Unglamorous software testing in high demand

When on the hunt to purchase new software a general rule of thumb is “Never buy the first version, wait for an upgrade or service pack.”

Which suggests that even the most devout IT pro’s faith in the world of technology is not unshakeable.

Or they simply have been taken for a ride one too many times by software products that require costly upgrades and are soured forever from purchasing the first issue of any software regardless of the manufacturer’s guarantee.

Whichever, the scenario begs the inevitable question: What is the state of quality control for software products in Canada? More specifically, are we in the midst of a software testing deficiency?

“Yes, absolutely,” said Paul Dasiewicz, a professor in the University of Waterloo’s Electrical and Computer Engineer Department in Waterloo, Ont. “Software testing is not regarded as the most glamorous field at the moment.”

Dasiewicz explained IT students regard software testing as the bottom rung on the ladder.

“Most prominent software people go into development…the students I’ve spoken to have told me they would see it (software testing) as a demotion,” he said. “At most universities you’re likely to get one course for software testing in your final year.”

Another expert agreed that few of this country’s IT students are focusing on a career in software testing. “Software testing is considered an entry level position in many organizations,” said Bryan Shultz, managing director for the Quality Assurance Institute of Canada (QAI) in Calgary. “It’s not recognized as a proactive career path in IT. In fact, very few post-secondary institutions (in Canada) have software testing in their computer departments. Some do, but not very many.”

Founded in 1980 in the United States, QAI Canada was established in Wild Rose Country over one year ago. The association of information service organizations that comprise QAI Canada is dedicated to improving enterprise-wide information quality. Its corporate members include Alberta Energy, Bell Canada, Nortel Networks and B.C. Hydro.

“Y2K has emphasized the requirement for businesses to be concerned about quality,” Shultz said. “Raising quality control to an appropriate level should be the goal (for software producers).”

To that end, QAI Canada is wasting little time in positioning itself as an authority in the software test-training spectrum. Shultz said the organizations’ first ever software training and testing conference is slated to be held in Toronto from Oct. 18 to 20. The focus of the conference will be software quality management.

Although QAI Canada is not in the business of test resources, Shultz admitted his institute is called upon weekly by companies in need.

A vicious circle is in rotation. Unglamorous, monotonous software testing is in high demand. Despite this, most post-secondary institutions’ curricula is centred on software development. Dasiewicz was leery of casting blame at either software producing organizations or Canadian universities for the dour outlook IT students have of software testing.

“First of all, software producers are out there to sell, to take an extra six months of testing could cause you to lose market share. Besides, it’s rare to buy a software package that has been completely debugged.

“Plus, it’s hard to find a course on software testing. It’s usually blended with another course…the time spent on testing in any software course is very minimal…software testing is treated as a celebrity type of area, it’s not looked at as a career.”

Shultz agreed with Dasiewicz; unsatisfactory software releases stem from a rush-hour mentality: everyone is vying to be the first in line.

“The street date drives everything,” he stated. “Statistics show the first three or four (companies) to get their product to the market get 80 to 90 per cent of the market share.”

Khaled El Emam acknowledged there’s a high demand for software testers, but he added there is also a glowing vacancy sign at many post-secondary institutions in need of knowledgeable instructors.

“There’s a general deficiency of IT professionals; many of the organizations I’ve been in contact with have expressed a difficulty testing (software) due to a shortage of testers,” said El Emam, a research associate with the National Research Council in Ottawa. “But there’s also a lack of professors who teach these courses, not just in Canada but across North America…it’s not easy to fill these openings at the universities.”

From Shultz’s view, the onus should be on the IT industry to reconsider its collective attitude towards quality management.

“The history of software testing is such that it’s been ignored or put on the shelf,” he remarked. “It seems to be the last thing considered (by a software producer).”