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Software Testing and Quality Assurance

How has the field of software testing and quality assurance been affected by the technology sector's economic readjustment?

By Eric Luchman

What would Bill Gates have done without a behind-the-scenes, detail-oriented pefectionsist-AKA a quality assurance tester? Behind every great software developer there is an equally great tester. And even though the IT sector as a whole may be in the employment doldrums, jobs in software test and quality assurance have remained steady.

Tech companies and test labs still need folks to do the "dirty work" of squashing the software bugs. In the new wireless age, testers will be needed to make everyday products suitable for use. And if the thought of playing Play Station 2 all day is appealing, there might even be a job for you.

Wayne Middleton, CEO and publisher of Stickyminds.com, an online quality assurance (QA) magazine and community founded by Software Quality Engineering, says, "I see a resurgence of demand in software testing careers. As a consultant, I have seen business go up 50% from 2001." Middleton sites Microsoft as an example. "For every one developer they hire, they hire one software tester as well."

One of Middleton's clients, Hewlett-Packard/ Compaq, has at least 100 testers on site at their locations all around the world. "For them it's like having insurance," he says. "If the product was perfect, you wouldn't need to test it. For example, if your Web site is crucial during the holiday season, you need to determine the risks."

Middleton believes that in the next few years, there will be an increased need of QA testers in the areas of consumer goods and financial services. With the increase of wireless devices, such as cell phones and hand-held organizers, consumers will demand more quality, and QA testers will have to remove the bugs that consumers put up with now.

"I have a cell phone that's also a Palm Pilot," says Middleton. "Every week or so it shuts down and I have to reboot it. It's ridiculous. In the future, people will expect wireless devices to work as well as household appliances."

The Good...

Washington D.C.-based QA consultant Rick Hower has provided services for AOL, Visa and Oracle. He says that Internet and tech companies have been affected by the economic downturn over the last few years but adds that there is still hope for people in the QA field.

"There are still plenty of opportunities for sharp, motivated people, and over the long term there will be a growing demand due to the increasing complexity of modern software development projects," says Hower. Some of these more complex developments that Hower mentions include multiple programming languages, software that interfaces with other software programs and larger sizes of code lines.

A significant litmus test of what grads might be seeing in the way of jobs can be found at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT). Six years ago the school began offering four courses in the areas of QA and computer security. "Before we started offering the courses, software testing was just crammed into one or two weeks of study through other courses," says James Whittiker, professor of computer science at FIT. "But once we started to offer them as courses, they were hotter than Rolling Stones tickets."

FIT is one of the first schools to offer such courses and will soon offer an undergraduate degree in QA. Companies are starting to take notice. Whittiker says that some software companies have even sent him products for his students to review and adds that his mailbox is stuffed full of letters from companies looking to hire his grads.

And Bad News

After hearing this, it would seem like QA jobs will continue to flourish in the next few years-or will they? According to Marty Dresser, vice president of business development at National Technical Systems, a major contract and staffing company for software and information technology sectors, the future for those in QA is not a pretty picture.

Dresser believes that since computer companies have improved their software development, they have less of a need for testers. He also says that small profit margins and lowering prices in computer equipment are forcing companies to spend less on testing and driving testing labs to consolidate.

"Another negative sign is the decline in readership and advertising for publications that do benchmark testing for software," adds Dresser.

But nonetheless, he stresses the importance of software testing to a company's reputation and bottom-line, especially after what happened to Toshiba. In 1999, a case was brought against the computer manufacturer claiming that they had been producing defective laptops since 1987. Even though Toshiba denied the aligation and claimed that it could not duplicate the flaw in their own laboratories, it cost them $2.1 billion.

How to Make Your Mark

Students interested in a career in software quality assurance and testing should consider what Hower believes companies are looking for in their employees. "Since few colleges provide degrees or significant training in software QA or testing, most companies prefer to hire those with some experience in the software development process," he states.

And exactly what skills are companies looking for in potential QA testers? "They should be able to understand the entire software development process and how it fits into the business approach and goals of the organization," explains Hower.

He adds that even for entry-level QA people, communication skills are essential.

"Tact and diplomacy are useful in maintaining a cooperative relationship with developers. It's important to have the ability to communicate with both technical employees, like developers, and non-technical employees, like customers or management," Hower says. "Judgment skills are also needed when assessing high-risk areas of a project when time is limited."

For All You Video Game Freaks Out There

While software testing involves the obvious-testing software and ancillary products like printers and scanners-don't forget about the tempting world of video game testing. Is it too good to be true? Can you really play with video games all day and get paid for it?

Lester Li, QA director for Radical Entertainment, a privately owned game developer based in Canada, and host of a job board for companies looking for game testers describes what game testers actual do: "Testing video games verifies the interfaces and integrity of the game components and demonstrates that these software components meet their design and technical requirements."

Often these testing jobs are entry-level, compared with the actual game development, which has about twelve different types. Li says that usually the new graduates of the IT or related disciplines right from the university are ripe for these types of jobs.

So what is the availability of these jobs? According to Li, video game publishers like Disney, Fox and EA would say that the positions are increasing because of the growth of sales in video games. However, he notes that if you ask the game developers, you're likely to hear that jobs are steady or going down. "A lot of these companies are consolidating or being bought out and rely more on the publishers for testing," says Li.

So is video game testing all just fun and games?

Li recalls an article in which a tester described the process like eating your favorite ice cream sundae for eight hours a day, five days a week. "Game testers must enjoy playing video games and appreciate the game production process," warns Li.

What Can You Expect?

According to a Quality Progress survey, published by American Society for Quality in December 2001, testers in the greater New York City area with less than one year of experience can earn $53,000, as opposed to someone in Chicago, who can earn $44,000. Add three years of experience to that, and the person in New York may double their salary, while the person in Chicago's salary only went up $20,000. Of course, you always need to consider the cost of a slice of pizza and rent in respective locations.

The type of industry you work in also impacts earnings. In Texas for example, the salary across the board for a QA person is $76,500. A tester in academia gets the bottom salary at $68,000, while someone in the financial sector will earn $83,000 plus benefits.

According to Li, starting salaries for entry-level testers is $40,000 (Canadian). However, the type of money a career on QA can get you has several variables, like location and the company you work for.

While the economy may be in a lull now, jobs in QA and testing remain steady, with no major losses or gains. And as consumers begin to rely more upon wireless products and companies look to develop more complex software programs, the needs for graduates to enter the field will only increase. All things considered, the future looks bright for those in the (sometimes) exciting field of software quality assurance and testing. And let's face it, software developers will always need someone to zap their inevitable bugs.

Eric Luchman is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.

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