Software test managers: Gaining good leadership skills

Successful test organizations demand leaders, not just managers. Software testing expert Pete Walen shares advice for acquiring good leadership skills.

Peter WalenPeter Walen

The Harry Potter books are an unlikely place to look for good leadership skills. But that is exactly what software testing expert Pete Walen has done.

Walen is expected to explain what test managers can learn from the fictional hero of J.K. Rowling's popular books, in a talk called "Stepping Up to Leadership: Test Leadership Lessons from Harry Potter," at the Software Test Professionals Conference Spring 2013, in San Diego.

"At no time does anyone put Harry in charge of anything," said Walen, an independent software test consultant and SearchSoftwareQuality expert. "No one says, 'This is your job; this is what you have to do.'" Instead, it becomes clear to Harry that he is the one best suited to respond to challenges and address them head on, Walen said.

And so it is with software test managers: "They acquire knowledge and understanding [of the challenges their teams face], and they turn around and share that knowledge."

In this tip, Walen outlines the traits of top test managers, offering advice to those who want to acquire good leadership skills.

Peers and reports rely on good leaders for help.

First and foremost, test organization leaders know how to roll up their sleeves and test software -- and answer questions when others need help. Good leaders aren't just supervisors who oversee the work that needs to get done. "They make solid contributions," Walen said. "But at the same time, they see what's happening around them." They keep an eye on the big picture. They have a reasonable idea of what team members are doing and they step back and allow team members to do their jobs, he said.

A leader evaluates a problem calmly -- and digs deep to solve it.

Something odd is happening. No one knows why, but it seems impossible to reproduce the bug. Software test leaders face this situation all the time, Walen said. It's tempting to write up the bug and say 'we can't reproduce it,' but good technical leaders don't do that. "They evaluate the evidence, looking closely at the circumstances around which the error occurred." Thinking out loud, they might say, for example: "This value is set to this, but what if we set it to that?" Walen said. This exercise should be conducted with the team. "Good leaders weigh the ideas generated by others and calmly evaluate them," he said. "Can we pick out this record that failed and make it fail again?"

The tester who keeps on asking questions like that is demonstrating leadership, Walen said.

Make sure test team members have what they need.

Something odd is happening. No one knows why, but it seems impossible to reproduce the bug.

This happens often: A test project falls further and further behind. How do software test leaders address this problem? Their first step is to make sure team members have what they need. "This is a huge leadership function," Walen said. "Maybe they need coffee; maybe they want a Coke."

Lack of Coke and coffee is unlikely to be the root of the project delay, but Walen's point is this: Teams need leaders who say: "Come on guys. What do you need? Follow me; let's go!" Walen said he has worked in test organizations where a lot of people were being promoted. "The bureaucracy was getting really heavy, and no one was doing any work," Walen said. "There were a lot of managers, but no leaders."

Good leadership skill: Disagreeing diplomatically

Successful test leaders know how to disagree with reports or peers, while still recognizing the person contributing is important. "Don't shoot down a suggestion just because you disagree," Walen said. "You don't want to fall prey to the mindset that says 'you're from this party, so your idea is bad.'"

The right way to respond depends on the relationships among the people involved, he said. When dealing with a peer with whom you have a strong, longstanding relationship, you can say: "Come on, is that really a good idea?" But if the suggestion comes from a report, take a softer approach. Walen suggests saying something like this: "This could be of value. I'd like you to spend about 45 minutes looking further into your idea." Another option from Walen is to put your idea aside for the moment, and look into at the other idea first. Then come back to your suggestion.

There is no set template on how to respond to ideas you disagree with, Walen said. "Good leaders understand it always depends on the context."

Let us know your test leadership strategies and follow us on Twitter @SoftwareTestTT.

This was first published in April 2013

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