This is the sixth of a ten-part blog series in which I will answer some of the most common questions asked about software testing, according to search engine autocomplete results (thanks to Answer The Public).
In this post, I answer the question “Is software testing easy?” (and the related question, “Why is software testing so hard?”).
There exists a perception that “anyone can test” and, since testing is really just “playing with the software”, it’s therefore easy. By contrast, it seems that programming is universally viewed as being difficult. This reasoning leads people to believe that a good place to start their career in IT is as a tester, with a view to moving “up” to the more hallowed ranks of developers.
My experience suggests that many people often have no issue with trying to tell testers how to do their job, in a way that those same people wouldn’t dream of doing towards developers. This generally seems to be based on some past experience from their career when they considered themselves a tester, even if that experience is now significantly outdated and they didn’t engage in any serious work to advance themselves as testers. Such interactions are a red flag that many in the IT industry view testing as the easy part of the software development process.
The perception that testing is easy is also not helped by the existence and prevalence of the simple and easy to achieve ISTQB Foundation certification. The certification has been achieved by several hundred thousand people worldwide (the ISTQB had issued 721000+ certifications as of May 2020, with the vast majority of those likely to be at Foundation level), so it’s clearly not difficult to obtain (even without study) and has flooded the market with “testers” who have little but this certification behind them.
Thanks to Michael Bolton (via this very recent tweet) for identifying another reason why this perception exists. “Testing” is often conflated with “finding bugs” and we all know how easy it is to find bugs in the software we use every day:
There’s a reason that many people think testing is easy, due to an asymmetry. No one ever fired up a computer and stumbled into creating a slick UI or a sophisticated algorithm, but people stumble into bugs every day. Finding bugs is easy, they think. So testing must be easy.
Another unfortunate side effect of the idea that testing is easy is that testers are viewed as fungible, i.e. any tester can simply be replaced by another one since there’s not much skill required to perform the role. The move to outsource testing capability to lower cost locations then becomes an attractive proposition. I’m not going to discuss test outsourcing and offshoring in any depth here, but I’ve seen a lot of great, high value testers around the world lose their jobs due to this process of offshoring based on the misplaced notion of fungibility of testing resources.
Enough about the obvious downsides of mistakenly viewing testing as easy! I don’t believe good software testing is at all easy and hopefully my reasons for saying this will help you to counter any claims that testing (at least, testing as I talk about it) is easy work and can be performed equally well by anyone.
As a good tester, we are tasked with evaluating a product by learning about it through exploration, experimentation, observation and inference. This requires us to adopt a curious, imaginative and critical thinking mindset, while we constantly make decisions about what’s interesting to investigate further and evaluate the opportunity cost of doing so. We look for inconsistencies by referring to descriptions of the product, claims about it and within the product itself. These are not easy things to do.
We study the product and build models of it to help us make conjectures and design useful experiments. We perform risk analysis, taking into account many different factors to generate a wealth of test ideas. This modelling and risk analysis work is far from easy.
We ask questions and provide information to help our stakeholders understand the product we’ve built so that they can decide if it’s the product they wanted. We identify important problems and inform our stakeholders about them – and this is information they sometimes don’t want to hear. Revealing problems (or what might be problems) in an environment generally focused on proving we built the right thing is not easy and requires emotional intelligence & great communication skills.
We choose, configure and use tools to help us with our work and to question the product in ways we’re incapable of (or inept at) as humans without the assistance of tools. We might also write some code (e.g. code developed specifically for the purpose of exercising other code or implementing algorithmic decision rules against specific observations of the product, “checks”), as well as working closely with developers to help them improve their own test code. Using tooling and test code appropriately is not easy.
(You might want to check out Michael Bolton’s Testing Rap, from which some of the above was inspired, as a fun way to remind people about all the awesome things human testers actually do!)
This heady mix of aspects of art, science, sociology, psychology and more – requiring skills in technology, communication, experiment design, modelling, risk analysis, tooling and more – makes it clear to me why good software testing is hard to do.
In wrapping up, I don’t believe that good software testing is easy. Good testing is challenging to do well, in part due to the broad reach of subject areas it touches on and also the range of different skills required – but this is actually good news. The challenging nature of testing enables a varied and intellectually stimulating job and the skills to do it well can be learned.
It’s not easy, but most worthwhile things in life aren’t!
You can find the first five parts of this blog series at:
- Why is software testing important?,
- How does software testing impact software quality?
- When should software testing activities start?
- How is software testing done? and
- Can you automate software testing?
I’m providing the content in this blog series as part of the “not just for profit” approach of my consultancy business, Dr Lee Consulting. If the way I’m writing about testing resonates with you and you’re looking for help with the testing & quality practices in your organisation, please get in touch and we can discuss whether I’m the right fit for you.
Thanks again to my dedicated review team (Paul Seaman and Ky) for their helpful feedback on this post. Paul’s blog, Not Everybody Can Test, is worth a read in relation to the subject matter of this post.
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