An Explorer Inspired by a Buccaneer

On October 12, 2011, in Articles, News, Newsletter, by marketing

This article is a little different. I’d like to share a more personal, real-life experience about how I left my regular testing job for more freedom, experience, autonomy – and less pay – at least for the time being. If you’ve ever considered leaving your day job to become a full-time freelancer, then this article may be for you.

Playing the Hand I was Dealt

I knew things needed to change quickly for me after Venture Capitalists took over the last company I was working for, especially after we adopted Agile. There was no real implementation of Agile by management and we were still running 3-week Waterfall iterations.

Even before the company was bought, testers had never really been well thought of by management (I believe they did not care for the concept of testing in general) and things escalated with new ownership – they were just keen to ship the product out.  In addition I had begun to feel stagnant in my position. Work was the same day in and out, and I was not growing professionally.

This was a peculiar environment where I received the worst professional insult from a manager, “Even monkeys can test”, and a roundabout best compliment from a great programmer “When you test my work, it is like a plague of locusts coming”. Compounded by overall lamentable management and working conditions, it was time for a change. (Yes, I did try to better this from within.  That unfortunately did not work out).

While dealing with all this at work I did not really have a chance to soul search professionally. I had to consider that I had a great paying job as a Sr. Tester working on Federal, International and Private Sector contracts.  For that matter, I didn’t even have a backup plan, so quitting would mean going from a relatively comfortable income to practically none. If I did quit, what would my family think? How would we handle the drop in income? Towards the end I was having issues with anxiety and becoming sick.

During this time I read James Bach’s Fall Schedule blog entry and saw that he would teach for food, so I contacted him and set up a dinner meeting for when he would be in my area along with my project manager and husband. You can read the details of this encounter on my blog at James inspired me to explore my potential, learn to think outside the box and to deal with uncertainty.

After that meeting I decided to improve my testing education. Among other things I have since

  • Taken the AST Foundations and Bug Advocacy courses
  • Been accepted into the Miagi-Do school of testing, in which I am now a black-belt
  • Begun a blog
  • Networked at local conferences
  • Attended the CAST 2011 and QAI Quest 2011 conferences

I now continuously try to educate myself in testing and related fields. I have to thank James for the ‘wakeup call’ and showing me the possibilities available for testers, and for my husband who supported me from the beginning. My project manager, well, let’s just say things eventually did not end well with him.

Free Time Turns into Freelancing

My first big realization about software testing was my ignorance – I did not know what I needed to know.  Figuring that out is not easy.  For example, I came to realize that I needed to broaden my experience – to test on a variety of systems, or at least to gain knowledge of how to test them.  How can anyone accomplish this with a full-time job and family? I also found that these sayings apply to what I was going through: ‘Where Thoughts Go, Energy Flows’ and ‘Reality Exists Only Where We Create Focus’.

I read many blogs and talked with many people in IT and this lead me to discover I actually have to thank James for this as I signed up with uTest after reading his blog post “Testing the Limits with James Bach”. I knew nothing about crowdsourcing at the time but what really attracted me to the company was mobile testing. As of this writing I have participated in testing over 150 products with uTest;  more than half of which have been for either Android or iOS mobile apps. You can start learning about the process and what’s involved here:

I received my first project invite late in the evening about two weeks after I signed up with uTest. It was a web-based order processing & shopping cart system. It was not complicated but it needed to be tested in different browsers and Windows platforms. Ten minutes into testing I found my first bug in IE8 – the web page failed to initialize. My bug was approved and I earned a rating. It was late in the evening and I decided that I would continue the next day.

As I checked the uTest platform the next morning I noticed that about twenty new bugs had been filed. I remember skimming through all of them. A few of bugs were rejected and the customer provided their explanation. I saw that some testers had bronze, silver and gold badges and some had stars on their profiles.

