Would Microsoft really cut its QA department?

Bloomberg says Microsoft’s quality assurance team might be the target of cuts, but that borders on the unthinkable.

Microsoft sign
Julien Gong Min (CC BY 2.0)

We've covered the news that CEO Satya Nadella is looking at making some significant cuts at Microsoft. This should come as no surprise and may even be welcomed by some. Microsoft just inherited 30,000 employees with the Nokia acquisition, and some people (notably the cranky Mini Microsoft blog) have felt Microsoft was too bloated to begin with.

However, where he plans to make the cuts is still unknown, and if Bloomberg is right, it could be a huge mistake.

Bloomberg reports that Nadella is making changes to the engineering organization and that QA testers may feel the ax. The publication attributes to him the notion that "it often makes sense to have the developers test and fix bugs instead of a separate team of testers."

This would be an incredible move if it's true, because it would fly in the face of more than 30 years of development processes. The whole premise of Agile development is based on building one small piece, test, test, test, add another feature, test, test, test, rinse, repeat. You don't let programmers debug their code for the same reason you don't let writers be their own editor; you need fresh eyes to see what the other person might not.

Microsoft does use a different technique for development. Rather than straight QA people, it uses what it called Software Developer Engineer Test, or SDET, who create software that identifies bugs and fixes them when possible. There is still a layer of human intervention for harder-to-find bugs, but the process does automate testing.

I spoke to a friend who does QA and was dubious of Microsoft being able to cut QA all that much. No matter how test-driven you are, no matter how much automation is in your pipeline, there will always be things that require an extra set of eyes. And there are things a computer can't do, like spec review, architecture review, design review, and code review.

At the end of it, you've still got a set of questions that no computer can answer, like whether the products actually match what customers are asking for and whether anybody will use or buy it. Thinking like a user is another skill that a good "traditional" QA person brings to the table.

True, Microsoft is known for deploying new products internally (called "eating their own dog food") and turning its staffers into beta testers. All told, it's hard to imagine Microsoft goring its test staff. Perhaps people with limited skills, but I can't fathom wholesale cuts.

The people at Nokia in Finland, on the other hand, are likely in for a rough time.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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