Fitting the Part: Skill vs. Talent in Quality Assurance

word talents written in paper pieces

Lately, I’ve been listening to Hugh Laurie’s pair of piano-driven blues albums “Let them Talk” and “Didn’t it Rain”. I find Laurie’s music both musically pleasing and utterly fascinating. “Fascinating” because, while I listen to his charming and expertly delivered take on some blues classics, I can’t stop thinking, “This isn’t even this guy’s day job!”

Most people would recognize Laurie as the British actor who played the gruff American Dr. Gregory House on Fox’s hit drama, “House”. Yet, clearly his creativity goes beyond one field of work. He is not alone. Actor and director Clint Eastwood is also an accomplished pianist. Actress Lucy Liu is an artist and singers Tony Bennett and Joni Mitchell are both skilled painters.

It might be easy to think of these people as those blessed with multiple talents. However, I think that these are examples of people with one talent, namely creativity that works itself into multiple skill-sets. It’s the thing at the center of their personality that they just can’t stop doing. The thing they can’t turn off.

Skill vs. Talent: What’s the Difference?

Anyone who turns in a resume looking to become a Quality Assurance Engineer, has the potential of having a talent that fits uniquely into the quality assurance field. Even if their skills don’t exactly match what might be expected. While there is a certain set of skills that are ultimately required of any QA professional, the field accepts a variety of talents. This is where we have to split the terms “talent” and “skill”. A skill is something a person acquires through study and practice, while I submit that a talent is something a person can do easily without a lot of thought and without much training.

When it comes to QA, there are some important skills any new QA Engineer should have. These include attention to detail, ability to prioritize tasks and budget time, ability to think critically and good organization skills. Add to these the various IT-related skills that a QA professional needs to contribute meaningfully to a software development project.

Talents Welcome

If you can accept my definition of skill verses talent, you will not look only for skills when you try to determine if you or the person seated in front of you in an interview is cut out to be a Quality Assurance Engineer. You will also look at talent. Let’s discuss a few of these talents.

Talent: Communication

It may be hard for some to consider communication a talent, after all everyone communicates with others. The emphasis here is on how well a person communicates. Most people can send information to and receive information from others. And then there are those who enable communication to happen within a team. They ask the right questions, they make sure what they and others have said is clear, and they have an intuitive sense as to when communication is working and when it isn’t. This is the person who can give clear directions and can assimilate new information easily. On a development team, this is the person you want to be creating test cases from User Stories or turning requirements into test plans.

Talent: Observation

You may find yourself saying to this type of person, “I hadn’t noticed that”, several times a week. These are the people that take note of everything. They can, for example, quickly examine a user interface and see what is out of place. And they will always have screenshots of the issue attached to emails and bug reports. They are adept at seeing patterns and can easily pick out inconsistencies. This is the person you will want testing the user experience of your application.

Talent: Creativity

With the variety of problems a piece of software can have, which will only appear when the user performs certain tasks, the creative person will find success in QA. They design tests that approach the application they are testing in new and inventive ways. Ways the developer may not have thought of, but that the end user may be doing out of necessity or even ignorance. This talent works in tandem with the next talent.

Talent: Empathy

Empathy is a talent that goes largely unrecognized in the software development world and the corporate world in general. I am not talking about the person who cries with the developer when he realizes he accidentally deleted all his changes from the past week. I am talking about the person who remembers that all applications ultimately work for or with people. They can empathize with the end user who will be trying to use the application they are testing as a means to a greater end. They can decide if the application will work to achieve the end-users’ ultimate purposes, which usually involves increasing productivity and reducing frustration. These are the people who will take a personal interest in seeing to it that new features are added. Or that bugs are resolved in a way that creates no further issues and satisfies their customers’ needs.

Of course, these are not all of the talents that suit Quality Assurance work. Some QA Engineers will be stronger than others in certain areas. Making some more suited to certain projects and teams than others. But note that none of these talents necessarily require that Quality Assurance Engineers come from the world of IT. Remember, I am talking talents not skills. In some cases, talented people do not yet have the skills they need to be productive. In fact, they may not have a Computer Science degree or even a background in IT.

Proof of Concept

I can use myself as an example. I left college with a degree in education, but after pursing teaching as I career for a few years, it just wasn’t panning out. However, with some computer science knowledge I happened to pick up in college, some exposure to network administration at a small school where I once taught, and a genuine interest in software development, I used my talents to find success in Quality Assurance. That is to say, I had some skills and a little experience, but, what made me successful in Quality Assurance really came down to the things I did without much thought. At first, it was simply the ability to envision a new life for myself, coupled with a drive to bring my vision into reality. Later, despite any skill I may have acquired on the job or elsewhere, the talents I use every day have little direct relation to IT, and they are the same talents I applied (unsuccessfully) to a previous career. These include some of those described above: observation, communication, and empathy.

Cast A Wider Net

Therefore, those looking to add talented QA staff to their teams, should feel free to cast a wider net than they might when looking for, say, a software developer. They can look for talent first and then match it with skill. Likewise, those who may recognize any of the talents discussed above may consider themselves talented enough to succeed in the field of Software Quality Assurance. In fact, there may be some whose skills have landed them in a career in which they are not succeeding. And the reason they’re not succeeding is that their current job is asking for their skills and not their talents. These are the ones who may fit the part of Quality Assurance Engineer perfectly.

About Aaron Priest

Aaron PriestFor as long as I can remember, I have been curious about how things work. In fact, it was a curiosity about the software I was dealing with every day that lead me from a career in education to learning how software and its related mechanisms work. As a Quality Assurance Test Engineer for Saturn Systems, analyzing software, both where it works and where is doesn’t, is a part of my everyday experience. However, I was surprised to discover that the most fascinating aspect of software development is the human beings that make it. How people work individually and how they work in teams to accomplish a goal can be as intriguing as the latest technology. I enjoy discussing not only software, its nuances and pitfalls, but also the journey people take from simple ideas to making useful creations.

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