2000, at the tail end of that wacky boom when someone could get a testing job just by being bright and willing to learn.

When I started testing, I decided to try it out for a year – pay off my tenacious student loan debt – and then decide what was next. I knew very little about what to expect, and what I discovered surprised me. I’ve now been a software tester for five and a half years and my satisfaction with the work continues to grow. Many folks in my life see that I seem pretty pleased with my work, but continue to be perplexed as to why exactly this is so stimulating for me. Recently a friend who doesn’t work in technology asked “…But don’t you miss interacting with people?”

To this friend, I started by saying that a great deal of the work I do is interactive – I commonly spend much of the day talking to other testers, to software developers, to the folks who asked for the software or who represent our users…and in fact just about everyone in the company. In my current position, I may well have regular interactions with more folks in the company than anyone else. Along the way, I get to ask myself and others thorny questions. I challenge myself to seek out and illuminate unaware assumptions (my own first, and then those of everyone else connected to the project). I imagine what the potential risks are in the product we are building. (What might be broken? What might have unintended consequences? What proposed solution might not really solve our users’ problems?) I think as creatively and as strategically as I’m able about how to explore those risks (What else haven’t I considered yet? What’s another angle this could be approached from?) and then as I explore those risks I keep thinking, generating new test ideas and refining my strategy. Along the way I am learning constantly – about the product, underlying technologies, the users we want to serve, etc.

To me, this is in many ways a dream job. My friend clearly didn’t understand. She is both a voracious reader and a writer, so my next tact was describing the books I’m currently reading to learn and grow as a tester. While I’ve learned a good deal from testing and programming books, that’s not what I’m reading at the moment. I recently finished The Logic Of Failure (mentioned in an earlier post) – a fascinating study of how our thinking can break down in the face of complex systems, often leading to dire results. The next (barely begun) book is Jerry Weinberg’s Introduction To General Systems Thinking…which I can already tell is one for me to read slowly and to reread – it is dense with insight into how complex systems work.

This meant a bit more to her. She still couldn’t quite picture what I did (which is fine) but was intrigued that social psychology and general systems theory were on a tester’s reading list, and decided based on that that whatever-it-is-I-do must be more than she thought it was.

I’ve been thinking about the job of a tester a lot recently, partly because I’ve been hiring (or attempting to hire) testers…and having a hard time. I know there’s a marketing problem here, because (a) so few folks (outside of tech companies) seem to have even heard of testing as a job, and (b) those who have heard of it tend to have heard either that it’s “a job for programmers” or that it’s “boring and repetitive”. Now, programming skills will almost always help (and sometimes are necessary) but frankly I think that the technical skills involved in testing are often easier to train folks on than the just-as-crucial creativity, organization, communication, and strategy. As far as repetitiveness: I know that every job contains repetitive elements, but I would suggest that testing well minimizes the repetitive aspects while maximizing covering new territory…because covering new territory (or finding ways to cover old territory in a new way) tends to provide more useful information about the state of the product to its stakeholders.

All that said, do you enjoy testing? If you do, why? And if you’re feeling bold enough, how do we get the word out to smart, creative, organized folks that exploring software is a fascinating and lucrative way to make a living?

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5 Responses to “Why Do You Enjoy Testing?”

  1. Steve Sandvik Says:

    Speaking as a smart, creative, and (reasonably, and trying to get more) organized person who’d very much like to be a software tester, I have some suggestions for the industry as a whole, if not necessarily your particular situation.

    –If you expect to hire people who are psychologically ready to be great testers (willing to seriously question their own assumptions, particularly), I think a lot of them are not in their twenties. Most people in their twenties (at least, the ones I know) are too sure of themselves, though there are many exceptions, to be sure.

    –If you’re hiring people from outside of the industry who are in their thirties, expect to make a serious commitment to replace most of their current income, or at least to get up to replacement quickly. I actually *had* a job offer, but I couldn’t take it because it was literally less than half what I make now. Some of that is because I currently make a fair amount of money off overtime, but even straight across it was over a 35% pay cut, and they wouldn’t make any commitments as to when I could expect to be close to straight time replacement level pay. I have a wife and kids to support–that’s just not realistic. Yes, it may be my first formal job testing software, but as so many people in testing like to point out, nearly any experience or learning has some translation to testing, if you know how to apply it. 15 years of power plant operation and maintenance experience provides an awfully large number of troubleshooting and investigation opportunities.

