How Traditional Testers Can Use Old Skills in New Ways: An Interview with Melissa Benua


In this interview, Melissa Benua, a senior technical lead at mParticle, explains how traditional testers can use their current skill sets to easily transition to new concepts, like DevOps. She also details how continuous testing and continuous integration continue to be major hot topics.

Jennifer Bonine: All right, we are back. Hopefully you are all hanging with us for these virtual interviews. I have Melissa with me. I'm so glad you're here.

Melissa Benua: I am so glad I could make it. It's been such a long day, but so much fun.

Jennifer Bonine: Good. Now, you are what we would call a veteran of these conferences. You've been at these for a little bit now.

Melissa Benua: I know.

Jennifer Bonine: It's amazing. You were our keynote this morning, how proud, I mean, just to see you doing that, that's amazing.

Melissa Benua: It's so exciting.

Jennifer Bonine: Congratulations.

Melissa Benua: Thank you.

Jennifer Bonine: That's awesome. I remember the first time we met, you were talking about, it was your first time doing a presentation like this, so for those out there watching that want to do something like this, you're a great story of, you know, you just went out there, had the will to try something new, did it, and now you're keynoting.

Melissa Benua: I learned from all the crazy things I did in the first one that I learned to do better or not do at all, and just kept going. Even though it was hard at the time, and it was a little scary, it was really scary, I just pushed through it—sort of like having children, you just have to push through, there's no way but forward.

Jennifer Bonine: You just push through it, right. Yeah, exactly, right. No turning back. You've got to go forward.

Melissa Benua: Exactly.

Jennifer Bonine: When we were talking about that too, I mean, what people out there probably realize, the balance of family and career that a lot of us face, and juggling all of that. When people say "Oh, I'm too busy, I can't do a keynote," or "I don't have time." You are a new mom.

Melissa Benua: I am, I am.

Jennifer Bonine: You have a new little one in your house.

Melissa Benua: He's four months old, he's a little guy.

Jennifer Bonine: Little guy. Both your children are here.

Melissa Benua: Yes, they're both here with Dad.

Jennifer Bonine: You can bring them with, see? That's awesome. Dad's here to help, but they're both here. You guys had a little incident last night, right?

Melissa Benua: We did.

Jennifer Bonine: They kept you up a little bit?

Melissa Benua: We did. The newborn actually was fantastic, he slept, he slept all night. He was, like, the greatest. But my three-year-old is having Disney stimulation overload, so she didn't want to go to bed, and then this morning at about two o'clock she woke up screaming about I don't know, who knows. Three-year-old things.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, three-year-old things.

Melissa Benua: And nobody would do but Mom. So Dad was, "No, Dad, don't touch me, don't look at me. Only Mom." Have to be on top of Mom. So at two o'clock in the morning I was like, "But baby, I've got to go to sleep. Momma has to wake up in the morning."

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, like this is a nonoptional wake-up.

Melissa Benua: She didn't care. She's three, what does she care?

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, she's like, "What's that?"

Melissa Benua: She needs her mom.

Jennifer Bonine: Yup, yup, exactly. Right? And they're priority, and all they know is I need Mom right now. I don't realize that Mom's going to be in front of a crowd of 1,500 people in a little bit and telling them all about her experience.

Melissa Benua: Exactly.

Jennifer Bonine: But you pushed through it, to your point, and you did a great job. And maybe we want to talk a little bit in depth of, was there anything this morning—obviously for the folks that got to see her keynote, for the folks that didn't, maybe a high-level overview of what it was, and then kind of what went into inspiring you to speak on that topic and using that as a keynote?

Melissa Benua: Yeah, absolutely. So my keynote this morning was about a lot of the skills that software testers have. There's a lot that they don't necessarily know that they have. So breaking out a lot of really traditional skills that they have and some new tools and job titles that can be applied to it, because job titles come and go. I've held half a dozen in my career, and yet the work that I'm doing doesn't really change, and the skills that I have don't really. You know, I gain more skills, but the core skills are still there. And so I was talking a lot about how what those core skills are and identifying your core skills and then learning to transfer them to new tools. You know, everybody's about DevOps this and continuous integration that, and data visualization, things that you may be eminently qualified for or things that you can do that you may not know. So sort of exploring the world of possibilities that are actually open to people who are in the traditional software testing domain.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah. Was this a topic you'd been thinking about for a while and you thought, "Gosh, this would be really good in front of a group"? Or were you approached and did they say, "Hey, what do you think of this topic?" How did that come about? Just so that people know kind of the back story on how you become a keynote.

