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Ten skills of highly effective software testers

Regardless of what some may think, software testers need strong analytical and problem-solving skills. Without such skills they will not succeed and projects may fail. In this column, Baiju M. looks at 10 skills he says all software testers should have.

Testing is essential in any software project. For software testing to be successful, however, you need talented...

testers. Unfortunately, you don't see that in many development organizations. Some people in the software community consider testing a mediocre job suitable for people who have lesser analytical and problem-solving skills. The essential skills a tester should have are not properly assessed when recruiting for a testing assignment.

What are those essential skills? Let's take a look.

1. Analytical and logical thinking
The major objective of testing is to identify the hidden errors, not simply prove that the software works. For a tester to be effective in his role, he must be able to analyze the given business situation and judge all the possible scenarios. He should have the capacity to identify and tackle unfamiliar problems and should develop a strategy to validate it. Creating situations and validating the application under test, before presenting it to customers, can be done effectively only by a person who has strong analytical skills.

A tester should be able to separate the whole into logical parts -- to examine a complex problem, its elements and their relationships. He should be able 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. He should be consistent in analyzing and solving complex, multi-step problems.

2. The ability to envision business situations
A tester should be able to envisage real-time business situations through mental mapping, abstracting the idea inferred from the specifications. The real-time business scenarios should crystallize in a tester's mind, and he should think about what the case is rather than what ought to be the case or what he believes the case is.

A tester should be able to anticipate complex problems, in addition to visualizing and articulating them. He should be able to do a complete system simulation rapidly and accurately. In the present software development environments, it is hard to believe that teams/individuals will get enough time to do a series of conventional brainstorming sessions to finalize the concept mapping. Therefore, it is vital that a tester develop his conceptualization skills through mental mapping.

3. A sense of intellectual curiosity and creativity
A tester should understand that being an intellectual and being intellectually curious are not the same. A tester should arguably be the latter one -- intellectually curious -- which is all about asking questions and not about having answers. He should believe in the pursuit of knowledge as a value in and of itself. He should love asking questions and should not consider it a blow to his ego if he is wrong about something.

It is intellectual curiosity that motivates and prompts a tester to identify interesting questions about the software being tested. Thus, a tester should develop the skill to see what everyone else hasn't seen, to think what no one else has thought of and to do what no one else has dared.

4. A "glocal" approach
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. A tester should be able to deal effectively with business situations marked by complexity and the number of interactions with third-party systems. He should be able to identify how the system under test interacts with other constituents of the system. He should also be able 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.

A tester will stand out among his peers if he is able to detach himself from the system, look at it as an outsider, and present his findings on the relationship between the individual components convincingly in a logical fashion. At the same time, he should keep his eyes and ears open so as not to ignore issues that may be inherent in individual components. Thus, a "glocal" (global + local) approach is essential.

5. Critical thought and rational enquiry
The quality of life of an individual and the quality of what he produces/delivers depends largely on the quality of his thought process. The thought process of a tester should be undistorted, impartial and without any prejudices. A tester should be able to take charge of the inherent structures and impose intellectual standards upon the software under test. He should be able to raise vital questions precisely and clearly, gather and assess relevant information, interpret it effectively in order to come to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, and test those conclusions against the given criteria and standards. A tester should be open minded, suspend any judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision, and always abide by logical reasoning.

6. The ability to apply basic and fundamental knowledge
Knowledge in the context of testing can be attributed as the fluid mix of experience, values, contextual information and expert insight. Those things provide a framework for evaluating the system under test. One can attain knowledge by so 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 testing. He should be able to make use of fundamental communication, mathematical and software application skills. He should also be able to effectively apply the skills he has attained to practical situations.

7. Continue to learn
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 place priority on noticing, adapting and learning from change that is happening around him. That doesn't mean a tester should continually undergo training or certification, rather he should be open to learning from everything in life that comes he across. If he has gained basic and fundamental knowledge, then the rest can be achieved through self-directed learning. Learning should be a lifelong habit.

8. Respect for truth and intellectual integrity
A tester should be able to examine the piece of software under test and the resulting processes, with focus on the given specification, and understand the behavior of the software. Being human, a tester may have severe biases, prejudices and intolerances that prevent him from performing well. He should possess the intellectual integrity to correct those barriers in order to efficiently understand the nature of the software under test. He should also be willing to shrug off the set of practices and character traits that undermine his intellectual integrity. And he should be able to exemplify intellectual virtues such as honesty, impartiality and openness to the views of others.

9. Planning, time management skills
Planning is nothing but writing the story of the future. A tester needs to have a thorough plan and must develop a well-thought test strategy/approach. And that plan must be in place before work begins on any software testing assignment. It should describe the items and features to be tested, the test strategy and levels of testing, pass/fail criteria, suspension/resumption criteria, schedule, etc.

The plan developed should be monitored continually, and validations should be done through organized system feedback. Sticking to the plan and monitoring the progress in order to ensure timely delivery is key to any software testing assignment's success.

10. Effective communication skills
A tester must be able to communicate his thoughts and ideas effectively, using a variety of tools and media. He needs to develop and use this skill throughout his career and should learn to communicate effectively to the stakeholders so as to avoid ambiguities and inconsistencies. For example, printed presentations should be concise and to the point and should follow logically. The language should be pragmatic rather than philosophical, and arguments should be supported by 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. A tester should develop his skills to overcome shyness and any fear of speaking. He should also have good listening skills.

Baiju M.Baiju M.

About the author:
Baiju M. is a testing and QA manager at Envestnet Asset Management in India. He has more than 10 years' experience in system analysis, development and testing.

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This was last published in August 2007

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It is very informative blog. Thanks for sharing.
The information was relevant and helpful. I know it might be hard to ask, but being cognizant of the pronouns you're using would be amazing. As a FEMALE reading this article, it is discouraging to assume testers are only men (using "He" instead of a gender neutral term like "They" when referring to subjects/testers.) As someone who struggles with envisioning herself in the field of tech because of its male dominance, recognizing that women are included and encouraged in these spaces can start with the interpretation of your article.

Thanks for your consideration

"A tester should be open minded, suspend any judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision, and always abide by logical reasoning."

You should not struggle envisioning yourself as a tester. If nothing backs the image that male testers are superior to female ones why do you bother? Just be a good tester no matter you are man or woman. Someone uses male pronouns? Its nice to point that out, but saying it hurts you means you cant overcome this boundary. 

The content wont be more informative even if he changes the pronouns, sure in the next one he will probably consider using neutral ones, but rewriting this would be an overkill. +its 2 months since your comment, I'm not sure he bothers reading the comment which is not a tester-way-of-thinking: we shall learn from our mistakes and consider all opinions. :)