How to Become a Software Tester Without A Computer Science Degree
By Cassandra H. Leung
The Scenic Route To Testing
Instead of getting into computers and testing at an early age, my scenic route to testing started after university, with my first full-time job working for a bank. I was on the web team of their Personal Loans department, and this was when the idea of somehow working alongside the IT industry started following me around. It was a sales role, rather than an IT one. However, with leads coming in from the bank’s website, my role felt more tech-related than my colleagues’, who were taking telephone inquiries or serving customers in physical branches. On my team, we were working with extra systems and software that allowed us to process the online applications, and this was something I really enjoyed.
My next move brought me into IT recruitment. I learned a lot about different kinds of IT roles, and what they involved. It all seemed so interesting, and I often found myself thinking, “I want to do that!” I was disappointed not to have studied a computing subject at school. I thought it was too late for me to start a career in IT, and that I would have to settle for only being connected to IT, but not directly involved.
A one day Clojure workshop started to change my perception of my career path. In theory, I went to learn things that would help me become a better recruiter. In reality, I was more excited to learn about programming. This led to me regularly attending a Women in Programming group and learning HTML and CSS via Codecademy.
After my stint as an IT recruiter, I worked for one of the world’s most popular online job boards, and then for an IT apprenticeship provider. I was still working alongside IT, but not in it. By this time, I had been attending the Women in Programming group for over a year, and this was where I discovered that software testing existed. Straight away, it grabbed my interest even more than programming, and I knew it was something I wanted to learn more about.
The key event that led me to become a software tester was when I had a client meeting with an enthusiastic Head of Test. We met to discuss whether an IT apprenticeship program would be suitable for junior testers, and his eyes lit up as he told me more about what a tester’s job involves and why he loved testing. This was the moment when I knew I wanted to be a tester. Everything he talked about sounded wonderful, and I had to hold back from asking him how I could get a job like the one he described. I left the meeting with a smile on my face, inspired and convinced that my next career move had to be landing a job in IT.
Preparing For A Career Change
I made a conscious decision to pursue a role directly related to technology. Though my interests were already pointed towards testing, they were broad enough that I could keep an open mind as to how to get there. In order to really make a go of this, I needed a plan.
Researching The Job Market
My first step was to expand on what I’d been told already and do some of my own research:
- What kind of testing roles exist?
- What different duties and responsibilities are there?
- Do I really want to do those things every day?
- What kind of qualifications, experience and skills are requested?
- What transferable skills do I already possess?
- Am I willing to work towards any that I don’t already have?
- What opportunities are there in the location(s) I’m willing to work in?
- Are there many junior or entry level roles being advertised?
- What might my career path in technology look like?
- What different points of entry exist?
There weren’t any particular sites or resources that I used for my research. I referred to job boards, recruitment websites, career sites for students, and Googled more phrases than I can remember, in order to find different sources of information that I could pool together and apply to my context and desires.
I also used my network to reach out to a list of selected hiring managers and team leads for advice on what they looked for in a candidate hoping to start a career in technology. Since I had regrets about not taking computing at school but didn’t like the style of formal education, my questions centred around this:
- Did they consider a computing degree to be essential?
- Should I consider getting one?
- Would an Open University degree be seen as being as valid as one from a “red brick” institution?
I was lucky to have worked as an IT recruiter before becoming a tester because I had a network of people to ask for advice. The practical experience allowed me to understand the IT market, in terms of industry, location, and level of experience. I’d also talked to countless hiring managers about technology roles. I knew about the hardest to find skills that they were looking for: the ability to provide insight and communicate it well. I was confident that I possessed those skills, and that I could absolutely learn whatever else was needed. That self-belief was a key part of my success because I knew that I could, and I was determined to do.
Doing The Numbers
My next step was to approach my desired career change from a financial perspective. Could I afford to change careers? By this time, I’d worked in various sales and target-driven roles for about eight years. I was good at these roles, and my bonus reflected this. I knew I probably couldn’t expect to receive a bonus in an IT role, and that my basic salary would likely take a hit from having to go back to the bottom of the career ladder.
