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Advice for test managers: How to develop, coach and lead your team

Jennifer Lent

In her keynote address at the STARWEST Conference in Anaheim, Calif., consultant Johanna Rothman offered test managers advice on managing their teams and making their test organizations more effective. Here are the strategies she discussed.

Hire and develop high-value people. It doesn't matter where they are. You are looking for testers who understand the solution space and the architecture of the product, not just the problem. "If you hire a commodity tester at two bucks an hour, you are not going to get good results," Rothman said. "As soon as you compete on price, you are not talking about value. I see managers make this mistake again and again."

Seek out team members who are smarter than you are. Rothman said peers have asked why she does this. Here's what she tells them: "I am not going to do the testing. They are. I am not the one using the tools. They are. How can put together

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a team of high-worth people if I am not willing to hire people who are smarter than I am?"

Make sure every team member gets coaching. Deliver continual feedback, but don't position the feedback as an evaluation. Simply say: "You have gotten this part wrong and here's how to make it right," Rothman said. It's also important to point out something that someone is doing really well, and share that information with the entire team, she said. "If you never coach anyone, how will they know what to do?" Coaching is often best delivered by a peer, not the boss. When you see the need for coaching, your job as a manager is to figure out who's the best person to deliver that coaching, she added. "Not everyone wants coaching from you as manager." It's also important to find the way to get the tester to accept the coaching, she said.

Check in with each team member regularly. If you are not doing one-on-one meetings with your staff, you don't know what's going on. Twice a week is best, Rothman said. "Monthly is too far apart." Some test managers claim they have a handle on what's happening with the team because they look at check-ins, she said. "But some testers are manual testers." She related a story that illustrated her point. She once asked a test manager -- a client she was working for -- what was going on with the team, and the test manager said, "I have no clue." When Rothman asked the testers themselves, they said, "This release is in the toilet."

Provide a career path for your people. How do we give testers the career development they need? "Some people want to be testers forever, but if they are generalists, it's your job to help them move into other positions if they want to. That's part of being an awesome test manager," Rothman said. "Do I have a ladder for each person? Do I have to work with HR to help find one?"

Don't assign a team member to more than one test project at a time. Asking testers to split their time between two test projects is a recipe for disaster. "Forget multitasking -- you don't get anything done," Rothman said. Worse still, the testers involved don't learn enough to become experts on anything, and that's not good for their career development, she said. "This is bad; it's very, very bad."

Understand your test organization's capacity. How many projects can you get through your test organization in a month? "You have to know this," Rothman said. This will help you communicate effectively with the business you are working for. "You have to be able to say, 'We cannot staff this project now. Here are the other projects competing for our time,'" she said. It's best to communicate this information with using a chart, a graphic depiction of your project portfolio, she added.

Understand that dealing with people issues is challenging. "Of course it's hard," Rothman said. But that's no reason for test managers to avoid dealing with these issues. "If you did a few one-on-ones today, and you got someone on your team to coach, you are making progress," she said.


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