STAREAST 2015 Interview with Mike Sowers on the Future of Testing


Mike Sowers, CIO at TechWell, discusses his STAREAST presentation. Look for more keynotes, sessions, and interviews at this year’s STARWEST conference in Anaheim. 


In this STAREAST interview, Mike Sowers discusses the future of testing. He touches on how DevOps, agile, continuous integration, and continuous testing have changed the field.

Jennifer Bonine: We are back with our virtual interviews, and I'm excited to have Mike with me today. Mike, thanks for joining.

Michael Sowers: Hi, Jennifer, great to be here.

Jennifer Bonine: Good to have you. Now, people may not know, but you're actually part of Software Quality Engineering.

Michael Sowers: Yeah, I'm in a great role right now. I've had a background in software engineering and testing and I spent a little time as a CIO, and so now I actually get to be the technology leader for Software Quality Engineering and actually get to still engage in the whole software development and testing discussion, so it's exciting.

Jennifer Bonine: It's a great role. You get to be part of putting together all of these fantastic events and conferences and the things that occur that bring all these professionals together, so it's nice to see someone like yourself here to share some insight. And for those folks watching—they're going to be watching this afternoon—Mike is actually your closing afternoon keynote today of our session. So you'll get to see him talk, and so lucky for all of us, we get kind of a sneak peek into some of this.

A topic a lot of people want to know about is exactly what you're talking about, so it's about what's coming and what's the future look like for me. We've obviously heard over the years people saying testing's a dying breed; the profession will go away because of various things, automation, etc. We won't need testers anymore. There are going to be no defects. We're getting so good. You know, all those types of things. I would love your perspective for the folks out there on what's coming, and what should we expect, and what do you think the future looks like?

Michael Sowers: I think the important thing there is that we have that conversation as a community. I don't have a crystal ball any more than anybody else does, but I think it's important for us to talk about it as a profession because there have been some people that feel very strongly that we don't need skilled software testers in the industry anymore. I think that's perhaps leveling out, particularly as we see the complexity of software continue to go up. We see the amount of testing that's still required for applications, and of course we continue to deploy defects—that is, people like Target, Home Depot, key financial institutions having significant issues that are impacting our daily lives. So I feel that conversation around the value of the testing and the testing profession and maintaining those skill sets in the future is absolutely critical to us.

Jennifer Bonine: I think just in terms of a forum for that discussion to take place at events like this. You had the opportunity to both be a speaker and organize and participate as an executive that kind of arranges these types of events. What do you see as some of the value that people get from coming together as a community and being here for this week and being involved in these conferences?

Michael Sowers: I attended my first STAR conference in the mid-‘90s, and I remember as I was a tester before that, I felt I was on an island. I had a lot of challenges, didn't know a lot of the methodologies, was running into some roadblocks. I always felt like I was pushing a wet rope uphill, and I felt like I was working in isolation because I didn't have any form of training; I really was just learning on the job. I remember coming to my first STAR conference and having my eyes just wide open.

Jennifer Bonine: There's other people.

Michael Sowers: Oh, there's other people that have the same problems and issues that I do.

Jennifer Bonine: Exactly.

Michael Sowers: I actually have a shoulder to cry on.

Jennifer Bonine: Yes, it's discovering your community.

Michael Sowers: Exactly, and so I discovered the community and I think to your point, Jennifer, that's what it's a lot about, is any community, any profession needs a place to have a conversation, needs a place to innovate and drive creativity, to share best practices and ideas. That's the energy that I feed on in these conferences and as I talk to people. That's the energy that they feed on as well.

Jennifer Bonine: It's interesting. I was talking to one of the folks that help put these events on and saying, in the classes I was giving this week, I would ask how many of you is this your first time coming to an event like this, or have you been to one before? A large number raised their hand, and I think this data was given and you'll probably know for sure was around 80 percent it's their first time.

Michael Sowers: That's correct.

