The Quality Assurance (QA) role is the role responsible for guaranteeing a level of quality for the end client, and to help the software development team to identify problems early in the process. It is not surprising that people in this role are often known as "testers". Of course, the role is more than just testing. It's about contributing to the quality of the final product. (If you've not been following the series, you should read Cracking the Code: Breaking Down the Software Development Roles.)
What's the Quality Assurance role?
The QA role is one that is focused on creating a quality deliverable. In other words, it is the responsibility of the QA role to make sure that the software development process doesn't sacrifice quality in the name of completed objectives. The full organizational chart below shows how the QA role fits into the organization.
The QA role works with the Functional Analyst (FA) and the Solutions Architect (SA) to convert the requirements and design documents into a set of testing cases and scripts, which can be used to verify that the system meets the client needs. This collection of test cases and scripts are collectively referred to as a test plan. The test plan document itself is often simple providing an overview of each of the test cases. The testing cases and scripts are also used to validate that there are no unexplained errors in the system.
The test plan is approved by the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and represents the criteria to reach a project closing. If the test cases and scripts in the test plan are the agreed upon acceptance criteria for a project then all that is necessary is for project closure is to demonstrate that all of the testing cases and scripts have been executed successfully with passing results.
A test case is a general-purpose statement that maps to one or more requirements and design points. It is the overall item being tested. It may be a specific usability feature, or a technical feature that was supposed to be implemented as a part of the project.
Test scripts fit into the test cases by validating that case. Test scripts are step-by-step instructions on what to do, what to look for, and what should happen. While the test cases can be created with nearly no input from the architecture or design, the test scripts are specific to how the problem was solved by the software development team and therefore they require an understanding of not only the requirements, but also the architecture, design, and detailed design.
The quality assurance role is split into three parts:
First: The role creates test cases and scripts.
Second: The role executes or supervises the execution of those test cases and scripts.
Third: The role facilitates or performs random testing of all components to ensure that there's not a random bug haunting the system.
In some organizations, the quality assurance role has two specializations. The first is the classic functional testing and quality assurance as described above. The second, is a performance quality assurance role where the performance of the completed solution is measured and quantified. The performance QA role is an important part of the large system development quality assurance process.
The quality assurance role also has within it a wide range of potential titles and specific responsibilities. From the entry-level quality assurance professional who executes and document tests to the QA lead who works with the FA and SA to create the testing plan, cases, and scripts. The role also extends through QA manager position that may take responsibility for the quality of a solution. At this level the QA manager and solutions architect work as peers to ensure the final solution has the highest quality.
Getting started as a QA professional
Split evenly with the developer role the standard QA role is an entry role into the software development process. The QA can be entered with a basic understanding of the process, and minimal - if any - prior experience.
The entry spot for the quality assurance role is simply running the testing scripts created by another quality assurance professional. This requires no special skills other than the willingness to step through a process one step at a time and to document the results. Once experienced with running scripts other parts of the software testing process will open up and eventually the opportunity to take on the quality assurance responsibility for a part of the system - or future systems may open up.
The role requires an attention to detail so anything that you can use to demonstrate this attention to detail is helpful. It is also helpful to demonstrate any time where you had to keep meticulous records, whether it was for a science experiment or any other kind of task. Since getting started with QA means taking good notes, penmanship is a plus. If this is a weakness, it's possible in some cases to take notes electronically; good penmanship is replaced with the need to be effective at taking notes on the computer.
What's in the toolbox?
The QA toolbox is filled with things that make validation possible and easier. It includes automated testing tools and the skills necessary to validate applications, database values, and workflows when there is no easy way to validate the correct answer.
The first step is patience. Every test script in every test case must be run by hand. This process is often exhausting but necessary to validate both the software being developed but also the test scripts themselves. Screen capture utilities and screen annotation tools can be very helpful in the process of communicating the errors.
The next step is automated testing tools. These tools allow you to run a test script without the need to be manually banging out keys on a keyboard or clicks of a mouse. These tools come with recording software to allow you to record a set of steps and convert it into a scripting language. The scripting language allows the steps to be customized. By customizing the script from the recorded script it is possible to parameterize the set of steps so that different data can be used. At least one automated testing suite should be in your arsenal if you're a serious QA professional.
Most automated testing tools also extend themselves into being used to test scalability and performance. These tools help to identify how a system will respond under heavy loads such as large numbers of simultaneous users, large amounts of data, and more.
As mentioned briefly above, the larger and more public the system, the more important performance testing becomes. Because of this, the skills of performance testing and interpreting the results of that testing become more valuable as the system's importance increases. It is common to have QA analysts in a functional testing role; this is the kind of role that most people think of. QA analysts are also found in a performance-testing role, which is focused around the performance-testing aspects of a software solution.