This essay is written by April Matias.

April works as a QA engineer at Dalia Research, a market and media research company in Berlin. She has worked on different products in her 5 years as a QA specialist, and continues to bring her love of philosophy into her professional life.

This essay was adapted from a talk I delivered at a meetup for professionals in Quality Assurance (QA). The content arose from conversations I’ve had with former colleagues, both testers and developers, wondering about the future of software development teams.

At the start of most QA careers, testing tasks are often characterized by their manual and repetitive nature. In turn, testers acquire a good grasp of products and systems, but work may begin to feel dehumanizing if there’s no advancement beyond what’s manual. On the other hand, trends in software development like test-driven development (TDD) and increase in automation contribute to murmurs of QA obsolescence.

The role of “QA” remains vague to many, both laymen and tech practitioners. Software testing is a more digestible notion, if a bit limited in terms of scope. When asked to describe my job, I often end up replying: “I’m a professional complainer. I’m paid to be the first person to whine about stuff not working so you won’t have to.” This certainly does a disservice to my profession, but it indicates the fluid nature of the QA position in software development.

Among the many QAs working in Berlin right now, some would hew closer to product management while others are more inclined towards engineering. Because QA is not well defined, companies don’t necessarily understand it and would rather do without it or they have an inkling that they should have it but simply don’t know what to do with it. Because it is not well defined, there’s always a need to explain its relevance.

Hence, the tester’s existential crisis.

To confront this crisis, I will discuss 3 QA roles:

  • The first is something I believe almost every QA professional encounters
  • The second is a role QAs can develop (and I myself am trying)
  • And the third is a role I think we should strive for in our industry

1. The Tester as a Second-class Citizen

A common view is that testers are not well-informed about software in general. Whether that’s true or not, any QA worth their salt can learn quickly on the job and is able to apply such knowledge in their tasks. But just as an entry-level developer can learn the ropes, what sets apart an effective QA?

Here are a few core aspects (among many others) that validate your value within the product development process:  

  • Your power lies in your investigative skills
    • Don’t get bogged down by the notion of “testing completely” or “breaking the system”– your time and attention are a scarce resource
    • Focus on risk and be pragmatic (you become better at assessing this, the more familiar you are with the product)
  • Your value is in your ability to provide and communicate information (esp. to decision-makers)
    • Place information you have in a narrative
    • Don’t get too invested in controlling releases; that’s for the project manager

2. The Tester as a Service Provider

More recently, it has become more fashionable to treat QA as “quality assistance” as opposed to “quality assurance”. Companies like Spotify and Atlassian spoke and wrote about this paradigm shift at length, effectively declaring the “QA as gatekeeper” mindset as dated and ineffective.

The notion of assistance highlights the aspects of a tester’s life which require him or her to serve many “clients”: product managers, developers, customer/tech support, business stakeholders. The test process, whether manual or automated, should always seek to verify that software implementation actually meets business needs. The emphasis on assistance reframes the QA professional as an advocate for quality at every level: clearer business impact, better product specifications, cleaner code.

This role is an ongoing challenge for me at Dalia Research, because it demands that I step out of my comfort zone and commit to persistently question assumptions to acquire more clarity.

3. The Tester as an Advocate

Since I already mentioned advocating for quality, another one of its aspects that’s gaining traction in recent years is inclusivity in software and product development. One of the underlying assumptions behind the drive towards diversity in companies is that diverse teams can deliver better products. This particular promise of diversity doesn’t need to be theoretical. Often, QAs already put themselves in the shoes of end-users for acceptance testing. This exercise requires empathy as a skill and a willingness to think about different behavioral dimensions among consumers. It is not unimaginable for QAs to stretch this skill to aim at a more inclusive product. Additional language support, low cost of accessibility in emerging markets, awareness about gender biases, integration of existing assistive technologies are some common ideas to increase the inclusivity of products.

Another advocacy QAs can take up is ethical consideration. This is not easy and depending on your position on the decision-making chain, such advocacy may have limited effect. Just as the service provider role encourages questioning assumptions, so does the advocate role urge QAs to unravel definitions of success behind features and products. For some products, this might entail identifying dark design patterns which mislead users.

At Dalia Research, our company goal to create a positive impact is something we take to heart. This means that as an employee, my participation in conversations surrounding our surveys and brainstorming for socially relevant projects is something akin to civic responsibility.

In conclusion…

On any given day, frustration can come from different angles,  regardless of our varied levels of expertise and the vastly different products we handle. I hope that by keeping in mind the roles I’ve discussed, we, QA engineers can negotiate our roles in development teams better and cultivate a sense of craftsmanship in our work.

 

Header Image by Damien Zaleski on Unsplash