Jennifer Bonine: I think it's awesome to see how many people are experiencing that, like you did, for the first time and having that experience of being a part of it. The opportunity to get themselves to something like this and discover that community is huge for them.

Michael Sowers: That's right, and I think whether or not you're here live, which of course it's a much more real experience, whether or not you're here live or whether you're here virtually. Thankfully with now the internet and the cloud and the virtual capabilities, we can reach a larger community and generate that same level of knowledge transfer, if you will. Then someday, perhaps those individuals that have had to attend remotely will have the opportunity to have the experience live.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, to be here, and there's such a good business case for it, and I see lots of corporations that maybe took a few years off. So there was a period of time where companies, it felt like, were tightening their belts, not investing in training, not investing in conferences, things like that. I guess just from my outsider perspective, I'm seeing that change and more people are saying, "We've got to get our people to these events. We've got to get them training. We've got to get them to conferences." Are you guys seeing that same thing from companies you work with?

Michael Sowers: Yeah, we're absolutely seeing that from our perspective. A lot more interest and the number of attendees is growing rapidly. In fact, this year, as you know, we added another conference so we're up to roughly seven conferences a year, everything from development, software development to software testing to now DevOps, which is becoming a very big and important aspect of software engineering.

Jennifer Bonine: Exactly, and it's interesting to see those opportunities for people to get involved and to be part of these events. For a lot of people out there that want to attend that need an opportunity to do that, we should mention too that the organization gives an opportunity for people to submit proposals.

Michael Sowers: Correct, that's right. We're always looking for great ideas and great speakers. I'm sure many of our virtual audience witnessed the first keynote and in the first keynote, Jason challenged us to have more innovation in testing. One of the ways we can have more innovation in testing is to have people that have best practices and have new ideas and have really advanced methodologies or tooling or skill sets, be able to share that here and it's just as easy as clicking on our link and submitting a paper and being part of the program.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, so it's not hard. If people want to get involved there's ways to do that and to get here along with the uTest contest. We actually spoke with the winner of the uTest contest you guys partner with and she was here. So there's definitely ways even if the company's not saying, "I've got the money or the budget or whatever" to get yourself here, get part of the community, participate virtually like you guys are. There's other ways to do this. Certification, let's talk a little bit about that because I know a lot of folks out there are thinking, “Should I get one? How important is it?” What are you hearing, and I just want your perspective on where you fall within that realm of certifications and what you think about that?

Michael Sowers: Yeah absolutely. I think as an IT industry, we're seeing more and more certifications being deployed. You've got Cisco certification, the Microsoft certifications, Oracle certifications, PMI certifications, agile certifications. So I think there's more and more interest in that badge, if you will.

Jennifer Bonine: Yes, that people get.

Michael Sowers: Right, but just as important as having a badge as everyone knows is to ensure that you have the experience. It's one thing to have the badge, it's another thing to make sure that you do have the skill sets and so forth. I think if you had those skill sets and the knowledge, what the certifications give you is just like when you graduated high school or college, proof of the learning and the fact that I can actually apply that learning. One of the questions we ask in our survey that I'll talk about during my keynote was how many people do have current certifications? Roughly about 50 percent of the people that responded have certifications, and another 14 percent are planning to get certified.

Jennifer Bonine: So a pretty good number, over half between those who already had them and are planning to get them. Good, decent number of people, and I guess along those lines, you guys get to see some of that information on the trends and ask some of those survey questions. Any other trends you're seeing or things you're seeing in terms of patterns of behavior around not only attending conferences, but wanting certifications and things that people are interested in or topics that are really hot for them right now?

Michael Sowers: I'm sure you've talked about them before already, but at the risk of being redundant, certainly agile's big, so anything agile, whether it be agile testing, agile development, there's a lot of interest. The other evolving interest is around the whole area of DevOps, continuous integration, continuous testing, continuous deployment. Those are critical topics. I think the other one that is of interest is complexity and the entire challenge of integrating all of our applications on our interfaces in different way to create new innovation. Moore's Law is still at work so we're still seeing our computing power double every eighteen to twenty-four months.

