Thursday, March 11, 2010

Anybody Can Do It, Right?!

In a discussion I’ve been part of, an interesting question was asked. Can anyone become a software tester? Or more to the point, is Testing something everyone or anyone can do? The replies back were varied and interesting, and quite a few were rather humorous as well, but it brought out some interesting thoughts and ideas. First and foremost, those of us participating agreed that Quality Assurance is not “easy” to do. More precisely, it’s not easy to do if it is to be done well and consistently.

My thoughts from this exchange started to wander towards why this is a prevalent attitude. Do we get a bad rap in Q.A.? Why do so many look down their noses at “Testers” or "Quality Assurance Engineers” or "Test Analysts” or "[fill in the blank trendy job title]"? I don’t have all the answers to this, but I do have a few ideas. One of the biggest, I think, is the fact that our contribution can vary wildly depending on what it is that we actually do. In the software industry, developers get a lot of recognition for an obvious reason; they produce a shippable product that is tangible and people can use it and say “hey, this is great” or “wow, this isn’t good”. If you are someone who works with automation and creating test scripts, there is a little bit of this “shipping” phenomenon in that you have actual tangible items to point to (test scripts, test reports, etc.). For many of the things that testers do, there really isn’t a tangible product to point to and say “see, I made this”.

This works against us in many ways, because without a tangible physical product to show, we can easily be seen as either a non-entity at worst or a less than well understood part of the business puzzle at best. I want to argue that we do provide something of value, and that it is possible to demonstrate that there is a way that we show our value. It isn’t that we are the barrier to bugs, or that we guarantee a products quality (many testers have the idea that that is their primary responsibility), but that we ultimately provide a story. Yes, a story!

In my world view, testers have more in common with beat journalists and investigative reporters than any other job I can think of. We also have a lot in common with detectives. We are required to investigate a product, look for its flaws, and report them in a compelling way. When we say that “anyone can be a journalist” because anyone can write a few paragraphs, we tend to laugh, because we realize that to be a good journalist requires a lot more than just writing a few paragraphs. There has to be deep knowledge on the subject, or at least enough knowledge to know what to go after to expose a story. Journalists interview, they follow leads, they get both supporting and opposing viewpoints, and at the end of the day, they make a story that moves people to consider what they have discovered and add that to their world view.

Just as it would be an injustice to say that a great journalist is a commodity position, because anyone can do it, being a great tester is likewise just as challenging, but the reason we don’t get the same “press” as journalists is because we don’t actively tell a compelling story. Well, I believe the really good testers do. I’ve decided I want to be seen as one of those really good testers, so I’m going to do all I can to write compelling stories in the world in which I test.
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