Lately, I have been wondering if I should change how I refer to my job. In my almost twenty-five years working in software quality control, several words that sound scientific have been added to jobs in my field to describe them: quality control analyst, quality control engineer, or quality control technician. So, just for the fun of it, I was thinking of referring to myself as a quality control artist.
Art and science work together
Don’t get me wrong. I fully recognize the scientific aspects of my job. I spend the requisite time to make sure that alpha characters are not accepted in numeric fields, that 13 is not accepted for a month in a date field, and 32 is not accepted for a day, etc. I make sure that you don’t give the user the impression that he can submit 50 characters into a database field that only holds 30. However, these and other similar but equally obvious tasks are only a small part of what the best practitioners of software quality control work do.
Artists––let’s use painters as an example––work with science. Lines, shapes, and colors all have scientific properties and truths to them. It is the unique application of those scientifically describable elements together that makes what the artist does different from science. And, while we can posit some general principles for how these scientific elements best combine to make a beautiful painting (think proportion, color combination, perspective, and subject matter just to name a few), those guidelines are not the hard and fast rules of scientific pursuits. As the saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
The art of imagination
Like a painter, much of the work that we do in software quality control involves scientifically describable elements, but it is the unique ability to apply the general principles for how these elements best combine that separates a run-of-the-mill quality control analyst and a true quality control artist. Add to that the fact that the best in our field excel at the art of interpersonal communication, and the evidence in favor of my thesis begins to pile up! The work of software quality control is as much art as it is science.
Consider the imagination necessary on the part of a tester to successfully emulate the number of different ways that various people will interact with the software under real-world conditions. This is where the artist in the tester really comes to the forefront. In fact, it can be sad and frustrating to find a defect that is as simple as a lack of proper edits on a data entry field.
A quality control artist finds those things and dutifully records them for fixing in the defect tracker, but there is little joy to be found there. Rather, the highlight of a quality control artist’s day is the sense of satisfaction and even the laughter generated by finding an infinite loop in the program after performing an imaginative, but entirely possible series of operations using the software as an actual user might.
Another thing that kind of imagination can do is allow the quality control artist to put their personal stamp on the software itself. Intimate knowledge of the audience and the process can lead to suggestions on how to improve the user experience. While the software might still perform the required tasks correctly either way, an experienced quality control artist can make suggestions that lead to user satisfaction with the software being higher through improved flow and ease of use.
The art of communication
I said earlier that the best quality control practitioners excel at the art of interpersonal communication. Sometimes, when people ask me what I do for a living, I phrase it this way: “I tell people what they have done wrong all day.”
Obviously, that is somewhat of an exaggeration. However, I think you see the point. No matter who you are, it is not easy to have something you’ve put a lot of time and effort into critiqued or criticized. A skilled quality control professional finds the problems with the software and skillfully communicates them in a positive way that avoids leaving the programmer with the feeling of having been personally attacked.
Knowing how to approach each programmer to communicate changes that need to be made while leaving an impression of the team making progress toward a common goal is a skill that should be highly sought after. This is part of the art of software quality control.
The art of support
In my experience, in addition to testing and team communication, there is a third part of my job that can require a certain amount of artistry: software support. Once again, the artistic component that separates an average software tester from a quality control artist is imagination. It takes imagination to consider all of the various things users could mean when describing the issue they are having with the software. It takes imagination to figure out how users can experience certain behaviors that you cannot at first reproduce yourself.
One day, I was confronted with a complaint from a user that indicated the software made the user reset their password every time they tried to log in. A quick check of the change log kept by the system backed up their claim that they went through a password reset every time they logged into the system. But how could I reconcile that with the fact that hundreds of thousands of users could log in fine without being forced to reset their password?
Our minds develop patterns of doing things that our fingers can carry out without our conscious minds thinking much about it. As I looked at the login flow, I noticed that the button for signing in was the default button. If you typed in your username and password, you could just press the enter key on your keyboard and it would activate that button and sign you in. You didn’t need to press the tab key to move focus to that button in order to allow the enter key to activate it.
In fact, if after typing in your password, you did press the tab key, it moved focus to the link labeled “I forgot my password.” Here was a member who did as much as possible on the keyboard and avoided moving a hand off the keyboard to the mouse. This member was so used to using applications that required that extra press of the tab key that he was essentially unconscious of what he was doing. I put in a change request to change the tab order so it wasn’t landing on that forgot password link when exiting the password field. This fixed that one user’s problem without impacting the others who weren’t having problems at all.
Accepting the artist
I don’t know which side you come down on in this discussion, but I have determined one thing. It is at least a good conversation starter. So, the next time someone asks me what I do for a living, I am going to phrase it this way: “I am a Quality Control Artist.”