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Stress-testing: How Testers Live in a Turbulent World of Bugs

Reading time 11 min
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Original author: Lidiya Egorova

I've been working in QA for about 5 years. In this time, I moved between a number of companies and rose from a Junior to a QA Lead. Throughout these years, I've been observing the mental state of my coworkers, and then of my team that I formed myself.

I created a custom style of interaction with employees: a small team format, frequent meetups with colleagues, responsibility-sharing, skill-based team recruitment, and different people with different backgrounds contributing to a single goal. I dealt with weaknesses in due time, struggled to provide training for eliminating flaws, developed strengths, and fought for the employees' bonuses, even though at times it wasn't easy at all.

After I came to Innotech, I pursued my investigation on how stress influenced QA specialists. So I'm eager to share my results and tips on how to reduce work stress and tension.

Who's that, your stress?

Stress disrupts human activity and can cause a variety of psycho-emotional disorders and psychosomatic diseases. In addition, it reduces life expectancy drastically.

When the pandemic began, I started reflecting about stress. How was I feeling? Was I too anxious about the release? How bad did a missed bug make me feel? Or perhaps QA wasn't my cup of tea at all? The situation became critical. I realised that I was constantly under stress; my mood was down all day, which made my family suffer. I felt out of place and unfit for my role. It seemed like I was assigned low priority tasks.

I noticed I was rarely communicating with QA specialists and was almost entirely unaware of the "market situation". Then I came across some QA communities online and started reading their discussions occasionally. Over time, I understood I was not the only one to live with these problems; quite a number of people experience a similar kind of stress. Then, I came up with the idea to classify stress in some way, with a specific focus on its effect on the QA community. This meant describing stress not from a psychological perspective, but in a narrower sense; what QA specialists feel, and what kind of stress they experience.

After I became a QA Lead, I got the opportunity to hold one-on-one meetings and observe employees in closer contact: to discuss success and failures, as well as the perks of working in a certain position. I was able to take a step back and evaluate both the employees' performance and their personalities. It is true what they say, that a QA Lead is among the most complex jobs in this regard. You have to monitor both the product and the employees' state. Nevertheless, Quality Assurance can be maintained if you have all the necessary Lego pieces on hand.

Factors

After a period of time during which I held interviews with employees and just talked to QA specialists, I formulated a number of key basic notions and stress categories.

The key stress factors that QA specialists have stated are: failure to meet release deadlines, long working hours, excessive or insufficient documentation, absence of unit tests from developers, lack of feedback from colleagues, low quality hardware, feeling of worthlessness, lack of team spirit, absence of prospects, being treated as "underdevelopers", changing requirements, accountability, uncertainty and risks. In fact, there are way too many factors, but the ones listed above were named by almost every second employee.

I broke all these factors down into several types:

  1. fear factors;

  2. financial factors;

  3. uncertainty factors;

  4. and negative outlook factors.

The fear factor relates to the absence of prospects, fear of the management and the business. And of course, fear of being incompetent. Lack of team spirit also falls into this category.

The financial factor includes lack of advanced hardware and equipment and dissatisfaction with the salary level.

The uncertainty factor refers to the inability to see the "full picture" of product development.

The negative outlook factor is the largest and most invincible enemy. It includes everything — from changing requirements in the development process, to the feeling of worthlessness, and failures to meet release deadlines both from the business and development teams.

Dealing with stress in QA

Now that we've defined the stress factors, let's discuss how to fight each factor separately.

Fear factor

This stress factor is almost the most harmless one. To neutralise it, you need only to stop and reflect for a while.

Absence of prospects only exists in your mind: the IT sphere is developing at an extremely rapid pace. Where there's a need for development, there's also a need for testers. For leading companies, having a large QA department is mandatory. Testers will never be replaced by AI and automated tests, as a "human" vision is a must. You will always be able to find a job and be an in-demand specialist.

Fear of management and business: bugs have always existed and will exist even after testing is completed (though I hope there will be fewer). What you need is to keep up with work timing and justify when testing is required or irrelevant. Keep in mind that there are other exciting jobs where your competences will be duly appreciated.

Financial factor

Poor hardware is also an important stress factor. Any specialist would prefer to the use best equipment for their job, and a tester is no exception. You spend eight hours and more at your PC or laptop. Therefore, choose your hardware with special attention. Consider the screen specifications: preventing eye fatigue is important. Focus on ensuring sufficient performance speed; observing lags and freezes throughout the working day and consequently stressing out is not what we need. Focus on reaching out to your manager to communicate your hardware requests, unless they have already provided for their employee (yes, for you!). Good hardware will make your work way more enjoyable and will help to preserve your nerves.

