Monday, 19 December 2016

Which languages are best to learn for testing?


I’ve seen this question raised quite a lot in testing circles regarding which programming language is best to learn. Like it or not, the current trend in the industry seems to be asking much more of testers, with a view to creating more automation and having a much greater understanding of the technology they are testing.

Why learn a programming language?

What is your motivation for wanting to learn a programming language? In order to test well, you don’t need to know any programming language. There are very particular situations or contexts where programming may be useful to me as a tester, such as wanting to write some automated checks, learn more about what the product I’m testing is actually doing under the surface or simply wanting to save time by creating tools to help myself. However, these situations don’t arise all of the time.
It’s also worth highlighting that to write programs, I need to understand a lot about the domain I’m working with. If I want to write an automated check, I need to test the product first to understand what is worth checking. If I want to read some code, I need to understand the context that code is used for, what its purpose is.
So even if I did have something that is worth programming, I still need to “test” to identify it, understand it and consider whether it is worth it. Simply learning to program is not enough, which is why as a tester you can bring a lot to the design of automated checks and why developers cannot easily test the product themselves.

Automated checks

So it seems the usual reason testers are looking to learn a programming language is to create automated regression suites for speed and reliability. Typically I find the advice tends to be that you should learn and use the same language as your back-end developers (so if they use Java to build the product you test and Java to write unit tests, then you should learn Java too). The argument being that by using the same language, you can access their support and help more easily when you need it. However, this depends upon your current relationship with your developers and their location. Perhaps you may not be very close to your developers and won’t benefit from their support - this may not be something you can easily change.
You are going to have judge for yourself which language, but the biggest factors that affect my choice would be:
  • How comfortable am I writing code in this language?
  • What support can I get from the developers I work with?
  • What support can I get from other testers?
  • How well supported is the language in terms of libraries or capabilities? (for example, if you want to write Selenium checks, is there documentation on how to use Selenium in that language?).
  • Can I write programs in this language in a way that makes them easily understood by other people?
There is no easy answer to these questions so I wouldn’t recommend any particular language. However, to help narrow your research, I would suggest focusing on these languages to consider:
  • Java
  • C#
  • Python
  • Ruby
  • Javascript
At the time of writing, these are some of the more popular languages to learn with regards to automated checks.


Maybe you’re interested in simply being able to make use of a programming language to create your own tools. A “tool” in this context can be something small like a script that rapidly repeats a certain action over and over. For example, I once created a script that compared two sets of 100 invoices with each other. It looked at each invoice total and compared the old total with a new one and saved the difference in a text file. This meant I could rapidly compare and identify obvious errors, saving my own time and helping me perform this particular action more accurately. However, it didn’t replace the testing I performed, it simply augmented it, allowing me to focus on more interesting tests.

I created tools like this in a programming language called Python. I personally love using this language because it’s very easy to read, has a lot of support in terms of libraries and documentation and can allow you to experiment with ideas very rapidly. I very much recommend Python as a starting point for building simple tools and it can be used to write automated checks if you so wish.

There’s a great tutorial on getting started with Python here.

Alternatives to programming

Do you want to become a more technically capable tester? Not really keen on learning a programming language but feel like you need to learn? Well perhaps you can find value in learning other technologies and concepts. While programming is a very powerful tool, it’s not the only one that a tester can learn in order to become more technically capable.
  • Test lower - maybe you could understand more about the technologies powering the product you’re testing and test lower and earlier? For example, many web services are built upon APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), perhaps you could learn how to test these? A place to start interacting with APIs is trying out Postman.
  • A similar approach to testing lower is learning about databases and how to operate them using languages such as MySQL or Postgres.
  • Research tools that can help you test or provide more information. For example, Google Chrome DevTools have lots of very useful tools for interacting with websites and debugging problems or emulating mobile devices.
  • Talk to developers! Ask them to draw diagrams explaining how the product works technically and ask them explain things you don’t understand. It can be difficult at first knowing what is important to remember and what can be forgotten but simply taking an interest in their work and asking questions can even help them understand their own work better. I find there is no better test of my own understanding than having to explain myself!


  • You don’t need to learn a programming language to be a great tester.
  • There is no one particular language that is “the best”, but there are some popular ones that are good to get started with.
  • There are other ways to become a more technical tester that don’t involve learning programming.

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