Nicola thrives on variety: following a first degree in History Nicola then moved on to UCL’s conversion MSc in Computer Science, and then worked as a developer in a corporate research department for a few years.
Later she moved to a company that provides customer contact software services to consumer
finance organisations, where Nicola spent several years as a release manager. Nicola said this was “a challenging role that has left me with an obsession with details and consistency!”. She then moved to her current role leading a small QA team.
What is your job title?
Platform QA lead (test team leader).
What is your role about?
I lead a small team of Test Engineers within our company’s core product engineering group. Our team is responsible for verifying the quality of all updates and additions to the core platform that is used by client-specific applications. In an average week I spend time doing project work (such as trying out new test tools, writing scripts for a regression test suite, or setting up a new test environment), as well as supporting the testers by clearing blockages where possible (diagnosing and fixing environment issues, helping out with complex test scenarios, or working with other teams to resolve unclear requirements). When the pressure is on I have also been known to roll up my sleeves and do some actual testing…
What are the best/most positive parts of the job/industry?
For me one of the main advantages of this role is variety. Working in QA provides constant opportunities for learning – new product features for testing extend our domain and system knowledge, and coming up with creative ways to exercise functionality or automate our testing brings new challenges every day.
In QA we get a high-level view of all the changes that are happening to each of the many components within our system, and this gives us a strong awareness of the system as a whole, and of the business impact of these changes, which I find very motivating. I like the feeling of making a direct contribution to the quality of the product that the end users see, and there’s a real feeling of satisfaction when we catch major issues that would have caused significant pain or embarrassment if they’d got as far as our client-facing production systems.
What are the negative parts to the job/industry?
There’s a danger that QA can get squeezed if development overruns on a project with a tight release deadline, so you do need the ability to handle pressure calmly, but on the whole we manage to avoid this issue by working closely with the development team, communicating clearly, and escalating any anticipated issues quickly to set realistic expectations.
There’s a perception that QA could be frustrating for someone who likes to be hands-on and in-control of the output, but I’ve not really experienced that myself – close working relationships with the development team mean that we do get a sense of contributing to & even shaping the end product, and there’s plenty of scope for individual contributions in the form of reusable test tools and automation projects.
What is the standard career path/qualifications?
I came to this role via research development and then release management, which gradually evolved into the QA lead role as the release management and QA aspects of my role grew into separate functions, so I’m not the best person to ask about a “standard” career path! Coming into QA from a development background is in my view a very good thing, as it provides useful skills for investigation of code behaviour, environment setup, and implementing automated tests and tools.
What are the prospects?
As leader of a small test team I’m building both technical and people-management skills, so several directions are open, including management of a technical team or consultancy work based on my experience of test automation techniques. For now I’m very happy continuing to develop the contribution of the team I’m in!
In your experience are you aware of any differences your role has between industries/
The experience of working in QA depends largely on the type of software development lifecycle in use in an organisation, and the level of automation in use. For me, the ideal environment would be an agile one where QA is closely integrated with the development team and automation is embraced – I’m happy to say that this is the direction that my current organisation is moving in! Some sectors may be slower-moving and rely on more heavyweight processes and greater separation between roles, which I think I would find less satisfying.
Reflection and The Future
What was it like coming into the industry?
I had very little awareness of what to expect when I entered the industry – maybe things have changed, but I left university with theoretical knowledge about programming and the underlying technologies, but no experience of standard development tools like source control, IDEs etc, so my first year was very much a learning curve in terms of fitting into a team and getting comfortable with all the relevant processes.
Do you have any thoughts on the future of your role/industry?
I believe (and hope!) that the increasing shift from manual testing to integrated automated test frameworks will eventually make pure testing roles less common, making it much more common to find someone with development skills working on maintaining test suites and frameworks than testers manually following test plans.
What advice would you give someone entering your industry?
As mentioned above, I think that a breadth of skills and experience is becoming increasingly useful as software teams become more integrated and role boundaries start to become blurred. I think that anyone doing any role within a technical team would do well to try to keep the bigger picture in mind and always consider how their work will affect / be perceived by everyone else that touches it – in other words, not just “getting the job done” but always considering usability, documentation, maintainability etc. – and this can apply to testers just as much as developers, as reusable & clearly documented test cases do stand out. Other than that, it’s hard to think of specific advice that I’d give apart from to get involved in new projects (either at work or in your own time) whenever you can, especially anything that takes you outside of your comfort zone and provides a learning opportunity!
Have you come across anything or anyone that has helped you move forward in the industry?
I’ve worked with & for some great people who I’ve learned a lot from, both technically and in terms of attitude and commitment – I think that recognising and making the most of these types of informal ‘mentoring’ situations is really important.