Low salary: to eliminate this stress factor, you have to be persistent. Attend interviews, monitor the market, understand requirements, engage in self-development and find out what you like. People often tend to start searching for a job when the situation is already critical and there is no other way out but to quit the current job. The truth is, you should take interviews not just when planning to quit your current company, but also to be aware of the market requirements and offers. Perhaps you know more but have the same salary. And you are not at a junior level any more, but a much higher grade.

For some people, interviews are a huge source of stress. But look at the situation from another perspective. The more interviews you take, the more experience you get. After, let's say, eight interviews, you will understand that requirements are almost the same everywhere, and most interviews follow a similar scenario. Then you can learn to predict the interview outcome from its first minutes. You should be aware that you aren't only being interviewed, but are also interviewing them. Why would you think that you are fine with everything in advance, provided you are offered this position? No, you are also hunting for this position, the employer needs you, there is a severe shortage of specialists at the market. In the right place, a QA specialist can earn more than a developer.

Uncertainty factor

You have to understand that you can't control everything in work processes.

No clear and transparent release lifecycle: obtain a precise release schedule. Plan your delivery jointly with the whole team, with the guidance of the IT Lead and your team lead. The whole team must know the dates when the product has to be delivered.

How it works for us: we make a release on Wednesdays, from 7 to 9 pm, and plan to introduce a bi-weekly release lifecycle. Each process participant is aware of the version and microservices that must be prepared to be supplied.

Ignorance of documentation: mark all your jobs in the task lists and record all the job changes. When you are required to perform a job, be sure to create a task with the job number. This way, you don't have to mentally keep track of tasks to be done, or know the job status. To transfer the job to another participant in the development process, you won't have to explain the whole background, as everything will be documented. Don't forget that one job is one task. Use Jira relationships, there are a lot. For example, create parent relationships, or specify that the task is a blocker.

We use Jira. It's the most classic and most universal tool. I really love Jira.

Excessive trust in memory: record all the product information. Artefacts should not remain only in your head. Create documentation revision jobs and perform revision on your own; spend time on this and save your colleagues' nerves. Ensure safekeeping of documentation.

Innotech analysts carefully maintain documentation in cooperation with QA specialists, amending it as required. We track all the documentation using Confluence. This is an excellent, classic tool.

Ignorance of cutting-edge solutions: introduce and use logging systems, and visualise your processes. Don't respond to system errors by saying "Well, I saw an error over there, now look for it, no one knows where". Ask for logs, collect data, use great technologies. Those who say that FinTech development is way too complex are right. When you see the process with your own eyes, it becomes perceptible, and your threshold to stay aware of what's going on gets significantly lowered.

We use the following logging and visualisation systems: Apache Kafka, Kibana, Red Hat OpenShift, Camunda. We also visit Oracle and PostgreSQL database management systems (I use them via DBeaver). We touch API using Swagger or Postman. And those are only services and tools used by QA specialists on my team.

Multitasking: prioritise tests and tasks; pick the most important ones. Come to the manager and ask them to select the most critical functionality. Try to understand product interdependences. Very often, testers overcommit and try to test everything superficially. No one will be able to test everything. Take care; there is no sense in sitting for 12 or 14 hours per day hoping that you will check everything. Try using test design techniques, analyse results, and make conclusions. Think more — use less "monkey testing". A manual QA is a truly important resource. No automated testing system will ever replace the amazing human brain.

We prioritise tests for QA specialists together with the QA Lead, analyst, and team lead.

Negative outlook factor

Here, the team "maturity" means a lot. The fact is that QA specialists have long been regarded in the development environment as full-blown development team members who just possess different skills. Your competence and role in the team is to perform a different set of tasks.

If obtaining developer feedback is impossible and you DM them unilaterally with no effect, this is a serious red flag indicating that the employee with such an attitude is not a "team player" and does not work to ensure the feature is deployed to production.

Changing requirements: any change in requirements by a business entails adjustments, including adjustment of the project deadlines. These terms can't always be agreed upon with the development team or set out in the specification. Record changing requirements in the documentation to enable the setting of achievable deadlines.

QA specialists don't often participate in the evaluation of labour input for a task. You have to make your team understand that testers possess their own vision of the product, often drastically different from that of the developer or management. Good testing requires time. Discuss labour input and justify your time spent. It's not okay when the majority of resources are allocated only to development, assigning "all that remains" to testing; this is a huge management mistake. Talk to your Lead about this, fighting for you and your time is their responsibility.

Long working hours can be a management problem or a personal issue. There are people who procrastinate, especially when working from home, and do everything in the last moments, failing to deliver the product on time. The QA specialist should respect the team: leaving your desk at the end of working hours and postponing an open task for tomorrow is not always the right decision. You should set priorities and ask for something in response when it's necessary to work long hours, to receive some "benefits". But when overtime becomes the rule, not the exception, this is clearly a management mistake. The number of tasks and requirements assigned to them grows day after day, while the number of QA team employees can remain unchanged for months and even years. Perhaps you should suggest to your QA Lead or your manager to recruit one more employee to ensure correct time distribution.

