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Test Engineering

By Valerie Anderson

Computers, software, cars, electronics... everything designed and built by engineers must be tested before it goes to market. Companies want to deliver a product that fulfills a purpose and makes the customer happy. In order to issue the best possible product, a manufacturer needs someone to determine what could go wrong with it.

Enter test engineers. Once a product reaches a certain stage of development, the designer must hand it over to testers who verify that it works—or doesn't work—the way it's designed to. And according to Steve Odart, a test engineer at AG Communication Systems in Phoenix, it's difficult to point out potential problems in a project that may be years in the making.

Far from working in a dry profession, Odart and Lowell Hunt, a senior engineer at Raytheon Systems Co. in Tewksbury, Mass., agree that test engineering offers a great deal of variety. "You're usually working on a couple of projects concurrently," says Hunt. "You may be at different stages on two projects, and [on top of that] there may be the unexpected small project that comes up. You've always got a couple of things going on at any one moment."

Odart comments that "it's a blast!" in comparison to coding. He cites people he knows who "sit in front of a PC writing this language all day long. Where's the fun in that? [Testers] get to take the product and start playing around with things, really getting into it."

NAME: LOWELL HUNT

Title: Senior Engineer
Company: Defense and Electronics Unit, Raytheon Systems Co., Tewksbury, Mass.
Education: B.S. in electrical engineering, Boston University

Job Description: "My day-to-day routine is primarily software development. I put programs together to test circuit card assemblies that are part of the products that we build here. I also support [the] manufacturing [department], so primarily the day-to-day work is program generation and writing software. Along with that, I write documents to describe the work that I'm doing and I'm responsible for assorted other paperwork for quality standards, in addition to ordering material and talking to vendors."

How He Knew This Was the Field for Him: "I don't know if I set out to be a test engineer. I just started along that path from some of the summer jobs I had calibrating electronic test equipment, oscilloscopes and instruments like that. Because I was comfortable with that equipment, I had the opportunity to test equipment. I found that I really enjoy it because I work in different aspects of engineering—I'm writing software but I'm also doing some hardware design as well. There's also digital design that I can do, and then if I'm working with communications products, like radios, there's RF (radio frequency) work that I would do.

"Working with automated test equipment, where I have a computer or a controller that I'm using to do instrument control, is just really fun. I've got a couple of racks of equipment and I'm writing a program and I'm controlling all of these things and I can see these commands being interpreted."

Biggest Surprise About Working: "It's trying to get the information that I need in a timely manner. Obviously I'd always like things immediately, but they may not exist at that time or I might need to find the right person to ask. That's the most difficult thing: finding the right person to talk to to get the piece of information that I need."

"I'm also dealing with the product design engineering group; I'm dependent on them for information on the product, the schematics, the parts list and detailed aspects of the product. My end customer is generally [the] manufacturing [department]. But sometimes the equipment that I build actually goes out the door so I've got to satisfy my end customer and manufacturing without impacting production schedules. It's a matter of gathering up all this information from various sources and getting what I need."

Biggest Problem Encountered: "It's trying to get the information that I need in a timely manner. Obviously I'd always like things immediately, but they may not exist at that time or I might need to find the right person to ask. That's the most difficult thing: finding the right person to talk to to get the piece of information that I need."

Non-Technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "Well, [working for] a defense contractor, I actually do a good bit of writing. I need to document my work [very carefully]. But for the design that I do, I write a proposal for what I'm going to do and then I'll end up with a final operating procedure or a manual of the work that I've done. I may need to give a presentation to another group or my manager about the work that I'm doing. I may need to track cost and schedule, so I work a lot with various word document tools or schedule applications. Those are skills which are not necessarily taught in engineering school."

Advice to Future Test Engineers: "I'd say trying to get a co-op job is very important—to experience the world of work for yourself. After you've begun working, you need to stay as current as you can with the latest technology and not get comfortable with one specific job, thinking that you're going to spend your whole career there. You've got to be flexible and you've got to want to learn [about] new technologies and the new equipment that's coming out."

NAME: STEVE ODART

Title: Test Engineer
Company: AG Communication Systems, Phoenix
Education: Computer Science degree, Bournemouth University, Dorset, England

Job Description: "AG is a very vibrant company. I'm expected to get the job done rather than just turn the handle, so my routine could be 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. one day [with a] midnight test shop the next; it really depends on the demands of the day. A usual day starts at 7:30 and I go through e-mail and voice mail to see what's going on. After that, it really depends on what phase of the project we're in—whether we're running tests or reviewing design documents or if we're doing test execution."

How He Knew This Was the Field for Him: "I think basically I like breaking things and upsetting people. If you like order and you don't like upsetting people, then this is not the job for you. As a test engineer, your whole job is to break things—things that people have spent thousands of hours putting together and crafting. That's going to upset them. Worse, you're going to tell them it's their fault. You've got to get that across in a nice charming way so that they will understand the problem and willingly fix it. And that's me. I've got strong interpersonal skills and I'm curious. I was the sort of kid who had a transistor radio and I'd take it apart, wondering how it works, and I'd eventually break it.

"When I first came [to AG Communication], they wanted me to write code and I said, 'No, but I do testing.' In this company, the code-writer is king, nobody here wants to do testing. But I said, 'Oh yeah, sure I can do that. I can do that well.'"

"Testing is a riot. I think testing is viewed as dry, unglamorous and uninteresting, [but actually] it can be fun. The job is different every day. Breaking things can be fun. I love it."

Biggest Surprise About Working: "The self-discipline is probably the biggest thing. You know, as a student I had assignments and I had to get them in on time. But if an assignment was late, I'd get a bad mark. In this industry, if the assignment is late, I don't get paid. I could lose my job. The impact is much harder. It's a case of making sure I have the self-discipline to keep on going in this job even when it feels impossible."

Biggest Problem Encountered: "My specialty is understanding the requirements that are given to me and breaking them down and reviewing them to make sure they're complete. The problems I usually face are incomplete requirements. One of the hardest things to do is explain this. Usually a systems engineer is a very senior guy with a lot of experience behind him, and trying to get the idea across that [vital information is not] in a document can sometimes be a challenge.

"I understand both sides, having worked as a systems engineer and as a test engineer. I know how they work together. That makes giving feedback to people at that level much easier because I know what they expect and what they want to hear."

Non-Technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "Being able to think creatively. If I can think outside the box, step away from how fascinating the product is and how clever it is, I can approach it from the point of view of people who will use it. I can't stop with the company that we're selling it to, I have to think about the people outside and how they're going to use it. "If I can think creatively and write test cases that people are not expecting me to write, then I'll generally do a better job."

Advice to Future Test Engineers: "There are all sorts of tools out there for writing and designing code, but the parts at either end--the companies that do testing and specifications—still need people. The more technology-based we get, the more we need test engineers. My advice would be to stay aware of the industry. Don't get stuck in one area. Keep on the move. Keep yourself educated, because you're not going to be much use testing this modern technology if you don't know it."

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