I became more curious about how the system works. For example, how you earn a ‘badge?’ I read that the top testers can earn a gold, silver or bronze badge based on their performance and participation activity. The breakdown is that

  • Gold represents the top 5% of rated testers in the community
  • Silver represents the next 7%
  • Bronze represents the next 8%
  • A Star indicates a Favorite Tester badge designated by the customer

This was all very interesting. I had never really believed in certifications, but here I had found a credential earned by actually testing real applications in a fast-paced, competitive environment with real-world challenges and many unknowns. I was amazed by the new discovery.

My Initial Experiences Freelancing with uTest

I rolled up my sleeves and started working at uTest in my spare time. Often the bugs that I encountered were already filed, and I was disappointed. One of my early bug reports related to an image rendering issue was rejected. I provided additional details and clarification, and then it was approved. This was amazing. I ended up submitting 7 bugs and a test case. They all were approved. I did not earn much but I felt so good! I was providing feedback, the customer did not discount it and I was rewarded. In his book James Bach says that new industries are perfect for buccaneer minds. I was not sure whether I was a buccaneer or not but this was very new and good for my mind.

Soon I was invited to participate in a load test effort with over 200 other participants, a few web projects and my first Android mobile test projects. Then the 4th Quarter Bug Battle contest began and I was thrilled to be able to test and two other e-commerce marketplaces. The lack of sleep and dark circles under my eyes did not bother me. I was having a blast. This was such a great learning resource!

To help present my findings to the customers I picked up the trick of creating videos of repro steps using Jing and CamStudio. Both tools are free. I made a habit of reading other testers’ bug reports and then attempting to reproduce them by following their steps. I was learning how to communicate via project threads, Skype and Google Talk with other uTesters, projects managers and sometimes customers.

It is not easy to be successful at uTest. It is time-consuming and very competitive. A fair part of winning a bug hunt is being first to the race, and because of my regular job it was hard for me to start working on new projects. By the time I jumped in the most obvious bugs were often submitted by others. Duplicates, poorly written and inflated bug reports were rejected. (I am not perfect either and I have submitted a few such reports myself.) I still log bugs that become labeled by the customer as ‘as designed’ or ‘out of scope’ — but sometimes those “unsolicited insights” can be the most appreciated.

I also learned to carefully review project scope and content, provided documents and known bug lists and to figure out testing missions and objectives the best I can and as quickly as I can. I ran into some people whom I call ‘hit and run’ testers, and also some amazing testing professionals. About three weeks after I started testing there, I was awarded a bronze badge, which made me very happy.

Once testers meet certain criteria and start earning badges and other recognition awards, the work becomes more stable, consistent, interesting and more complex. There is one restriction – you have to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements for each project. But I can say it’s not just “” types who make use of this service. Some very respectable, world-famous and successful companies turn to uTest for help. Some testing efforts are ongoing and iterative, others are platform\test type specific (i.e. usability, performance, etc.) and then there are some last minute emergencies. uTest is not just for functional/exploratory testers anymore – but also usability, security, test automation, and localization experts just to name a few.

As the projects developed into more interesting work I became obsessed with uTest. There were days that I could hardly wait to check my email for more test cycle invites. I loved having a variety of projects and experiences. Plus the work felt much more fulfilling than working on a single application day after day. It was like being in a candy store or ice-cream pallor for me.

There was a combination of features that drew me to uTest. These included:

  • You decide which project(s) to select and manage your workload
  • You decide how to schedule your time
  • You contribute to a like-minded community and are mentored by others
  • You earn real-world credentials, reputation, and recognition
  • You network and can make friendships
  • You are exposed to a wide variety of skills, trends, tools, thoughts and ideas that help deepen your interest and passion for the craft and
  • You can work anywhere

“You” is prevalent because no one else will do it for you.

