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STP Con Spring 2013 featured team leadership and communication

Soft skills, including influence, leadership and communication, were among the important topics on the agenda at STP Con Spring 2013 in San Diego.

The ability to influence others through leadership and communication is one of the most valuable skills test professionals at all levels can develop and improve. Whether you're an entry-level tester attempting to communicate your defects effectively, a test lead charged with using metrics and test results to show the true state of the application under test, or a test manager trying to change quality assurance processes throughout the organization, you rely less on your technical skills and more on the soft skills of leadership and communication to accomplish your goals. STP Con Spring 2013, held April 23-25 in San Diego, brought together test professionals and experts of all skill levels seeking to learn from one another, and apply that learning in a practical context.

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In eight-minute "Speed Geeking" sessions, speakers, including Matt Heusser, principal consultant at Excelon Development; Peter Varhol, evangelist Seapine Software, and myself, took turns explaining concepts to impromptu groups of attendees immediately after lunch. Heusser's talk used the "facts" about the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars to reach a completely different conclusion than the original movie. He concluded it was an inside job rather than a lucky shot by Luke Skywalker. Using this analogy, he challenged us to ethically use the facts about our test results to communicate the true picture. Meanwhile, Varhol and I delivered a lively joint discussion on how testers miss bugs and misinterpret test results based on their own biases and preconceived notions regarding the application under test, requirements, developers and project goals.



In her presentation, Become an Influential Tester, Jane Fraser, test director for Anki Inc., examined many aspects of influence in organizations. According to Fraser, influence can be positive or negative, it comes with responsibility, and leadership itself is a form of influence. She provided an acronym -- LADDER -- to remind software quality pros how to build positive influence in interpersonal communication. LADDER means: Look at the speaker, Ask questions, Don't interrupt, Don't change the subject, [keep your] Emotions in control and [practice] Responsive listening.

Software Anthropology consultant Pete Walen, in Stepping Up to Leadership: Test Leadership Lessons from Harry Potter, discussed the meaning of leadership and how we can all be leaders regardless of our position within our organization. He suggested a true leader not only provides information to team members, but also offers a vision and a roadmap to get to the next level. He provided ways of becoming a leader, including self-examination and evaluation, formal training, following your curiosity and trying new avenues. New avenues for testers and software quality professionals can include writing or speaking on your experiences in testing, networking with others and building professional relationships.

Joe DeMeyer, system test engineer lead at Progressive, developed another aspect of influence and leadership for testers in his presentation, Establish Your Credibility and Engage Your Project. DeMeyer stressed the importance of software testers increasing their own visibility and establishing rapport with project managers, developers and stakeholders early in the project lifecycle. He showed ways in which testers can provide value during the requirements-gathering phase by asking questions and helping to clarify ambiguities.

Lynn McKee, president of Quality Perspectives, took leadership and influence a step further in her keynote, Transforming Testing in Your Organization, by describing a process for leading and influencing change within organizations. She noted the importance of finding the "key influencers" and developing a vision and a timeline for change. She stressed the importance of people, processes, perceptions, passion and persistence, and noted the importance of "small wins" to keep the momentum going.

In our presentation, Looking For Love in All the Wrong Places: Achieving Quality Without Organizational Commitment, Peter Varhol and I showed how to develop and advocate a vision of quality to obtain senior management commitment. We stressed that the proposal must be in sync with organizational values. For example, if speed to market is business-critical, the software quality team may want to explain the time-saving benefits of implementing an automated regression test suite, rather than harping on the need to test old code for new bugs. We also delivered a number of tips for software quality teams with no budget and few other resources.

In the current business climate, where testing is often automated and/or executed offshore, leadership and influence skills are becoming increasingly important for quality assurance professionals. Quality assurance managers and team leads must effectively interpret the test results and articulate risk to the project stakeholders. As information technology project management evolves and we move from waterfall to agile methodologies, testers need to be vocal and constantly demonstrate value. It will be our ability to lead, communicate and influence that will keep quality assurance professionals at the leading edge of change.

What's the best advice you've heard for improving soft skills like leadership and communication? Let us know and follow us on Twitter @SoftwareTestTT.

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