I collected information about all my expenses, essential, luxury, fixed, ad-hoc, etc., and calculated the minimum salary I would require. I thought about how much money I’d need to earn in tiers. What would be the minimum amount needed to:
- Maintain the same lifestyle?
- Keep contributing to my savings each month?
This information enabled me to take a practical, financial approach, and understand what sacrifices I might have to make, and whether they were realistic for my circumstances.
Forming A Career Strategy
Armed with all my research, I started forming a strategy for my career change to technology, and ultimately towards becoming a software tester. Still keeping an open mind about where my new career might lead me, I was keen to make a start by getting my foot in the door. I took a closer look at the junior IT roles available in my area.
There were some junior tester roles available in the location I wanted to work in, but the advertised remuneration was poor, and some asked for degrees in a computing subject. All of my contacts had told me that formal education was not the most important thing. However, having worked in recruitment myself, I already knew that applications are usually filtered down en masse by screening for formal qualifications.
It seemed that there were three courses of action I could take:
- Postpone my career change for four or more years while studying (and paying) for a degree that would only act as an aid to not being automatically rejected.
- Try my luck by applying for the few junior tester roles that were available, and take a hit on salary.
- Use my existing skill set to get a different role in IT, as a gateway to testing.
I decided to go for option three, with a little bit of option two sprinkled in, just in case there was any chance that I could land a decent testing role straight away.
From my research, it seemed that a technical support or helpdesk role would be the perfect precursor to a testing role. It would mean working in IT instead of just alongside it, would provide experience in an IT environment, and give me the opportunity to communicate with technology and business professionals on a working level, instead of solely as a recruiter. On top of all that, there were more of these roles advertised in my area than junior testing ones. Statistically speaking, I had a better chance of getting one of these positions.
Reworking My CV To Become A Software Tester
With a strategy in mind and a clear idea of the kind of roles I wanted to apply for, I started working on my CV. Since I wanted to make a quite a change, I couldn’t just update my CV with details of my current role. I had to rework the whole thing and tailor it towards technology.
As a recruiter, I’d read hundreds of CVs, good and bad, and had a good idea of what I needed to do. I approached the rework from the perspective of a hiring manager and thought about what I’d have to do, not only to make a good impression but to convince readers that I was serious about this career move, and have what it takes to be successful in IT.
I used my experience in sales and recruitment to sell myself in my CV. Instead of focussing on my sales skills and exceeding targets, I focussed on the software and technologies used in each role. I highlighted transferable skills, particularly related to communication, coaching, learning, and independent working. I also included details about the personal investment I made in learning and developing the skills expected of a technology professional, and told a story about why I wanted to change careers. I anticipated questions and objections which my career history and goals might raise, and sought to address them head-on in a way that was intriguing, instead of defensive.
Keeping it within two pages, I only included information which would be valuable to hiring managers and recruiters for the roles I applied for. I removed everything else which might be seen as a detraction from my targeted narrative. In doing this, I demonstrated the good communication skills I claimed to have and made the content of my CV relevant to my target audience.
Writing Cover Letters
These were the main changes I made to my CV, but they weren’t the only ones. I took note of the specific responsibilities, skills, and experience mentioned in the adverts and wrote a short, customised, cover letter for every opportunity I applied for. This might seem like a lot of work, but I was able to spend a good amount of time on each application by being very selective about which jobs I applied for. Instead of taking a “spray and pray” approach, or uploading my CV to a database and hoping for the best, every application I made was considered and deliberate. I only applied for jobs that I really wanted.
How To Find Opportunities In Software Testing
Much of the work in looking for vacancies had already been done during my research phase. I had built up a list of the best job sites and agencies for roles in testing and tech support. However, working in recruitment, I knew that a lot of jobs don’t get advertised on job sites or with agencies. Advertising a role is often a last resort for difficult-to-fill positions.
