James Rooney has a pretty important job: he makes sure things don't explode. "I do a lot of things that help prevent fires and explosions," he explains. Rooney is a quality assurance engineer, a profession that he calls both interesting and rewarding. "At the end of the day it's really nice to realize that you helped people. You kept them safe."
That's one of the major attractions to quality assurance (QA), says Rooney, who is a Fellow with the American Society for Quality and the director of quality management at ABS Consulting. "A lot of QA people are involved in processes that keep people safe."
Quality assurance engineering takes a lot of different forms. At its core, QA is about testing and verifying products, technologies, services and software. The impact of the career, experts say, makes it an extremely satisfying profession. "We're the voice for the user," says Alexandra Hoffer, QA engineering team lead for Dropbox. "QA engineers help to make sure that the product we're putting out is going to be an extremely good experience. It's a very fulfilling role."
Not only is the role satisfying to the individual, it is also valued by employers. "A QA engineer has carte blanche to poke holes in and then devise solutions that can truly impact an organization's bottom line and their ultimate success," says David Gantshar, president and CEO of the executive recruitment firm Shepherd Search Group.
The Qualities of a Good QA Engineer
Rooney says QA engineers have several important qualities. "One thing that truly characterizes quality people is attention to detail," he says. "They have to make sure that all of the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed."
Good QA people also possess the social interpersonal skills that will allow them to work with and gather information from a broad team across multiple areas of an organization. "You have to be able to get in to the people who are going to design the product, market it, and the people who are on the floor making it," Rooney says. These interpersonal skills also come into play when the QA engineer finds something that needs to be fixed. "A QA engineer is sometimes the person giving you news that you don't want to hear," says Hoffer. "It's important to have a good attitude so we don't end up with a conflict between QA and the development team."
Perhaps the most important quality for a quality assurance engineer, Hoffer says, is empathy. "We have 300 million users, and they all have different hardware and software and environments and ways that they are using Dropbox. Our QA engineers need to be able to think of those scenarios and empathize with our users in their diversity so they can make sure they are testing the product in all of the ways in which our users might use it."
Very few people actually set out to become quality assurance engineers, Gantshar says. Instead, they start out in electrical or mechanical engineering, computer programming or other fields and gravitate toward QA. "They usually find it as almost a second career path after they've entered a company and then realize that working in continuous process improvement, innovation and product assurance is interesting," says Rooney.
There aren't many education programs focusing on QA � "not a lot of young people choose it as an undergraduate field of study," Rooney says � but there are ways to learn. The American Society for Quality, for example, offers several certifications and bodies of knowledge, which can be helpful for people making the transition into QA. "They're not a must-have," Rooney says, but they can be helpful for people without a lot of experience. "Once you have five or 10 or 15 years in the field, it's no longer as important," he says.
Hoffer suggests that people who are interested in QA just start testing things to see where it leads. "I started testing games by independent developers as a volunteer," she says. "This is something we see a lot on resumes: people who are really passionate about testing have some kind of extracurricular testing that they've been doing." This is easier on the software side, where open-source projects frequently look for beta-testers to find and report bugs.
Hoffer does recommend that students considering QA get a major in computer science, although she says it is not a hard and fast requirement. "It does expand your options and make you more attractive," she says.
The experts I spoke with all agreed that there are not enough QA people to fill the demand for employees. "To find a top QA engineer is a feat," concedes Gantshar, while Rooney says recruiters have told him they are willing to take "everyone they could get." As for Dropbox, Hoffer says "We could always use more. Our goal is to hire at least another five people by the end of the year, but we would be happy to hire more than that."
Rooney says a well-rounded person with experience won't find many barriers if they want to move into QA. "If you have the right personality and the right problem-solving skills, you can be a success in the profession."
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