Tester DNA

In HWTSAM, we (Ken, actually) talked a bit about tester DNA – that bit of mental goo that makes some people better (or at least more prone to being) testers. As I’ve been talking to (potential) testers lately, I’ve had a chance to dwell on this a bit more. What is it that makes a good tester? Given that the answer to that question requires context, I won’t answer that exactly – instead, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on what I look for in testers.

Testing is broad and evolving – nobody knows everything about it, so the ability to learn quickly is critical (this aids in problem solving as well). If you’re the type that takes a long time to ramp up in new technologies or concepts, you may struggle as a tester. Probably more critical is a passion for learning. Good testers don’t wait for ideas to come to them, instead, they seek out knowledge  – they not only learn what they know they need to learn, they find ways to learn what they don’t know (i.e. they strive to resolve second level ignorance). I believe that the big innovations in testing will come from applying knowledge from outside the field of software and software testing. In order to advance the state of the art in testing, we need testers who seek knowledge – and who are able to apply those abstract concepts to solve some of our big problems in test.

But – to take care of that last sentence, you’re going to need people who can see the big picture – systems thinkers. There are numerous people who claim to be systems thinkers, but systems thinking takes practice as well as some innate ability (or DNA) to be beneficial – and it’s much harder than many people think. Often when I interview testers, I ask a “testing” question that has two parts to solve. The first (the question I actually ask them) is obvious and has a solution that is difficult enough that they solve it as they would any other question. However – there’s a hidden problem in the question. The good testers quickly see the secondary problem as the far more difficult problem to solve and focus their answer on solving the underlying problem. These are the systems thinkers – they know to look at the whole rather than the parts and know that understanding interactions and patterns are keys to good problem solving. The great testers – and there are only a few of these – can actually solve the problem reasonably well (frankly, I worry about testers recognizing the problem more than solving it, but I’m frequently impressed by testers who nail every aspect of this question).

nitpickers moment – for those of you who will take this opportunity to gripe about SDETs, no part of solving this question relies on programming skills. It does require that you can think and see beyond the obvious. I’m not going to put the question on my blog, because I still want to use it. I would be happy to discuss it with you privately (or via an IM session) if you’re insanely curious.

There are numerous other skills I look for in testers, but I consider those to be supportive and of the “more is better” category. For instance, if you are completely disorganized, you may not be successful, but you don’t have to be the most anal note taker either. You need some degree of organization, self motivation, confidence, and trust to be successful, but those really only show up on my radar if you truly suck at them.

As I re-read this post, I realize that the things I mentioned above are also the things that make testers successful in the long term – so it makes sense that’s what I look for when hiring testers. And I think that’s good!


  1. Hi Alan,

    Indeed these are the most desired traits to be a good tester and probably the most basic ones as well.Passion for learning and systems thinking should not seperate good testers from others in the field but it should be the unifying traits of all testers across the spectrum.But that would be too idealistic to achieve I guess.One thing I strongly believe is that a tester should be a cross between an analyst and an engineer; although a balanced cross.
    Analysts are generally good at understanding the big picture whereas engineers like to deep dive into minutest of the details to solve problems. A good tester should possess the best of both worlds in equal measure and have the right instincts to guide where to draw the line.
    Well before leaving; it would be good to know the question though 🙂

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