With this in mind, I took the following actions:
- I looked directly on company websites for their careers pages.
- I reached out to selected people in my network about potential opportunities at their companies.
- I connected with employees at interesting companies on LinkedIn and kept an eye out for any jobs they shared.
I found my first job in technology through the third method, a job posted on LinkedIn by someone already working at a company of interest.
Proving My Potential
The job seemed perfect for me and what I was looking for as my first job in IT. It was a tech support role with a company that develops recruitment software, and they were only considering applicants with recruitment experience. What are the chances of that? I felt unlikely to find a better fitting opportunity. I made sure I did everything I could to get the job.
I didn’t apply directly to the advert. I wanted to stand out and be memorable, so I searched for the hiring manager for the position. It was a small company with a “meet the team” page on their website, so I was able to identify the most likely person with ease. I sent the hiring manager a request to connect on LinkedIn, along with a message that went something like this:
I kept the message short, but packed a lot into it:
- Personalisation to the person and company, to show specific interest.
- Reference to the job of interest, for context and clarity.
- Reference to what the company does, to show I’d done some basic research (a lot of people don’t do any research at all!)
- A clarifying question to check that I’d contacted the right person, and an opening to correct me and point me to someone else, if appropriate.
- Specific reason for the contact, which indicates that I intend to make the effort to tailor my CV before applying, that I know a good fit is important, and why I haven’t just hit the “apply” button.
- Get your foot in the door. My next step, to show eagerness and initiative; phrased as a question, as opposed to a statement, to give the subconscious suggestion that they should either be available for my call or agree to another time.
This request to chat resulted in a call that same evening, which turned into a very informal telephone interview. I learned that I had a lot in common with the hiring manager, and was able to build a great rapport with them. It was an ideal opportunity to showcase my communication skills in pursuing this customer-facing role. It also gave me a good idea of who I’d be working with and the company culture.
By the end of the call, the hiring manager told me not to worry about tailoring my CV and asked me to email something directly to them as soon as possible, so they could arrange a face-to-face interview with the company’s CEO. It all happened very quickly and I was thrilled!
Looking back, the introduction to this recruitment process went incredibly smoothly. The purpose of the call was two-way, as I was just as interested in finding the right opportunity as the company was in finding the right candidate. I listened carefully for details about the role and the working environment. I asked how the vacancy became available, listened out for anything that might reveal a poor company culture, and tried to imagine how working life might be with this person as my manager.
Needless to say, everything seemed in good order. However, if the conversation had not gone as well, I must be honest in saying that I didn’t really consider what I might have done next. It was still early days in searching for a new job on my new career path, so I most likely would have kept looking for opportunities using the methods I mentioned earlier. If my search had become more drawn out, I think I might have concentrated on finding opportunities through my network and contacts. This way, I’d be able to ask questions about the culture before entering the application process, and perhaps get the benefit of a direct referral and interview tips from a current employee.
When it came to the interview with the company’s CEO, there were a few things I kept in mind:
I’d occupied many roles during my working life, and now I wanted to change careers. I needed to properly convey my good reasons for leaving previous positions and convince them I’d be committed to a new career in IT.
Although I saw tech support as a gateway to a testing role, the company was hiring for someone in tech support because that’s the person they needed; I could plant some seeds that I’d be a good tester, but I had to be seen as a good tech support specialist first.
These two factors boil down to investment and retention. I needed to convince the company to take a chance on me. I needed some way to prove that I was worth their investment and that I was fully committed to starting my new career in technology with them.
I was glad that I’d considered these factors in advance, especially when the CEO said, “I actually think you’d be a great tester, but that’s not the role we’re hiring for right now. Although the two previous people in this role have been promoted to other areas, we need someone who’s going to do this for at least 18 months. How do I know that’s you?”
I was surprised and delighted to hear that they thought I would make a good tester, but I understood their position and had to stay focussed. I knew that how I answered this question would be crucial to my success, both in this recruitment process and in starting my new career in IT.
