The test of cool

I remember three things that made me think testing was cool before I was a tester.

The first one was when I was a high school student and I was reading an article online that a tester for LucasArts games wrote. It was a funny “day in the life” piece, and described how he got to play the game before it was finished and found bugs that would make Guybrush Threepwood’s head fly across the screen. He described the glee he felt in waiting for the optimum time to tell the developer about the one flashing white pixel in the bottom of every frame, and watching that developer burst into tears. He sounded like a man who loved his job.

The second one was when I was a university student and I was studying human-computer interaction as a subject. The textbook had a piece describing how Microsoft conducted usability testing. They had usability labs, and brought in real users and observed them while they used the software. It sounded like an interesting way to gain insight into how people used software, and a way to help make software easier to use.

The third one was when I was fresh out of university and working for Microsoft as a developer. My boss Gary had been working there for about thirteen years and he loved to tell us stories about Microsoft. One story he told us was about a group of testers in Microsoft who would walk around in packs wearing black trench coats, striking fear and awe into the hearts of developers as they passed by. They’d walk up to a workstation, click a few buttons, crash the system and coolly walk on their way, while developers scrambled to fix the error. They sounded like badasses.

Conversely, I remember the first time I met a software developer. I was in my first year of university and had told my uncle that I was studying IT and wanted to be a programmer. My uncle was a manager in a bank. He was shocked. “What? You want to be a programmer? Aiyoh. Come with me, I’ll show you a programmer.” So he took me to the bank and showed me his huge, beautiful office. It had a separate lounge area and an ensuite bathroom. Then he took me down a corridor to a black unmarked door, punched in a combination into a keypad and there, in the middle of a windowless room, sitting in a pod of cubicles, sat four men who looked like they’d lost the will to live. “Look at these guys” said my uncle, gesturing to a despondent-looking programmer. “Look at their faces. Is this the kind of job you want?”

When someone meets you for the first time, having never met a software tester before, what will they think of software testing when they walk away?

12 thoughts on “The test of cool

  1. Caroline

    Love your story, is the last bit really true… sounds a little apocryphal.

    I had no such guiding lights and chose a career I knew absolutely no one doing. Turned out OK so far ;-) (sly grin mean actually it turned out on the awesome side of alright and more or less channels the bad ass guys … no cube guys here.)

  2. Trish Khoo Post author

    Phil – you are probably right about it being IBM and not Microsoft. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details of that story, as it was a long time ago. Thanks for linking the article!

  3. Trish Khoo Post author

    Caroline – the last story about my uncle and the programmers is definitely true. I asked the programmers what programming language they used and they said something like COBOL or FORTRAN, I can’t remember which. They asked me what language I was learning and I said Java. The guy’s face lit up and said “Java! Oh you can get lots of jobs if you know Java.”

    I’m glad to hear there are no unhappy cube guys where you work. I think that experience mainly just put me off working in a bank, and served as a warning to keep my tech skills updated.

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  5. Gary Bishop

    Hi Trish, Very funny read. I’ve had lot’s of life experiences providing software to banks. Over the years, there have been significant attitude changes by many bank execs as to the value of software to operational banking results. I do remember a guy at JPMorgan saying that “software was just a glorified calculator” as he was asking us to provide software for free so that he could open up trading in Hong Kong. Now in 2012, we actually provide our software developers with white lab coats (personalized) and let them levitate around the office. Our QA team does get the black trenchcoats, though, which they wear with relish.

  6. Haumovie

    I think the games tester idolization is popular with many boys in their early teens, and certainly was with me: “How cool! You get to play computer all day!”

  7. Ronald Pihlgren

    You were a developer at Microsoft? Wow! When and what product?

    I have a similar story to your last one. I was working as an electronic technician, going to school in the evening taking electronics courses. There were two head guys at the company, one was the head software guy and the other was the head hardware guy. I remember their reactions to the head of all engineering when he would come and ask for a change.

    The head hardware guy was about 30 and looked 50. When a request for a change came to him he looked crestfallen and sad. The head software guy was about 50 and looked 30. When a request for a change came to him he said, “No problem, we’ll code that right up.”

    Once I noticed this, I switched my major from electronics to computer science…

  8. Trish Khoo Post author

    Ronald, I was just working on internally-used applications in Microsoft Sydney, back in my early career days.

    Nice story!

  9. Phil H

    This is pretty funny. I guess back in the old days, programmers sat in a back room, maybe in the 70’s? And the testers were feared in their black trench coats by developers? Now, given that, how are we now in the position where most testers feel under-appreciated, un-wanted, and even trying to justify their existence? Your other post about the sydney meeting is a good example, fake testing, or basically monkey testers, too many of them… But what is the underlying reason?

  10. Sharon

    As I am huddled behind my desk, I laughed out loud about the black coated testers. Great post.

    Phil, I think a major misconception about software testers is that they’re merely “bug hunters” – they dig for bugs that developers must then fix. While this is true at face value, good software testers go beyond the identification of problems and focus on the more important prevention of problems. In other words, testers are in the business of helping developers become better at developing software with fewer bugs. As the saying goes, you cannot “test” quality into a product – you can only build it in. Good software testers focus on the source of the quality spigot. So instead of “build-fix-build-fix-build,” most testers aim to “prevent-build-fix-build-prevent.”

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