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The Respect QA Deserves, or Finding the Right People and Making Them Stay
by Anna Jenelius on 04/04/14 03:30:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

QA is extremely important. Those are not my words. That's a quote from a session at GDC this year, and it's something I have not heard anyone disagree with. Ever. So then why is Quality Assurance considered just a stepping stone into the rest of the industry? Why are QA testers generally ridiculously underpaid? Why do they keep getting fired after the title they worked so hard on is launched? Why were so many people genuinely surprised that my company sent two QA representatives to GDC this year?

Before I start, I would like to remind you that what you are about to read are my personal thoughts and opinions, which I have formed by listening to and reading articles by people in the industry. I will, however, also share some of the philosophy we apply in my QA team at Paradox Interactive.

So here we go. Let's start by looking at what you need to make a successful game! To me personally, there are three core things you need to get right:

  1. The game needs to be engaging and entertaining. If it's boring, it doesn't matter how pretty it is. It just won't sell.
  2. The players should be able to interact with the game in an efficient and intuitive way. If they don't know how to swing their sword in your hack-n-slash game, you have a problem.
  3. The game should be as bug-free as possible. While some games make it despite bugs, some are brutally murdered by it.

In the list above, QA is most definitely involved with at least the third point. At Paradox Interactive, QA does the second and even the first one as well. Do you see what I'm getting at here? If you want to make a good game, you need good QA testing.

Since QA is quite essential, it needs to be inhabited by the right people. Unfortunately, to begin with, not all people working as testers are the right people for the job. QA does not mean playing games all day, it means testing them. That's a huge difference. If you don't realize right from the beginning that you will have to spend your days breaking down the game brick by brick while examining every side of those bricks, you're going to have a hard time. You will most likely not sit on a sofa with a controller in your hands, balancing a Coke on your belly. QA has come a long way from just goofing around and occasionally file a report or two. While some companies still have bug hunting as their QA department's main responsibility, many have moved in the same direction as we have at Paradox Interactive. We look at usability, perform user experience tests and have mandate to comment on the “fun factor” of the game, for example.

Furthermore – this fallacy that QA is just a stepping stone into the rest of the industry has to go. I appreciate that a background in QA is great for a producer, and of course everyone is free to pursue the careers they want in whatever field they are interested in. But if you know that you want to work as a game designer, please apply for game designer positions and not QA. If you know right from the beginning that you do not intend to stay for at least a few years, please don't even bother. 

One way to get rid of part of this problem, I would like to argue, is to raise the qualifications required for anyone to get a job as a QA tester. No other disciplines in the industry pick people off the street, so why should QA? The bare minimum, if you ask me, should always be a formal game education – a background in software testing should not be too much to ask either. Experience in other parts of the industry should be encouraged as well. A tester that has a background in animation will be more capable of finding animation bugs, and a modder might be able to break your editor in a more effective way.

Because let's face it – if nothing else, we're potentially dealing with a lot of money here. The less experienced your QA team is, the bigger the risk that they miss those really critical issues that end up costing you a lot of money. Just to give you a concrete example of what money we are talking about here: In one of the titles we have been working on, we discovered a server issue in beta. The title was not that big compared to your average AAA game, but that single issue still ended up costing us roughly 130.000 USD. That might not sound like much to some of you who work on bigger titles, but for this project it really was. Imagine if it had not been discovered before the launch of the game. I won’t even try to calculate the possible lost revenue we could have faced due to pissed-off gamers. An experienced tester will be more likely to anticipate issues and even preventing them from ever happening, if they are involved early enough in the development. Don't make the mistake of assuming that testing games is easy. You keep learning things all the time – and the more you learn the better you get, obviously.

I do not, however, blame QA testers who glance longingly at the greener grass on the other side of the office. Because so far, QA has hardly been a good choice for people who want to make any kind of career. You become a tester, and then you can basically either become a manager or leave QA – and we risk losing a lot of capable people due to this. Management simply isn't for everyone. You could be the greatest tester in the world but a terrible people-person, and then testing is what you should do. It's not in your nor the company's interest to make you a manager in that case. That's why you need a career path for these people as well.

