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Excelling in software test conversations: STAREast speaker's communication tips

Whether you are working remote, in a distributed agile team or speaking face-to-face, being a good software tester means being a strong communicator. At STAREast, speaker, Bob Galen's session focused on catering conversations to get points across effectively.

Highly effective test teams must know more than how to test. They need to know how to communicate well. At STAREast 2010, Bob Galen, director of R&D at iContact, led an interactive session aimed at explaining the importance of communication in a testing role, whether interacting with colleagues, management or stakeholders.

Galen started by giving the group several situations in which there was a conflict of some sort which he asked the audience how they would respond. For example, if an executive challenges you on priority or severity of the defects you've entered, do you become defensive? Do you keep quiet? Do you say what the executives want to hear?

Galen stressed, "Conversations matter more than reports." He emphasized that we are continually in conversations and as QA professionals, we're representing our team and ourselves. We need to learn techniques for communicating often and well.

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Excelling in software test conversations: STAREast speaker's communication tips

The group was taken through an exercise of giving a 30-second elevator pitch to a partner in which we talked about our background, a challenge and how we were addressing that challenge. The exercise showed us that with only a short time, we needed to get to the point quickly. Likewise, when we are communicating with busy people, we need to learn how to prioritize and summarize our most important points first. "All forms of communication matter," Galen reminded us, "written, verbal, non-verbal and defects."

Targeting your audience is important as well. If you are communicating with someone who is very data-driven, then you need to be sure include information about the data you've collected and be sure you can back up your conversation with empirical evidence. If you are communicating with someone who makes decisions based on feelings, you want to be sure and include information about how the team feels about the quality. What are their gut instincts telling them?

In a post-session interview, Galen elaborated further on two additional topics: communication between developers and testers and communication in a distributed agile environment.

Regarding communication between developers and testers, it was suggested that the often contentious communication was due to the fact that it's the tester's job to find defects. The glee that a tester might find at reporting a long list of defects might grate on the nerves of the developer, who may feel like their "baby" is being criticized. There is often defensiveness on the part of the developer when faced with a defect report. Could the solution to better communication be that the tester not only report on defects, but also recognize the features that worked well?

Galen had another idea of how communication between developer and tester could be improved. He felt that agile environments fostered better collaboration and communication between developer and tester because "quality is a holistic team goal. The leadership of the agile team can remove the contention." Galen explained that in an agile environment, it was the team's job to find the relevant bugs.

Galen went on to discuss communication in a distributed agile environment. As Galen talked about in his session, so much of communication is centered on body language. Can teams be effective when that body language isn't present?

Though Galen reiterated body language is important, the relationship between people is probably the most important contributor to effective communication. Often that relationship is built through face-to-face communication; however, given the tools and technologies available to us today, certainly strong relationships can be built and fostered from a distance.

While meeting face-to-face certainly helps to build a strong team, Galen felt that a distributed agile team configuration is an option. Remote participants may have to work harder to ensure strong communication, but Galen has seen teams be successful despite being geographically dispersed. Sharing of yourself at a more personal level and building trust, regardless of where the team is located will help to build a high-performing team.

In all forms of communication, Galen stressed that the "who should always come before the what." It's important to consider the people in communication. Be empathetic to their needs and tailor communication to meet those needs.

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