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Skills for entry-level software testers

You want to become a software tester, but you aren't a programmer. What skills should you have? Testing expert Scott Barber has some advice.

What technologies would you recommend an entry-level non-programmer tester to learn?
The need for technical testers continues to grow every year. Applications and environments get more and more complex, and more development teams than ever are embracing Agile philosophies that push testing ever earlier in the development stream. The tester who understands how systems work, who can use simple test harnesses in the developers native IDE, who can pair with developers to improve unit tests, and who can assist in the process of "root causing" bugs is no longer an anomaly that companies don't know how to utilize; he or she is a treasure who is explicitly sought out.

Specific technologies are less important than technology concepts. For example, writing database queries is commonly useful for a tester to know how to do. Whether you learn in Oracle, SQL Server, DB2 or Sybase is mostly irrelevant if you are comfortable applying what you've learned conceptually by picking up a manual. The same holds true for programming. Whether you know Java or C# doesn't really matter. What matters is that you understand how functions and procedures work, you understand what object orientation and data abstraction are, and (with the help of a syntax guide) you can write basic unit tests, parse strings, output data to a file, create loops and apply conditional logic. Beyond that, if you are comfortable reading code and can write pseudo-code for things you don't know how to program, you will be in good shape most of the time.

Additional technology concepts that I have found valuable in my career include the following:

  • Database design and data modeling
  • Networks and communication protocols
  • Enough familiarity with hardware to know what you may want to test differently on a RAID 5 server vs. a RAID 0 server, for example.
  • Be a master of spreadsheets and data presentation.
Some technical skills, though not technology skills, that make me a better tester:

  • Statistics
  • Experimental design
  • Human psychology (specifically in terms of what people expect and how they respond to unexpected conditions in front of a computer)
  • Human factors (specifically in terms of technology usability)
Overall, I recommend becoming a "CSI" of systems. The more different things you know to a reasonable degree, the more experience you have to draw on when you are faced with testing a system or technology that is entirely new to you.
This was last published in February 2007

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