As companies begin to revise and implement IT projects put on hold during the economic downturn, software testing companies and consultants have seen an increase in demand for their niche services.
However, some report they are struggling to keep up with increased demand, and have begun looking to overseas markets to to bring in more skilled testers.
"What we're seeing is an increased demand from 'non-traditional' industries like retail, manufacturing, mining," PlanIT General Manager Sheona Devin told Computerworld Australia. "There's a market maturity as more verticals realise how important their IT systems are to their ongoing operations."
Traditional verticals - such as banking, finance, insurance and telecommunications - are also picking up where they left off.
"During the GFC [global financial crisis], testing was pared back to BAU [business as usual] and core systems," Devin said. "Now with people jumping on board the recovery there's a lot more emphasis on the value-added services and systems that companies can provide to their customers."
Mark Pearce, the chief operating officer of PlanIT's competitor K.J. Ross, agrees.
"I would describe Australia as being on average three years behind the UK in terms of the maturity of the market," Pearce said. "The market's starting to emerge more where people are aware of [software testing] and they are more willing to outsource to people such as ourselves."
While many regular and potential clients naturally pulled back from software testing during the economic downturn, both companies managed to retain the majority of their workforce.
"We made it pretty much through last year unscathed," Pearce said about K.J. Ross. "We had natural attrition which you would expect... but we didn't really have to take too much drastic action. Like any company we looked to tighten our belts, we looked for any cost savings in the overheads that we could move out of the business, and we're always looking to make sure we have the top-shelf staff that are performing. If they're not, then you lose those sort of resources."
PlanIT made a strategic decision to maintain what it called a bench, or a reserve list of staff
"Because we knew how difficult it was to find these people in the first place and we didn't want to let them go, and have to just redo it now as some companies are having to do," Devin said.
Though Devin didn't disclose how many PlanIT's employees were on the bench during that time, it seems all hands are currently on deck.
We would prefer to be employing wholly from Australia but you can't wiggle your nose like 'I Dream of Jeanie' and conjure up a software tester.
The recent increase in software testing demand has forced PlanIT to employ an additional 31 people since January, with 27 more vacancies in the foreseeable future. Similarly, K.J. Ross is looking to hire an additional 40 or so staff across 2010, as it looks to implement "aggressive plans" in new verticals like health, and increase pressure in geographical markets like Sydney.
According to Pearce, Sydney will be a big market. "Whether we're taking market share from others, I don't know - I suspect so."
Though some financial experts are warning of a potential double dip in the global economy, the software testing industry is yet to see any sign of reluctance from clients.
"This initial spike we've got at the moment will probably slow down," Devin said, "but the momentum will still carry through."
According to Devin, Australia is currently one of the strongest markets for software testing. "The markets in the UK are still a little lackluster which is good for us," she said.
However, both Devin and Pearce noted that the number of skilled testers available for hire is dwindling in the Australian market.
"At the general level, because of the certification scheme, they are certified to foundation level," Devin said, "but less than 10 per cent have taken on board the practitioner level, and that's where you get people who can demonstrate the skills for test management and automation. There's a very distinct set of criteria."
While Pearce says he is able to employ good candidates from Melbourne and poach skilled testers from competitors in Sydney, the relatively small population of Brisbane and the after-effects of the Gershon Report in Canberra have limited his choices.
"It really depends on the resources as well," Pearce said. "The higher-end performance resources tend to stay contract because they can stay 100 percent employed if they wish, so it's difficult to hire those guys full time."
PlanIT regularly reskill workers who have come out of other IT fields or even other industries altogether, allowing the software testing company to build a new wave of foundation-level testers. Similarly, Pearce said that K.J. Ross looks to university graduates to skill up and certify for general software testing.
Both companies offer a variety of beginner and advanced software testing certification courses through either the British Computer Society (BCS) or International Institute for Software Testing (IIST). While they have the ability to educate employees at the higher level of practice, the increased demand from clients means they need specially skilled testers now, not later.
Devin blames the lack of employees on the industry being "unsexy". However, she said it was a job that has to be done, as the elevated costs of fixing a potential software problem during implementation outweighed the time saved without testing the systems first.
PlanIT solely hires full-time staff rather than contractors; an employment practice which necessitated the bench during the financial crisis. K.J. Ross, on the other hand, works on a 80 per cent to 20 per cent mix of full-time employees and contractors respectively.
"If a client asks us to do a full service offering which includes a manual testing type role, then we tend to go to contractors for that," Pearce said. "They come from our virtual pool of people that we like, have vetted, they know our culture, those sort of resources. Maybe the ones you don't want to necessarily keep on your books, those specialist skills that aren't on demand throughout the year."
However, both agree that the local pool is getting smaller for full-time specialised tester.
"The general consensus is we have to go offshore to bring in some of the more high calibre candidates," Pearce said.
Of the 31 employees Devin has added to PlanIT's workforce so far this year, two have been from New Zealand and three from the United Kingdom. Pearce said K.J. Ross has looked to both locations, but also head-hunted in South Africa.
While Devin and Pearce hope to keep the job pool Australian, the required skill sets mean it isn't always possible.
"We very much work on a meritocracy and that goes into our employment practices as well," Pearce said about employment at K.J. Ross. "It's who's the best person for the job and who fits into our company culture that's number one. It's always preferrable to hire resources if I can find them in Australia but, if I can't, I'll do whatever I need to do to bring them in."
"We would prefer to be employing wholly from Australia but you can't wiggle your nose like 'I Dream of Jeanie' and conjure up a software tester," Devin said.