Five Minutes Ahead of the Boot


"There's that same kind of bug I found last week. When will they learn? When can I apply my energy to preventing bugs instead? Isn't that a more noble profession?" says the disgruntled tester. You may think that Quality Assurance is the next logical step in your testing career, but Danny Faught has been down that path and he begs to differ. In this week's column, we find out he's not the only one who feels that way.

Fiona Charles was a tester. After six years of testing for her company, she followed a path to which many testers aspire--she graduated into Quality Assurance (QA). Finally, she got to help prevent bugs, instead of only being able to point them out after a mistake had already been made. By the way, when I say "QA" here, I mean assessing processes and influencing people to improve their processes, rather than the more common usage, which is simply a synonym for "testing."

But Fiona's story doesn't stop there. After doing QA work for a few years, the senior managers who supported her work left the company, and the new managers did not share their appreciation for QA. Schedule pressures caused the processes that everyone had agreed to follow to be thrown out the window. People said that QA was getting in the way. Fiona says she left the company probably five minutes before they would have booted her out. It was such a painful experience that now she avoids QA roles as much as she possibly can.

When Fiona told me her story, I was amazed how similar it was to my own QA story. When I cut my teeth as a tester, I got the impression that testers should naturally move on to a QA role after they're good enough. So when I got frustrated with finding bugs and became convinced that preventing bugs was a higher calling, I insisted on starting a QA team. I drew some process pictures and started a formal inspection process. I studied the masters of the Quality Assurance movement. But somehow everything caved in on me a year later. I honestly don't know why I started getting complaints from management claiming I wasn't doing a good job, but I have a strong suspicion that, like Fiona, I left the company shortly before they were going to throw me out.

Similarities between testing and QA.
Let's explore if QA is really a higher calling for testers, first by looking at the similarities between the roles. One thing is fairly obvious--testers and QA staff need to have a passion for quality. Both must have the ability to temper that passion with a dose of practicality. Soft skills are important for influencing people when you don't have direct control over the product. And since testers often take on some QA-related tasks anyway, they may already have experience doing part of the job.

On top of that is the big frustration that every tester seems to encounter at some point in their career: They can't stand seeing the same mistakes being made over and over again because they know there's a better way to build a product. So the QA team seems like the right place to go.

But what are the differences?
How do testing and QA differ? Testing focuses on product quality. QA tends to be a step removed from the product, focusing on process quality, though QA also can look at product-related metrics. QA requires more knowledge of the entire development life cycle. QA staff has to gain the respect of managers, requirements people, designers, programmers, configuration management staff, and of course, testers. Years of experience as a tester gives some exposure to all of these, but might not make a tester an expert in all of these areas. QA requires even greater soft skills than testing, since they need to gain the trust of people across the whole organization and convince people to change some of the core methods in their jobs.

Testers have tangible deliverables, such as test cases, bug reports, etc.


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