During a recent family trip to the beach I worked from the car. While my husband drove I just plugged my laptop in the 12v outlet, turned on a mobile hotspot device and ‘tested away’. There is also the instant recognition which may not be as important to some but I appreciate it. When project managers and customers thanked me for good work, when am designated a favorite tester, receive a bonus or even a compliment from a fellow uTester — these were things that had been missing at my old workplace. I now felt useful, needed and valued. I could see that I was making a difference in helping move these apps to production. The difference in treatment gave a boost to my battered confidence and more faith in my abilities. I had no idea that this was so important to me, or that I was missing it. Once I realized that this was the case, it became difficult for me to think about the next work day, back at the office, where all this would be sorely missed indeed.

I received an email about my uTest Gold badge while I was working on the BBST Foundations course final exam in February 2011. A few days later I received the news that I passed the course. I was elated! ‘Foundations’ was the hardest course I have ever taken and passing it was a huge accomplishment. By coincidence I had my annual performance review at my regular job where I was praised for exceptional work and told that people on the project noticed how many good issues I found in the last few months. At the time I did not have the heart to tell my manager that I was testing a total of 10-15 hours a day, with uTest before and after work, at my regular job during the day, and on weekends. I was exhausted and drained but had not felt so motivated about testing in a long time.

Decision Time

I’d rather have a life of ‘oh wells’ than a life of ‘what ifs’” (note on Facebook)

While my regular job situation was deteriorating and my interest and understanding of the potential of uTest increased, I had to make a decision. I would surrender perceived security and a well-paying job. But I would also lift a huge weight off of my shoulders as I had been increasingly frustrated, upset, anxious and physically sick due to my situation there near the end. I had to make a decision soon.

I was not making much at uTest while working part-time. I did the math and I knew that if I quit I would take a big hit and probably lose 40-50% of my old income with no benefits in the first few months. I hoped to eventually build it up to 60-70% of my old income. At uTest pay-per-hour can be low depending on the project, and income varies from week to week. In order to start building the income back up I needed to make a huge extra effort. I was already working on a couple of special projects that required weekly testing of multiple builds plus test scripts that were reused by customers. My goal was to be a part of more projects, continue learning about mobile testing, network and look for more opportunities.

Quite a few people discount uTest and other similar business models, including colleagues in AST. On the surface it looks strictly like a pay-per-bug shop where customers supposedly know little about testers other than what’s listed in their uTest and LinkedIn profiles. When I talked to a couple of my friends about my plans they thought I was crazy. They said that I am a serious tester and why do I want to be associated with crowdsourcing and pay-per-bug business model? I truly am serious about the craft and professional development. However, as an insider I can see how the model is constantly reinventing itself and adapting to the changing demands in of the industry. I feel and live through the growing pains of this start-up community and learn together with them. I am constantly working on expanding my domain knowledge required by some projects and polishing up skills. Trust me in that it is not a walk in the park. It is very hard and intense work. Please also remember, at this point I am advocating this as a self-education tool to expand your experience. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you want to learn and how well you adapt.

And so with the support of my husband and son, I finally decided to set sail. Not quite in the sense of a buccaneer but an explorer/conqueror – similar but a little different. I have always liked consumer electronic gadgets and already had 3 types of PCs and mobile devices. I have since added an Android tablet and iPad2 to my tool box. Along with my Smartphones, web and PC-based work, I have been very busy. I feel that I can test almost anything now but will continue to specialize in this currently niche market segment.


I have been freelancing full-time for over five months now. I completed my first formal usability expert review and the customer was happy. I’ve tested quite a few cool mobile apps and bonded even more with my son when he provided his advice and expertise on some mobile game testing. I had a great Summer when I did not have to worry about taking time off for vacation, training or going to CAST 2011 in Seattle. It feels liberating.

I am not earning as much as previously yet, but I am saving very much on gas, commuter parking, daycare, etc. and have plenty of expenses that I can deduct off of my taxes. I hope after a year or so to reach my goal of making close to 65-70% of my former base salary. And if things don’t work out the way I planned there are always other options and opportunities. I am not worried about it. The way I feel is that as I continue building my knowledge and expertise and to add value in my field the work will follow.

