Commoditization: Three Scenarios

In the previous post, I introduced the commoditization of testing. This trend devalues the skill of the tester, and has far-reaching consequences for software development as a whole.

How might this play out? What might the future hold for testers?

Here are three possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: Runaway Devaluation

The feedback loop driving commoditization continues at full bore, and having claimed the enterprise the infection spreads to software vendors. Gradually, the public becomes inured to failure, with many vendors seeing low software quality as a viable business model.

Testing failures occur regularly, but few executives connect this with diminishing skills. Testing is simply another problem to offload to third parties, and if that fails, to a different testing service provider. Meanwhile, the myth that testing is checking continues to ride high. With continued developments in model based testing and test driven development, many conclude that “the testing problem” has finally been solved by developers.

At the same time, growth in user testing and SME testing further erodes territory that formerly belonged to the tester. Eventually, The International Institute of Business Analysts – who already claim “validation” as part of their body of knowledge – subsume any testing not performed by the developer or end user. Testers find themselves caught in a pincer from which there is no escape. In one form or another testing might live on, but testing as a profession is dead.

Scenario 2: Islands of Hope

The commoditization effect continues unabated, largely conquering the enterprise. Whilst this also spreads to software vendors, some see quality as a means to differentiate themselves in a marketplace largely defined by buggy software and long waits in the IVR-hell of technical support.

Silver bullets come and go, each long on promise and short on delivery: none can resolve “the testing problem”. Whilst successful software development is best served by skilled people working together, that answer is too hard for most: many executives reach to standards and process compliance in the hope of a solution. This only accelerates the decline of tester skills.

However, a scattered handful of executives recognize this problem. Perhaps they were testers themselves, have been fortunate enough to work with skilled testers, or simply see things clearly. These individuals cluster, seeking the company of the like minded, gravitating to those organizations that differentiate themselves on quality. In this way a market niche is born, one in which a small number of skilled testers not only survive, but thrive.

Scenario 3: Generational Change

The commoditization of testing continues for years, driven by a generation of IT managers who never witnessed the power of skilled testing.

The ranks of unskilled testers swell. Lacking a demand for skill, few employers are interested in their development. Yet this cannot suppress the human appetite to learn; many testers turn to the Internet in order to develop themselves, and the Internet is owned by the passionate.

Online coaching and training – much of it voluntary – flourishes. Soon, supply outgrows the diminishing demand for skill. Many testers drop out of testing rather than serve as commodity checkers. Some leave the industry altogether, many become developers or project managers. As demographics works its magic, those who believe in a better way find themselves in executive roles. They demand testers with skill; they demand that testing be at the heart of software development. The feedback loop driving commoditization slows and finally reverses as a paradigm shift begins to take hold.

I don’t have a crystal ball, and these scenarios have no real predictive power. However, through the exploration of scenarios such as these, we can gain insights as to how to navigate the future – both as individuals and as a craft. I invite you to add your own.


7 thoughts on “Commoditization: Three Scenarios”

  1. The thing is Iain – even software testing as a skill will evolve somewaht along the lines of the diffusion of innovation (

    In essence: todays innovation becomes tomorrows commodity (

    What can go cheaper, faster … will go cheaper and faster – by you or by someone else. it’s a matter of picking your battles – and deliver where you can add value worth your salary.

    1. Jesper,

      How can something that is, and need be, different in each instance (i.e. on context) become undifferentiated?

      Even if that were possible, even if we were to take the diffusion of innovations as a model, that is not the commoditization of today. We are not witnessing the diffusion of skills and approaches, but their devaluation. Perhaps there is a scenario where testing skill has become so widespread that it could be considered a commodity, but that is distinct from the scenarios that I have described.

      1. some testing is already commodities. Pick any large scale IT vendor, and they will offer it. The Taylor business of cool-cash and bean counting, go that way – others another.

        Seth Godin says: If you’re the average person out there doing average work, there’s going to be someone else out there doing the exact same thing as you, but cheaper.

        Horses4Sources says: Cost is no longer the differentiator

        1. And Kermit says: it’s not easy being green. 😛

          But quoting aside, it seems to me that:
          1) you argue that commoditization is inevitable becuase that is the way of things, and I may not disagree.
          2) you argue that the commoditization that we see in testing today is inevitable because that is the way of things, whereas I would argue that it is an inevitable consequence of the confusion of checking/testing and a misperception that testing requires little skill.

          Is that a fair summary?

  2. Thank you for sharing this post. I agree with you that Testing is simply another problem to offload to third parties, and if that fails, to a different testing service provider. With latest trend most companies are proactively going after QA testing companies.

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