Carl Shaulis asked a simple question, or what seemed to be a simple question... what are some of the skills needed at various points of a career for a software tester?
There are many variations of software testing and approaches to software testing, but for many of us, it seems that there is a specific path. The first round is what we as a group called "the muscle", i.e. classic manual software testing. The starting point for this is, to borrow from Jon Bach, a need for curiosity. Jon has said that he can tech people technical stuff as needed, but he can't teach people how to be curious (I will come back and get the quote and post where he says this, but for now, forgive the live blogger and lack of immediate attribution ;) ).
Another aspect we discussed is that the skill levels are not specifically better at higher job levels. Many of the skills of a Level 1 tester are still applied at higher levels. they don't necessary have specialized knowledge, but they do have experience using it over several years. What is expected for any level is the ability to evaluate a product, to look at the product with an eye to look at a workflow and determine if something is out of place or not working in the way that people expect. Critical thinking skills are valuable at any level of the job. The differentiators tend to not be the skills, but the level of influence within the organization the individual has. Junior testers and senior testers are often differentiated not so much by their skill level, but with experience and leadership, as well as overall influence.
One obvious question to ask is "does a tester need to learn how to code and make coding part of their job if they want to advance?" My answer is that, if you want to be a toolsmith and work on test tooling , then yes, programming is essential. If you don't aim to be a toolsmith, or if you are not interested in focusing on automation or tooling, then programming may not be essential. Having said that, I think that many more questions are capable of being asked and evaluated when a tester can look at the underlying code and understand what is happening, even if just in a general sense.
Much of these discussions come into play so that they can have a shorthand when it comes to job titles, compensation, and ability to allocate people into an organization. I've primarily worked in smaller companies the past fifteen years, but during the first ten years of my career, I worked with Cisco Systems, which went from a smallish 300 person company when I joined it in 1991 to a 50,000 plus person company when I left in 2001. Early in the life of Cisco, job titles were less important than they were later. When dealing with a company that is much larger, titles and the shapes of the "cogs" starts to matter. Within smaller teams, generalists and people able to cover lots of different areas are much more important, and there's a fluidity in the work that we do. Career path is less relevant in a smaller company, and the reward aspects are different. In many ways, in a smaller company, you are not rewarded with titles or advancement, you are rewarded with influence (and in some cases, with money or equity).
As a closer, it was suggested that we check out the Kitchen Soap article "On Being a Senior Engineer". There is a lot of meat in this one, so I might do a follow on post just on this article :).