Behind the screen with software testers

Automation and outsourcing may not be enough to deal with the shortage of software test engineers the industry will face over the next three years, a research firm warns.

IT managers often put lack of skilled staff at the top of their list of challenges, but Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. says enterprises in particular will be hard-pressed to have enough people to keep their applications running smoothly. In a teleconference hosted by the analyst company and software developer Telelogic this week, Gartner research director Theresa Lanowitz said there would continue to be a shortage of professional testers through 2005, even though she predicted 85 per cent of IT organizations will outsource application testing this year.

“”You have this conundrum where lack of skills is certainly a problem within the enterprise, yet the organization doesn’t want to spend money to train the people,”” she said. “”There enters the necessity of outsourcing, whether it be through contract employee, supplementing existing staff or hosted services of some sort.””

In difficult economic periods when companies are tightening their belts, test engineers are often the first to be let go, Lanowitz said, and many of these individuals end up seeking other forms of work in IT. The problem is compounded, she added, by a lack of parity between test engineers and development or operational IT staff in terms of title, pay scale or the range of challenging assignments.

“”Testing is perceived to be kind of an entry-level position,”” she said. “”You certainly have this large turnover of people, and you need to be able to keep this institutional knowledge within the organization from project to project, from release to release.””

Telelogic, which has a Canadian office in Ottawa, provides automated test solutions that track application lifecycles, but that doesn’t mean it believes automation is being properly used. Matthew Graney, the firm’s product marketing manager, said consultations with clients and prospects often reveal enterprise firms with automated test systems that only cover 10 per cent of their requirements. “”What use is it to have a system that can run seamlessly from Friday night to Monday morning while everyone’s enjoying their weekend if it’s not doing its job?”” he asked. “”It may seem obvious, but automation should be a means, not an end.””

Though they are obviously responsible for ensuring that applications are deployed with the fewest possible errors, Lanowitz described the test engineer’s role as that of customer advocate, though the customer could change over the course of the testing process. At one point, for example, the customer might be the business user, and the tester’s responsibility to that business user is to give them a high-quality application that meets the requirements they laid out, she said. In other cases, the customer may be the development or operations organization, particularly once the software testing is done.

“”As software becomes more pervasive, what that means is suddenly the end user becomes a little bit less sophisticated,”” she said. “”Some of the old problems that we had solved in previous platforms — such as mainframe platforms or the good old days of client/server — they’re now again new problems in the wireless or the Web world.””

Graney said it makes sense to use a dedicated test language, many of which have been provided by the tool vendors to support their products. “”The sorts of concepts that test engineers need to think of are difficult to develop,”” he said. “”If a company is doing an e-commerce application, they’re likely to be starting off in Java and not something like Fortran. It’s just the right tool for the job.””

Gartner estimates that only 20 per cent of downtime is caused by hardware failures. Forty per cent is caused by operator errors, and the other 40 per cent is application errors, Lanowitz said. This means the app either didn’t perform as expected, the operator did not understand what to do with the app, or the development team didn’t speak to the operations group to discuss the impact of the app.

“”If you understand who your constituents are, and you as a testing professional act as a customer advocate, you can impact 80 per cent of unplanned downtime,”” she said.


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