When you are a trainee or learning new skills, adequate assessment of your capacities and situations is crucial. Your requirements may be equal to those of a regular employee. You need to realise that during your education period, you will likely show only one third of your true performance due to your lack of knowledge in processes. Avoid getting depressed because of a negative attitude towards yourself during this period. Both you and your team have to understand that in this period your value is growing, which is important for you as employee and for the conventional human resource capital of your company. Note that "company-sponsored training" is often mentioned during recruitment, and this is not empty talk. You should analyse and use all the advantages of your offer, and the employer who states this in the position description should ensure provision of such service and duly appreciate your desire to train.

In my experience, some companies delay provision of code for testing: you need to agree with the developer and team, assess time required for testing and provide for it, and leave some gaps for the developer to ensure flexibility of action.

If you realize that you may not complete the assumed tasks within the time allocated, notify your manager in advance.

Focus on manual and routine tasks: automate everything you can. Don't dive deep into tons of checks. Set your tasks to be automated, and involve all the team members. Preferably, your product should be covered by unit tests.

Our QA team has an automated testing system— Java on Spring Boot basis for backend requests, Vue.js for frontend requests. We set system improvement tasks and keep a backlog of important tasks, which analysts help to prioritise. We also have various proprietary utilities used for product strategy reconciliation.

Keep in mind: don't assume everything must continue the way it has been. Learn to make arrangements and try to change processes, and defend your point of view.

General tips

Having addressed specific stress prevention tips, let's move on to general ones relevant both for QA and other specialists.

Get good sleep and embrace a quality lifestyle

Don't forget to take breaks: walk, do sports, move your body. Innotech provides compensation for sports and other activities using the cafeteria plan. For example, you can buy a bike and the company will refund you the money.

The company also provides classical voluntary health insurance including dental services, which helps employees take care of their health. There are psychological support options which you can use without limitations. I once went just to try it, and have been attending ever since. Now I feel much more confident.

If sports are not your thing, no worries. People can get so tired that no jogging or gym would do; all they want is to calm down. Here's where hobbies like reading, art, and games come into play. A meditative hobby would definitely be advantageous for some: knitting, calligraphy, collecting puzzles or Lego. I know many people who still collect Lego at forty.

A book can also make good company and help you cope with stress. Art always comes to the rescue: try writing poetry, or buy a canvas and paints and try to paint a picture. After all, why not?

A visit to a museum, a play, or a concert are also ways to experience art. Find out what exhibits are now open in your city. Perhaps there is a new play in the theatre? Or a club is holding a concert over the weekend?

Games can be very helpful to fight stress. For example, board games are very popular and on the rise. Why not gather with your family, friends or colleagues and play Monopoly. You'll learn a lot of new things about yourself and knit your team together. You can also discuss some work issues in the course of the game. This way, the discussion will be much easier and more efficient than at a Friday end-of-week Zoom call.

Working from home is a good reason to consider getting a pet or finding your soulmate :) A pet may be tiny, like a hamster, guinea pig, or rat. Or maybe fish? Not to mention cats and dogs, the obvious choices. Some people even get goats!

By the way, a dog is a perfect choice. It will let you organise your schedule: get out of bed early to walk and feed the doggy, then an evening walk. You may engage in training, attend dog festivals or do SUP-surfing.

Value your time

Start work early, when the brain is ready for extensive workloads and your attention is most focused. Circadian or biological rhythms are the same for all people.

Record how much time you spend on travel or for senseless calls that could be transferred to documentation; try to reduce time wasted time. It could be used for something more profitable.

In Innotech, you can work remotely from any convenient location within Russia. My team is located in different cities, but this doesn't prevent us from getting together in the time required. My working hours start at 9 am, which is really comfortable for me.

Raise your head and look at what you're doing

QA specialists are always inundated with bugs. But look a bit higher. What an awesome product you're creating. Slowly but steadily, you're making it as a true participant to the process. In fact, everything goes on as required. Perhaps you will release a bit less, but everything will be achieved with time.

Look around. You're a QA, your life is a product you're working on, and stress factors are bugs. Find, describe, and classify them, then set your priorities. In this way, you will see clearly what hinders your life and work.

As a conclusion

Stress is a part of any job. But it is crucial to reduce stress factors whenever possible. You can eliminate many of them on your own or by talking to your colleagues and manager. We create our living and working environments ourselves, so don't be hesitate to arrange it in a way that is comfortable and convenient for yourself.

Please share your ways to fight workplace stress in the comments! What is most stressful about your work processes?

P.S. Big thanks to darja_macabria for the pictures

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