Tech hotshots: The rise of the QA expert

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Long undervalued, quality assurance is in the limelight -- and QA pros in demand -- following the disaster of the HealthCare.gov website rollout.

Mike Bresnahan's career has been a bit of high-tech potluck. In the early years, he did hands-on IT administrative work, tending to printers and managing server farms. From there, he crossed over to the development side, parlaying his proficiency in programming languages across a wide range of software projects.

Today, Bresnahan is on neither the IT nor the developer track. Instead, he's happily climbing the corporate ladder in quality assurance (QA), which he sees as the perfect conduit between his past endeavors.

"QA allows me [to transition from] a pure developer role into working in the real world without having to just do IT work," says Bresnahan, QA manager at Zenoss Inc., a provider of monitoring and management software for IT infrastructure. Bresnahan, who got into QA 15 years ago, is now in talks with management to create a new director-level QA position at Zenoss. "QA gives you the ability to be the first person to take whatever new technology a company is working on and make it work in a real-world situation," he says.

Bresnahan is far from the only QA professional jacked about the job. At shipping giant FedEx, cutting the amount of time it took to test software led to significant career recognition for Tamara Payne, senior vice president at FedEx. In fact, in a 2012 survey, CareerBliss ranked senior QA engineer as the No. 2 happiest job, second only to real estate agent.

Yet despite practitioners' high levels of personal satisfaction with their work, QA still struggles to command respect from the rest of the organization and is often considered a secondary role, trailing in the IT pecking order behind more coveted developer positions.

"It's not the sexiest of roles," Bresnahan admits, "and in the food chain of IT, we are one step above the documentation team and maybe two steps above tech support. Yet if you can find the good companies that allow QA to [function as a] bridge between pure development and real-world deployment, there is real opportunity there."

QA pros in high demand

Apparently, a lot of companies are starting to see it that way. As the complexity of software grows, so too does the need for more thorough QA practices, including the development of automated testing procedures. These demand a higher-caliber professional with a different set of skills -- think programming rather than manual troubleshooting, experts say. High-profile technology project disasters like the recent rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) website have also cast a light on the importance of QA best practices, lending further credence to the field.

"The role of QA is becoming more important and enjoying a higher level of perception in the organization," says John Reed, senior executive director of Robert Half Technology. "At one point, people would say it was a necessary evil like an auditor. Now people are starting to look at it as a role that actually can bring about significant benefits, helping organizations create better products and ensuring there are fewer bugs upon rollout."

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