What do Quality Assurance and Air Traffic Control have in common?

"So, what similarities can you define between Quality Assurance and Air Traffic Control?" asked João Figueiredo, COO at Pixelmatters, during my final interview for the position of QA Engineer. Answering this question was straightforward for me. Since entering the Quality Assurance field, the similarities have become clear.

Following in my father's footsteps, I studied aviation and worked in this field for eight years, with five of those as an Air Traffic Controller in Ukraine. I always believed that I would continue my career in aviation, a specific domain I deeply understood. Besides, I had no idea what else I could do. However, I always dreamed of being able to work from anywhere in the world.

Thanks to a friend, I discovered the profession of QA Engineer and immediately dove in. Intrigued by the rigorous process of ensuring software quality, I embarked on a journey of continuous learning, acquiring skills in testing methodologies and quality assurance frameworks. This newfound passion not only sparked my curiosity, but also opened up a world of possibilities for a fulfilling career in tech.

In this article, let's explore my personal case to identify transferable soft skills that served me as a bridge from one career to another.

Accuracy and attention to detail

You can imagine that one cannot control the aircraft without accuracy and precision. To prevent collisions or have a possibility to change the aircraft level in case of severe turbulence, as an Air Traffic Controller I had to be concentrated and vigilant, monitor the air and weather situation, and have the capacity to notice, understand, and address minute aspects.

Becoming a QA Engineer, I committed myself to thoroughness and a meticulous approach in handling information and completing tasks accurately. In order to prevent software bugs, or detect them in the early stages of development, I should be able to focus on and thoroughly analyze requirements and testing scope, design test cases and test data, prepare the testing environment and test reports.

Awareness of the finer points, specifics, and nuances of the project helps me to be on the same page with my team and thus contribute to the overall success and quality of the project.

Problem-solving and creativity

Critical thinking and finding solutions are important skills in various domains, from engineering to everyday scenarios. In my case, I am unsure whether I have advanced my problem-solving abilities more during my years in aviation or during my five years as a parent to a high-energy child. 👀

What I am certain of is that the challenge of missing or changing requirements, which sometimes occurs in the tech industry, reminds me of guiding an aircraft through a thunderstorm over a mountainous area. You see, under normal weather conditions, aircraft follow their designated routes as per their flight plans, and rarely deviate from their course and estimated time of arrival. In such circumstances, the workflow is smooth and predictable.

However, during severe weather phenomena, the workload increases significantly, and a combination of critical thinking, creativity, analytical skills, and practical decision-making come into play.

In software development, if the requirements are well defined, analyzed, and reviewed at the beginning of a project, we create a test strategy or test plan. We then proactively work on test scenarios, make decisions on the types of testing, and plan for test automation.

Yet, in situations where requirements tend to change or are incrementally added, we need to quickly assess the impact of new requests on existing test cases and identify effective solutions. This may involve re-evaluating test cases, input data, and expected outcomes to align with the changes. At Pixelmatters, we prioritize client feedback and strive to understand and align with the evolving needs and expectations of end-users.

In both cases, the out-of-the-ordinary situations bring a touch of creativity and give that magical fulfilment from work, motivating to strive for excellence.

Adaptability and collaboration

“Your flight is delayed by 30 minutes” — we all hate this announcement. Well, except when we realize that we are at the wrong gate or even terminal, and these are precious minutes to enjoy some running. 😅 Have you ever wondered how pilots manage to land on time despite departing later than expected? When air traffic is not too congested, controllers kindly give shortcuts to pilots so they can optimize their flight paths and reach their destinations more efficiently.

As mentioned before, the software industry is highly susceptible to changing conditions. As a QA Engineer, I’m expected to be flexible and adapt to reallocate priorities, change action plans, or learn new testing methods to ensure the product meets the highest quality standards.

I remember a case when during the development of a web app, there was a limitation in the testing environment. To overcome this, André, a Full-stack Developer I was collaborating with, created a local testing environment for me. The condition was that André's computer needed to be switched on for me to have access. Both of us enhanced our adaptability and communication skills as we had to work synchronously.

Whether in Aviation or Development, it's all about sharing a 'technical language' for seamless collaboration.

Clear and precise communication

To save time and prevent ambiguity, air traffic controllers and pilots use short and informative phrases that adhere to worldwide standards. Let's use an example of an informative message for a pilot: "Traffic one o'clock B737 crossing right to left same level distance 10 miles." In plain English, this could be explained as: "Please be aware that there is another aircraft flying at the same altitude as you. The aircraft type is a Boeing 737. You will see it crossing your route from right to left. To avoid getting too close to the other aircraft, please maintain your current course and speed." See how effective a shorter message can be? Less is more.

Now, as a QA Engineer, I am integrating the skills of clear, consistent, and unambiguous communication into my daily routine. While software development may not be as time-sensitive as aviation domain, it is still important to prioritize effective communication, particularly when writing bug reports. Short and concise phrases allow stakeholders to quickly understand and work with the information provided.

Perhaps my reports may be seen as abrupt. However, I believe that conveying a message clearly and to the point, without unnecessary elaboration, helps me deliver information efficiently and directly. Time is a valuable resource.

Commitment to quality & safety

"Say Again" is, in my opinion, one of the most important and safety-enhancing phrases in aviation communication. It is used by Air Traffic Controllers or pilots when the message has to be repeated or clarified. Requesting repetition is a common practice and helps avoid misheard or misunderstood instructions. Unclear messages can lead to errors or confusion, which can potentially create unsafe situations.

When collaborating with the development team, product owners, and other stakeholders, I have the freedom to ask as many questions as needed to fully comprehend the requirements, testing scope, or any other specific details of the software product we are working on. My teammates and I believe that seeking confirmation or clarification is more efficient than making assumptions or trying to proceed with incomplete or unclear information. This approach also helps minimize the likelihood of errors and enhance the engagement to upholding standards of excellence.

Continuous learning and upskilling

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young” — this anti-aging tip shared by Henry Ford is great, isn’t it?

Air Traffic Controllers are expected to deal with a vast amount of information. This includes knowledge of standard procedures, operations manuals, and contingency plans, among other documents. Additionally, controllers are constantly learning on the job, whether it's updating and refining processes or acquiring new rules and procedures. Their knowledge level is regularly assessed through proficiency checks, recurrent training sessions, and aviation English exams.

Working in tech offers numerous opportunities for learning and expanding my knowledge. By exploring testing tools and frameworks, understanding business processes, and familiarizing myself with non-functional testing types such as accessibility or performance, I can enhance my skills and provide better support to the project team. Additionally, this allows me to identify opportunities for improvement and optimization.

Furthermore, Pixelmatters promotes a culture of growth, development, and knowledge sharing. This happens during our dedicated events such as Codematters or QAmatters, as well as organically on a daily basis. Sharing is caring, and learning is growth.

When two very different worlds share common ground. Maybe not so different after all?

Final reflection

Switching careers can be challenging and overwhelming. Sometimes, it's not clear where to start when boarding a new professional path.

While I didn't expect to find similarities between Air Traffic Control and any other profession, I discovered some unexpected common ground with QA Engineering. Although these two professions may seem like completely different ones, I’m glad that I can apply some of my past expertise to a new field.

Perhaps one day, I’ll have the opportunity to ensure the quality of aeronautical software, seamlessly combining my two areas of competence. ✈️ 🔍

Iryna Goncharuk
QA Engineer