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Test automation and QA career guide: Top roles and skills

Ericka Chickowski Freelance writer

The world of test automation and quality assurance (QA) is still undergoing a tremendous sea change wrought by the advancing maturity of DevOps in the enterprise. That's why as a QA professional you must remain on your toes if you are to stay on a solid career track.

TechBeacon spoke with recruiters, hiring managers, and experienced practitioners in test automation and QA. Here's what they say are the five most essential roles, and the three most in-demand skills.

Top test automation and QA roles

Quality engineer

One of the best-established trends in the world of software quality is the shift at many organizations to "transform legacy quality assurance teams into quality engineering organizations," said Binu Mathew, director of quality engineering and engineering services for Sungard AS.

Moving toward continuous delivery of software has required organizations to develop testing systems and automation that bakes continual quality checks into the development pipeline. That means quality professionals are no longer doing the tests, but are designing them to be done. And that requires an engineering mindset.

"As DevOps engineering continues to shake up how fast a software solution can be delivered to market with high quality, continuous testing is one of the key pillars. The role of a quality engineer with revamped, higher technical skills is essential to make this transition happen."
Binu Mathew

Quality engineers are sorely needed because test automation keeps growing more complex and more extensive to account for modern development architecture. A hallmark skill among quality engineers is being able to troubleshoot automation tools, said Lucas Donlon, senior QA test engineer for BCA Technologies.

"I learned early on I had to be an expert with the tool I was using; I couldn't always rely on reaching out to the company for help. There are always quirks to automation, and you have to know how to overcome them to make quality scripts that execute how you want them to."
Lucas Donlon

Some QA engineers are evolving to become QA analysts, working with product teams and analytics tools to determine test cases, said Erik Fogg, founder of QA automation startup ProdPerfect. 

"QA analysts are embedded with these teams as consultants or advisers, helping teach the developers good quality and testing practices, and holding them accountable to maintain quality code."
Erik Fogg

Test automation engineer

The test automation engineer title, often used interchangeably with quality engineer, differs in that it requires additional test automation-related development skills.

"Test automation engineers are experts with the testing mindset and quite deep coding skills," said Andrei Mikhailau, software testing director at IT services firm ScienceSoft. These experts can design and implement a test automation solution, then plan and develop automated tests, he explained.

"Despite the urgent and continuous need, they are still difficult to find in the talent pool," he said. 

One of the reasons organizations struggle to recruit superstar test automation engineers is that the role generally requires a rare combination of technical acumen and soft skills. That's due to the level of collaboration these pros need to engage in, said Colin Ma, director of engineering at Finli and a longtime consultant in QA who has helped large enterprises interview and hire QA professionals.

Test automation engineers communicate with QA leads, fellow test automation engineers, and the developers on the project, and they need strong organizational skills as well, he said.

They need to be willing to go back and forth with developers to understand features. "They need to know about the nitty-gritty details of specific features so they can create good test scripts,"  Ma said.

Software developer engineering in test

The software developer engineering in test (SDET) role is another evolving title that people sometimes confuse with quality engineer and test automation engineer roles.

But while quality engineers tend to be QA experts who consult with developers and advise them on testing best practices, and test automation engineers are skilled coders who can write automated tests, SDETs tend to be the Renaissance folk of the quality world.

They're software developers by profession who also possess an expert-level understanding of the fundamentals of test theory and methodology. These are the true rock stars of the modern CI/CD organization, said David Moise, president of Decide Consulting, an IT and software recruiting firm. He's been seeing the requests for SDET roles increasing.

"The gap between developer and tester has been getting thinner."
David Moise

There was a time not too long ago when it would be rare for a QA professional to understand SQL, he explained. Now it is more unusual to not have that knowledge. As software architectures have evolved, more projects are a collection of APIs, and the only way to validate these is to check the database entries made by them.

