Intelligent testing tools still need experienced hands.
What is it?
The importance of testing software for bugs before deploying it has been highlighted by the very public failure of some government IT projects, and loading and security problems with certain online banking systems.
Mercury Interactive, one of the leading test suite suppliers, may now call itself a "business technology optimisation software company", but the load testing tool Loadrunner is still a mainstay of its business.
Automation has taken much of the burden off software testers, but intelligent testing tools are only effective in the hands of competent people - you have to know what you are doing and why.
Microsoft is making a big push into integrated software testing this year, with Visual Studio Team Edition for Software Testers. Much of its functionality has been available from Mercury, IBM/Rational, Compuware, Cyrano and others for years, and Microsoft has provided interfaces to enable these suites to be plugged in. This should make life easier for Visual Studio Team developers, particularly when it comes to unit testing and the generation of test scripts. They will be able to stay within the familiar Visual Studio environment, instead of learning a new set of tools.
Where did it originate?
The first software bug was found at Harvard University in 1945. Testing as a professional discipline with its own tools and methodologies began in the 1960s. Automated test suites - the humane alternative to ploughing through millions of lines of printout with a highlighter pen - appeared in the early 1990s.
What makes it special?
Analyst firm Ovum, which reviews the major testing suites, said, "The cost of fixing an error increases exponentially as development proceeds and the error becomes more ingrainedÉ If an error is present in a delivered application, the consequential loss amounts to many times the cost of actually repairing the software."
In the past couple of months, "consequential losses" have included the Tokyo Stock Exchange shut for four hours by software failure, and Toyota forced to recall 160,000 Prius cars because a bug caused warning lights to come on for no reason.
Where is it used?
Testing should be part of every software product's lifecycle, but skill and time constraints mean testing is often skimped on. The arrival of Visual Studio for Testers may help the spread of good practice, though Microsoft itself has been accused of pushing the product out too early with known bugs.
According to Datamonitor, the global software testing market is worth £7.5bn, and other analyst firms say there is potential for huge growth.
How difficult is it to master?
Acquiring the British Computer Society Information Systems Examinations Board software testing foundation certificate will involve about eight days' training. Some proprietary test suite courses are shorter, but the BCS provides a generic foundation - an important consideration in the rapidly consolidating test suite market, with some products sure to disappear.
What is coming up?
Mercury Interactive's testing and software quality products are being integrated with Macromedia's Flex technology, which includes the ubiquitous Flash web animation software.
Rates of pay
Junior software testers can expect to earn £18,000 to £24,000, rising to £35,000 with experience. Testing and quality assurance consultants earn between £40,000 and £60,000.
BCS Information Systems Examinations Board courses are available from independent training providers, including QA and Parity. There are also many books on testing - names to look for are Boris Beizer and Cem Kaner.