October 23, 2005
Getting paid to make stuff break
Special to The Seattle Times
MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
People's eyes usually glaze over when Microsoft software test engineer Alex MacLeod, 32, talks about what he does for a living. And when he visits his mother, he rarely brings up the topic.
"It doesn't go far at the dinner table," he says. "It's just not that digestible to people."
MacLeod is charged with making sure software does what it's supposed to do. His domain is called Exchange Server, software that runs on servers, transmitting e-mail and other forms of communication.
Finding flaws in software, and creating solutions to them before it's released for sale, is a critical part of the software business.
Yet its highly technical nature is difficult for most people to comprehend. MacLeod, too, before he entered the field five years ago, knew next to nothing about software testing or computers in general but "thought it was the worst job imaginable."
In less than five years, MacLeod has risen through the ranks at Microsoft to become a "team lead" with eight people reporting to him.
"I keep building my technical skills. And it turns out that I love it. I get excited about it. I bore people to death at parties."
MacLeod has found that his profession is a hard sell not only to people he meets at parties, but to students in university computer-science programs.
Most want to be developers and don't give much thought to testing. One of MacLeod's duties at Microsoft is to go to university campuses and talk to computer-science students about the merits of software testing as a career.
"Developers and testers have parity at Microsoft," he says. Salaries for both start in the $50,000 range, and top out at about $100,000. Careers and salaries can rise rapidly, he says, partly because the demand for good testers is high.
"We have piles and piles of work to do," he says, "and we're constantly looking for people to do it."
Though some jobs are being sent to India and other countries, he doesn't see that as a threat to the profession, because it's hard to replace the face-to-face teamwork that takes place on the Microsoft campus in Redmond.
From carpenter to tester
Five years ago, MacLeod was working as a carpenter and cabinet maker in the Seattle area.
A friend he'd met working in a commercial cabinet shop was a "hobby computer guy" who got a job at Microsoft as a test engineer.
After MacLeod left the cabinet shop to start his own home-remodeling company, his friend kept trying to persuade him to follow his own career path.
But MacLeod had a little problem.
First, he wasn't sure he wanted to leave carpentry, a profession he loved and at which he excelled.
And how, armed only with a degree in English and the ability to use Microsoft Word, was he going to persuade anyone to hire him as a software engineer?
He resolved the first issue by taking a 5-½-week-long backpacking trip with his Microsoft friend. They walked and talked along the Pacific Crest Trail from Oregon to Canada in the summer of 2000. During the last two weeks MacLeod walked alone, giving him a chance to think about where his life was headed.
"I realized that the longer I stayed in carpentry, the harder it would be to change," he says. "So when I stepped off the trail the last week of September, I told my friend that I wanted to try for it."
Then providence (and the influence of MacLeod's Microsoft buddy) stepped in. MacLeod somehow persuaded a hiring manager at Volt, a temporary agency that provides workers to Microsoft, to give him a three-year contract as a software test engineer.
The next half-year was a maelstrom. At Microsoft, he was given a routine job setting up machines for other people to test software. But he used every spare moment to learn the technical skills he would need later by reading manuals, taking online courses and picking the brains of fellow workers.
Seven months after he began, a full-time position came up at Microsoft. MacLeod applied for and won the job.
"Driven by the puzzle"
Several of the things he loves about testing are similar to what intrigued him about remodeling houses.
"The problems I had to solve as a carpenter required creativity," he says.
"And it's the same with software testing. You have to like solving problems, coming up with solutions. You have to be driven by the puzzle of it all."
Testers are an essential component of what MacLeod calls the "triad" at Microsoft developers, testers and program managers.
MacLeod says testers have a reputation in the software industry as people who "love to break software."
Because testers derive great satisfaction in finding errors caused by developers, the two groups often have an adversarial relationship.
MacLeod's mission is not only to break software, but also to build tests so that it doesn't break again, at least in that particular fashion.
"Our job and joy is finding things in a product that don't go right," he says. "That's our reward."
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