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What software tester skills bring us past just the technical

Veteran software quality pro Peter Walen explains what software tester skills are really necessary in today's enterprise organizations.

Beyond technical know-how, what are the most important software tester skills needed to succeed in enterprise software quality assurance?

Given the amount of attention and number of people telling us that technical skills are absolutely needed for software testers to excel, I sometimes think that a fair number of people miss the point of what testing is and what testers do.

The thing is, technical skills  Peter Walen, software testing veteranare important. They can help a tester do their job better. There are other software tester skills that are absolutely essential. No matter what kind of testing you are doing, and no matter what your technical skills are, a tester cannot be successful without them.

Testers must be able to think. That sounds simple, but so many training programs and employers seem to forget that. They treat the process of testing as if filling out a template by following a pre-determined set of actions is all that is needed. That is what machines are good at: not-thinking. Humans can do so much more and should insist on doing it.

Testers must be inquisitive. This is related to thinking, but is something that is more easily understood. The simple question "Why?" is one of the most powerful tools we, as testers, have. The sense of "What happens if I do…?" is related to this. The idea of wondering about what has not been said, or written, can lead to un-documented requirements or other presumptions project stakeholders have.

Testers must be focused. We need to keep the goal of our effort in mind. The simple fact is, there are piles of distractions. Not just the normal office/work stuff, but the numerous possible testing rat-holes we can fall into. Often times, these "side items" can provide valuable insight into the behavior of the application. If they have little to do with the testing mission, they will only slow us down.

Testers must be willing to break the rules. In many writing and music classes, a basic idea is that the student/artist learn all the rules and embrace them. Only then can they take them into themselves and apply them in new ways. From the outside, it seems to be breaking the rules. In a way it is. More importantly, it gives the writer/performer - and the tester - the background to understand what their craft is, and then grow into what they can be and make new rules.

Finally, testers must be willing to fail. We humans are fallible. We take actions based on decisions. We make judgment calls based on our experience and understanding. If we always take the safe path, we will limit our own growth. Now, in some organizations the safe path is the one that leads to steady promotions and pay raises. For me, and others I know, that safety is a trap: a prison cell of our own making. By being willing to make mistakes we learn. We experience the horror of making mistakes. We can also experience triumphs that those who take the safe path never will.

Take the risk and dare greatly.

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