How Rabbie Burns Helped Me Become a Tech Girl

WiTIn software testing, we often speak about a Happy Path – where ‘good’ input yields an expected result (or, in other words, when a program behaves itself). In life, we apply the same logic to our careers: we input hard work and passion, and we expect to yield a successful career in our chosen field. But in testing and in life, expectations and reality often differ.

It’s an obvious analogy, but a useful one.

I thought I had my Happy Path down pat.

Input: Complete PhD (Scottish Literature, if you’re interested).

Expected result: Gain thrilling editorial job with successful indie publisher, live out days in heady, clichéd montage of stacked manuscripts, skewed glasses and cups of tea.

Actual result? Well, these days my LinkedIn profile identifies me as a member of the Chartered Institute for IT and a Software Test Analyst. I’m learning Java and Python and know enough about SQL to make bad jokes using its functions as punchlines. That’s a big fat deviation and a half.


Not right. In fact, arts graduates are becoming something of a hot commodity in the tech industry. Over the past three years or so, articles and blogs have argued with increasing fecundity on the value non-IT/Computing candidates could and should be assigned during the tech hiring process. Just this week, author J Bradford Hipps told New York Times readers that to write good code, one ought to study Virginia Woolf. That’s not to suggest Mrs Dalloway offers some sort of specific insight into Java proficiency. Replace Woolf with Proust, Balzac, du Maurier, Bulgakov or Shelley – or in my case, Spark, Burns, Henryson, any writer, really – and the truism remains: software development (which includes testing) is a highly creative endeavour. And where development meets creativity, so too does literary analysis meet algorithmic patterns. As a literature student, I spent ten years deconstructing thousands of lines of poetry, mapping recurring motifs, analysing metrical patterns and interpreting codes: for indeed, make no mistake – allegory and allusion, metafiction and paratextual reference are codes to be learned, just as one learns C# or Ruby.

When I then became a freelance editor after my studies, I analysed thousands of lines of text for errors, and had an eye at all times on structure, plot integration and reader experience. In the testing world, that’s System Testing, System Integration Testing, User Acceptance Testing, even Unit Testing.

Being able to plan and complete a 100,000-word thesis for examiners has prepared me for planning, designing and executing software test suites for clients. More importantly, I have learned how to read between the lines, to interpret meaning that wasn’t always clearly stated by the author.

In short, reading Rabbie Burns equipped me for my tech career.

In our office, one Test Analyst is a Cambridge Linguistics graduate. Another was a microbiologist with the NHS for twenty years before becoming a tester. Our technical writer is a former police officer. We are Hipps’ ‘lunatic fringe’, brought together by a manager who believes that problem solving is a creative rather than strictly logical exercise. Our vastly different career paths and backgrounds mean we operate on fresh ground, outside of the tech echo chamber, bringing alternative theories and approaches to the table.

I can state with certainty that arts graduates have a place in the tech world. My own journey there was a deviation from what I thought was my ‘happy’ career path. I still edit books on a freelance basis and I still consider myself a creative person. But it’s not a full-time career, at least not for me. By happy accident, I found an alternative career that utilises all those skills my literature degree gave me, challenges me to keep learning and has placed me at the centre of a constantly evolving industry with plenty of scope for personal development.

By day, I test software. By night, I ‘test’ books. It’s a new path, unexpected and exciting – and yes, a happy path.


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