At Paradox Interactive, we have just started implementing a system for this. You start off as a QA Tester, doing what all testers do – test the games. Then, when you're bored and up for a new challenge, you can specialize on a specific area and become a QA Specialist. Examples of areas in our team are AI testing, user research and audio. After that, you can eventually become a Senior QA Specialist – which we however have none of so far.

While still in the cradle, this initiative has proven to work very well. The team seems very happy to have been given the opportunity to focus on an area they are interested in and the overall quality of the games we put out is slowly improving. In addition to this, we can show job applicants as well as the rest of the company how serious we are about what we do, and in a very concrete way how much competence our testers actually possess. Hopefully, this will also make our testers more interested in staying with us for a long time.

Talking about making testers stay with the company – working with titles such as the ones our development studio creates (grand strategy franchises such as Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings), just wouldn't be possible if we had fresh testers for each title. They are very complex and take so much time to get into that the experience the testers gain over time is priceless. Fortunately, since we have the advantage of having several titles in production at a time, it's never a question of having to keep a team on hold during off-season. We always have something to do. In the rare case that we have less projects, the specializations themselves are a great fall-back. Instead of being idle, the testers are encouraged to educate themselves – attend lectures, watch videos, read articles and books, and so on. We even allocate one day a week especially for those kinds of tasks, if we don’t have too many other things to do. That way, they will be even more able and efficient when the work-load is getting heavier again.

Of course, I do understand that not all studios work that way and keeping the QA team on board between titles could create a lot of expensive down-time – but in a perfect world, all QA testers should have full-time employments. They should be treated with the same respect as everyone else, and their experience with the company's titles should be appreciated. However, our world is unfortunately far from perfect. Many testers are still unable to land anything but contract jobs – some might even sit on six-month contracts for several years in a row, without ever getting employed for real. In my opinion, that's just not the way you treat people you care about.

Before I end this rant, I would just like to say that I don’t want to sound like I’m putting Paradox Interactive, our QA team or our way of testing on some kind of pedestal. We have a lot of areas that we are still working on improving, and you’ll probably find that our games – just as any other games – are not perfect. Ultimately, it’s about resources and how you use them. We have decided to focus on having fewer testers that, if they weren’t to begin with, are given the opportunity to grow to become experts in their field – rather than having a huge team with less qualified testers. It’s a concept that has worked quite well so far, but we still have a long way to go. The most important thing, though, is that we are really trying to move forward all the time. To us, QA is truly important.

So, let me just finish by asking you again: If QA is as important as most of us agree that it is, how come it's treated the way it is at many companies? Also, how do we attract the right testers, and how do we make them stay? If we all, people who work with QA as well as people who do not, could just start thinking about how we talk about and interact with QA testers as well as the discipline as a whole, I'm sure we'll all win in the long run.

We all want to make a hit, and without QA you'll be sure to get an S before that word. Please stop pretending like that's not the case and start showing QA some respect. 

Anna Jenelius, Assistant QA Manager, Paradox Interactive.
@TheAnaka

Thanks to Mattias Lilja, Susana Meza Graham and Joe Longworth.


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Comments


Marc-Andre Parizeau
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Coming from a QA manager, since 2005,

Great article as far as asking the real question and putting it out there.

I believe that most companies are very timid when it comes to trust the judgement of their QA teams. Is it because we don't have a bachelor's degree, or any other kind of degree, in a specific game related area or is it because they don't take the hiring of QA resources serious enough? But at the same time, those that have been hired, the companies will trust them with functionality, compatibility, ergonomic & usability testing, stress testing, etc.

I love being in QA because I get the best of each department while testing and managing my team. Hopefully, in the future, QA will be taken more seriously by the majority of the gaming companies and not just "gamers" or unqualified resources that will test our games.

have a nice day :)

TC Weidner
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great article. I also agree Q&A is a critical part of software development..CRITICAL.. Its an art form, sure everyone can attempt to do it, but some are much better than others as there is all types of skills needed in order to do it well. As for why gaming companies dont put more esteem and resources into this area, to me remains the great mystery. I also tend to think this may be one of the reason most games that are released are not very good.

