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Faculty Focus

Up to the Test:
Whitworth answers Microsoft call with pilot course in software quality assurance

by Pete Tucker, '91, Associate Professor of Computer Science

I enjoy talking with students about computer science. It is an interesting and exciting field. Computer scientists are constantly learning as the field grows, and there are many career opportunities. I hear students say that they enjoy computer science, but they really aren't excited about programming. They all know the stereotype -- Dilbert banging on a keyboard all day long, alone in a cubical, deep into the evening. The stereotype doesn't hold true, but it's sometimes hard to get students to move beyond that image. Also, they aren't generally aware that there are many careers other than programming that are available to a student with a degree in computer science. There are design and architect careers in software and hardware, management careers, and support careers. I'm particularly interested and experienced in quality assurance -- specifically, software quality assurance. Good quality assurance engineers must be strong technically; they also must be creative and must have skills in working with and learning from customers and negotiating with managers.

In spring 2007, Cherie Ekholm, '87, contacted Whitworth regarding a problem. She was a senior test lead for Microsoft Publisher. Her product team was looking to hire people to test the next versions of Publisher, but was having difficulty finding good people with strong technical skills. People with such skills are typically interested in careers in software development, not quality assurance. College graduates who have the required skills aren't generally aware that quality assurance is a career path. Most universities offer courses to teach programming skills, but very few schools at any level teach techniques in quality assurance. Cherie believed that Whitworth might be the sort of school where a class exploring quality assurance could work, and she wanted to look into helping to put together such a course.

Our department was excited to work with Cherie. Since I spent five years in quality assurance at Microsoft before I came to Whitworth, I was especially excited about the opportunity. After some initial discussion, we announced to students the first course in software quality assurance at Whitworth for fall 2007. One challenge we faced right away was attracting enough students. Registration for the upcoming semester was almost complete and most students already had their schedules set. Cherie then offered to interview all students who successfully completed the course; students shuffled their schedules, and the class filled up quickly!

We have offered the course twice at Whitworth, with a third offering coming in spring 2011. It has proven to be a very successful class, and has moved from an occasional "Special Topics" offering to a regular offering in our course catalog. Students have really benefitted from it. A few have joined me in research in software quality assurance, exploring directions in automated test case generation, hardware testing, and software security testing. They have presented their work at recent Spokane Intercollegiate Research Conferences. In addition, many students have moved on to take positions in quality assurance at companies including Microsoft, Adobe, Nike and NextIT.

This spring, I am in the middle of my first sabbatical, with a goal of developing new course materials for our quality assurance course. I already use my Microsoft experience in quality assurance to develop material, and I also use results from some research we've done here over the past two years. I also work part time in quality assurance at a local software company. I'm looking at ways to help them automate their existing tests, and I'm writing tests of my own and considering ways to assist them in testing their products. Since I'm at a smaller company that develops software targeted to specific clients, I've learned new approaches to quality assurance. Much of the work I do will apply directly to Whitworth's quality assurance class next spring. It will also apply toward a textbook I'm writing on quality assurance, designed for undergraduate students in their second year of computer science. Computer science students who understand the skills and methods in software quality assurance will benefit regardless of their chosen career path. We hope to continue to interest students in quality assurance and to open it up as a career option for more Whitworth students.


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