I used my experience in sales, negotiation, and recruitment to make my answer an interesting proposition, instead of a defence. I acknowledged that hiring me could be seen as a risk, but that they’d be getting someone who is capable, conscientious, and ambitious. I was honest about considering the tech support role to be a gateway to another role, but I aligned my potential career progression within the company with an increase in the value I could provide to them. I made a verbal commitment that if I was successful in getting the tech support role, I would stay in it for at least 18 months before seeking any promotion. Their investment in me would be returned in the form of having a tech support specialist for their minimum desired time period.
Perhaps this proposition seemed rather bold, but this was a great opportunity for me. In order to secure it, I needed to be willing to prove myself and make my own investments too. I knew that I could learn so much from the tech support role, so this didn’t seem like a compromise or sacrifice for me. If anything, it informally set an expectation that I’d be working towards a promotion before I’d even been offered the role. I didn’t want the CEO thinking that I’d resign myself to the first IT role I got, just to get out of recruitment. I would be moving towards bigger and better, and I’d earn it.
Going Above And Beyond
It was nerve-racking to wait for the result of my interview, but I was so excited to finally accept an offer. I’m almost certain that the rapport I built with the hiring manager in our first phone call played a big part in the company’s decision. I think my approach to contacting them helped get things going in the right direction.
The tech support role was an excellent introduction to working in IT, and I learned a lot. I really enjoyed the challenges, and there were numerous opportunities for me to take initiative and excel in the tech support role, and whatever else needed to be done or could be improved. The autonomous environment at the company was so different to anywhere I’d worked before, and it was perfect for my development. I had the freedom and trust to take ownership of everything I took on. I could see how the previous incumbents of the role were able to progress as they did with the kind of culture at the company.
After around eight months of working in tech support, the CEO approached me to ask if I’d like to move into a testing role. What about the minimum 18 months in tech support? I must have been doing something right because I was told that it didn’t matter anymore and that they thought I could do great things in this new position.
Looking back, I don’t remember anything specific that I did in tech support to spark this. There was no real line between what I saw as my responsibilities in tech support, and what was needed to help deliver a quality product. The transition, for me, was rather blurred, as I continued to:
- Support users
- Investigate issues
- Pinpoint how to recreate intermittent issues
- Shape the bug reporting process
- Question requirements
- Implement reporting structures
- Reveal underlying problems and needs
- Advocate for users
- Champion good quality and user experience
- Provide product updates to colleagues and users
As I also took on the roles of product owner and business analyst in the position known as “UX Ninja”, the CEO told me, “you’re already doing a lot of this, let’s make it official”.
I became a software tester and immersed myself into IT much quicker than I imagined I would. I’m grateful to have had the opportunities I did, and I’m proud of myself for making the most of them.
One of the things I enjoy most about being a tester is how much I get to learn and discover. As UX Ninja, I took on new responsibilities, faced new challenges, and had lots of opportunities to grow. When the time came to consider my next step, I decided that I wanted to focus on developing as a tester. My experiences as product owner and business analyst were invaluable in helping me to become a better tester and understand more about everything that goes into producing and delivering software. However, I wanted to concentrate on testing in order to progress my career in the direction I wanted it to go.
Through being a tester, I’ve started my own blog, spoken at conferences around the world, provided support and feedback to other testers and developers in the community, and even moved to a different country.
I learn from each and every adventure on my journey, and the people who include me in theirs. I love being a tester, and I’m excited to keep learning and testing for many more years to come.
Cassandra describes herself as a tester and UX enthusiast, and is currently working for MaibornWolff in Germany. With previous roles including product owner, business analyst, recruiter and international account manager, she uses her varied knowledge and experience to help her in testing.
Cassandra is a very active member of the testing community, sharing thoughts about testing and all things software production on her blog and on Twitter. She is also very passionate about diversity and inclusion, and tries to raise awareness of the issues that exist in the IT space. Cassandra has spoken at various conferences around the world and hopes to inspire others to share their stories too.