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How to hang on to software testing standards during hard times

Software testing is a tough job, and it's made even tougher in a regulated industry where competitive pressures don't exist. Expert Gerie Owen on how to survive.

I work in testing in a regulated industry. We are a legal monopoly in our market (think cable or local phone company), and increasingly, testing our software takes a back seat to reducing cost. Do you have some software testing standards for this situation? I am the last tester left standing and don't think I can take it much longer.

What you describe is unique to certain regulatory-compliant businesses that have the legal right to be the sole provider in a geographical area. While their approach to their software testing standards isn't nearly as market-driven as commercial companies, they also have their own business imperatives to consider.

They do have to please their customers or subscribers -- not necessarily for fear of losing business but for the prospect of bad publicity. Bad publicity can manifest itself in negative news articles, unwanted attention by regulators and, ultimately, fines or other sanctions by local, state or federal regulatory agencies. It could also bring about civil court cases that could cost millions to defend.

Without software testing standards, the resulting poorly performing applications or buggy customer-oriented software are likely to cause customer frustration and complaints. Software used by customer service or other functions can slow support or create errors in billing processes if rigorous software testing standards aren't met.

However, in many cases, financial pressures cause decision-makers to cut investment in areas that have long-term benefits. Capital investment in IT tends to be slower in some regulated industries (financial services tend to be an exception), so you likely have generations-old technology to work with. Jobs tend to be more stable, but outsourcing is becoming increasingly common.

De-emphasizing software testing standards is shortsighted. Because of the cost in bad publicity and fines, eventually, the lack of quality will catch up to the bottom line.

In addition, customers have a greater ability to reject services like this than in the past. We are no longer tied to landlines or to TV. There is financial pressure on regulated industries because now they have nontraditional competitors.

What you can do is become an evangelist for software testing standards and quality within such an organization. You do so by emphasizing the costs of poor quality and recommending innovative ways to improve it.

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How do you champion software testing within your organization?
Interesting, because mandated compliance and greater attention to testing often characterize regulated industries, rather than the reverse the questioner describes. As Gerie points out, even seeming monopolies have competition, just in different forms—for instance, think King George III.

Also, I don’t think the perception that reducing testing reduces costs is unique to any industry sector. Far less common, though, are organizations which measure and manage effectively enough to tell for sure whether testing is just wasteful expense or in fact actually one of the most efficient and effective methods for reducing overall costs. If your testing is not paying off, the message should be to figure out why and correct it rather than abandoning it. In my experience, a typical reason testing does get cut is because people (including QA/tester advocates) often confuse procedural compliance with effectiveness; and pointless busywork is easy to ditch—and should be.