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Managing mergers: Test professional best practices

QA lead Gerie Owen offers firsthand advice for test professionals on managing mergers.

Quality assurance lead Gerie Owen knows all about managing mergers. Three times in her 20-year career as a test professional, she has gotten the same bad news. The companies she worked for had either acquired or been acquired by another firm. And each time, as test manager, she played a key role in combining the two teams into one.

"There is so much angst around managing mergers," Owen said, who works for a utility company that provides natural gas and electricity. And there are always battles -- battles about methodologies, test tools and test plans, she said. "But it's important to understand that the battle is never really about, 'My test plan is better than your test plan.' It's about who is going get laid off." Test professionals from both sides share the same fear: "If they adopt your plan, I'm going to lose my job," she said.

Mergers and acquisitions are a fact of life across many industries as companies struggle to keep costs in check and realize economies of scale. And while managing mergers between test organizations means that all staffers face uncertainty, it's crucial to keep test projects going and move quickly to create a new, combined team, Owen said. In this article, she shares her advice with other test managers dealing with this challenging situation -- based on her own experience of surviving three mergers as a test professional.

Tip No. 1: Roll out your plan -- then let your partner do the same.

The worst thing you can do is sit back and succumb to fear, Owen said. Instead, roll out your test plan to your new partner. "Show people what you do, and do it in a nonthreatening way," she said. "Your goal is to say, 'This is our test process and these are the tools we use.'" The most effective way to convey your message is to gather small groups of business analysts, developers and testers, she said. "Let them ask questions; let them talk." It's important to expect resistance, said Owen. It's common for testers on the other team to say things like, "I have all this work, and now you want me to learn a new tool?" At this stage, you are not actually deciding which tool set to adopt. You are simply showing what you do -- then asking your partner to reciprocate, she said.

Tip No. 2: Evaluate processes for requirements and testing and come up with a hybrid.

How do you decide which plan to adopt? When managing mergers between test organizations, a hybrid approach is often best, Owen said. In one merger she went through, the decisions were clear-cut. The partner had a better requirements process than Owen's team. "They used the methodology developed by the International Institute of Business Analysis. Our approach was looser and not as well-defined." But when it came to testing, Owen's organization took the lead with a formal process and better tools. "We had test plans, traceability between requirements and tests, sign-offs, and reviews. And we tracked that information in HP Quality Center," she explained.

In mapping out your new plan, make sure you create a new document that reflects the decisions you have made. "It makes everyone feel more comfortable," Owen said. And it alleviates some of the fear around, "If we go with your plan, I'm going to get fired," she said.

Tip No. 3: Learn how to manage offshore testers.

Mergers often go hand in hand with a business decision to outsource software testing to offshore organizations. The best you can hope for is that management is up-front about its plans, Owen said. In one merger she went through, they were. "They said 30% on premises and 70% offshore -- and they let know us right away."

Still, the change was daunting. Owen found herself managing 30 testers who worked in India. "There were big challenges around different cultures, different time zones." And it was also hard to communicate. "Accents can be difficult to understand, especially when you aren't face to face," Owen said. "It's best to say, sorry I didn't understand. Can you IM me that?"

She also made phone calls just to chat with offshore team members. "I wanted to get to know them," Owen said. To boost morale on both continents, she made a point of recognizing outstanding work, emailing the entire team about one member's success.

Tip No. 4: Put tools in place to communicate with remote colleagues.

Even when offshore outsourcing isn't on the table, you need tools to communicate across locations. "Merging companies are not colocated, and you are doing lots of things by conference call," Owen said. When she found a defect in a developer's code, she was accustomed to sitting down with that developer and demonstrating how the defect happened. That's difficult to do on IM or email. "I'd call the developer first," then follow up with documentation. "It's less threatening if you can talk," she explained.

Video conferencing technology helped ease communication and also boosted morale. After one of the mergers, where one team worked in Colorado and the other was in Iowa, we set up videoconferencing for a big meeting, Owen said. "That was kind of fun. We had been working together and talking a lot, so we had already formed a picture of what [one another] looked like."

Tip No. 5: Brush up your resume.

Layoffs are a reality when two companies join forces, said Owen. They happened in all three mergers she experienced. In one case, there were five rounds of layoffs in just over two years. Even after the initial round, there was still so much angst, she recalled. "You feel guilty about colleagues who were let go. You are worried that you will be next," Owen said. Did Owen hold on to her job in all three mergers? "I was laid off once. I didn't like it at the time. But I had gotten my resume together and had already started looking for a job," she said. "In the long run, it wasn't such a bad thing -- and I was given an awesome package."

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