Interview by Thomas Peham
July 9, 2015
Photos by Testbirds
Testing websites & apps using the crowd.
Philipp Benkler shares the story of founding Testbirds, a crowdtesting services.
Being a developer his whole life, Philipp started Testbirds right after he graduated from university. By going global with Testbirds, Philipp is now working on a new way making website testing super easy.
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Thanks a lot for your time, Philipp. Can you please describe yourself?
Sure. My name is Philipp. I'm one of the three founders of Testbirds and we do crowd- and software testing. We let the crowd find the bugs. At the moment, our crowd consists of 80,000 testers.
I'm currently leading the sales team and also the expansion into new countries within Europe.
Crowd testing seems like a super interesting concept. Can you share what crowd testing is about and how it works?
Sure. We started four years ago with crowd testing. It's a mixture of crowdsourcing and software testing. That means that you have a crowd which makes up our testing community. It consists of 80,000 people in different countries, and they test on their own devices.
How it actually works? People sign up to our platform and they fill out their profiles. That way we get to know them and we are able to filter target groups. They let us know what kind of devices they have, like tablets, smartphones, TVs, desktop, amongst other devices.
On the other hand, our clients come to us and say, “Hey, we want to make sure that our new mobile app works not only on iPhone and on Android, but on a huge variety of different devices in different countries.” We then start a crowdtesting project, and we basically invite the crowd to test this new app.
If these testers encounter problems or find issues, they report all abnormalities in our bug-tracking tool which is called The Nest online.
What was the main problem you aimed to solve when starting with Testbirds?
For me personally, I was still in university finishing my master’s degree, and same goes for my co-founder Georg. He was about to finish and Markus, our third co-founder - had just finished.
We all had the same idea how our careers should look like. I imagined that the next step would be to go to a big company and work there as maybe a consultant. For me, personally, I had a lot of internships at big global companies, and nothing truly satisfied me.
I was never very happy when I went home from work or woke up in the mornings. I was always passionate to start my own company.
I had a small company during school which was also a project I was working on while finishing my diploma. I always had the feeling that if there is a good idea, I would like to give it a try.
And luckily, there was a good idea, or at least we thought it was a good idea, so we gave it a try. After more than four years, I can now safely say that it was a good idea.
Has there been any moment in your early years where technology clicked for you?
Yeah. It's quite a simple story. When I was 14 or 15 I was thinking about getting a job to earn some money. I heard all the stories about the jobs that my friends were doing, and I thought, “Okay, let's try something different.”
I got my first computer when I was six or seven. Then I bought a book on how to learn programming. I used that vacation to study it, and then I started developing websites.
At some point, people started paying me for developing websites.
That’s how I made it through university, basically as a freelance web developer, not the best one, but good enough to earn some money on the side.
I always wanted to build web applications and browser games, which motivated me to not only study computer science but also Finance and Information Management.
Basically, my study aimed to connect the banking and the IT world. As a student, you got trained to speak with people from both worlds and easily translate between them.
What have been the major challenges when starting Testbirds as a crowd-based testing service?
In the past four years, there have been various challenges. And there will still be a lot more challenges to come which we don’t know of yet.
At the beginning, it's all about money. First of all you don't have anything, and there were only the three of us fighting to find a proven concept.
You also don’t have any people in the crowd. So we basically asked all our friends and families to register and test.
One of the first goals was to get the first client on board. Afterwards, it’s all about how to convince investors to give us some money and believe in our idea.
After we managed that, we started hiring people. And the more people you hire, the harder communication becomes. Especially since we are not all located in the same office. This created a necessity to establish communication guidelines.
Now we are about 60 people in five offices around Europe. Since we are physically not in the same room, we can’t just walk into someone’s room and share things. Therefore, we have to come up with other forms of communication.
You also have to consider cultural differences. You have to motivate people.
Growing a crowd is another challenge, not only in terms of the number of testers but also in their diversity. How can I attract my mom, who’s not really a techy person but she's our clients’ target group because she uses an iPad? How can we attract her to our platform?
