The Boutique Tester


As Matt Heusser sees it, the "war on work" that exchanged centuries of craftsmanship for being a small part of the big machine has itself been replaced in the past decade--at least in the software industry--with a revitalization of the craftsperson. What's more, he sees the realization of the "boutique developer" as a promising sign for the possibility of boutique testers.

Generations ago, craftspeople lived in the center of town, owned the building, and lived upstairs. They generally owned their own tools. Independent craft was such a part of their being that when it came time to pick up last names, they looked to their crafts-Cooper, Miller, Smith, Carpenter, etc.

A few hundred years later, when it was time for young Matt Heusser to start his career, that independent spark was all but gone-at least from software development. Oh, it still existed in some of the trades; you still can find an independent plumber. But, the American people had begun to declare war on work . As Mike Rowe puts it, we relegated that plumber in our minds to a 300-pound slob "with his [rear end] hanging out."

At the time (1997), it was very hard to be an independent software contractor. To distribute software you needed to print CDs, stuff them in boxes, and market then to large retail stores. The few people who were online were using dialup modems and wouldn't stand to download Win32 software. Building a Web presence was expensive; you needed to build a server farm, rent a T1 connection, and hire an army of developers, DBAs, system administrators, analysts, and testers. The few craftsmen making shareware and open source software were hobbyists-it wasn't expected to pay your rent. Why, even the methodologies popular at the time pushed you toward an assembly line of specialists.

While you could work as an independent contractor for companies, the idea of making things for yourself just wasn't part of the scene. Aldous Huxley's brave new world had come.

Time Passes.

Computers are faster and cheaper. Now I can rent a box that will run PHP, is stuck inside a collocation facility, and is connected to the Internet for a hundred dollars a month. A majority of Americans have a high-speed Internet connection, and the Web has evolved nearly to match the functionality of the traditional Win32 environment. Free programming tools at higher and higher levels of abstraction, combined with methods (like XP) that focus on the generalist, allow the programmer to be programmer, developer, and system administrator at the same time.

All of a sudden, it makes sense to hire one guy (or maybe two) to write your Web site. Custom software development-and the craftsman-is back, baby, and back big time. The Ruby on Rails movement alone is full of small companies like 8th Light, Obtiva, and Atomic Object that have generalists making custom software.

I believe this is a really good thing.

But, what about the tester? Why, the software tester doesn't make anything. The tester is just part of some assembly line. That's a job that should just go away as we all become generalists, right? Gosh, I hope not. Sure, I've done development and analysis, and I've been a generalist responsible for everything. It's just that I enjoy testing. It's what I want to do.

So, if we have found a space for the boutique developer, can we find a place for a boutique tester? And, if yes, what would that look like?

I believe the answer to those questions is still up for discussion. To compete as a craftsperson, the tester role will have to evolve. He'll have to be smarter, sharper, and faster. He'll have to explain testing services to people who are skeptical of such services and believe they can do it themselves. In the words of Harry Harrison, in his novel The Stainless-steel Rat :

It was easier in the old days, of course, and society had more rats when the

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