This post is part of the Pride & Paradev series.
Do software testers need technical skills?
Software Testers Need Technical Skills
“Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.”
~ Thomas Carlyle
You’re testing software day in and day out, so it makes sense to have an idea about the internals of how that software works. That requires a deep technical understanding of the application. The better your understanding of the application is, the better the bugs you raise will be. If you can understand what a stack trace is and why it’s happening, the more effective you’ll be in communicating what has happened and why.
“Most good testers have some measure of technical skill such as system administration, databases, networks, etc. that lends itself to gray box testing.”
~ Elizabeth Hendrickson – Do Testers Have to Write Code?
As you’re testing, you can easily dive into the database and run some SQL queries to make sure things actually did what they were meant to, or discover and test an exposed web-service using different combinations as it’ll be quicker and provides the same results.
Gone are the days where you’d be emailed a link to a test environment somewhere that you’ll use to conduct some manual testing and provide some feedback. More often then not, you’ll start by setting up your own integrated development environment on your own machine so that you can pull changes as they’re committed by programmers and find issues sooner.
You’ll also probably be asked to build a test environment that other people can use, and a continuous deployment pipeline to automatically update that environment when appropriate.
Without technical skills you’re going to struggle with this, as it’s not just a matter of testing’ the functionality of the application, but testing the entire system: that it can be built, deployed, internationalized, scaled etc.
Soon you’ll start coming across other testing challenges such as how to test internationalization and localization, accessibility and how to locate or generate appropriate test data. This may involve writing your own SQL scripts that take field labels and translate them to a test locale to check screens for hard coded data. Again, these activities require technical skills.
Often programmers will show disdain for testers without any technical skills as they won’t understand the technical challenges a programmer faces, and won’t be able to communicate issues in a technical way.
The more technical skills you have in your toolbelt, the more effective you can be as a software tester.
But having strong technical skills and wanting to do nothing but programming as the sole tester on a small agile team is a recipe for disaster.
Software Testers Don’t Need Technical Skills
“A particularly terrible idea is to offer testing jobs to the programmers who apply for jobs at your company and aren’t good enough to be programmers. Testers don’t have to be programmers, but if you spend long enough acting like a tester is just an incompetent programmer, eventually you’re building a team of incompetent programmers, not a team of competent testers.”
~ Joel on Software on Testers
Hiring testers with technical skills over testing ability is a common mistake. A tester who primarily spends his/her time writing automated tests will spend more time getting his/her own code working instead of testing the code that your customers will use.
In a small agile team of say seven programmers and one tester, the tester will spend nearly all his/her time conducting exploratory and story testing so there will be no time to spend as a tester writing automated tests, it will need to be done by the programmers as part of developing a story. Hiring a tester who expects to predominantly write code on a small agile team is a big mistake.
“Since testing can be taught on the job, but general intelligence can’t, you really need very smart people as testers, even if they don’t have relevant experience.”
What technical skills a tester lacks can be made up for with intelligence and curiosity. Even if a tester has no deep underlying knowledge of a system, they can still very effective at finding bugs through skilled exploratory and story testing. Often non technical testers have better shoshin: ‘a lack of preconceptions’ when testing a system. A technical tester may take technical limitations into consideration but a non technical can be better at questioning why things are they way they are and rejecting technical complacency.
Often non-technical testers will have a better understanding of the subject matter and be able to communicate with business representatives more effectively about issues.
You can be very effective as a non-technical tester, but it’s harder work and you’ll need to develop strong collaboration skills with the development team to provide support and guidance for more technical tasks such as automated testing and test data discovery or creation.