If I had to guess why this is so , I think it leads back to the age old corporate motto, of not bringing problems to your boss. Your boss doesnt want problems, he wants solutions and good news. So its almost human nature to not like the person who just keep feeding you "problems" everyday. Add to this, that the people bringing these problems are often thought of as less educated and thus lesser paid, it brings upon the other human emotion of simply trying to dismiss and belittle their concerns, and this just leads to buggy messes of a product which we see way way too often.

The answer is simple, elevate QA in your business, give it the pay and respect it deserves and your product will be better for it.

Karl Schmidt
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Completely agree - QA is highly under-appreciated. As an engineer I appreciate the QA staff I work with very, very much. Sometimes it seems like there is an adversarial relationship between dev and QA, and project organization (like QA being a completely different department, or not in the same office) can contribute.

I've found that having QA involved in development from day one to be a great approach. That way they can write test plans early, evaluate designs from a testing perspective, and keep quality high throughout development. I believe this also leads to better working relationships with QA and the dev team, leading to more effective and useful reports and ultimately a better product.

James Dunne
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10+ year QA vet here. First off, great read! But I wonder if the people who read this will mostly be QA people which implies a "preaching to the choir" scenario. We in QA realize how shortsighted it is to underplay the QA group; which is essentially a cross section of the game buying audience. Yet, the trend continues, I still know of far too many stories in which QA is relegated to the back room away from the very company they are trying to support.

Through networking and the friends I have met in other tech industries I am very aware that other industries have a very different and much more positive view of their QA people and I wonder, 'why is that?'

Is it our lack of professionalism? (Which has been accused of us at companies I have worked at in the past)

Is it some outrageous ego at the game development end that hates us for pointing out flaws in their design?

Or is it a basic misunderstanding of what it is we in QA do?

The real question is if this attitude toward QA can change.

I believe each year brings more opinions to the table to further reinforce what we do in QA.
I believe that the inclusion of QA-centric talks at GDC is a sign pointing in the right direction.
I believe that articles like this and others (such as the BioWare example) can make a difference.
But I also believe that it is up to us, in QA, every day, making our own Devs aware of what we are capable of and what we do to raise the awareness of that ability.

It may not change the industry opinion right away, but the more companies like Bioware or Paradox create nurturing QA departments in which they utilize the talent of their staff, perhaps it will one day create a new norm. For now I am just glad that awareness has been growing for QA and what we do in the last year or so.

Chris Masterton
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I enjoy healthy competition between the devs and QA.

http://a.mongers.org/clueful/20020402-peopleware-blackteam

Take pride in your work QA, you do a tough job!

Simon Ludgate
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"if you know that you want to work as a game designer, please apply for game designer positions and not QA."

Back in the 90s when I applied to work as a designer, I didn't have a degree in game design (they weren't offered, to my knowledge, back then) and the answer I got was "eh, you don't have enough experience, work in QA first." So I worked in QA. I was apparently a very bad QA tester because I kept reporting bad game design choices as bugs. I didn't got promoted from that position to designer. Go figure :P

Likewise, a friend of mine had to do a stint in QA before he could land a programmer position, despite having just finished a BCS. I think for a lot of companies QA is just some kind of meat grinder to throw bodies in when they can't get better positions.

On a slightly unrelated note, also had a friend who had a Master's in English and wanted to work as a writer. Instead ended up in the Localization dept, "correcting" the horrible "Engrish" the Chinese dev team "writers" put into the games. Part soul crushing, part misallocation of talent...

Jakub Majewski
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Whoa there, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater :).

I've been railing about the need to appreciate QA more in every company I've worked, and I'm happy to sign the above article with both hands and feet, because I agree totally that QA Staff need to have a clear and rewarding path of career development within QA. It's horrendous how many expert QA people I've seen "lost" to game design or other fields, simply because QA was presented to them as nothing more than a springboard to other jobs.

However...

QA *is* a fantastic entry level position for the industry. Heck, I think it would be great if everybody who enters the industry, even if it's some executive being hired to work as an executive, would do a month's worth of QA. It's when you're testing a game that you really get to see how complex the whole thing is, how interconnected it all is, and so on. And it really *is* a great entry level position to test out game designers, because you can see how good they are at identifying problems in a game at any stage of development, and how good their solutions are.

And of course, sometimes it will happen that the person who really wants to be a designer, will still not get promoted into design - as was the case with you. There can be any number of reasons for this, some good, some bad, some reasonable, some unfair. It doesn't matter. It was still a valuable experience for you to go through, even if you didn't get the outcome you desired.

