Transforming a test manager into a test leader

Rajesh Mathur, Head of Testing, Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency; Paul Seaman, Principal QA, SS&C HiPortfolio; and Lee Hawkins, Principal Test Architect, Dell Software explain how testing management is not what you might think – thinking isn’t optional.

One of the ironies of the software testing industry is that a lot of people outside the industry (and also a lot of people inside the industry) believe that testing is easy. Testing can be easy for certain software products. For example, applications that meet the following assumptions:

  • Simple architectural designs.
  • Are used sparingly.
  • Are not mission, life or business critical.
  • Do not interact with other applications or environments or their interaction as well as integration is minimal.
  • Usability and accessibility requirements are minimal and may have bugs that ‘may not bug someone who matters.’

Such applications are usually free, optrce or come as freebies with other software products. An example is Notepad, which has minimal functionality and comes free with other Microsoft products.

On the other hand, testing can be very complex. Think about all other software that you use or interact with, or depend on, while at home or work, while driving, travelling by air, etc. The list of complex software we interact with is almost endless. However, when many people talk about software testing, they generalise the subject and call testing easy. This generalisation naturally leads to the belief that anyone can test. If you share this belief, please read on. The authors suggest you read Perfect Software and Other Illusions about Software Testing written by Jerry Weinberg. This might change your perceptions and thinking.

Test management myths and perceptions

Since many people believe testing is easy, some testers or technical people we meet also feel that test management is easy and that anyone can do it. Most of the people who say such things do not really understand what they mean by testing or test management. It is very important to understand what we mean when we use these terms. In the words of Michael Bolton: “Words are powerful tools for understanding and clarifying ideas, but like all tools, they must be used skilfully to achieve their purposes and to avoid trouble.”

Here are some of the myths of test management that we have often heard from test professionals. In this article we will examine some of these.

  • I don’t need to know testing to become a test manager.
  • Test management is all about organising resources. (The authors of this article prefer to use ‘people’ or ‘team members’ and not ‘resources’.)
  • As a test manager, I do not have to actually test.
  • Knowing about testing is not that important as a manager because anyone can test.
  • I am a test manager and it’s easy because all you have to do is to assign resources to projects.
  • As long as I follow best practices, it will be all good.
  • Test strategies and plans are based on templates. So as long as you have a template, planning is easy.
  • The availability of a detailed requirement documentation makes a test manager’s job easier. Testers can simply write test cases based on requirements.
  • Following standard testing processes help you deliver good testing and vice versa.

Skillsets for test managers

Test management, like any other management discipline, requires a balanced and relevant skillset. Skills that help one make a good test manager include:

  • Leadership and management: Dealing with people (people management), setting priorities, delegating, motivating and developing people, coaching, listening. Demonstrating that you trust your people to understand problems and provide great solutions.
  • Critical thinking: To understand the mission of the project and to devise approaches appropriate for solving the problems. Recognising and negating pitfalls and biases that the problems pose and to draw meaningful conclusions, when needed.
  • Project management: You don’t have to create project plans, but learning how to decipher them or to add to them is seen as a good skill. Other project management skills that are useful to know as a test manager are scoping, planning, co‑ordinating, budgeting, organising and understanding risks.
  • Communication and collaboration skills: As a test manager, an important part of your job is communication. You communicate with your team members, with peers such as development managers, architects, database administrators, infrastructure people, support teams, and with management teams. Good collaboration skills help you value and build relationships with these people. Forming positive alliances and understanding and is important when compromise and negotiation is required.
  • Testing: An important skill for test managers is to understand testing. Creating a test plan based on a requirements document and a test plan template is not test management. You must understand testing and you must be ready to roll up your sleeves!

It is clear that test management is much more than just resource management as some of the test managers we have met or worked with seem to think.

Leadership

So what makes a good test manager? It is a combination of people skills combined with test skills. The balance is important. The context of the engagement matters and the balance will change as a test team matures. The one thing that stays constant is the need to have a ‘people first’ attitude.

Management is great for handling management responsibilities (reporting and the like), beyond that, you must embrace leadership.

When most people complain about their manager they are not complaining about management. They are really complaining about too much management and not enough leadership. A leader is a person who distributes empowerment through trust. It is someone who trusts you to solve problems using the skills you have (or ones they will actively encourage you to develop). They are most definitely not a micromanager and they know how to create an environment in which failure is safe.

A manager, on the other hand, talks about how people (they would call them resources) should feel empowered but not give them the right permissions to actually be empowered. They micro manage and assign blame. There is no safe way to fail and the acceptable solutions are your manager’s solutions. Leaders motivate, managers suck motivation out of people. Daniel Pink in his book Drive ‑ The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us talks about motivation models.  A summary is presented below.

