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From QA to Engineering Productivity

By Ari Shamash

In Google’s early days, a small handful of software engineers built, tested, and released software. But as the user-base grew and products proliferated, engineers started specializing in roles, creating more scale in the development process:

  • Test Engineers (TEs) —  tested new products and systems integration
  • Release Engineers (REs) —  pushed bits into production
  • Site Reliability Engineers (SREs) —  managed systems and data centers 24×7.

This story focuses on the evolution of quality assurance and the roles of the engineers behind it at Google.  The REs and SREs also evolved, but we’ll leave that for another day.

Initially, teams relied heavily on manual operations.  When we attempted to automate testing, we largely focused on the frontends, which worked, because Google was small and our products had fewer integrations.  However, as Google grew, longer and longer manual test cycles bogged down iterations and delayed feature launches.  Also, since we identified bugs later in the development cycle, it took us longer and longer to fix them .  We determined that pushing testing upstream via automation would help address these issues and accelerate velocity.

As manual testing transitioned to automated processes, two separate testing roles began to emerge at Google:

  • Test Engineers (TEs) — With their deep product knowledge and test/quality domain expertise, TEs focused on what should be tested.
  • Software Engineers in Test (SETs) — Originally software engineers with deep infrastructure and tooling expertise, SETs built the frameworks and packages required to implement automation.

The impact was significant:

  • Automated tests became more efficient and deterministic (e.g. by improving runtimes, eliminating sources of flakiness, etc.) 
  • Metrics driven engineering proliferated (e.g. improving code and feature coverage led to higher quality products).

Manual operations were reduced to manual verification on new features, and typically only in end-to-end, cross product integration boundaries.  TEs developed extreme depth of knowledge for the products they supported.  They became go-to engineers for product teams that needed expertise in test automation and integration. Their role evolved into a broad spectrum of responsibilities: writing scripts to automate testing, creating tools so developers could test their own code, and constantly designing better and more creative ways to identify weak spots and break software.

SETs (in collaboration with TEs and other engineers) built a wide array of test automation tools and developed best practices that were applicable across many products. Release velocity accelerated for products.  All was good, and there was much rejoicing !

SETs initially focused on building tools for reducing the testing cycle time, since that was the most manually intensive and time consuming phase of getting product code into production.  We made some of these tools available to the software development community: webdriver improvements , protractor , espresso , EarlGrey , martian proxy , karma , and GoogleTest . SETs were interested in sharing and collaborating with others in the industry and established conferences . The industry has also embraced the Test Engineering discipline, as other companies hired software engineers into similar roles, published articles , and drove Test-Driven Development into mainstream practices.

Through these efforts, the testing cycle time decreased dramatically, but interestingly the overall velocity did not increase proportionately, since other phases in the development cycle became the bottleneck .  SETs started building tools to accelerate all other aspects of product development, including:

  • Extending IDEs to make writing and reviewing code easier, shortening the “write code” cycle
  • Automating release verification, shortening the “release code” cycle.
  • Automating real time production system log verification and anomaly detection , helping automate production monitoring.
  • Automating measurement of developer productivity, helping understand what’s working and what isn’t.

In summary, the work done by the SETs naturally progressed from supporting only product testing efforts to include supporting product development efforts as well. Their role now encompassed a much broader Engineering Productivity agenda.

Given the expanded SET charter, we wanted the title of the role to reflect the work. But what should the new title be?   We empowered the SETs to choose a new title , and they overwhelmingly (91%) selected Software Engineer, Tools & Infrastructure (abbreviated to SETI).

Today, SETIs and TEs still collaborate very closely on optimizing the entire development life cycle with a goal of eliminating all friction from getting features into production. Interested in building next generation tools and infrastructure?   Join us !

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