One other thing. You mention a couple of examples of people who had tertiary qualifications and did not get the "right" job, instead being shoved into a lower level position that didn't really let them do what they theoretically were qualified for. Well, I would disagree that they were qualified for anything more than the jobs they got. One of the big problems with young people out of university is that they tend to think that they are "entitled" to a job their degree qualifies them for. It really is a a tempting line of thought, where you think that because you spent so much time and money on your education, that you have a right to get exactly the work you wanted. But ultimately, it's a false concept.

Having a degree proves that you have some basic aptitude for a particular area, and that you are familiar with the underlying theory. If you have a good portfolio, it may even prove that you are actually good at the work involved. What it doesn't prove, however, is that you are a good team member, that you are professional in your approach, that you are patient, and that you are capable of getting over your own ego. Putting a BCS graduate into QA would prove a lot. Putting a Master's in English into localisation so that they can correct someone else's mistakes for a while - also an excellent thing to do. Soul-crushing? Misallocation of talent? Well, who says that a Master's in English actually guarantees talent? And who says such a degree guarantees the humility a writer needs at all times, to accept people's feedback? I would say that the localisation department is the perfect place for a fresh university graduate.

Eric Kwan
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Hi. I'm the QA manager of an outsource QA company, and must say that I very much enjoyed reading this article (and thank you for writing it), even if I am part of the "choir" to whom the article is preaching. Unfortunately, we are unable to implement many of the potential solutions offered in this article due to us having to rely on the schedules of our clients; if they don't have projects, we don't have projects, and we can't afford to continually pay our testers when we don't have work for them.

There is one part that I'm not sure I agree with, though, and that's this:

"The bare minimum, if you ask me, should always be a formal game education – a background in software testing should not be too much to ask either."

Some of the finest talent I've ever encountered come from people without formal QA background. I personally feel that QA methodologies and practices are fairly easy to pick up, but what we can't teach testers are other subjects that they studied at school for which we have no expertise. I think it's important for a well-rounded QA team to recruit from a diverse set of backgrounds--language/writing majors, art majors, programming majors, philosophy/logic/math/etc. majors--all help round out the team, as long as they are smart and hard-working people. Plus, really, with what QA pays, it's honestly very hard to find good people as-is. Personally, I also find that it's a lot easier and more effective to train someone new than the undo bad training from before.

That aside, though, thank you again for writing this wonderful article, and I really do hope that one day QA can get the respect it deserves.

David Lejeune
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Another member of the choir here, 7 year QA veteran (and I see a couple people that I've actually worked with here, too. Hey Jim! Hey Karl!), just wanting to say thank you for posting this. I've actually been seriously considering writing a very similar blog post myself because I think that there's rather a lot broken about how the video game industry as a whole works with and uses QA (some places being worse than others, and some places being even worse than them).

I've commented on other QA related posts about raising the barrier for entry (somewhat hypocritically, since I didn't and still don't have any sort of degree), and I still think that's something that absolutely needs to happen. The biggest problem that game QA has is a perception problem, from everywhere. People outside the industry think that video game testers just sit around playing games all day, and people within the industry write their job postings as if that's what testers do.

RE: Bug Farms. In my experience the idea that QA's one and only job is to /write bugs/ is still the norm in the industry. I'm currently in regular software QA, but at my last game job the QA Manager was regularly touting how awesome it was that the department had written over 100,000 bugs and counting on the project. A project that was, at that point, still pre-alpha. And the only reason there were that many bugs was because there was zero risk assessment going on in the testing process (examples include: collision bugs that could only possibly be found by using debug tools to make collision visible, obviously placeholder text in UI that was still work-in-progress, etc). In software QA, bug count is not in any way used as a performance metric, and risk assessment for issues is one of QA's primary responsibilities.

I really think game QA needs to start taking more pages from Software QA's book.

Maria Jayne
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I don't think QA is seen as much removed from free alpha/beta testers being outsourced to the community. I do think it has elements of disrespect on both sides, I've talked with engineers who criticize the kind of reports they get from QA and how they don't have enough information to act upon the report.

