Software Testers Make The Grade
By: Charles Waltner
Software testers, once the Rodney Dangerfields of the software-development industry, now enjoy much more respect--as well as more satisfying career opportunities and better salaries--thanks to the increasingly competitive software market and the growing complexity of applications.
The year 2000 bug has highlighted the need for quality testing and caused a surge in demand for Y2K testing specialists. However, industry experts say the profession had been enjoying increasing demand for its services before widespread awareness of the Y2K bug--and will likely continue to do so well past the year 2000.
"There was a time when no one wanted to be in testing," says Daniel Hines, manager of mid-Atlantic recruiting for Pencom Systems Inc., a New York IT employment agency. "Today, however, there are many more exciting opportunities for testers--as well as compensation to match."
Though software testing was once considered a lowly step to a job as a software developer, it's now viewed by many as a creatively and monetarily rewarding profession worthy of long-term commitment. And despite the increasing appeal of software testing, the profession is still a great place to get a start in software engineering.
As recently as five years ago, testers were more or less "button pushers" who carried out testing programs developed by software engineers, says Hines. But now, more companies--both software vendors and IT departments--are setting up quality-assurance groups that give testers broader roles in the software-development process and more engineering challenges such as creating analytic tools.
"Earlier in the decade, companies would just pull in whomever they could and have them run the applications to see if they were OK," says Melanie Ledford, an IT manager with Wellmark International, a Bensonville, Ill., manufacturer of animal health-care products. "Testing is now a part of the project-development life cycle from the beginning."
That's been the experience of Doug Preyna, a testing professional since 1992 who is on contract with ComForce Information Technologies Inc., a high-tech recruiter in Woodbury, N.Y. Preyna says that early in his career, he was viewed as an assistant to developers, and programmers told him exactly what to test and how to test it. Just a few years ago, software developers were resistant to having their work scrutinized by a tester, who they viewed as less skilled, Preyna sayTesters, as part of the quality-assurance process, now are more frequently required to have advanced analytic skills for creating stringent engineering testing methodologies for the debugging and quality-assurance processes, Preyna says.
As the software-development industry has matured, testing has gained respect because companies are using testing and quality assurance as a way to differentiate their products. Scott Baisch, a program tester for the Windows CE operating system at Microsoft, says it has taken software companies the last 10 years to understand the importance of testing and, more important, how to carry out an effective testing process. "It took them a while to figure out how to approach this issue," Baisch says.
This more-sophisticated understanding of testing has resulted in testers getting overriding responsibility of software quality. "Everything that a software department does, a quality-assurance department scrutinizes," Baisch says. Testing now involves a more holistic approach, requiring testers to scrutinize overall design architecture and become advocates for alternative approaches that developers had not considered, Baisch says.
The quality-assurance testing role changes as the product-development cycle advances, Baisch says. Initially, Baisch looks at the specifications established for a new software product and provides feedback to managers about the viability of the blueprint. In the second stage of development, he programs specialized testing tools from scratch while developers write the code for the application. As developers create the programming, Baisch will read the code to check for obvious flaws. Then, as the code is completed, he runs tests, alerts developers to bugs, and retests until the software is solid.
This growing role in software production has led to greater demand for testers and a surge in compensation. Testers are the third most-requested position companies want to fill, after systems administrators and software programmers, says Pencom's Hines, whose company is looking for testers for 25 positions for its clients.
IT recruiters and testers report the software-testing profession has become more lucrative in the last five years as demand has increased, with the gap between pay for testers and developers narrowing dramatically. Hines, who recruits for the Washington, D.C., area, says an experienced tester can expect to make $80,000 to $90,000 annually, compared with $30,000 to $40,000 five years ago. Preyna, for example, says his hourly pay has more than tripled over the past seven years to $35 to $45 an hour for contract work, though he says developers still earn slightly higher wages.
Y2K concerns have given a boost to the testing profession. Gary Moore, a recruiting manager at ComForce, says last year's demand for testers peaked, mostly for Y2K projects; in the last few months, requests for testers have dropped significantlyMoore says more software-development professionals have jumped into testing to take advantage of Y2K demands. But after Y2K work is over, the market could get much more competitive. "There may be a little bit of an oversupply come 2000 or 2001," Moore says.
While testing has gained respect, that doesn't always translate into new jobs in all IT departments. Ron Yust, director of information services for Empire District Electric Co. in Joplin, Mo., says quality assurance has gained a more significant role in software production. However, his 20-person IS shop can't afford to hire testers. Instead, he requires his programmers to carry out testing chores. Ten years ago, the stereotypical programmer worked in a windowless back room and was very protective of his programming from outside scrutiny, particularly any end-user kibitzing, Yust says. Now, given the importance of testing, Yust says, he won't hire any developers who are defensive about their programming or unwilling to go through the rigors of usability tests. "I look for programmers who will work with others and are into satisfying end-user critiques rather than defending their babies," he says.
Testing also provides an excellent path for breaking into software development. Though many testing jobs require advanced programming skills, lower-level testing positions require only a modicum of experience. That was the case for Microsoft's Baisch, who had never worked in the industry before being hired as a contract tester with Microsoft three years ago--though he had taught himself C and C++ to build computer games as a hobby.
Testing is a more-accessible profession for an inexperienced programmer because the code-writing demands for creating testing tools are far less complicated than those for a developer working on a sprawling application with multiple components and a team of dozens of programmers, Baisch says.
But testing isn't just a path to a more interesting job. Testers such as Preyna and Baisch are happy with their vocation. Preyna says testing provides more creative freedom than software programming says. Searching for programming bugs or analyzing the interworkings of an application are invigorating mental challenges, much like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle or solving a murder mystery, he adds.
Unlike programmers, who typically are focused on just one segment of a larger application, testers work on a variety of components within each application. This broader view leads to many interesting career challenges, Preyna says, and is good career-building experience.
Says Preyna: "Demand for testers might slow down a little bit after 2000, but I don't expect it to slow much because we have already proven our value."
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