Breaking into testing: 2016 edition
Recently I participated in an online discussion through the Ministry of Testing Dojo, entitled "The many ways testers and testing are misunderstood", hosted by Amy Phillips and Alan Page.
As part of this chat, I was talking to Lisa Folliard, who had some questions about how newcomers can get started in testing:
"Do you kind of just learn as you go, or is there anything to proactively study? Also, are there especially important skills or tools to have an understanding of before applying for jobs?"
I realised that my own journey into testing began 15 years ago, and although to some degree I "fell into" the role (like so many of those before me), the industry has changed greatly in the meantime - there are now many more ways for newcomers to break into testing.
For sure, some of the best opportunities for learning happen on-the-job: your personal experiences, experimentation, successes and failures can teach you more than many textbooks ever could. However, paradoxically you'll normally need to be able to demonstrate this knowledge/experience before you can even get a job - it's no wonder it can be daunting to get started!
Luckily, there are a range of different programs/initiatives that can help you to take your first steps into the world of testing. These are just a few which I've had experience with; this is by no means a comprehensive list, and if anybody spots any obvious oversights then please let me know in the comments!
Participate in voluntary/beta test programs
For better or worse, there's a lot of unpaid testing opportunities out there. Publishers of videogames have realised that fans will gladly beta-test their upcoming titles for free, and although such schemes are usually geared towards pre-release load testing, there's a danger that this is taking paid jobs away from testers. In other words: there are a lot of beta-testing opportunities out there, if you're prepared to give your time for free.
That's not to say it's not without the opportunity for reward. Most beta testers will take the product they've been offered, use it, and not give any feedback at all. If you take the time to provide feedback and bug reports through the requested channels, you can become known as somebody who has an interest and commitment to quality. Make a significant contribution and you may find that a manager is willing to write a glowing reference for you - or even offer you a job. (I had some experience of this: after performing some unpaid beta testing for a company, I was welcomed with open arms when I later applied for a role with them.)
If you're more determined to be paid for your efforts, you might want to check out freelance testing services such as UTest. Once you've registered and completed a brief profile, you'll get emailed when a test project becomes available. By completing assigned testing activities and reporting bugs, you can earn cash payouts. The sums involved aren't life-changing, but it'll give you great exposure to a wide range of projects: I only dabbled in it for a few months, but during that time I tested a desktop CRM system, a basketball website and a system which generated QR codes for lotto tickets!
Peer-to-peer learning opportunities
If you're reading this blog, or you received a link to it, that probably means you're already somewhat active in the worldwide testing community. There are a whole host of peer-to-peer learning opportunities if you know where to look. These normally take the form of meetups or online sessions; Meetup.com is a great place to start, allowing you to make connections to groups in your local area.
One such online learning group is Weekend Testing, which I would obviously mention as I'm a facilitator for their European chapter! There are sessions running most weeks (each of the worldwide chapters meets once a month, on different weekends) and you can attend as many or as few as you like. You can even attend sessions from different continents - one of the reasons that we run our European sessions in the afternoon is to allow American participants to join us for a breakfast chat.
Another group which is making great waves is the Software Testing Clinic, which offers regular drop-in sessions in the UK to share ideas with fellow testers, creating a safe learning environment for newcomers, as well as an opportunity for more experienced testers to gain mentoring experience.
There are plenty of other groups who will bring information to your desktop without you ever needing to leave your house! Organisations such as Ministry of Testing and TEST Huddle run regular free webinars, in conjunction with classroom training activities and conferences. There are various aggregator websites which can help you to find these events, such as PractiTest's Testing Events page.
Formal certifications and qualifications
This is where things can sometimes get a little tricky. If you've delved into the aforementioned testing communities, you're probably aware of some of the controversies surrounding certification schemes and what they offer. Those discussions are out there if you want to read them, and I'd certainly advise doing your own research, but here are a handful of my own experiences:
- The ISTQB offers the best-known certification program on the market, though whether it provides value is a matter for much debate. I took the ISTQB Foundation and Intermediate exams in my early days of testing, as they'd been recommended to me by colleagues and they're often required by recruiters. However, other than getting me "a foot in the door", I don't feel that they gave me much in the way of value: they're reliant on memorising large chunks of syllabus and then passing a multiple-choice exam, and there's zero correlation between passing the exam and being a competent tester (something which I learned fast when I became the recruiter).
- Rapid Software Testing is a much more hands-on, challenging course which teaches some of the skills, techniques and tools which can make you an effective context-driven tester. There's no exam, just a certificate of completion, but in recruitment situations I find that when I engage with candidates about their RST experiences, these testers tend to be more passionate and informed about their craft than those who haven't taken the course. There's also an equivalent online course, RST Applied, which delivers a more hands-on version of the material for a fraction of the cost.
- The BBST courses aim to provide a certification pathway which avoids many of the criticisms leveled towards ISTQB. Their entry-level course, BBST Foundations, is a deeply theoretical, complex challenge, involving essays and group activities which require collaboration with fellow participants around the world. This does mean that your experiences can be hugely impacted (for better or worse) by the other students on the course: my experience was mostly unsatisfactory due to frustrations with the other members of my group, but I can see how it would be much more engaging with a better crowd.
Self-paced learning services
There are a few very good general-purpose sites for increasing your technical skillset at your own pace. Some, such as Codecademy, are free; others, such as Pluralsight and Lynda, are subscription-based but offer a wider range of high-quality specialist courses.
There are also organisations which offer subscription-based services with a testing focus: the Ministry of Testing Dojo is one which I've had some experience with. In fact, I've recorded several lengthy videos for them, so I'll try not to sound too egotistical when I say that they set a very high benchmark for quality!
Just get involved!
The testing landscape in 2016 is one where there are all sorts of ways to get involved. If you want to talk about testing, you can find dedicated channels on Reddit (/r/QualityAssurance and /r/softwaretesting), a Slack community (testers.io), and portals such as Software Testing Club which contain an almost overwhelming array of opportunities to engage with fellow testers. These are all safe places for newcomers to get started, so pick one and take the plunge - I guarantee you'll find a helping hand in no time.