Plus the lack of any real qualification implies certainly sometimes people just won't be intuitive enough to say helpful things. It takes a special thought process to look at a problem and then explain in concise but clear detail what you did, how they can repeat it and what effect it is having.

Equally though this also shows a lack of respect for the developer, if you're forcing them to chase the problem or leaving them confused about what the problem actually is then you aren't helping as a QA. So between them they're not just making work for each other, they're making it hard work.

So there is probably some unintentional resentment, Dev works long hours to make code, QA works long hours to break it. Dev feels offended their work is being criticized essentially by an unqualified person and feels aggrieved they have to work on it some more....they probably are bored out of their skull by now. QA is bored repeatedly getting this back in testing and is frustrated and mildly unhelpful with their feedback. The cycle repeats.

It would appear on some level they are adversaries trying to beat each other.

Harry Debelius
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Management will always be the issue here... Though Maria Jane has a point: I do recall some instances where devs would feel their work undermined and/or insulted, but all those cases involved some kind of external QA. Internal QA has proven far more efficient and allows testers to show their worth much more directly. More than the wages, what kills QA is the temporal contracts and the criteria followed for hiring (most companies put 0 effort in contracting QA because "anyone can play a game").

Fortunately, the situation is changing as QA departments grow in importance and efficiency. QA powa!

Cosmin Fota
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You are very right, Anna! Wish that everyone in any company that has QA would feel the same. Great article!

Michelle Hebert
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Having come from CS and QA background... I can appreciate this article. QA is an integral part of the development process - and absolutely misunderstood from outside the industry and sometimes within. I do wish that more QA departments were more active in promoting good testing practices and providing access to certifications like the ISTQB. *Redacted* has adopted this as a new hire orientation for training for all their QA testers that I know of - mostly because they adopted it after my husband began working there.

In my previous QA position, I did an overhaul of the training material to include a lot of the foundation level skills from the ISTQB. Also with a focus on Root Cause Analysis. The fact is, you have various levels of Testing - while yes, we do need the tester who is methodical in their test plans, and has an understanding of root cause analysis - able to work with devs on the same language, but we also need those fresh eyes who simply go in to cover the simple find and report type stuff. Sometimes those are the best people in finding those edge cases... even if on accident.

I also agree with how you describe the QA department at Paradox - seems similar to what I was in. I have a background in Audio and was very vocal about that - so my manager at the time used that strength to the advantage of the company and I became an embedded specialist. Doing so, I was able to learn SO much more about how the backend of audio is hooked up - it was invaluable as well as having access to certain tools. It made the leap from QA to Audio seamless because I was able to have an understanding of how things work. Only bad part was, once I left they didn't have anyone who had as much knowledge about audio testing as I did - I still pass tribal knowledge onto our testers on a daily basis.

Which leads me to one disagreement I have with this article - not so much a disagreement, but... I do feel that QA can be a stepping stone to other career paths aside from production and management. QA is at the very least a glimpse into the development pipeline. This is what I took from my QA experience - I learned far more about the development pipeline than ever before. When I talk to people who ask me questions about getting into the industry I don't tell them - hey go try to be a game designer with little to no experience other than... maybe that one class you took that kinda covered things. No, I tell them QA is a good place to start because you learn SO much from that. Expect to do your time, meaning you're not there to just get your foot in the door, you're there to learn those invaluable practices. I also feel it makes you a better developer - because you can think about those potential scenarios that could cause issues. I QA my work before it goes to QA - seems like that should be standard but it's sometimes not...

I know that my experience in QA was likely unique though, I feel our QA department is well respected and hard working. But I also know the downside of contract QA... with bug quotas (which I feel pressures quantity over quality) and lack of communication due to distance etc. It's frustrating on both sides of that one...

As for the underpayment etc... Unfortunately I don't think that raising the bar when it comes to qualifications is going to fix any of that one bit... Game Studios/companies receive a lot of applications for QA positions... It's basically a feeling of "you should be lucky you have this job cause there are 10,000 other people out there who would gladly take it." I'm not saying that it's right, but I feel this is not unique to QA or CS or any development position unless you've got a lot of experience behind you. When I was laid off, I was making more on unemployment than when I took the QA position... But I made the choice because I knew that it would give me a bridge to where I wanted to be. Do I think it should be on par with QA software testers outside of the gaming industry - absolutely! I don't think that will change until being in this industry no longer is some mysterious world of wonder...