Jennifer Bonine: Exactly.

Michael Sowers: That affords us the opportunity to develop better software, but now we have to deal with the complexities of integrating that, in the cloud or mobile, wearing mainframes on our wrist, those types of things.

Jennifer Bonine: Well, exactly, right, just the way that we're shrinking and shrinking the device and the size of the device that you use, but the power it has is getting so great. It's just amazing to see, so it's interesting how conferences keep up with all those trends and techniques and things that are coming. For you guys, when you're looking at what do people want to hear about and what's kind of their hot button topics … What are the ways that you guys do that? Because you have to stay ahead of kind of what are people going to want, and what are those trends and how does the organization do that and try and stay on top of those things?

Michael Sowers: Well, certainly being in touch with people at our conferences is important. We also have several communities, as you know, on our websites which people can join and become a part of. We have blogs and so forth. We obviously conduct focus groups and surveys and we just do a lot of talking to people about what is their interest. We get feedback at these conferences. We process that feedback. We ask for ideas about what topics they'd like to hear about. So there's many, many different ways that we try to set the next program agenda.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah and get ahead of all those things that are coming.

Michael Sowers: I think the other thing that's hot today, Jennifer, is automation. It's automate, automate, automate, automate and I think we have much more opportunities today to embrace levels of automation at the lower levels of the system, because traditionally, automation's been focused on the UI layer and so now the trend is to move it down to the service layer and to the unit layer and we have our friends and associates in the development community embracing that. Which really is what we've always wanted to test. We've wanted to drive testing upstream and so there's no greater opportunities to do that than now.

Jennifer Bonine: And seeing that trend and breaking down those barriers and getting more involved together as a team between the developers and the testers. That's what I think is also interesting, is it's a testing conference but there's very much that feeling of taking also opinions in from folks who don't necessarily come from that side, as Dan North called himself today an “interloper,” but being very well-received as an interloper here at this event. He's not the only one. There are others like that that are here and giving that perspective, just showing that connectedness between development and testing and bringing that together. As an organization, you guys do a great job, I think, of showing that and then bringing in those speakers and cross-pollinating some of the thoughts between those conferences that you have.

Michael Sowers: Yeah, I think somehow, at least in my career, we sort of lost track of that whole collaboration thing for one reason or another. It was important that the testing team be independent and so there was a time and even today where testing teams weren't even allowed to talk to developers or talk to customers and clients. So now again, with the opportunity of agile and having that whole team accountability for quality, that's just critically, critically important and a superb approach. That's why I think we're seeing much more collaboration and openness to have that conversation between, "Hey, I'm a tester, how can I help you from a development perspective?" The developer saying, "I'm a developer, how can I help you from the testing perspective?"

Jennifer Bonine: Right, let's work together on this and solve the problem jointly. I think one of the interesting things I've heard in talking to developers is they love the fact that before it felt like there was a wall. They would develop and then the pushed it over the wall and then there are people on the other side that in a vacuum kind of do stuff with stuff and then throw it back over when they're done.

What was so hard about that is in the old traditional ways of doing it with waterfall and things like that, it could be six months to a year before the developers get feedback on something they worked on months and months ago. Now it's more that real time connectedness, that feedback that they get, it's much more instantaneous as opposed to waiting and you're doing it together as opposed to this is my realm and that's yours and you worry about your stuff, I'll worry about mine and you're just seeing that connectedness, I think.

Michael Sowers: Yes and as you very well know, there's another dimension of that and now we're bringing in the product owner and the customer and the client and we're able to get closer. I remember one organization that I was working in, we actually wanted to be able to talk to the customer and the client and the user, but I was told "Absolutely no way. You are not allowed to talk to the client and customer." Looking back, how silly was that?