    –Identify the fields outside of your industry where, for lack of a better description, good forensic skills and an agile mind (not to be confused with an Agile mind) are at a premium. Industrial equipment field service, process and generation operations, and auditing are a few I can think of off the top of my head. Mind you, those fields tend to be lucrative as well, though at least in my case, the stable work week would be worth losing the overtime pay. And trust me, nothing’s more repetitive than operating a power plant or a piece of process equipment. Not even making 1000s of manual database transactions in a row, unless you’re talking about doing it every day for say, 6 months.

    –Don’t let HR write all the job postings so that every single one asks for 6 months of experience with Junit or whatever tool you happen to be using right now. Tools come and go. Anyone who’s going to be a good tester is a fast learner, it seems to me. If they can’t learn the tools on the fly, chances are they weren’t going to learn the SUT on the fly anyway.

    –I’m not sure whether truly great testers are born or made, but I think there’s at least a component of most of them that falls firmly into the born camp–in the same way most writers would write whether or not they were paid to do it, I suspect that most people who seriously take up testing as a career for its own sake rather than as a stepping stone to something else approach the world in a certain way even when they’re not formally testing. I know I approach things from what seems to me to be a testing perspective most of the time.

    That’s how it looks from here, anyway. Target the right people, make sure lucrative means what you think it means, and be prepared to consider some things as test-related experience that might not be obvious at first glance.

  2. Ben Says:

    Regarding age – there are advantages to every age. Young people often make great testers, simply because they don’t have as many pre-conceived notions. I’d say the biggest problem with a young tester is keeping them focused; often they’ll be ambitious, and that testing has a negative image will lead them away.

    The standard recruiting tactics I’d offer are –
    1. Avoid HR. Avoid big job sites. Meet people at local software groups or conferences. (oh, and blog)
    2. Pay testers as well as you pay developers. Treat them as well. This is the primary thing that mitigates the negative image.

  3. Joe Says:

    I’d have to agree with the other two respondents. Especially Ben’s #2 — pay testers (I prefer to call them QA Specialists) as well as you pay developers. Otherwise you aren’t going to draw the cream of the crop.

    I am a full time QA Specialist and have been doing software testing since the mid-2001. I love it. I started out as a developer but actually found a greater outlet for creativity testing code rather than writing it. And Jeff you are correct that people in the QA world have more interaction with people than developers. I contantly have discussions with the PM, developers, tech writers, business analysts, and end users. I have found that being in QA and having good communication and social skills to interact between groups are invaluable.

    Some other snippets of my beliefs:

    1) There are QA Specialists and then there are Software Testers. They are not mutually exclusive, but there is a difference between the two.

    2) The best testers have a passion for quality — in everything. Not just software, but in requirements, documents, metrics, etc. The whole project should be QA’d, not just the software piece.

    3) A QA Specialist has the main goal of reporting risks to the PM. Finding defects really boils down to reporting how risk prone the project is and reporting it to the PM so that s/he can make the appropriate decisions. Nothing should be hidden.

    4) The most important person to be happy with the end product is the end user. When I am done executing all my test cases, I then meet with the end user to go over the product. Only when they are happy do I sign off that the testing portion of the project is complete. Too many companies rely on the developers to tell everyone when the product is done.

    Just my $.02 worth.

  4. Debbie N. Says:

    I am currently earning my BSIT at University of Phoenix and am finding the study of testing interesting. What are the chances of someone fresh out of college being hired as a tester? and what is the approximate annual pay?

    Are you hired full-time as a tester? or a contract employee?

    Respectfully,
    Curious Debbie

  5. testingjeff Says:

    @Debbie N. I have only worked as a FT tester (with some salaried consulting as part of a previous position), though many testers are contracting as well. When I’m hiring (which I’m not currently) I definitely consider applicants who are fresh out of college. Salaries vary a lot by location, industry, size of company, and other factors as well. For a very rough range, I’ve found salary.com to be a useful guide.

    Glad to hear that you are curious & learning about testing. If you haven’t yet, I’d highly recommend joining the Association for Software Testing, and then getting yourself on the list for the next Black Box Testing Foundations course (which is offered free to members).

    Good luck in your career explorations!

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