SDET is an interesting job. Years ago, Microsoft had two types of test engineers: STE or Software Test Engineer and SDET or Software Design Engineer in Test. At some point, test leadership decided that all testers at Microsoft should be SDETs and folks in the STE position were either converted to SDET or were “encouraged” to leave the company. Now, all we have (at least to my visibility) are SDETs. Test automation is an expectation in almost every group that I know of in Microsoft. In most groups, though, it’s not mandated that the only testing work we do is automation but because of the position and the developer-centric culture there are groups that aspire to 100% of all tests automated. In groups that I’ve been in, we don’t have that mandate and I think it’s difficult to be an effective tester if you can’t also do other types of testing (exploratory testing, app building).
I’ve always encouraged people on my team to put “hands on the product” but recently I’ve started scheduling time for the whole team to do it. I think it’s been quite positive that we’ve started to do this. It prevents more than a week from going by without doing at least some sapient testing.