It’s a story you’ve heard a hundred times: you come in on the ground floor as a waiter, progress into a kitchen as a cook and then, through hard work and perseverance, you work your way up to a QA Project Lead at EA.
As far as routes into games go, Nick Barrett’s is highly unconventional – and for a business as freewheeling and unpredictable as the games industry, that’s really saying something. Now the Founding Director of Edinburgh-based software testing house Proper QA, Barrett found his way into the upper echelons of one of gaming’s biggest organisations almost by accident. In his My Journey interview, he explained that his friend had been offered a catering contract with a new company in town called “Electronic Arts”. Not being a gamer himself, the friend phoned up Barrett to ask if he’d heard of them. “I said yes, I know who EA are,” he laughed.
Out of the Frying Pan
When the contract came through, his friend asked Barrett – who was working in pubs and restaurants as a cook – to join him as an in-house caterer at EA’s new state of the art headquarters in Surrey. “My role was something called a theatre chef,” he said, “which is sort of like a cocktail barman except [you’re] on a little cooking station in a meeting room cooking for the brass and the higher-ups and managers.”
Barrett soon found himself privy to some of the highest level decision making meetings in the industry. “I’m just standing in the corner making omelettes for them, trying to remain silent and pretending that I’m not listening!” he joked. “The figures and the numbers that these folks were talking about were just fantastical to my ears.” Before long he’d become loose friends with the likes of David Gardner, the head of EA Europe at the time, and eventually he worked up the courage to ask how he could get in on the action. “I thought it was a joke when the response to my query was ‘well you can come and become a tester if you like’,” he said. “It didn’t take long for me to whip off my apron and say ‘right, I’m in!’”
“I don’t think the exact same scenario would have happened nowadays,” Barrett admits. “I would have needed more technical knowledge and a little bit more of the specific skills that lead to becoming a QA tester.” However, Barrett believes it was his proven work ethic and strong problem solving skills that got him through the interview and into the role, despite his lack of computer expertise.
Barrett found QA testing to be “a fabulous, good fun, engaging role to be in” and quickly found he was quite good at it, particularly at getting the team working together on collaborative tasks. Within a year he rose to the position of senior tester and became responsible for more of the communication and organisation side of testing, tasked with collating the information gathered by his fellow testers and distributing duties between them.
From there he moved up to team lead and finally project lead, in which role he spent his last of his seven years with the company. With little scope to progress further within EA, Barrett left to find other opportunities, the first of which was at Scottish developer Real Time Worlds. There he built a team of more than 140 dedicated QA staff to work on the David Jones-led MMO APB: All Points Bulletin. The team bucked what was standard practice for QA at the time by having testers embedded within the various different disciplines and involved in the project from the early stages of development.
After APB, Barrett founded his own specialised QA company called Proper QA, which will soon celebrate its tenth birthday. The company tests games and software across a huge range of platforms and has worked with the likes of Channel 4, Hyper Luminal Games and Chunk.
In the two decades he’s been in the business, Barrett believes QA has modernised and evolved, but he also thinks that the core tenets of the discipline have stayed the same. Nowadays the standard QA lifecycle on a project looks more like what it did on APB, with the QA department brought in much earlier and involved more thoroughly in development than it was 20 years ago. However, the practice of finding bugs, documenting them and compiling efficient reports is the same as it ever was. All the leaps in technology have done is increase the scope of a tester’s work.
As for getting an entry level QA role today, Barrett says it’s “obviously an advantage” to have some kind of games development qualification or experience on your CV. That said, it’s not a necessity. “As long as there is a cross-over skill, that’s the important thing,” he says. “The discipline of QA is about a problem solving mindset and working collaboratively with others and being diligent”.
So how do you go about demonstrating those kinds of things? Barrett’s main tip is to volunteer for some open beta tests. “If you can get involved in a beta and you can help find a bug, when you get through to the interview phase or even in your application, mention that,” he says. “Say ‘I participated in these beta tests and these were the things that I discovered’.” In fact, he believes being able to show that kind of experience would stand out more than having a qualification.
Barrett thinks game jams are a good place to start too. From a hiring manager’s point of view, he says game jam experiences suggest the candidate “has a strong interest because they’ve given up their time and they’ve hopefully got to the end and participated – and that’s fantastic.”
He adds, however, that “if it was a choice between that and a candidate who’d participated in a load of open beta testing programmes”, the beta tester would be who he picked first.
People often think of QA as a kind of stepping stone to other roles within the industry, and while Barrett agrees that QA is a fantastic way to make face-to-face contacts with developers and see how they work first hand, QA is also a viable and fulfilling career in its own right.
“For me, it was always QA. I just absolutely fell in love with what we were doing – problem solving and taking complex things and breaking them down into simpler tests, and then smashing them to pieces and smiling and presenting our handiwork to people and saying ‘look here’s this thing you made we’ve broken it in novel and inventive ways!’”
Finally, Barrett addressed the notion of people volunteering to work for free as a means to break into the industry. Though you might feel like there’s no other options available to you if you’re applying and receiving no responses, he says a better response is to apply to the same companies again. “Two or three applications isn’t a bad thing,” he says. If a person applies again, that raises a little mental flag in HR managers heads that’ll pop up again next time they’re hiring.
As for CVs, make them succinct, he says. “Don’t write a five page CV.”
A Tester is You
So, whether you’re a graduate looking for some hands-on industry experience to help decide what’s next or you’re a natural problem solver who loves breaking things to learn what makes them tick, QA could be the right role for you. And as Barrett’s journey attests, it’s a varied and fulfilling discipline that can open up all sorts of opportunities.
Just as his route into QA wasn’t what you call routine, Barrett finds that even twenty years into his career, QA is anything but boring or predictable. “Now that we’re all working from home, part of my role is now a motorcycle courier taking various bits of equipment and devices between all the testers houses,” he reveals. “It’s fantastic fun!”