The Future of the Software Testing Profession: An Interview with Mike Sowers


In this interview, STAREAST keynote speaker Mike Sowers digs into the changing nature of testing. He talks about whether the profession is dying out and details the impact innovations like wearables and mobile have on the craft.

Josiah Renaudin: Today I'm joined by Mike Sowers, who will be presenting a keynote at STAREAST on the future of the software testing profession. Mike, thank you very much for joining us.

Michael Sowers: Hello, Josiah, great to be with you.

Josiah Renaudin: All right, first could you tell us just a bit about your experience in the industry?

Michael Sowers: Yeah, sure. I started my career in the Midwest at a company called NCR Corporation; actually, as a co-op student, and then I had the opportunity to learn about hardware and software engineering there and also systems testing. So from that foundation, I really contributed in several different roles, from test lead right up fortunately through senior vice-president of QA and test with many companies, such as the Digital Equipment Corporation, Cadence Design Systems, Fidelity Investments, and a few others.

Luckily, I had some great mentors and coaches and leaders along the way; spent a few years in consulting in software testing and got some experience sitting in the CIO seat from an IT perspective, and now I've got the opportunity to continue to get feedback to the testing community through my dual role here at TechWell, as both the CIO and senior consultant and instructor in software testing.

Josiah Renaudin: Just from that, you can tell you have a very rich, deep background in testing, so I'm actually going to start with a big question. Is testing, as a profession, dying? If not, has it significantly diminished from when you started in the industry?

Michael Sowers: Yeah, that's a great question; probably the million-dollar question, that none of us have a crystal ball about, Josiah. But we had the opportunity to pose that question to our testing community recently, and that's the topic of my upcoming keynote at STARWEST at 2015, so I'm excited about that. I'm excited that everyone has responded and engaged in that discussion.

The data thus far from our community indicates that although the testing profession is not going to see their demise anytime soon, that there are significant factors, of course, that are driving change in the testing profession—factors such as mobile, embedded, wearables, big data, and so forth. I don't think the significance of testing is going to diminish, but most likely needs to continue to be transformed.

Josiah Renaudin: Absolutely, and you also pose the thought that testing could be the most important aspect of software development, citing the growing risk of failure, which a lot of that has to do with how expansive mobile has become. And there's more than just failure; it's higher stakes. What do you think has caused this increased risk?

Michael Sowers: Yeah, I think probably one word, and that's complexity. Of course, Moore's Law is still at work: the fact that our computing power is doubling every eighteen to twenty-four months. That allows us to drive mega-innovation in every dimension, in every industry, of course, that we're seeing. More toys for big boys and girls, you know what they say?

Josiah Renaudin: Yes.

Michael Sowers: Right, and of course, the smaller, faster footprint in our system adds complexity and anytime you add complexity, you add risk; thus, the need for much more comprehensive testing earlier and concurrent in our hardware and software in the system development lifecycles.

Josiah Renaudin: You were talking earlier about wearables and mobile and all these new innovations that change the industry. With the change of what we're working on, the people have to change with it. What skills do most testers lack now that they will need in order to succeed in the future?

Michael Sowers: Yeah, well, you're absolutely right about that. You know, the smaller our computing footprint gets, both in hardware and software, the more complexity, as I mentioned, so when you're wearing a mainframe on your wrist, there's tons to think about, right, relative to testing the device itself, but then you also need to test everything that the device is going to interface with; the different operating systems, the APIs, the network interfaces, Bluetooth, whatever, and of course, then all the application layers, so I think wearables is a really great example of the complexity and then the amount of testing that needs to go on.

Of course, one of the other challenges there is do I have the actual hardware device itself, or do I have to emulate that hardware device? If so, how might I need to do that? The other devices that that device that you're wearing on your wrist interfaces with: Do I have to emulate those devices or do I have those physical devices? So it goes on, from a testing challenge perspective.

Josiah Renaudin: I really feel like we've started to see the impact that mobile has had on the testing field and how that's changed how people work, but what have wearables done in the testing world and really in general, what will they do? I think we're starting to see, you know, like the Apple Watch and we're seeing these VR headsets and a lot of different devices, but I still feel like it's going to be some time before we really see what kind of impact this has on testing; how much can wearables change things?

Michael Sowers: Yeah, I think that's an intriguing question. Like anything else, you've got early adopters. It's probably going to be awhile before wearables and things like Google Glass and etc. reach the masses, but the one aspect of that is ... which intrigues me ... it's just turn it around a little bit and say, well, how might that technology, those capabilities such as Google Glass or wearables actually be used to improve testing and our testing methodologies? I don't have the answers to that, but I dream about how to use the new technology to test the new technology, if that makes sense.

Josiah Renaudin: It does, it's the glass-half-full approach, too, where you're looking at it as how can this improve testing instead of making it more complex and more difficult.

Michael Sowers: Yeah, I mean, imagine looking through a Google Glass at the system under test, right, and somehow manipulating that. It would be interesting.

Josiah Renaudin: What one testing methodology has changed the profession the most in recent memory?

Michael Sowers: Well, I think if I just broadened that question a little bit, Josiah, I mean, I think hands down, the move to agile and all the agile variants from a development lifecycle perspective are probably the most compelling or … driving event, if you will, in our current history.

For testing specifically, if I had to pick one, it would be the move from higher levels of system testing to a deeper focus on more levels of unit and component integration. I think that's where we're going to see the gains.

There's a thing in the testing industry called the testing pyramid and normally, at the top of the pyramid, we focused a lot on testing from the GUI perspective, from the user interface perspective. Now the trend to turn that triangle upside down and focus more on testing the lower levels of the system first; more unit tests, more component integration tests.

Josiah Renaudin: Absolutely, and we'll end on this one: More than anything, what message do you want to leave with your audience at Orlando?

Michael Sowers: Yeah, I hope everybody's with me on this, but I think engaging discussion around the future of our test profession is critical, particularly during this time when we're in a large area of change, when we're attempting to transform methodologies, technologies, our own core competencies, and so I simply invite everyone to join in that discussion. What is the future of our testing profession? We own it and we have the ability to influence it, and we can allow it to see its demise or see it continue to thrive. That's the message I'd like everyone to be engaged around.

Josiah Renaudin: All right, fantastic. Well, once again, I very much appreciate your time, Mike, and I'm looking forward to hearing more about the future of software testing, in Orlando.

Michael Sowers: Thanks very much, Josiah. It was a pleasure being here.

Mike SowersMichael Sowers has over 25 years of practical experience as a Global Quality & Test Leader across multiple industries. He has lead internationally distributed quality & test teams and held accountability for configuration management and release engineering functions. Michael is a Sr. Consultant skilled in working with organizations, both large and small, to improve their software development, testing and delivery approaches. He has worked with companies such as Fidelity Investments, CA, PepsiCo, FedEx, Southwest Airlines, Wells Fargo, ADP, Lockheed and Well Point Health Care to improve software quality, reduce time to market and decrease costs. Michael has mentored and coached Sr. Software Leaders, small teams, and direct contributors worldwide and has a passion for helping teams deliver software "faster, better, and cheaper."

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