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Testing professionals: Soft skills are key to success

At STPCon Fall 2013, the keynote speaker addressed how testing professionals can benefit from communication and soft skills over technical expertise.

PHOENIX -- Michael Hoffman, president of Igniting Performance, describes the chaos of technological change and office politics as a tornado. It's a tornado that's been there as long as there's been a concept of information technologies. "The tornado doesn't change," he said at his keynote address this morning at STPCon in Phoenix. "The tornado has to be there, because the tornado is change." Changing to meet the tornado makes the soft skills -- the way we interact with our bosses, our colleagues and our teams --more important than technical expertise.

Each one of us -- both in and out of application development and testing professionals -- is an influential person to the people around us. For most of us, the flip side of this is readily apparent. It's easy to see that the actions of others affect the way we think, feel and act. It's not always as easy to remember that our actions affect others in the same exact way.

For Hoffman, the two most important factors in a testing professional’s disposition are confidence and competence. "People who are both confident and competent push the boundaries of what's possible," he said. They see the limitations, but find ways around them. They're not afraid to try new things that might make the situation better. They're not afraid to point out old things that are making the situation worse.

The software tester's top seven
"favorite" things

  • Requirements that change at the last minute
  • Excessive paperwork
  • Developers with oversized egos
  • Whiners
  • Herding cats
  • Long hours and missing family time
  • Spending those hours in a 3-inch by 5-inch cubicle -- shared with at least one other tester

Competence is the ability to do the right things. Confidence is the belief that the things one does are right. In some jobs, competence may be enough. But when it comes to software quality, Hoffman said, test professionals also need to be confident about the decisions they make.

Unfortunately, people usually can't build their own confidence. "I can't see my work with my own eyes," Hoffman pointed out, "because I'm always stuck behind them." Therefore, software testers (just like everyone else) have to rely on feedback from others about what sort of job they're doing. They also owe it to each other to provide that feedback in a way that increases both confidence and competence.

Increasing your co-workers' confidence, according to Hoffman, is usually as simple as saying "Thank you" and "I appreciate that" more often. This lets them know via external confirmation that they're doing a good job. It does not, however, guarantee that co-workers will be more likely to do the right things. Increasing competency requires the added step of specifying what you appreciate and tying it to a positive outcome.

For example, when a team member who is normally quiet comes out of his shell to supply constructive feedback in a meeting, it's important to recognize his effort. But if you just say "Good job in that meeting," the person may not know what it was he did right, and he won't know how to do it again in the next meeting.

Instead, try, "Thank you for speaking up in the meeting." Better yet, tie that action to the beneficial effect it had. "I appreciate that you spoke up, and your feedback helped us cut weeks out of the learning curve," is even more helpful (assuming that it's accurate). Now, the quiet team member knows what he did and why it helped. He'll probably be more confident about providing feedback in the future. He also has the information he needs to provide the right type of information at the right time.

When you interact with your peers, it may not be enough to make sure you're not being sarcastic or snarky when you thank them. It's important to cut down on the chances that your words will be misinterpreted by your audience. Many testers can multitask and continue working while they listen to their co-worker. Let the listener know that you take them seriously and that your comments, in turn, can be taken seriously.

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