Monday, November 21, 2022

What's the career path of a tester?


Link to the model

 When programmers set their foot on their first job, there are quite a lot of options they can see and choose to specialize in: Embedded systems or highly distributed cloud architectures, specific programming language such as Java, Python or c, optimization and debugging, and that's even before we consider business domains. They will often find themselves with more experienced developers who will give them feedback on their work during design & code reviews, who will talk about concepts they still need to master such as secure code design, efficiency or design philosophies. They will have plenty of opportunities to go back to a piece of code they wrote and experience their mistakes biting in their respective behinds, just so that they can see how much progress they have made. All in all, that's an amazing learning environment even before we consider the plethora of easy to find courses and online resources that teach relevant skills in the appropriate level. 

How is it for software testers? Well, one might say it's the complete opposite. It's not uncommon for testers to find themselves the sole tester in a team, or even in the whole start-up that hired them. Most of the people they meet, including some more experienced testers) won't know a lot about testing and in many places testers are so down the pecking order that it can seem that any career progress is pointing outside of testing - to programming, devOps, product management, or just to being a manager. What skills are required to function well as a function tester? One can find as many opinions as there are people, and most of them won't be actionable. Courses? By a simple search one will stumble upon a lot of ISTQB content, but this content is the opposite of helpful as it provides misconceptions and bad thought patterns (more on that here). There is some good content out there (I've heard good recommendations on BBST and RST, but can't attest yet to their content personally), but if you can find it - you have already burrowed deep enough into the rabbit hole that is the very specific testing community where I've been around for a while now. As for feedback on our work - what feedback? With the exception of an occasional blaming finger of "how did this bug escaped QA" (which we try to avoid), there's very little feedback on testing done right or wrong. What about the times where we were slacking but by chance there wasn't any critical blowup that happened? Or when we were too careful and slowed down the entire development process? Yes, there are outliers that have managed to build a way to get good, reliable feedback on their product from the real world, where it's deployed. But guess what? They usually don't really need testers.
In short, taking the view of an inexperienced software tester, it looks as if all growth paths are leading outside of testing. A small part of those testers will manage to find their way inside the testing world (and some of those will make progress to the level where formal titles do not limit them and matter a lot less) but most capable employees will find a way out of testing. As a result, places looking for experienced, high-skilled testers will have a hard time finding them, and those testers will have a difficult time finding a workplace that will appreciate their skills.

Where I work, we decided to tackle this difficulty initially by looking for inexperienced employees, assuming that it will be easier to teach people good testing if there aren't any bad habits that needs to be broken. We knew that this plan has some drawbacks: We'll have to invest more in training, and we are taking a gamble on their ability to develop the skills we need - which is more difficult than assessing the existing skills of a person. Those were challenges we assumed we could overcome. Naturally, we did not foresee all of the challenges we would face. One of which was employee attrition. To be fair, it's not that we completely ignored this risk, we just assumed that it would be at the same rate as in other teams in the company. Sure, software testing has bad reputation, but we're building a strong team and we can show employees that they can grow significantly and stay. 
Well... no. Inexperienced software testers apply for their first (or second) positions for many reasons, and the most prominent I've encountered is that Software testing has a lower entry bar to "high-tech" jobs, and they assumed (with some degree of truth in it) that it would provide them with a good stepping stone towards the position they actually aim for. Talking with people who left us raised a common pattern: They decided that they can't build their career in testing, and since they did gain some relevant skills, they were ready to make a transition. They also didn't feel they were improving as testers - they could say they are better coders, but the rest of the skills they improved were invisible to them. More importantly, they couldn't see how those skills would help them find their next, hopefully better, job. This brings me back to the job market: Developer jobs are specific (see the list at the top for examples). Testing jobs are almost always "tester\QA\QE\SDET" - nothing that will help differentiate between testers with different experience. It means that the ability to articulate one's added value or interests requires deep thought that is not easy to do at the beginning of one's career, especially if they work in a place that is still building its career ladders and work procedures. 

I want to build a map. Something that will describe possible progress paths inside the role of an individual contributor software tester. It might have exit paths to other roles or to management , but the focus is on software testers and the various kinds of tasks they might perform. Such a map will enable people to look and say "Those are my areas of expertise, this is what I want to do next". For beginners, it can help visualizing their progress, they could look and say "A year ago I had some basic fundamental skills, since I've gained knowledge of accessibility testing, delved a bit deeper into load generation and log filtering and I'm better at risk assessment than I was then". They could then go and say something like "I enjoyed trying to make sense out of heaps of data, so I might want to look into production monitoring and deeper into performance tests, for both I will need skills in data visualization, working with big data and data storage and retention strategies.
With some luck, companies could use it when they define their career ladders, or even in their recruiting processes and ads which will lead to more diversity in hiring "tester".

To support those goals, I built a three layered model:

  1. Seniority.
    A generic, non specialized, catch-it-all division. People who only care about prestige, compensation and responsibility can stop at this level (no, they are not shallow or indifferent, they might be from other professions, such as finance, HR or even your CEO), for the rest of us, it would still be helpful to know which level is any role - both in terms of  compensation and in terms of the type of skills that would be relevant to it.
    In the model I use 3 such categories - Junior, Senior and Principle that represent ever growing sphere of influence - from just doing one's own job, to having a company-wide impact. Smaller companies might only need two such categories, while larger corporations might need more.
  2.  Roles.
    Those are titles to the types of work people with the title of "tester" are often doing and are not considered a distinct role (so, doing part time customer support does not count). Again, the size of the organization matters. Larger ones can have teams that focus on one such role, while smaller places, or corporations that chose to organize their work differently, will have people wearing multiple hats. For instance, not every place needs or can afford an accessibility expert, but most places can benefit from someone who has some accessibility expertise and help the rest of the team(s). 
  3. Skills and capabilities.
    In order to be successful in each role, certain skills are needed. Since those are the things one can learn intentionally breaking down the roles to specific key competencies will be helpful to people who try to make their way through a specific career path. At a later phase, each such skill can be augmented with resources that can help acquiring it, and companies can decide on ways to measure them to decide whether someone has achieved the necessary level of a skill for the step they want to make. 

My work, quite naturally, is far from being perfect or complete, I'm using language and terminology that makes sense to me, and I'm most certainly missing entire fields. This is the point where I'm asking for your help: I would be happy if this could become a model that is developed by the community and will be usable by both companies defining their processes and individuals crafting their career.
My model can be found here and anyone with access can comment. Tell me what works for you, what does not, which assumptions that I make are not suitable for you and what you can see missing there.
This is also the place to thank Perze Ababa that contributed from his time and helped me notice some key insights I was ignoring, as well as see the perspective of the larger corporate for a while.


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