Melissa Benua: Yeah, so this sort of came about in that in one of my startups, because I've been at a couple startups now, they said they weren't particularly interested in having a traditional QA process, and I said, "Okay, but we still have to test our code." And so it turns out what they meant by "traditional QA process" didn't actually mean they didn't do pretty much all of the things that traditional QA processes do, they just wanted to call it something else and organize it a little differently. But all the key pieces were there.

And then recently one of my neighbors that we see a lot, she likes to come and play with my daughter, she has been a traditional tester for her whole career, for a really long time, and in the Seattle area. She had the idea that software testing was becoming a kind of a dirty word. I said, "But it's not, it's absolutely not." But that was her perception. So I said, "Hey, but you're really good at this and you've been doing this for so long, and look at all these companies that are still doing this, and they're still doing these things, and you have all these really great skills because you've been a software tester for twenty years. You have an incredible talent with finding bugs and exploratory testing and storytelling, and leading other people and doing product advocacy and user advocacy."

And so I was talking to her over the course of a few conversations, and I kind of came to this realization that people are really self-deprecating—they don't realize how amazing they are and the cool skills that they have. So I kind of wanted to spread that more broadly.

Jennifer Bonine: And I do, I think that's really funny. I mean I've looked at a lot of resumes lately of individuals, and I know the people personally, right, where I've worked with them for many years, and then I look at their resume and it just is not a very good reflection. And I was wondering if that was a trend, particularly for software testers, that sometimes underpromote or undervalue, in general, the skills they actually have.

Melissa Benua: Yes, I feel like they are.

Jennifer Bonine: That ties into, yeah, what you were talking about, right? I really am seeing more and more of that where they just ... I don't know if it's more humble or just not wanting to brag.

Melissa Benua: Or if they've internalized some message that's gone out there. I don't know. I'm not sure where it's coming from, but I feel like it's undeserved.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, because you're right, I mean, there are so many great skills and adaptability and other things that testers have to have in their everyday, what they do.

Melissa Benua: Yeah, and they're unique to testers, oftentimes. I've worked with many, many devs, I've worked with combined engineers who are supposed to be doing both, and when you're a combined engineer, it's very obvious who came from the dev world and who came from the test world. And the obviousness is not from their production code, it's from the number of bugs they end up with in production.

Jennifer Bonine: Yup, there you go. Exactly. How interesting.

Now, so you have been coming to these conferences for a few years as a speaker, you've been involved in the event on Friday which is Women Who Test, and any trends or anything you're seeing as kind of, you know, as people are coming up to you obviously having seen you keynote and stuff, that they're saying, "Hey, here's something that's really important to me right now." Or thoughts that people are having that you're seeing lately in this industry? I know obviously your neighbor saying, "Hey, I'm worried that this isn't a good career anymore." Are you hearing more trends of that, or do you think that's a fairly limited thought process right now?

Melissa Benua: I feel like that's a little bit trending, I feel like there's a huge rise of continuous integration and continuous deployment. I've had a lot of questions. I gave a tutorial on Tuesday kind of about an overview of test design for that, so I've been getting a lot of questions this year—much more than years past, all of a sudden—about continuous integration, then DevOps this and DevOps that. And there's been a sort of an underthread of anxiety from testers about, well, what does that mean for me? Because people look at the DevOps process and they say, "Where does test fit?" And so a lot of my talks and a lot of things I've been doing here has been saying, "Hey, DevOps and test absolutely coexist. You can't have one without the other. You can continuously deploy garbage all day if you want, but it's still going to be garbage."

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah. Exactly. Funny. One of the things we always talk about is, DevOps without QA is a sprint to failure.

Melissa Benua: Exactly.

Jennifer Bonine: Basically. Like, you're sprinting faster to failure if you don't involve the QA aspect of that. I mean, you just need to. Testing doesn't go away. Like you said, whatever you call it, however you organize it, that may change, but fundamentally the things that are occurring still need to occur.

Melissa Benua: They still need to occur, and you still need those really key skills to make them happen and make them happen correctly, and usefully, and quickly.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah. Now, your background was you came from a large company at one point.

Melissa Benua: Yes, I did. The largest.

Jennifer Bonine: The largest, so if we name that company, a lot of people would know which one it is, that's out there that you worked for, and had that experience and exposure, and now recently your last couple organizations have been smaller startups.

Melissa Benua: Yeah, quite small.

Jennifer Bonine: So how was it, for folks out there who are saying, "Gosh, I'm really part of a behemoth monolith organization, and I want to try a startup"? How did you get to the point where you could wrap your head and be okay with going from large to small? Was that fairly easy for you? How are you adapting and adjusting to smaller? How's it going?

Melissa Benua: It was a rough first six months' transition. It's been about almost three years now.

Jennifer Bonine: I know.

Melissa Benua: Maybe actually three years.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, I was thinking it was pretty close ...

Melissa Benua: It's been pretty close.