"One needs SQL knowledge to do that. The QA folk are always better off writing their own SQL than looking to get that from the developers."
—David Moise

This is just a microcosm of the needs driving SDET, but it illustrates the role's growth.

Testing marshal

Whether they use a title such as QA lead, QA manager, or quality engineer, many companies are hiring quality professionals to serve as arbiters of accountability for the thoroughness and soundness of automated test coverage.

They play the role of a testing marshal, said David Messinger, CTO of Topcoder, who frequently works with global brands on software development strategies. A testing marshal "looks for complacency in testing," ferreting out the it's-always-been-done-this-way attitude from quality checks, he said.

They also build measures for accountability to make sure testers are exhaustive in their testing. "Someone to be able to monitor this across teams is a necessity," Messinger said.

Performance test engineer

Performance management, a software quality specialty area, is growing in prominence. Most organizations recognize that poor software performance is costing them due to low conversions, dropped transactions, and low user loyalty. As a result, ScienceSoft's Mikhailau said, you'll see a rise in the number of performance test engineers leading the charge in this niche.

These pros are a breed apart, he said.

Especially rare: Senior-level experts who can participate in the full software development lifecycle, provide guidance on effective performance testing strategy, lead the design and implementation of a performance test framework, review requirements, prepare test plans, and review the work of junior or mid-level specialists, Mikhailau said.

The most in-demand skills 

Test automation development 

The importance of test automation development skills is rising across all of the crucial QA roles identified by recruiters and hiring managers.

QA departments are not where they want to be yet, said Decide Consulting's Moise. Most quality professionals and hiring managers believe that 85% to 90% of their test cases should probably be automated, but realistically have only gotten to about 10% to 15% automation coverage.

"Companies are looking to shift toward more automated QA from the manual side. The demand for people with scripting and automated testing experience is high and will be even higher."
—David Moise

Fundamentals in QA methodology

Manual testing skills and knowledge haven't gone by the wayside. In the age of automated testing organizations will always need people who have solid understanding of both manual and automated testing skills, especially in those QA lead roles. "They're much needed in fast-paced and flexible agile and DevOps projects to define the best testing type for each case and effectively balance manual and automated tests at lower costs," ScienceSoft's Mikhailau said.

At the end of the day, even when end-to-end testing is completely owned by development, a company will need quality experts who know the fundamentals of test theory and methodology.

The three most common competencies companies look for are general test knowledge, knowledge of specific test systems, and, for more senior candidates, a deeper project discussion about test methodology, said Shannon Hogue Brown, global head of solutions engineering at Karat, which designs technical interviews for large enterprises.

To stand out in your interview, be prepared to have a general conversation about things such as the pros and cons of different testing methodologies, and "be ready to talk through specific examples of test cases for a detailed scenario," Brown said. 


In a highly integrated DevOps environment, collaboration is crucial for both QA and test automation professionals.

Successful quality and test automation pros are the ones who see product managers, developers, operations staffers, and executives as peers and who strive to understand how their domain of expertise fits into the wider picture, said Marcus Merrell, senior director of field services for Sauce Labs. 

"They familiarize themselves with the company financials" and attend conferences that focus on the business, as opposed to specific QA-centric events, Merrell said.

More importantly, they check their ego at the door.

"I'd rather hire a person who works well with others and adapts to new processes than a person who has all the answers but clearly won't fit culturally."
Marcus Merrell

Continuous learning is key

Ultimately the goal of both the quality employee and the employer is diversity. QA and test professionals need to broaden their skills as organizations demand more soft skills and coding acumen to bolster existing competencies in quality fundamentals.

Meanwhile, organizations seeking to more seamlessly integrate quality functions into DevOps teams should work to build a culture of inclusion that creates a team with a broad base of professional and life experiences upon which to draw.

"Your customers are diverse, and your QA and development teams need to be as well. To develop and deliver software that meets your customers' needs, you have to understand their needs. And to understand those needs, you need people on your team who share their perspectives."
—Marcus Merrell

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