For the time being I feel blessed with all the opportunities that have opened up for me and all the talented people I have met.

About Elena Houser:

Elena is a full-time freelance tester at uTest, before that she worked in the Federal, Telecommunications and General Aviation sectors. She is a black-belt in the Miagi-Do School and competed on the Miagi-Do team at the International Test Contest held during CAST 2011.

Elena has guest blogged for the following groups:


EuroSTAR – European Software Testing Conference:

You can contact Elena via her blog and follow her at the following links:



uTest Profile:



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11 Responses to An Explorer Inspired by a Buccaneer

  1. Mike says:

    Great article Elena!

  2. Rajesh mathur says:

    Nicely framed & structured advertisement of uTest. Wikipedia calls this kind of articles ‘blatant advertisement’.

    • marketing says:

      I appreciate the feedback but respectfully disagree. While I understand there are a lot of references to uTest it’s difficult to tell the story without them.

      To be honest this was one of my concerns when I reviewed it and chose to publish it. To be clear this isn’t a promotional tool or ad for uTest. This is an article submitted by one of our members, that shares a story I felt the community would appreciate.

    • John says:

      “Please also remember, at this point I am advocating this as a self-education tool to expand your experience.” Pay attention to the details fellow tester.

    • Elena Houser says:

      This is a personal story of my journey of self-discovery and learning in the last year or so.

      Neither AST nor uTest asked me or paid me to write this article. I anticipated that some people may not understand where I am coming from and leave negative feedback. That’s understandable. Everyone has his own unique story to tell. Having grown up and spent half of my life in Siberia where I did not have opportunities to pursue my dreams or try and learn different things, I genuinely appreciate opportunities that help me grow personally and professionally. I feel that meeting James Bach, taking BBST training courses and working with uTest projects have done it for me and helped me realize how much I love testing and learning. I feel that I have connected the dots.

      “…you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”~ Steve Jobs

  3. Lynn McKee says:

    Thanks for sharing Elena!

    Rajesh, I do not share your perspective although I can appreciate how one may read this article from that angle. I feel that Elena has shared her story of regaining a passion for the craft of software testing. I hope her story will inspire others to find alternate learning opportunities whether those be through broadening industry connections, blogging, testing opportunities such as uTest, or others. Our industry needs inspired and motivated individuals to continue to advance the craft.

  4. Amit Kulkarni says:

    Thanks Elena for sharing your side of story and I loved the narration too. 🙂

    I understand the context behind the post and it may possible that it will be misunderstood by some for some part. I kudos on sharing the stuff with us though.

    And oh yes I hope you do read my comment on your Android phone. 🙂

  5. Brandon Washington says:

    Your story is inspiring. We need more courageous people like you in all professions who are not afraid to take chances, expand their horizions and execute their plans. Kudos to your family for such great support.

  6. Hi Elena, great to hear that your freelancing seems to work out 🙂

    I remember you mentioning uTest when we did the Bug Advocacy course this summer but I never got around to chat about it. I signed up with uTest myself about a month ago and my first test cycle turned out to be super easy. Talk about a flying start!

    Right now I am doing the BBST Instructor Course and next month I will be doing the Test Design course so I am sorry to say I don’t have that much time for improving my uTest rating right now. But, it is really cool to read about your learning experience and it makes me look forward to having more time for this.
    Norway might be a bit too high cost place to live to go for uTest full time, but will be a good place to learn a lot for sure.

    Keep up the great work 🙂

  7. NYC Tester says:

    Hey Elena:

    Great job! Love the details about uTest.
    Keep up the great work, don’t let some off opinion slow you down.
    Some people just make strange off the shelf comments without having any facts.

    Hope to see more from you soon,
    NYC Tester

  8. Raed says:

    What a great article!! I have the same beginnings as you before, and that really inspired me, I appreciate your words and sharing your experience with us. Keep up the good work.

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