These are just some of the challenges, and I think we have a new obstacle every week, at least one or two that we have to overcome.
With the growth we’re seeing, there’s a constant need to change the way we communicate and structure ourselves.
We try to involve the team as much as possible in that process.
Ok - cool. Which tools are you using for keeping everyone up-to-date?
We are almost old school. We’re still on email, and we use Skype for business a lot. We are thinking about using an enterprise social network at the moment, but this will take some time.
That’s what we use from a digital perspective, and then there are some different methods for offline communication.
If you could travel through time from the beginning of Testbirds to now, is there any special time you would choose?
Not really, because we as a company have changed so often. We have constantly had different challenges and I have also had different roles. When we started I was the developer for our platform. There was some point where our developers which we had hired told me, “Okay, Philipp, you can stop developing now.”
I understood why because I'm not really good at it, but I was good enough until then.
I don't want to go back and start developing again because there are people who are doing a way better job than me.
I then took over the sales team which was also fun and a big challenge for me. Now I'm in charge of international expansion, and I’m excited to see what happens next.
Where do you think the testing & bug tracking business is heading in the next few years?
I think we’re just about to see a lot of new technologies pop up. Crowd testing is one of them. Test automation is another.
In-house testing was always there and will always be there.
I think the testing portfolio and number of different testing tools and technologies will continue to grow in the future. You will have a lot of different pieces because the requirements that we have have changed.
It's no longer only a windows computer you have to test on, there are way more devices out there that you have to take into consideration. The development cycles have become faster, which increases the need for faster tools to support you in your development process.
I think we will see many crazy new advancements coming up in the next few years.
And then in a few years, these things will be consolidated into a few tools which will remain out there.
Okay. And how do you handle testing at Testbirds?
It depends on what kind of release size it is. Obviously, the developers have to test, and we have a small test team. The person who wrote the feature request has to test and has to approve it. For bigger stuff, we also make use of our own crowd and conduct some crowd testing.
Is there any advice you would give yourself as a 14-year-old?
When I was 14 I started developing websites. I don’t regret any decisions I have made so far. I think the advice would be to just enjoy life and school.
You won’t have so much freedom and time to do other things again.
Always listen to your inner self and ask yourself what you want to do. And if you wake up and you don't like what you're doing, you should change something.
Sounds great. Is there any challenge which keeps you up at night at the moment?
At the moment, no, but there has been, and there will be new challenges coming up.
When I was a developer I had the best ideas when I was sleeping. I always had a piece of paper and a pencil next to my bed.
Many years ago I had developed a browser game which had an artificial intelligence running in the background, and I was struggling for weeks to solve one particular issue. The idea how to solve that issue came to me while I was asleep. I wrote it down, and when I woke up the next morning, I looked at my notes and said, “Okay, that’s it,” and then I could do it in half a day which was something I had been working on for two weeks.
Is there any tip or any resource you would recommend for getting started in the field of bug tracking?
I think the most important thing is to go out. If you have a small app, for example, and you don’t have a budget or anything, take your app out and ask your friends and family.
Try to get honest feedback before you launch it. Ask your target audience, get their feedback and let them work with it and let them crush it.
What do you think will be the next challenges for your company?
At the moment, we’re about to open more and more offices. Every time you have a new office and you have a new team somewhere else is a challenge of its own. You have to onboard them, and then you have to keep them integrated although they are working from another location.
From a marketing perspective, it will be amazing because the market is growing and growing and growing. People understand that crowd testing is really important when integrated strategically. I think we don't have to worry about it, but we still have to do our homework in providing the best product.
Is there any project or technology you would like to explore if you had more time?
I've just been to a conference where I’ve seen all these mind-blowing virtual reality things.
I was not aware that the AR and VR industry is already as advanced as it is. It definitely could be the next game-changer. The possibilities that are out there are pretty interesting. The good part here at Testbirds is that at some point everyone wants to test. App testing is now kind of normal. Testing apps on smart watches or other devices like smart fridges or other kitchen devices will become increasingly important.