In my last post, I went on for a bit about how careers for video game QA entry-level positions were currently laughable. It's unfortunate, but true given the current state of the industry.
Are there long-term solutions to the problems facing entry-level QA? I'm unsure on this one. The industry is still evolving, and QA in the games industry is currently seen where QA in the application-development industry was seen about fifteen years ago. It's seen a cost to be minimized. That said, I think that the value in QA will definitely increase in about three to five years...it's just a matter of do you really want to hang out making $8-12 an hour for three to five years waiting for it to be better?
Companies can help make things easier on QA as well as position themselves for a jumpstart as they move down the road doing just a few simple things. It may not seem like much, but it is a start.
First, tier your QA department. Most QA departments have three levels...manager, lead and tester. For projects with one or two projects, this is all you really need. If your company has more than two projects, though, consider tiering as a way of not only making management easier, but as a way of rewarding people who perform.
A tester who has been through a full project and proven himself could be promoted to a senior tester, then to a test lead, then to a senior test lead, then to a manager. It may seem silly to have the extra ranks around, but ranks and tiers are a very visible way to measure progress inside a department where progress is generally capped at the management level.
Second, move to shifts. Just as programmers make mistakes when they've been coding for more than eight hours and generate more work for themselves and others, QA techs make mistakes when they've been testing for more than eight hours. If you have to have overtime, don't let someone work more than ten hours a day, and never more than 50 hours in a week. The burnout isn't worth it, and you aren't buying as much extra testing with those overtime hours as you might think.
Third, management in QA needs to have started in QA and worked their way up through QA. Never hire someone new into a lead capacity or management capacity unless they have a games QA background. Games QA is unique enough that people need to know that they're working for people who have been in the trenches and fought the same battles that they are facing day-to-day.
Fourth, management needs to be testing as well. Even if as QA manager, you're only getting in five to six bugs a week, it still shows that you are doing the work and walking the walk. Plus it gives a really good set of datapoints for when you're dealing with problem cases. "Dude, what's wrong with you? You didn't even get in as many bugs as the QA maanger, and he only tested for an hour last week..."
Fifth, set aside some time for unorthodox testing and activities. Do things like Tuesday and Thursday afternoons are for buddy-testing, or Friday afternoons are game days. Team building exercises help your testers feel like they are part of a family and reduce turnover.
Finally, have a one-on-one meeting with each tester behind a closed door at least once a week. Give them a chance to tell youa bout any problems they are experiencing, let them talk about their career plans, ask them how their dog is doing, etc. The important thing is to listen. You don't have to talk, just give them a chance to vent some steam. If they bring up concerns, note them, look into them, and bring them up next meeting. Your people will take care of you if you take care of them.
These are simple items, but they can help retain your staff during the next few years of futility. If you can reduce turnover, you'll have an experienced staff ready to battle the forces of evil defects at a moment's notice. Just imagine how much more effective they'll be when you're able to start paying them what they're really worth...