Volkswagen’s recent shenanigans—using software to turn on emissions controls in some cars only when they were being tested—puts a spotlight on the role software increasingly plays in everything from automobiles to assembly lines.
It’s difficult to think of a product or process that doesn’t involve some type of technology system or, more likely, systems. Whether cruise ships that self-navigate from port to port, manufacturing equipment that uses a computer to guide its work, or refrigerators that send performance information back to the factory, the Internet of Things (IoT) and embedded hardware have made software ubiquitous in today’s world.
That’s good news for software testers, who have to make sure these systems function properly and deliver expected results. But even as the need for such professionals grows, the demands of their roles are changing, along with their job requirements.
More Than Functionality
“Testing is testing,” said Yaron Kottler, CEO of QualiTest USA, based in Fairfield, Conn. While some specialized knowledge can be useful—a background in the tools used for testing, for example, such as Apache JMeter or Winrunner—he sees a need for more testers who have the expertise required to ensure highly specialized applications work properly in live environments.
Barry Weston, delivery director at services provider Sogeti in London, agrees. Testing within the Industrial Internet “is a testing activity that’s very different,” he said. “It’s business-centric, not user-centric. You’re looking to get results that behave as you’d expect them to.” To Weston, testing in such environments “becomes much more of an engineering discipline. You need to run simulators and the like. It appeals to a very different type of person.”
Testing is far more complex than making sure pressing a particular button delivers the expected response. These days, it’s about confirming that very specialized software operates correctly in challenging environments that can involve varied networks, multiple devices, and rapidly changing inputs. For example, systems tracking data from an aircraft in flight must not only compile information correctly, but process and transmit it to the airline’s servers without impacting context and accuracy.
That means testers need to understand more than standard tools and platforms; they must be familiar with how their application interacts with a broad ecosystem, and impacts the intended business need. Tejas Vashi, director of Product Marketing and Strategy of Learning@Cisco in Raleigh, N.C., likens it to the way software developers work today: “Now developers have to understand things like networks and bandwidth… Skills across the board are interconnecting.”
Subject Matter Expertise
Makes for a good tester? Kottler looks for people “with a short list of core skills,” he said. “We’ll give them the rest.” That short list:
- Either a “very technical” bent or subject matter expertise that aligns with the product being tested (radiology, for example, or accounting)
- Good communications skills
- Strong math skills
By “very technical,” Kottler means people who can code reasonably well (the language doesn’t matter). Strong skills in networking, firewalls, and related disciplines might also fit the proverbial bill. The ideal candidates will understand how technology works, the basics of code, and analyzing results. “We’ll teach them the tools and methodologies,” he said. “What we’re really looking for is the tester mindset. We get off on breaking stuff.”
At other moments, subject-matter expertise is the critical factor. As Weston observed, “You can turn anyone with a logical mind into a tester, but not into a financial expert, for example.” Given the proliferation of systems designed to handle extremely specialized tasks around data analytics, accounting, and other business needs, experts in those fields need to ensure that applications aren’t just functioning, but perform correctly.
Candidates who combine technical chops with subject matter expertise, Kottler said, “can write their own check.”
Kottler believes that the growing need for subject-matter expertise offers an opportunity to workers whose jobs may be put at risk by technology. Last year, Gartner predicted that new tech could replace up to a third of existing workers, including those in areas such financial analysis, medical diagnostics and data analytics.
But those applications, Kottler points out, will need SMEs to test them. “We’re gearing our strategy around that,” he said. “We’re looking to hire those people.”