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Are you a bad software test manager? Or do you have one? Here's help

If you want to up your game as a test manager, you'll need to listen and offer to serve others. Expert Jennifer Lent has spot-on career advice for software test managers.

It's a software test management rite of passage: the awful leader, the bad boss. We've all had one.

Selena Delesie opened her keynote address at the STARWEST conference with a question about that: "Has anyone ever had a really awful leader?" The audience laughed in agreement. "I see a lot of hands," the software test management expert said. Then she posed a more challenging question. "Have you ever been an awful leader yourself?" There was not so much laughter this time.

"I have," she told the audience, assuring them she would not ask the self-acknowledged awful software test managers to raise their hands. "I was one year out of university. I was a leader. But how do I lead? I knew nothing."

To learn, she looked at people who were leaders at the company where she worked at the time. But she could not relate to any of the leadership styles she saw in action, or the advice put forth in the leadership classes her company offered. "When you step into your own leadership, you will see phenomenal changes, regardless of your title," she told the audience. Delesie, now principal consultant for Delesie Solutions, set out to become an exemplary software test manager and leader on her own.

I interviewed Delesie by phone prior to STARWEST conference and also listened live on October 5 as she delivered the keynote address: "Lessons Learned in Leadership: Give Your Team the Edge." Here's my take on her advice, distilled from her talk and our earlier conversation.

Speak up like a leader

Becoming a leader is not about waiting for the boss to spot your software test manager potential. That could happen, but a better approach is simply to "step into having power with others we work within the organization," Delesie said. Start by speaking up. "What are the major problems in the software [under test]?"

As testers, we know better than anyone else what they are, but too often an outdated mindset keeps us silent, she said. "If we don't talk about it, no one will get in trouble, and we will make the release date." This happens because testers are scared they will say the wrong thing. They're scared of looking stupid, scared they are not important enough to be heard. You have to move past those fears, she said. "How can you contribute if you cannot find your voice?"

Challenge conventional advice

New to the software test manager role, Delesie took a leadership training class her company offered. "They said, 'don't become friends with the people who work for you.'" Their advice made no sense to her. She was friendly with her team members -- they even socialized outside the office -- and they were getting work done.

"I found that connection, care and compassion made a difference, and it changed how testers were showing up [for work]," she said. She decided to speak up. "I was 24 years old and I raised my hand and said, 'I don't know if that's true.'" The trainer dismissed her out of hand, saying, "You're so young, you don't know any better." The friends vs. not friends debate is not the point here. What's important is this: Delesie had the courage to question conventional wisdom. And she understood that she had found a successful test management style, and stuck with it. In other words, she stepped up to leadership.

Listen. I mean really listen

Effective software test management -- or any management, for that matter -- requires leaders to listen. That advice is so commonplace, it's easy to dismiss. But what does listening really entail? Delesie shared this story. As a software test manager, she worked with a programmer who told her: "I don't want your testers in the meetings with programmers, ever." She didn't like what she heard. But instead of waging a silent war -- talking about him behind his back, letting people know he's the enemy -- she probed deeper.

In the past, allowing testers to participate in key discussions about the software under development "had made us look bad," the programmer admitted. "They pointed out mistakes we made." So Delesie made a deal. "Let's experiment," she told him. "What if I let one tester in the weekly meeting? I promise she won't say a word. Then we'll check back and see how it went." The programmer reluctantly agreed. After the meeting, he acknowledged that "nothing bad happened," Delesie said. So they tried it again. "Within a couple of weeks, my tester was leading a discussion at the whiteboard. Her advice to other test managers? "Listen. Be curious, not just about the software but about the people you're working with."

As a leader, serve others

An effective way for software test managers to step up as leaders is to ask others: "How can I be of service to you today? How can we help?" Delesie said. On the surface, making that offer seems subservient, but it's not. "I am not putting myself in a place of no power. I am leading healthy interactions in my organization," she said. She recommends taking the how-can-I-serve-you? approach every day with your team and with the executives you work with. "You are forging connections to solve problems," she said. "You are moving into a space of recognized leadership."

Revel in the results

When you serve others, your stature as a leader in your organization rises. Delesie offered an example from one of her clients. When the test management organization held release meetings, no one showed up. But once the team took on the role of serving others -- asking how they could help -- a transformation took place. "Forty people, the entire department, now attends release meetings, and testers lead the discussion of new features [in the software]," she said.

A commenter in the STARWEST virtual audience told a similar story. "Luckily, where I work testers are seen as team members with a voice. We tend to get superhero status when we catch a show-stopping bug before it gets to our customers," Georgette Sparks wrote while listening to Delesie's keynote address.

As testers, we see the problems in the software and in how people work together, Delesie told the audience. "We have the opportunity to step into leadership and change things. It's awesome." Are you a great leader? Let us know how you got there!

Next Steps

How the role of tester is changing

Good advice on changing jobs in testing

How -- and why -- you'll want to lean in to your software testing career

This was last published in October 2016

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What's your secret to being a great software test manager?
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I go out of my way to back my QA teams. When they say something is not ready to release, then I go to bat for them. I always verify their position, and if their assessment is not correct or if there is a different perspective, I try to help them get there first. But when the chips are down, I back them. If there's an override from Sales, Dev or Operations, I make certain all involved know that it is an override not a tester problem.

We also work to function as consultants and business partners with the rest of the organization. By eliminating the adversarial atmosphere that is common to many QA organizations, my team is more willing to get involved in early stages, are more willing to speak up and are more respected when they do.

Of course, they are all outstanding. So that helps a lot.
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