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The software tester's guide to managing up

Ever wish the CEO would work a little more for you and your team? That's what managing up is all about. Check out this advice gleaned from STARWEST.

Managing up is a tough job no matter where you fit into the org chart. Forging an effective relationship with the boss is especially daunting when the boss in question is the company CEO. The key for software testers -- and all employees -- is to put yourself in the boss's shoes.

Jennifer LentJennifer Lent

But how do you that? In their keynote presentation, "What Executives Value in Testing," at the [Sept. 29-Oct. 4] STARWEST conference in Anaheim, Calif., Michael Kelly and Jeanette Thebeau offered some advice on the topic.

A former software tester and QA lead, Kelly is a managing partner at DeveloperTown, a software consultancy in Indianapolis. Thebeau is a principal at Ex2, a brand development firm in the same city. Her background is in marketing and product development, not software.

To get their message across, they engaged in a role-playing exercise. Kelly took the part of a software tester, and Thebeau assumed the top executive role. After thinking about this engaging presentation, which I watched live from my laptop, I drew four tips on managing up from the exchanges that took place between Kelly and Thebeau.

Managing up tip #1: Dig deep for the motive.

Kelly related a story, all-too-familiar to test pros, about running up against a release date. Management refused to extend the deadline, even though developers had eaten up the time initially allocated to software testing. Kelly said he kept making his case to top management, but the boss wouldn't budge. Instead of throwing up his hands in despair and chalking it up to an unreasonable demand from on high, he worked hard to find out why the release date was set in stone.

"There was big tension between me and the [top executive]," Kelly told the audience. At one point, things came to a head, and in a conference room late at night Kelly asked, "Why can't I move this date?'" He got a straight -- albeit surprising -- answer from the boss, who said, "If the software ships by the end of year, I get a boat."

If the software ships by the end of year, I get a boat.

Anonymous executive

Kelly told the audience that learning about the boat -- essentially the executive's annual bonus -- was an "awesome moment," because it was finally clear what was really at stake. He agreed to release the software on the set date -- with the caveat that his team would spend a few weeks following the release fixing bugs.

Managing up tip #2: Understand the business goals and financials for the product under test.

Top executives don't always grasp the nuances of software testing. But the opposite is also true, Thebeau told the audience. Testers need to get savvy about the business goals and financials for every software product they work on. "You need to know where the money is coming from, how that money is being allocated," she said.

The best way to get that information is to ask directly, Thebeau advised the audience. "When the CEO stands over you looking at the shiny redesign of a major feature and says he wants it in production tonight, look at him and say, 'Help me understand what is important to you. Is it a client commitment?'"

Thebeau shared a real-life example, where the CEO explained there was no client commitment; he was simply anxious for user feedback and could live with a few bugs. With that information in hand, it's easy for the tester to agree to release the software tonight. "Now the tester is the CEO's partner. The CEO thinks, 'This tester has got my back,'" Thebeau told the audience.

Kelly suggested testers who don't get the opportunity to talk to the CEO should engage in a role-playing exercise. "Put yourself in the position of the executive; develop a stereotype for the CEO; take small experiences and scale them up," he told the audience.

Managing up tip #3: Understand the value of testing varies according to the stage of the company.

In their presentation, Thebeau and Kelly made the point that whether or not top executives value testing is directly tied to the stage of the companies they lead. Early in a company's life cycle, management doesn't see a real need for software testing. The goal is to get the product into beta, and the mindset is "a few bugs won't kill us," Thebeau told the audience.

One reason why executives are so comfortable with this is they are following the lead of Google, "which has [software products] in beta for years," she said. "Seed-stage companies -- with less than $1.5 million in capital -- don't hire testers." The most important thing is "get the demo to work, so I can pitch to investors. Testing is not important now. Make the demo work."

However, a company at the growth stage is a different story. Thebeau said a founder on his third company, for example, understands the value of software testing -- especially when the testing is tied to a major product launch. To ensure a successful launch, this executive will hire additional testers, she said. "But they don't hire for pleasure. They hire to kill pain."

What is your strategy for managing up? Do you know what motivates the executive you work for? Let us know.

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