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10 skills of highly effective software testers

QA professionals with hands-on experience and a mix of technical and soft skills offer great value for software engineering teams. Testers with these 10 skills can boost their careers.

Testing is essential in any software project. To be successful, however, you need talented software testers.

Unfortunately, you don't see that in many organizations. Some people in the software community consider testing a mediocre job, suitable for their colleagues with lesser problem-solving and analytical skills.

In fact, QA roles require more technical and analytical expertise than they get credit for. And the essential skills a tester should have are not properly assessed by recruiters and hiring managers. Testers who hope to carve out a worthwhile career path must demonstrate that they can take a holistic, yet creative approach in their evaluation of software. The job demands both technical skills and soft skills -- the latter proving especially important, as testers solve software issues on the users' behalf.

While you might have gotten into a testing career thanks to a natural ability to deconstruct complex systems, maybe you need to bone up on Agile and DevOps methodologies. Perhaps your goal is to better focus on requirements and eliminate tester bias. Or, advancement to senior test engineer might just be a matter of improving how you communicate and manage your time. Let's take a look at 10 essential software testing skills to put yourself in better position for these goals.

1. Think analytically and logically

The major objective of testing is to identify the hidden errors, not simply prove that the workflow or component works. For testers to be effective in their various roles and responsibilities during the creation, maintenance and updates of an application, they must be able to analyze the given business situation and judge all the possible scenarios. Software testers should have the capacity to identify and tackle unfamiliar problems and should develop a strategy to validate them. Only a person with strong analytical skills can create situations and validate the application under test, before presenting it to customers, effectively.

Software testers should be able to separate the whole into logical parts -- to examine a complex problem, its elements and their relationships. To be a great tester, learn how to develop a logical argument based on relationships between elements and propositions, as well as identify implications, relationships, redundancies and contradictions without leaving any room for inconsistency and ambiguity. Be consistent in analyzing and solving complex, multistep problems.

2. Envision business situations, yet adhere to DevOps and Agile

A tester should have the ability to envisage real-time business situations through mental mapping, abstracting the idea inferred from the specifications. Real-time business scenarios should crystallize in testers' minds. Think about what test cases are, rather than what they ought to be.

To be a software tester, anticipate complex problems, in addition to visualizing and articulating them. Practice complete system simulation so you can do it rapidly and accurately. In the present software development environments, which frequently follow Agile and DevOps methodologies, teams or individuals might not get enough time to do a series of conventional brainstorming sessions to finalize the concept mapping. Therefore, it is vital that a tester have conceptualization skills through mental mapping.

3. Stimulate curiosity and creativity for exploratory tests

A tester should understand that being an intellectual and being intellectually curious are not the same. Arguably, you should aim to be the latter -- intellectually curious -- which is all about asking questions and not about having answers. Software testers should believe in the pursuit of knowledge as a value in and of itself. They should love asking questions and should not consider it a blow to their ego when they are wrong about something.

Intellectual curiosity motivates and prompts a tester to identify interesting questions about the software developers built to business requirements. Thus, a tester should develop the knack to see what everyone else hasn't seen, to think what no one else has thought and to do what no one else has dared. Then, they can address these potential bugs, flaws and missed requirements through manual testing.

4. Take a 'glocal' approach to address all end users

Software systems have become extremely complex. Most of the time, the system designed involves multiple stakeholders, and dealing with such systems is not always easy. Software testers should be able to deal effectively with business situations marked by complexity and numerous interactions with third-party systems.

Identify how the system under test interacts with other constituent parts. Hone the ability to isolate the most minute units of the application under test and do the validation, keeping in mind the behavior of the system as a whole.

Testers stand out among their peers when they detach themselves from the system. Look at it as an outsider, and present findings on the relationship between the individual components convincingly in a logical fashion. At the same time, testers should keep their eyes and ears open so as not to ignore issues that may be inherent in individual components. Thus, a glocal -- global and local -- approach is essential.

5. Use critical thought and rational inquiry

Quality is a concept that doesn't exist in a vacuum: The quality of life of an individual and the quality of what they produce or deliver depend largely on the quality of his or her thought process. The thought process of a tester -- whether doing manual QA checks or test engineering with automated tools -- should be undistorted, impartial and without any prejudices.

A tester should have the ability to take charge of the inherent structures and impose intellectual standards upon the software in front of them. Raise vital questions precisely and clearly, gather and assess relevant information and interpret it effectively to come to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions. Then, test those conclusions against the given criteria and requirements. You must be open-minded and suspend judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision, and always abide by logical reasoning.

