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Software quality assurance testing pros: Act like a journalist

A software QA professional and former journalist explains how building strong relationships with project stakeholders results in better software.

Software quality assurance testing professional Thomas McCoy has a unique approach to boosting application quality. He takes the skills he acquired as a journalist and applies them to software testing. "Good journalists do their background research so they can ask better questions; they establish ongoing relationships with a range of sources; they work hard to nurture those relationships to gain insight on what's happening behind the scenes," he said. "A similar approach can be effective in IT environments."

Thomas McCoyThomas McCoy

A software quality assurance (QA) testing professional for the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, in Canberra, Australia, McCoy believes solid communication skills and the ability to build strong relationships with project stakeholders are essential for all software QA professionals. "We are all under pressure to do more with less," he said, referring to the current economic crisis, and the growing complexity of software applications.

McCoy, who began his career in radio, is expected to present a keynote address, Asking the Right Questions: What Journalism Can Teach Testers, at the STAREast conference, in Orlando, Fla., April 28-May 3. In this article, he previews his upcoming talk, discusses the importance of building relationships with IT project stakeholders, and offers advice on dealing with challenging situations software QA testing professionals face every day.

How to talk to a developer about a defect

The trick is to guide the developer gently down the path that will result in positive outcomes. This is especially challenging when a developer is convinced the defect doesn't exist. In that situation, McCoy poses scenario-based questions to help shift the developer's perspective. He offered an example: "Imagine that your mother is using this system. How would she react if this happened?" Another technique he finds useful is getting the developer to walk through the application and explain it. "Ask 'What happens then; what happens next?' and gently guide them toward the error condition," McCoy said. This approach is effective because it allows the developer to maintain a sense of control. "But make sure it isn't done in the manner of a police interrogation."

Engaging business stakeholders

This gentle cajoling approach is also effective for business stakeholder interactions, McCoy said.

Bad news is best delivered in person.

Thomas McCoy,
software QA professional

"I frame my questions to connect with the aspects [of the project] that matter to them. I might ask about the adverse publicity aspects of going live with a high defect count." McCoy stressed that while it's not the tester's responsibility to make "go live" decisions or to determine which defects take priority, testers need to exert influence on these issues in the most effective way possible. "As testers, we need to report the truth and maintain our loyalty to the end user."

How to deliver bad news

The most challenging interactions for test professionals involve telling the project manager that the defect count is high, or that testing can't be completed on schedule. While it's tempting to deliver this news by sending a text from the other side of the country, that's not a good idea, McCoy said. "Bad news is best delivered in person." To increase success, provide documentation of your findings, and then quickly offer a possible solution. He offered an example: "We can't finish the testing on time, but if the staff works weekends we can achieve 80% coverage." Follow up that conversation with an email that starts with the phrase "as discussed," and minimize the distribution of that email, McCoy said. "There's nothing worse than the public humiliation caused by a disparaging email with a huge cc: list."

Make sure your defect reports cut to the chase

Test professionals spend a lot of time writing defect reports. Too often, these reports are long-winded, boring and they don't cut to the chase, McCoy said. "That's the reason many defect reports aren't given the priority they deserve." His advice? "Make them snappy; write a strong headline and an engaging lead paragraph; include pictures."

Establish long-term relationships

It's important for test professionals to build up relationships with project stakeholders over time and to nurture those relationships -- instead of interacting only when business demands. McCoy recommended test professionals take part in corporate events and activities. He joined the office choir last year, and that helped expose him to "people outside the cloistered world of IT." Establishing relationships with project stakeholders pays off in the long run because people volunteer information in informal conversations. That provides advance warning of problems that arise around software projects, he said. "At its heart, testing seeks to provide high quality information to the project. To maximize our insight into what's happening, we need to go beyond tapping away at the keyboard and develop connections with human sources."

What are your tips for interacting with developers and becoming a better tester? Let us know.

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I, too, often use the analogy between product testing and investigative journalism. The cited expert gives a great list of objectives and priorities for the good testing. He speaks what is needed and why.
For "how" - that is, how to develop such skills, I'd recommend trainings by the Association for Software Testing ( and also Rapid Software Testing courses (