Also... what exactly is a "formal game education"? o.O

Jared Pace
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It's nice to come across posts specifically about QA. I agree with a lot of the points, both in the article and in the comments.

I agree that QA is underpaid, and that a lot of it has to do with the lack of experience that starting QA have. As someone who started in QA without any background in video game development or game design, I don't believe that it should be mandatory requirements for people who are applying to QA. Like Jakub said, QA is a great entry level position for the industry. I could probably even argue that it should be mandatory for all other positions.

Everyone here seems to uniformly agree that QA is underpaid and perhaps under-appreciated by the industry as a whole. I don't believe that we should raise the qualifications for starting in a QA position, but instead I'd like to propose that we should focus on raising the amount of training and teaching we do as a QA discipline AFTER we hire new QA.

Anna is right: the more we know, the more money we save and the more value we add to the company. Rather than require this knowledge upfront, we should come together as a discipline and foreground the resources both on- and offline that can improve our skill set.

I believe we should focus more effort on uniting QA departments across companies and even industries. No one is going to wake up one day and say... we should really start paying QA more to do the work they're already doing. Let's figure out a way to say, "we're far more capable now than we were a year ago, and the base pay for QA deserves to be raised."

The high turnover rate - to me - is an identity problem, one that again I think can also be solved by increasing our education across all QA. If we don't ever expand our knowledge beyond just reporting bugs then we will not be more than just bug-finding employees. That identity supports "the foot-in-the-door QA" that doesn't feel like they are committed to a QA department. I think we create skilled testers who understand many different test environments and strategies. That person becomes integral and in theory - more committed.

Cheers all! It's good to see a conversation started.

Phillip Derosa
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Great article, this is what we need to help move our profession forward. Software Testing is a profession as well as a science and an art. Just like a plumber/electrician (pick a trade) there is requisite knowledge, software testing is no different. I'm not talking about the common practice of hiring temp testers at minimum wage, that's something else (ex: Beta testers).

Software testing has been around as long as software development has (I got 15k results for books on Software Testing at Amazon). There is a large pool of software test knowledge out there. I try to hire talented, hardworking passionate people, their interest will drive their development as they seek out new knowledge and apply it to their trade. When it comes to development testing, that is when testers are embedded or work closely with Developers they need to know their trade, apply their skills and work fairly autonomously (they generally know they are good, are highly valued and probably won't take a job at minimum wage).

I have no issues with people starting in software testing and moving on, actually some companies have everyone start in test. In any case, I expect strong performers regardless of their long term aspirations. I want to support our people and stay within the company. When possible will assign tasks that help them move towards those goals.

Grizzled veteran...

Neil Mole
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As a fellow veteran (to accompany all of the other veterans above), I both enjoyed the article, and was somewhat perturbed by it. Whilst QA absolutely deserves a far greater voice and representation in the industry, I worry strongly about the section regarding "raise the qualifications required". Let me expound on exactly how I feel we'd be best served by that concept.

Currently, there are entry level positions in nearly every facet of the industry, including QA. But, the line drawn between QA and Senior QA is dramatically less than between say a junior designer and a senior one. The Senior QA position is typically only differentiated by way of years spent. That is to say that a senior designer typically has a different skill set built upon experience, and for a Junior, the required tasks would likely be far too high. On the other hand, I feel a junior tester can quickly become savvy to the tasks given to a senior QA. So for us to define that a junior QA requires some form of formal education, we're cutting great swathes of solid candidates purely based upon making QA appear more legit. I'd argue we insist upon experience or formal education for higher level roles, but still allow our base level testers to start without that.

I worked in a city with a games industry focussed university on its doorstep. As such, of the 50+ testers we received, only two had no formal education. I was one of them. Despite that, I was very quickly established as one of the strongest team members, training other staff from very early on in the process, frequently rewarded for solid work. Were we to essentially discriminate based upon formal education, I feel all of that passion and interest would be culled.

Put simply, I do not feel a base level QA tester requires a formal education. But, I feel the standards for a Senior tester need to be increased, to reflect the kind of gap of experience that a Senior in any other field must have.


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