Monday, May 26, 2008

Test engineering in a startup

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I start work with a new company this week. This will be my fourth startup in the past 9 years. About a month ago I wrote something I had learned about funding startups, and that post got me to thinking about what I wrote last year about the different types of test engineering. Specifically, is a test engineer who works in high-tech startup companies a separate type of test engineer?

A successful test engineer in a startup needs a broad set of skills. First of all, you're probably the only test engineer in the company, so of course you need to program. At first you can set up some rudimentary manual test stations, but soon after that you'll want to automate. People won't have the patience to sit and run a manual station for very long.

You're putting together test systems, but in a startup time is often at a premium so you'll usually hire contractors for specialized assistance. Knowing something about mechanical as well as electrical engineering will help when working with those contractors.

Furthermore, a high tech startup has a strong need for data. The test engineer that knows how to handle a database - writing to it, reading from it, designing it - has a leg up. And if you can do decent data analysis (I blogged about JMP here), then you help out the other engineers as well as have some fun.

Finally, you have to be a bit of a people person. You're in a small group of people, most of them are engineers. Those engineers rely on the data from testing. You cannot just sit in your cube and program, or sit in the lab and build your systems. You should communicate with the engineers to find out what kind of testing they need, how the data should look, and a dozen other issues. Things can change fast in a startup, so the test requirements drawn up a month ago might have changed. You need to stay on top of those changes.

The skills I have described are of course used by test engineers. But it is the breadth of skills rather than the expertise in any particular skill that is important for a young company. So, back to my original question: Is "startup specialist" a separate type of test engineer, or is this more of a 'jack of all trades master of none' issue?

I don't have an answer to that question right now, but I'll think about it more. But there is one thing I can add. Since I've started making a career for myself by having a broad set of skills, I've never really liked the negative connotation of the "'jack of all trades" epithet. In reality, the full quote is, "Jack of all trades, master of none, though ofttimes better than master of one." When you think about it, that's a compliment that I can live with.

No comments: