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Creating, executing, and maintaining reliable tests has never been easier.
The role of the software tester is rapidly evolving as cloud, DevOps, and customer expectations transform what building ‘good’ software means, and how it’s accomplished. Skills like manual testing, test automation, and quality coaching are combining in new ways to enable faster software development, more efficient testing, and help quality professionals expand their roles in exciting ways. But navigating this change isn’t easy, especially as the Great Resignation prompts many people to re-think their careers, goals, and values. Fortunately, there are many impressive leaders in quality engineering who can share their experiences and help illuminate the new career paths available to software testers and quality professionals.
At mabl Experience, we were able to gather a few of these leaders for a candid discussion on their quality engineering careers, what they see for the future, and their advice to aspiring quality professionals as they navigate the new world of software engineering.
United by Curiosity and Empathy
With over a century of collective experience in software testing, quality assurance, and software development, our panel represented the full range of quality engineering career paths. Though Maaret, Susan, Marjie, Karine, LaDeitra, and Darrel all had different entryways into the field, they were united by endless curiosity and the drive to make software better for the end user.
The hour-long discussion covered everything from breaking into quality engineering, being a woman in the industry, and even what the practice of software quality should be called. But one theme continued to hold attention throughout the conversation: how “technical” skills should be defined, and how quality engineering practitioners can build their resume for long-term career growth.
The Evolving Role of the Software Tester
Like the rest of the software development industry, software quality has transformed quickly to meet the needs of the business and customer expectations. Far from the literal bugs that once challenged software testers, modern-day quality engineers are taking on a wider range of responsibilities and expanding the role of software testing in the development process. As industry veterans, our panel had valuable insights to share.
Senior Engineering Manager Marjie Carmen shared her perspective:
“When I started out, it was commonly thought that software testers didn’t need programming skills or software engineering skills since the focus was on manual testing. Testers were meant to use the product exactly how a customer would use it. Today, I see QA working hand-in-hand with software engineering, often with similar skill sets. People are starting to see software engineers and QA as equal roles, but I really see QA as equal and then more, because they have to know the business side and where the industry is going. QA needs to make good recommendations about where the product needs to go, and that requires an engineering mindset."
She continued: "They ask difficult questions like: what’s the fastest way to deliver this product to customers? How can I break this? Where can I find the gaps in the user journey? But QA also needs to understand the user perspective, particularly new customers that might be seeing the product for the first time. How will they interact with the software? QA today really needs to understand these multiple perspectives and that requires a lot of technical expertise."
As quality engineering moves into this multidisciplinary role that encompasses engineering, market fit, and the UX, the question for QE professionals becomes one of continuous learning and the confidence to lead challenging discussions.
Building Professional Confidence in Quality Engineering
The constant evolution in software testing and quality engineering, though exciting, also presents a challenge to QA professionals: how to consistently build your skills and your confidence. As LaDeitra pointed out, the two are different sides of the same coin. When quality engineers have confidence in their skills, they’re better able to collaborate with the rest of the software development team to improve testing strategy and triage defects.
But building confidence can be challenging, especially as software testing has embraced coding skills to the point where software developers can specialize in quality as SDETs. But that doesn’t mean that coding experience is the most essential skill in quality engineering since quality engineering is all about connecting code to user context. Even if QE professionals aren’t expert coders, they can build confidence in their skills by understanding their unique place in the software development process.
Tester-turned-CTO LaDeitra Lee summarized her views: “QA knows the most about the product because we know the customer's perspective and we're testing the full product from the front end all the way to the back end. Compared to a developer, most of them are focused on developing their particular piece, so they don't explore every aspect of the application. That's why I make sure to tell my team that they need to have confidence in their work.”
Confidence is essential in quality engineering as software testers are often responsible for giving bad news. Though their role is to ultimately improve the product, that road to quality is usually filled with bugs and unpredictable challenges. When quality engineering professionals are confident in their work, it’s easier for them to lead constructive conversations on improving the product.
The Quality Engineer Hiring Process
Growing responsibilities equals a growing number of requirements and skills for quality engineering jobs. Navigating the hiring process is never easy, but succeeding in a rapidly changing field can feel like running a marathon at a full sprint. With a full range of QA management experience at startups, established corporations, and global enterprises, our experts had thoughts to share.
For former Slack Senior Engineering Manager Karine Sully, successful QA applicants needed to demonstrate curiosity and communication skills: “I always look for people who are curious and have good communication and organizational skills, especially at an entry level or early career position. You need to be able to think critically, organize your thoughts, and be able to communicate what you're doing. That foundation means you can push beyond your current skills and grow. As a manager, I love being able to foster that kind of growth and development in engineers.
Critical thinking was also highlighted by Susan Marie, Director Product Operations and President of the Triangle Software Quality Association.
“I often ask questions in job interviews that I don’t know the answers to, and I’m very open with candidates about these questions. I really just want to see how an applicant thinks about open-ended problems, like testing a soda machine. I want to hear if they consider what the product change is, how the UX is impacted, how the form and function of the soda machine is changing. If a software testing job applicant starts asking these questions, I know it’s going to be a fun interview.
Then I like to talk about testing strategies. And this is something I think we've grown up and matured around in the quality assurance industry, we now have some broadly recognized standards. We all know about test plans and there's some general thinking around test automation, so I look for those skills as part of the interview process. But that first question on how you approach a problem reigns supreme.”
But interviewing as an external candidate is only half the battle when it comes to building a career path as a quality engineer. As many of our panelists demonstrate, quality engineering is a skill set that can be developed through a variety of roles in software development.
Creating Unconventional Career Paths in Software Development
As quality engineering continues to evolve and grow as a profession, many in the field are creating new career paths by moving between different roles throughout the software industry. By supporting these unconventional candidates, says Principal Test Engineer and prominent QA speaker Maaret Pyhäjärvi, software development organizations can grow internal talent and help quality engineering develop.
Maaret made her case during mabl Experience: “We hope that there's more of this openness for moving from one technical role to another. There's always the possibility of learning small slices of technicality. Some of my favorite architects these days are so good at software testing, so good at programming, and can really bring the whole team together. So we need to allow that kind of movement, where people get to try things and break away from stereotypes. We need to remember that we can be strong in a variety of disciplines across the software development industry."
A fitting final note to a discussion that centered around the many mindsets of quality engineering: developer, software tester, and user. When the very definition of software quality is evolving by the day, quality engineering professionals need to embrace new ways to learn on the job, maximize their talents, and ask bigger questions about their product.
Quality Engineering Opportunities are Calling
Quality engineering offers a wealth of opportunities for aspiring and experienced software testers alike. As our expert panel demonstrated, there’s no “right way” to build a successful career in quality engineering. To conclude with more wise words from Maaret:
“I think my favorite piece of advice is that when one door closes, another one opens. At some point, you’ll feel that this isn’t your place anymore. And that's not a bad thing. That's an opportunity. You have only one life and there's a zillion places that you can spend that life, so look for those opportunities. It's always out there.”
Watch the full mabl Experience panel and explore other expert panels from the event here.