Jennifer Bonine: Oh yeah, now we would say, "That's ridiculous." Just how far we come with our thought processes and evolving them and it's interesting to see. Something else too that I think is interesting in terms of trends and what you're seeing is you come also from the perspective of an executive. What are executives thinking? I know you talk with customers and clients and different folks. What's in the mindset of those executives now and are you seeing changes in their mindset around the importance of testing and what they're thinking about?

Michael Sowers: Yeah and testing's always been about risk. So CIOs, CTOs, CEOs continue to worry about risk, but at the same time, we want to balance that risk equation. If we're producing a new feature, a new product, a new application, obviously we've got a lot of competition. We want to get it to market faster so we will employ some of the agile techniques, the collaborative techniques, the techniques for having whole-team accountability for quality that you and I talked about and try to deliver that minimum viable product or that good enough product and of course that varies with every industry that you're in. What's good enough for someone like Google may not be good enough for a financial or insurance institution or someone in the medical or healthcare area because we're dealing with a different degree of risk.

Jennifer Bonine: Right. I'm thinking about that. Now for folks out there who may be struggling with communicating a message or showing the value of what they're doing to executives, any advice for them having come from that executive seat yourself, on what you're looking for or how to send that message in a way that it makes sense to you as a leader or an executive in an organization?

Michael Sowers: That's a wonderful question. My elevator speech on testing, when somebody asked me about what do as a tester … What does your organization do, or something like that, has always been insurance against business risk. Now if I have more time I can kind of peel the onion on that, but the byline is insurance against business risk. I think that's what executives are looking for. You get their attention when you say, "Oh, yeah, I've had some business risk," as evidence of the companies that we've talked about or others that have had issues over these last twelve months. I've had some business risk, maybe I do want to invest more in testing and in fact we're seeing, there's some studies. You can pick up pretty much any industry study where the percent of investment in testing has actually been increasing in the last few years.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, I mean, the World Quality Report right?

Michael Sowers: Yes, that's right.

Jennifer Bonine: The folks who do that are here at the conference, the collaboration partnership of HP and Capgemini and those guys that put it together, I think really nicely illustrate exactly that. People spending more money because they don't want to have that risk, they don't want to have that exposure that they seen other people have so let's invest in it and figure out how to do that in the right ways.

Michael Sowers: Yeah, my firm belief is that companies that deliver good enough products, relatively our competition, are going to be the one that will win and of course that quality standard always goes up. Today, I can download an app to my phone via the PlayStore, I can take a look at it and in sixty seconds, I can decide whether or not I'm going to keep it or I'm going to uninstall it. So we don't have very many chances to deliver a good clean message to our consumers around a level of quality.

Jennifer Bonine: Oh yeah, the level of exposure has went up. With all the social media and all the availability of people to get a message out. No longer is it you wait for the news to hear about an exposure that happened. It's everywhere, almost instantaneously. So I think just the visibility has grown so incredible with all the technology we have at our fingertips. It goes so fast, we're already out of time but if people want to hear more, have questions for you I didn't ask, of course we want them to tune in this afternoon for your keynote. How can they find you?

Michael Sowers: Sure, I'm available at the SQE website. You can click on my link there. Also available on Twitter @michaelsowers4, and probably several other ways that you can reach me that I don't even know about.

Jennifer Bonine: You can find him. Thank you so much, Mike, for your time. I appreciate it.

Michael Sowers: Thank you, Jennifer.

Jennifer Bonine: It was great.

Michael Sowers: It's a pleasure being here.

Mike SowersMike Sowers has more than twenty-five years of practical experience as a global quality and test leader of internationally distributed test teams across multiple industries. Mike is a senior consultant, skilled in working with both large and small organizations to improve their software development, testing, and delivery approaches. He has worked with companies including Fidelity Investments, PepsiCo, FedEx, Southwest Airlines, Wells Fargo, ADP, and Lockheed to improve software quality, reduce time to market, and decrease costs. With his passion for helping teams deliver software faster, better, and cheaper, Mike has mentored and coached senior software leaders, small teams, and direct contributors worldwide.

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