I think it is fair to assume that if you don't have programmers, you will not have a product. So when your employers run into a financial crisis, will they prefer to let go their testers before considering the programmers? A recent discussion thread at Software Testing Club got me thinking.
Testers are mostly service providers, i.e. they provide quality related information about the product to help the stakeholders and programmers make critical decisions. They ask important questions that are generally overlooked by others. These are usually regarded as very important functions, since most others are not doing it. It is a different mindset and a different set of skills that most programmers, project managers or customer support personnel cannot acquire very quickly.
There is a popular myth that testers with technical knowledge or automation skills may be preferred over manual (or sapient) testing skills. We must be careful when we undermine the value and skills of the so-called manual testers. It is rather questionable how much automation testers add value to the project (depends on the kind of product of course), since they are not really questioning the product like the testers are doing. The automation tasks may be easily taken over by the programmers, since it is programming, and learning new tools may not be that difficult. But if automation testers have important sapient testing skills, then that may not be the case.
There is another popular myth that programmers will probably be better at testing their product, since they created it. I think creating and questioning your creation are two different skills that are very difficult to practice together. They require very different mindsets and experiences. However, I can understand that programmers can write very good unit tests since that requires intimate knowledge of the code.
In my opinion, during any financial crisis, the employees who are more dynamic will be the survivors. Testers may actually have an edge in this case, since they would probably know about the business domain, about customer issues, about the overall product infrastructure, about product usability, about recommending important new features etc. Testers who are not quality police and are able to take on deadline challenges will probably have more preference when management decides to reconsider project timelines. Testers who are able to derive important feature related information about the product by questioning and exploring, rather than always demanding spelled-out specifications, may seem more favorable. My point is that if management perceives the tester not being a liability, but rather facilitating the project in essential ways, that will probably make it much harder for the management to consider them for downsizing.
The value a tester brings to the team is more than about finding bugs. The product will always have bugs, even with testers, since testing cannot ensure the absence of bugs. A tester's value depends on how he questions the perceived value of the product. For example, if the tester is able to identify problems in the product that could disappoint or frustrate the end user, he has successfully defended the expected quality from the product. It is true that some companies do not experience this value from their testers, maybe because the testers do not have the required skills. If such testers would want to survive then they need to start giving attention to these skills.
Unfortunately, downsizing may not always be dependent on performance, but more of a budget issue. So it may very well be the case that good testers are shown the door, simply because the company cannot meet the budget. However, do consider another angle to this predicament. If your company is not as huge as Microsoft, then chances are that you have far less testers than programmers. This ratio may tilt in the favor of the testers considering a strict budget constraint where a certain number of employees need to be laid off. Remember that all programmers' skills are not equal in importance to management. Programmers have an equal challenge to prove their worth, especially since they will probably be much higher in number than the testers, and therefore be more preferable for downsizing. So if management values the work done by the testers then the ratio of layoffs may not favor the programmers. In the thread at Software Testing Club, Jim Hazen shared a very interesting experience depicting such a scenario:
I've been in Software for 20+ years, 20 of it in Testing. I have been through 3 merger/acquisitions and a few companies downsizing. I have survived some of those events, others I was not as lucky. Now I have seen situations where the whole development team was cut loose (because they did F'up badly) and the Test group kept intact (management figured that other developers in the company could be re-tasked and could take over the code, but that they were understaffed on testing as is and because the product was close to shipping they needed to keep the test staff). This was a unique situation.
You will notice that most of what I wrote above assumes you have a mature and responsible management who recognizes the non-monetary value added by testers. The kind of value addition I wrote about are in no way worthless activities. Yet it may not receive the credit that it deserves with immature management. In the case of naive management, it is easier for them to perceive programmers and sales people adding monetary value, instead of testers. Nevertheless, understand that this is only in the narrow sense of adding value. In a recent blog post, Michael Bolton suggested some ways testers can add monetary value. Whenever I talk about testers adding value, I mean it in the broader sense. This will always be difficult for immature management to realize, if they are strictly looking to quantify the value. But like Michael says, "there are lots of things in the world that we value in qualitative ways."
Downsizing decisions depend on the kind of company you work for. I do not work for employers that do not value my testing skills and my contributions. I would advice other testers to do the same. Of course, I also do my part in proving my worth to management.
Picture reference: msnbc.com