6 career ideas for software QA professionals

Let's face it: Not a lot of kids say, "I wanna be a QA professional when I grow up."

Even in university computer science programs, there's little time spent discussing software testing as a potential career. "I don't know that there is a standard way to start in QA," says Shelley Rueger, who has worked in the QA field for more than 15 years after attending MIT with intentions of becoming a research physicist. "I meet more people who fell into it in one way or another than who intentionally started there."

Likewise, not much attention has been given to the long-term career prospects for those who start in QA or software testing roles. QA testers may eventually make their way up to QA managers. They might make a lateral move to test automation or strategy. They could become full-time developers. "But," says independent technology analyst Chris Riley, "it has not been easy to break free from the QA function."

In the rapidly changing field of software development, however, that's changing. As more enterprises adopt agile development methodologies, DevOps approaches, and the like, QA professionals now sit smack-dab in the middle of all the action. "Quality assurance is no longer the last thing you do before the software launches; it weaves through the entire software life cycle, with business goals attached," says Brenda Hall, CEO of software quality assurance firm Bridge360.

"Quality is about how the company runs and delivers value and experience to its clients. QA is a perfect perch from which to see how, who, and what gets done."

"The early years in a tester's career are rough, the pay is not great, and they are not treated as well as developers," admits Jeremy Hymel, now QA manager at QAlytics. "While these times are rough, it will mold you into a great leader if you utilize it correctly."

Indeed, today's experienced and successful QA professionals are well positioned not only to manage the QA testing process, but also to tackle new career challenges, from customer experience to product management to enterprise architecture. Here are six innovative career leaps and ideas for QA professionals.

Testing in the Agile Era: Top Tools and Processes

1. Product manager

Larry Kelley, who founded QA services provider QAlytics in 2013, has seen QA professionals take on a number of new challenges, including as a vice president of publisher/developer relations for a major entertainment division, a head of project management for a major health insurance provider, and a studio head of a gaming company.

Product management is a particularly good fit for QA professionals. "They review and analyze software repeatedly and, in doing so, develop a deep understanding of the methodologies of making the quality of the software better," Kelley says. "In today's market, where demand for highly functional software has never been more critical to the commercial success of companies, having these skills inherent in your staff as a second nature helps companies succeed."

"QA professionals have a deep understanding of how to make software better."

— Larry Kelley, founder, QAlytics

QA professionals are often the go-to people for new product and feature development, says Hall, of Bridge360. "They've built up the knowledge to take the product to new heights of improvement. We see QA professionals moving easily into other areas of the organization, running PMOs, moving to director level, leading business units and global organizations."

"We see QA professionals moving easily into other areas of the organization, running PMOs, moving to director level, leading business units and global organizations."

— Brenda Hall, CEO, Bridge360

2. DevOps roles

Software testers have a holistic view of the development process that can make them good release managers or engineers, product stability managers, or automation engineers in companies that pursue a DevOps approach to development.

"DevOps requires a holistic approach to application development and delivery that ensures that code gets to users more often, faster, and at a higher quality. Developers often do not have this because they are too far into the weeds. But QA does," says Riley, who helps companies adopt DevOps approaches. "So as QA moves upstream, they can participate more easily in the DevOps movement and practice, and eventually it is very reasonable to, say, take over the DevOps role."

"QA can participate more easily in the DevOps movement, and eventually take over the DevOps role."

Chris Riley, DevOps analyst, Fixate IO

3. Customer experience leader

QA professionals are myopically focused on the user or customers and, therefore, are increasingly valuable as companies elevate the value of the customer experience. "Great QA testers understand that their consumer comes first," says Hymel. "Any customer service position would be great for any QA tester."

"Great QA testers understand that their consumer comes first."

Jeremy Hymel, QA manager, QAlytics

In technology-driven companies, software testers are the voice of the customer. "You have to consider the human element at all times. You have to embody the customer: What do they care about? And why?"

4. Enterprise architect

Rueger sidestepped development roles in her career, finding that she was better suited for "a life of creative destruction. "I'm a natural critic," she says. "So testing fitted my personality better."

Indeed, QA professionals exhibit the attention to detail and the appreciation for independent review that, while not always welcome in fast-moving software development shops, makes them great candidates for enterprise architecture roles.

"The attention to detail, and the ability to take many moving parts and fit them into a comprehensive picture or flow: These are critical [skills for] the enterprise architect who truly is responsible for developing and architecting the enterprise wide software delivery chain," says Riley.

5. IT management

Hymel took a part-time job as a QA tester while studying entertainment technology and game development. Soon, he dropped out of school to focus full time on his career, bound and determined to join the management ranks. Less than six years later, he has launched and is managing his own QA organization. "To effectively manage anyone, you must understand their day-to-day tasks as well as their mind-set," Hymel says. "I understand the ups and downs in QA, because I've lived it. It allows me to mentor my employees more effectively."

Rueger is now senior director of QA at Moxie, a maker of CRM and enterprise social software. "The skills I learned testing — thinking critically and thinking about the big picture — help a lot in management." Rueger says. "Also, in testing, you're always making risk-based decisions. How likely is this problem to be one that the customer will care about? How likely is it that this new change is going to cause problems? Which of the 100 things I could worry about are the ten I actually have time to do something about? All of these questions are the same ones that a manager should be asking."

"The skills I learned testing — thinking critically and thinking about the big picture — help a lot in management."
Shelley Rueger, senior director of QA, Moxie

The only hindrance has been the traditional view of QA testing as somehow of lower value than development, Rueger says. "When a CTO or CIO position is available, the natural thing is to look at the development director as a successor. You don't see many test or QA folks promoted into those positions." But that, too, could change as the skills of QA professionals continue to increase in value.

6. Quality engineering and strategy

It may not seem a big jump to go from QA to quality engineering. But it's a way for software testing professionals to up the ante in their careers. "[In] quality engineering, the efforts are less on ensuring quality on a particular application release, but rather ensuring a system for quality for all releases." QA professionals may also choose to pursue positions in QA strategy, which historically have been awarded to nontechnical professionals with business analyst backgrounds.

Beyond QA: How to get there from here

Some QA professionals have to overcome obstacles to take on larger roles either within the testing function or outside of it. "QA managers have been their own worst enemy, with a tendency to not share points of view, wins, and opportunities. And in these more strategic roles, communication of the good and the bad needs to be clear and regular, and it will not come in the form of a document," says Riley. "So beefing up on communication across a disparate team and fighting for a goal are very important." To prepare for future opportunities, Riley suggests QA testers collaborate on automation projects and strategy, and share their best ideas for increasing productivity, participating in new initiatives.

"Learn as much as possible. Don't get discouraged with bad days or not getting promoted as quickly as you believe you should," Hymel adds. "The early years in a tester's career are rough, the pay is not great, and they are not treated as well as developers. While these times are rough, it will mold you into a great leader if you utilize it correctly." Hymel advises QA professionals to mentor peers who need help, ask for more responsibilities, or take the initiative to make some up.

QA professionals can make the transition to myriad roles if motivated. Rueger has seen her peers move to positions in data analytics, finance, and the law. "I think the important thing is that if you have some key skills like organizational ability, process focus, critical thinking, and the ability to work well with others, those translate into almost any career."

What other career advice would you share with QA professionals? Are there other roles that software testing professionals? Add your comments below.

Testing in the Agile Era: Top Tools and Processes
Topics: Dev & Test