Jennifer Bonine: ... because I remember meeting right after you made your transition.

Melissa Benua: Yup. So the beginning was rough, because I was used to there always being somebody else to catch there, there's always somebody else, there's always somebody.

Jennifer Bonine: There's a backstop to it.

Melissa Benua: And when you have five engineers, there isn't actually always somebody else, it may just be you. You are the first, last, and only line of defense.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, there you go, exactly. So very different.

Melissa Benua: Yeah, very different. I had to learn to become sort of more holistic and I had picked up a little bit of a silo, so I had to learn a little bit of DevOps and a little bit of PM, and a little bit of all these other things to make sure that I could be my first, last, and only line of defense, that I could trust myself with responsibility that you know, the CTO and whatever had been entrusted with us, because there's only five engineers. One of them was a CTO.

Jennifer Bonine: Right, exactly.

Melissa Benua: It's a very flat structure.

Jennifer Bonine: It's a small group of people, right?

Melissa Benua: Yeah.

Jennifer Bonine: That's entrusted. Now, would you say so again huge transition, six months to transition. How are you feeling now that you're kind of on your second one? Are you getting more uncomfortable in those shoes and like the opportunity that it provides, and the breadth of skills where again in large organizations you can tend you get very siloed into a particular area because the span of control is much smaller because there's so many people, everyone gets smaller chunks. Whereas like you said, in a company that's a small group, everyone has to do more.

Melissa Benua: Yeah, so my current set up is actually a little bit bigger, it's actually about a 10X size, which actually when you're talking from ten people to fifty to 100.

Jennifer Bonine: But still it's bigger.

Melissa Benua: But it is bigger.

Jennifer Bonine: So you went from really big to teeny tiny.

Melissa Benua: To teeny tiny to slightly bigger.

Jennifer Bonine: Got it, okay, great.

Melissa Benua: So what I really enjoyed when I was at the teeny tiny was I had to do a little bit of everything whether I liked it or not. It didn't matter if I liked it, it had to be done. Somebody's got to do it and it's going to have to be you. So what I'm finding now is I still have to do a lot of things, but there's just enough people that the things I really do want to do I don't have to do anymore. I can say that I want to do this part of the pie, and it's still a big pie, but I can remove the a la mode if I don't want to eat ice cream today.

Jennifer Bonine: That's awesome. That's a great way to think of it though. Like so, you know, even if someone has maybe tried a startup or is thinking about trying startup, maybe even gauge what size you're comfortable with.

Melissa Benua: Yes. There's a very vast range of differences between, like, a Pre-Series A startup. When I first joined, it was a Pre-Series A, I'm not joking, about five engineers. I think there was even less than that for a while. Now we're at twenty-five or ... I'm not sure how many. A lot. We're at a lot more. And there are startups that are even bigger. I think technically Uber is still called a startup, but then, they're not small.

Jennifer Bonine: Right, exactly.

Melissa Benua: So it varies. A startup can mean a lot of things. It can mean a company with no money, or a company with a lot of venture money. It can mean big, it can mean tiny, it can mean really old sort of archaic practices, or really bleeding edge modern engineer practices. There's a really big range of what that can look like.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah. So maybe do your homework, a little bit of research as you're moving into that to see which one fits you, if that's something-

Melissa Benua: Yeah, do your homework and be prepared to try something new, because there's always room to try something new.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah. Wonderful. If people say, "Hey, I'm kind of intrigued and I want to know more." How do they find you?

Melissa Benua: You can find me on LinkedIn. I'm on Twitter, my Twitter handle is @QueenOfCode.

Jennifer Bonine: I love it. Queen of code.

Melissa Benua: I still feel a little odd every time I say that.

Jennifer Bonine: That's so cute.

Melissa Benua: But that's my Twitter name. I also have kind of a baby blog up at, because nobody owned either one of those things, which is a problem of women in computing. How could I buy that so recently?

Jennifer Bonine: I know, right? Exactly.

Melissa Benua: How could it be?

Jennifer Bonine: That's amazing, though. So you will find her at QueenOfCode. Thanks, Melissa, so much.

Melissa Benua: Thank you. So great to see you.

Melissa BenuaMelissa Benua has worked in nearly every software development role—dev, test, DevOps, and program management—at companies big and small. She's created and run high-availability, high-quality services on products such as mParticle, PlayFab, Bing, Cortana, and Xbox One. Melissa discovered her love of massively-scaled systems while growing the Bing backend, where she honed the art of keeping highly-available complex systems up while undergoing massive code churn. Melissa isn’t afraid to mix traditional approaches with bold new ideas to make her products better, faster, and more reliable. She’s passionate not only about maximizing efficiency both in her product code and in her developer tools but also about sharing best practices among colleagues and the tech world at large.

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