Motivation

  • Motivation 1.0 – These are your basic instincts. Humans have had these since the dawn of time. This is the drive to survive.
  • Motivation 2.0 – The recognition that people respond to reward and punishment (controlled motivation). In the early 1900s, Frederick Winslow Taylor was a notable contributor in this area. This approach hinges on rewarding desired behaviour and punishing other, unwanted, behaviour. This a command and control approach and appears to still be the predominant form of motivation used by managers.
  • Motivation 3.0 – Tapping into people’s intrinsic (autonomous) motivation, the desire to do a great job. Allowing people to utilise their sense of autonomy, allowing them to self‑direct. This requires resisting the urge to control people.

If you want people to succeed, excel and engage then you must give them room to do so. Managers must learn to manage less and lead more.

Test skills

Good test managers follow good practices of management. While people management skills are really important as a leader, another important requirement in becoming a good test manager is becoming a skilful tester. It is strongly recommended that you maintain a healthy interest in continuously improving your testing skills.

Imagine you decide to learn how to drive a motorcar. You have a friend and your friend’s grandfather has decided he will help you. He’s been driving for years so you’re confident that he’ll know what you need to learn. Experience is really important, right?  The morning of the first lesson arrives. You sit in the driver’s seat of your car imagining yourself out on the road.

Your friend’s grandfather arrives, gets into the passenger seat and says “You know I’ve been driving for over 60 years”.

“Awesome, you respond, you must have driven a lot of cars”.

The answer comes back “No, still driving my first model T. I take it out for a short drive every decade or so on a private property”.

Is grandpa really the right guy to be guiding you, teaching you car driving skills? Just about every industry we can think of has examples of people who think knowledge at a point in time (especially certification) equips them for life, and that skill, practice and acquiring new knowledge and skills are not important.

This is a bad attitude and a great way to make yourself redundant. You really want to make sure that you don’t roll up to work a ‘Model T driver’ when your team are all suited up ‘Formula 1 racers.’ Experience is important but the right experience is far more useful.

Documentation and metrics (by this we mean metrics that are supported by a clear context that enables them to tell the underlying story) are useful. If you are moving into a test manager role it is likely to be one of the first items added to your ‘to do’ list.

Improving your team’s testing capabilities, creating a capability of finding important bugs fast is probably the most important task. Documentation and metrics do not make your stakeholders happy, high quality software does. How you do that depends on your testing and people management skills.

As a manager you might simply embark on a “certification collection” exercise and tell your stakeholders “My test resources are really good. They are all certified and we use only best practices”. As a leader you might talk to your people, discover areas they feel development is required. You might also consider skills that do not have ‘test’ as part of their description, such as courses that focus on things such as teaching, mentoring, coaching, thinking, analysing, team building, leading, etc.

The absence of a certificate at completion will be overridden by the value of the knowledge being brought back to the test team. As a leader you’ll tell your stakeholders “We have a really broad experience base. The people in the test team are broad thinkers, they love analysis and problem solving. We are one of the happiest and strongest teams I have ever worked in.”

A good resource for improving testing skills is to attend courses (in person or online), conferences, webinars and to keep informed of industry best practices through wider reading and research.

Conclusion

Through our experience, we believe that, amongst other things, good test managers are rounded individuals. They manage when required but otherwise lead and are good at leading by example. Their ‘people first’ approach engages those that work with them and encourages those same people to work with a real passion because their input is highly valued. The testers experiment and innovate because they are led by someone who makes it safe for them to fail and supports moving forward from the failure. We are not being critical of people who do not demonstrate these skills. We are, however, suggesting that if this article makes you feel like you manage and never lead, it is time to reconsider your approach.

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of TEST Magazine.

About the authors

Rajesh Mathur, Head of Testing, Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency

An international speaker, blogger and writer, Raj has spoken at various conferences and has written articles for numerous publications. He is a dedicated context‑driven tester who believes less in dogmatism and more in pragmatism of testing. Raj has held senior test management positions with Cathay Pacific Airways, Nokia and Boots (UK) amongst others living and working in US, UK, India and Hong Kong China. 

Paul Seaman, Principal QA SS&C HiPortfolio

A former primary school teacher, with an Economics and Finance degree, Paul has 16 years of software testing experience including leading and managing test teams and coaching.
His last 3 years has been spent engaging in, and leading, an agile transformation. He has a strong interest in psychology, thinking skills and complexity management. Paul is a member of the Association for Software Testing and is an active organiser of the Test Engineering Alliance Melbourne (TEAM) meet‑up. 

Lee Hawkins, Principal Test Architect Dell Software

Lee is responsible for testing direction and strategy across the Dell Software group. Lee has been in the IT industry since 1996 in both development and testing roles and his testing career really started in 2007 after attending Rapid Software Testing with Michael Bolton. He is the co‑founder of the TEAM meet‑up group in Melbourne and regularly speaks at international testing conferences. 

Resources

Colin’s blog
Rob Lambert’s blog
Cultivated Management blog
Michael Bolton’s blog
Pink, Daniel H. (2010-01-13). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Canongate Books
Johanna Rothman
Jerry Weinberg’s Perfect Software and Other Illusions about Software Testing
The Association for Software Testing
The authors of this article mostly use the vocabulary of the Rapid Software Testing Namespace.

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