How an Arts Education Has Shaped My Approach to QA

By Appnovation Co-op Brandon Quan. 

You may be thinking that an arts student working in a software-related co-op position is an unusual proposition, so let me clarify something. I am a computing science minor, I’ve worked with Python and Java, and I’ve learned about data structures, algorithms, and even a little bit of computer architecture. That said, as an English major, my focus over the past few years has been analyzing, interpreting, and writing about various texts written in English from the present day all the way back to Shakespeare’s time. The diverse skills and perspectives I have gained from such an education have—perhaps surprisingly—benefitted my approach to quality assurance work at Appnovation.

An arts student often writes dozens of papers during their undergraduate years. As an English major, mine are often about literary works. When beginning the process of writing, I ask myself a lot of questions, further narrowing them down to my core thesis: How does the author/poet/playwright convey this idea in their text? What details and literary devices did they use in service of it? How do I tie this all together to convey my interpretation of the text?

Although I didn’t think it at first, quality assurance sometimes involves clarifying the requirements of certain features in a project. Much like the paper writing process, this means asking questions—sometimes many—so the results better meet the client’s requirements: How will this feature work to perform this function for the user? What behaviour and web elements are required to make it fulfill its role? How does it fit within the whole context of the website? Having a knack for asking these kinds of questions has allowed me to help some of the teams with whom I’ve worked more effectively focus their efforts.

Of course, to write a paper about a text, one must be able to effectively read that text. This requires an attention to detail. Although upon first reading, I generally let myself simply enjoy a text based on aspects like story, character, and theme; when I go in a subsequent time, I sift through for various details that may both support or contradict my interpretation of the text. Usually, this includes the thematic implications of things like character actions, world building, language choice, and literary devices. Using supporting details while addressing the contradicting details through argument helps me create a stronger paper.

Attention to detail is crucial to the quality assurance analyst’s role as a tester. While it could be argued that the attention to detail required as a tester is not necessarily the same as the kind required for a reader and writer, the underlying principle is the same. Like the reader-writer looking for support and contradiction, testers must verify what is functioning and looking as expected on the website, and also catch defects. There is also some surprising overlap in the two roles: I have been able to catch typos in website content and—related to my experience in analyzing film, paintings, and photographs—small visual oddities in responsive website behavior. This attention to detail helps the team produce a more polished website.

Detail also plays a major part in writing an effective paper, which requires including many of the relevant details crucial to conveying one’s interpretation. Professors will often tell students that they cannot read minds; they are reading and grading the paper that is in front of them, not what the student was thinking as they were writing their paper. Embracing this bit of wisdom has made me more aware of the importance of conveying the relevant details to my audience in a way that they will understand. This mindset can really help a quality assurance analyst write their bug reports. Analyzing the buggy behavior of a certain feature from the front end and conveying in detail how it does not meet the expected result can save the developer tasked to fix the bug some time in trying to figure out the exact problem. When they know exactly what to do and don’t have to ask many questions, they can move forward to solve problems faster.

All in all, I try to ask and address as many questions as I can so the developers don’t have to, which results in a more efficient and streamlined process in resolving bugs. Of course, coming from a primarily arts background is not always compatible with the software industry, and I have needed to make up for that. For example, arts students often have ample time and flexibility to flesh out their ideas and writings. Personally, I often run into the issue of having too many ideas for an essay. Trying to narrow them down into something focused and concise can be a challenge, so this time and flexibility can be helpful. That doesn’t always fly in a software development team; the agile process is tightly paced, and time is often limited. In such situations, I often have to make a choice about how much analysis I can actually do on a given feature or bug, and how much detail I should convey in my bug reports.

I've learned that it’s necessary to strike a balance between analyzing and explaining issues thoroughly, and simply letting the team know that an issue exists. As I pass the halfway point of my eight months here, the balance I’ve found has been working well, and I hope to further maintain and improve it as I continue in my position. Coming into a quality assurance co-op position at Appnovation, I wasn’t really sure of the extent the skills I gained in my arts education would apply. It may surprise some, but the skills I’ve honed in my English education have come to great use in the position. Even so, there are some areas in which I could use some improvement, especially when it comes to time management.

With all of that said, for arts students who have some technical knowledge and experience, quality assurance is definitely a position that benefits from both worlds. And of course, interdisciplinary crossover can always bring in new perspectives that can lead to improvement in practices.

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