Effective tools for effective software testers

By Matt Heusser

As software engineer Grady Booch once wrote, "A fool with a tool remains a fool still." That said, a backhoe moves earth more effectively than a shovel can, as long as the operator knows what they are doing.

While the approach to software testing is more important than the technology, testing tools help a QA professional find defects in code. Here are a few categories of tools for software testers to use:

  • Bug tracker. This type of tool provides a way to list known bugs, prioritize them and track the progress toward a fix. Bug trackers are a subset of collaboration tools, which can include source code version control, text and video chat, and shared drives.
  • Screen capture. A picture is worth a thousand words. Use a tool to snap a screencap of an error message and provide annotation. Better yet, make a short, narrated video reproducing the bug.
  • Test data generation. Free tools, such as PerlClip and TestDataGenerator, produce sample data and export it. Similarly, form filler tools, like the browser extension Fake Data and Bug Magnet, automatically fill forms with fake valid or invalid data for test purposes.
  • Test idea generation. All-pairs -- also known as pairwise -- tools reduce the number of possible test cases, while optimizing coverage. One such tool, Hexawise, provides a free trial online.
  • Mind maps. Make a list of the major features, paths or risks of the software, then publish and track progress with mind map software. Visualize notes for better organization and clarity.
  • Log searchers. Splunk and similar tools can ease log searches, essentially rendering a Google-like experience. You can also use merge tools, like WinMerge, to compare text files.
  • Emulators and simulators. Testers can run a hundred different configurations of mobile devices, all from a laptop. You can also test real devices in the cloud and view results on your laptop.
  • GUI automators. Selenium WebDriver and similar tools drive the browser, either for check automation or to get to an interesting place to stop and test.

6. Apply basic and fundamental knowledge

Knowledge in the context of testing can be attributed to the fluid mix of hands-on experience, values, contextual information and expert insight. Those elements provide a framework for evaluating the system under test.

One can attain knowledge by many means, but that knowledge is worthwhile only when it adds value to situations encountered. A smart tester should be able to apply the knowledge attained over years of experience with the domain, process, product, customers, mistakes and successes in his or her testing. The tester should be able to make use of fundamental communication, as well as mathematical and software application skills, and effectively apply those skills to practical situations.

7. Continue to learn, adapt to dev trends

Organizations and business environments change rapidly, which means the approaches and processes that work well today will be outdated tomorrow. Therefore, it is imperative that a tester notice, adapt and learn from change. That doesn't mean testers should undergo training or certification continually. Rather, they should be open to learning from everything in life. If a tester gains basic and fundamental knowledge, then the rest can be achieved through self-directed learning. You never stop learning if you want a career in testing.

Top software tester skills.
Top in-demand technical and soft skills for testers.

8. Respect truth and intellectual integrity

You examine the piece of software under test and the resulting processes, focusing on the given specification, and understand the behavior of the software. Being human, you could have severe biases, prejudices and intolerances that prevent you from performing this task well.

Testers should possess the intellectual integrity to correct those barriers to efficiently understand the nature of the software under test. They should also be willing to banish the set of practices and character traits that undermine their intellectual integrity. Strive to exemplify intellectual virtues, such as honesty, impartiality and openness to the views of others.

9. Plan and manage time wisely

Planning is nothing but writing the story of the future. A tester needs to have a thorough and must develop a well-thought-out test strategy and approach. That plan must be in place before work begins on any software testing assignment. Describe, among other details, the items and features to be tested, test strategy and levels, pass-fail criteria, suspension-resumption criteria, schedule and requirements.

To be a thorough and effective tester, monitor your plan continually and validate it through organized system feedback. Stick to the plan and monitor the progress in order to ensure timely delivery.

10. Communicate, collaborate effectively

A tester must be able to communicate thoughts and ideas effectively, particularly with software developers, using a variety of tools and media. Develop and use interpersonal skills throughout your career and learn to communicate effectively to the stakeholders so as to avoid ambiguities and inconsistencies. For example, printed presentations should be concise, logically organized and to the point. Make pragmatic points, rather than philosophical, and support arguments with facts.

In the case of oral presentations, the voice, body language and appearance of the presenter are as important as the content and visual aids. Testers should develop conversational skills to overcome shyness and fear of speaking, as well as good listening skills.

Editor's note: Baiju M. is a testing and QA manager at Envestnet Asset Management in India. He has experience in system analysis, development and testing. He originally wrote these 10 points on software testing skills in 2007. The article was updated with input from Matt Heusser in 2018 and reviewed for accuracy in 2019.

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