I recently answered the following question, as part of my "Ask the Expert" role on searchsoftwarequality.com: "I am working as a black box tester on web applications. I want to improve my technical skills and am wondering what type of skills I should learn to help me further my career."
When it comes to testing, as a manager I am concerned about two things: effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness is about how well we measure the quality of the system under test (meaning what level of confidence we can gain about its adherence to requirements) and how many defects we discover, fix, and regress. Efficiency is about how many resources it takes to accomplish that task. So when a tester asks me how they can improve their skills, I focus on learning and development which includes these areas.
Efficiency to me is mostly about automation—it’s about being in more than one place at the same time. By writing good automation (catches true failures, does not report false passes, runs in many environments and lasts the product cycle), you accomplish several things. First of all, you continue to validate product quality even if you, personally, are not executing the tests. Secondly, you generally execute test cases more quickly—this encourages developers to run these cases even before checking in. You speed up the turn-around time (known as the feedback loop) on the code-defect discovery-defect remediation cycle. Finally, you enable yourself to test on many different configurations at the same time. Common automation skills are familiarity with xUnit test harnesses, ability to use Selenium and Selenium RC or Watij/Watin, and good skills in development in languages such as java and .NET.
You’re probably thinking that I failed to bring up skills in tools such as Rational Robot, Loadrunner, Winrunner and such. These are very important niche skills that a Web application tester can use to differentiate themselves. The really didn’t fit well into my effective/efficient paradigm though! Understanding how and when to apply tools in performance, stress, and security testing realms is a great way to improve your career. The logical step in a tester’s career is to branch out and select specific tools to excel in. If you want to stay in your current company, pick the tools most commonly used for these automated testing categories. If you are looking to move to another company or into another industry niche, understand the tools in common use and develop skills in them. Many commercial tools have limited trial versions available. You may not be able to run a full load test with these tools, but you can definitely learn how to use them. But keep in mind: more important than just learning how to use the tools, understanding what’s happening in your system when you run these skills is even more important.
In 2007, I wrote a series of articles on my blog titled “How to Become a Better Tester”. The first entry can be found here: http://thoughtsonqa.blogspot.com/2007/12/how-can-i-become-better-tester.html This blog series will give you more detailed steps you can take in developing your career.
All the best!