Exploring the shifting roles in test and QA management

If Agile software teams reorganize and report to one line manager, what happens to test and QA management? Matt Heusser shares his answer with you.

Although every company and industry is different, most are using new software practices -- virtualization, less preventive testing, ad hoc defect fixing, piecemeal deployments and so on -- that are changing the roles of test managers. In this tip, I will cover the common development trends I'm seeing in my industry research and test consulting work and offer advice for test and QA managers.

Trends in test management

Every company is different and every industry is different, yet I've discovered trends in how software is developed at conferences I attend and in vendor literature, plus in my own work. Here are a few of them:

  • Integrated product teams. Testers that are generally in a separate team deployed on a per-project basis are becoming embedded in a single product team. These product teams stick together from project to project. With the testers now reporting to a single, multi-disciplinary development manager, the role of test and QA management is unclear; certainly the need for the test manager to work as a portfolio manager, planning testers involvement and timing, is radically diminished.
  • Piecemeal deployments; the end of the "test phase." Teams that build software as minimum viable features can deploy much more often -- in theory. Continuous integration, delivery and even deployment produce the infrastructure to make that happen. The result is that testing is not a phase to be managed, not a mini-project, but instead an activity that happens all the time. This further diminishes the portfolio and project management roles for test and QA managers.
  • Virtualization. With testers able to build their own test environment with the click of a button, the need for a test environment is no longer required and team members don't have to squabble over resources.
  • Fix-as-you-find defect strategies. Though not as often as other trends, I do see some teams deciding to fix a defect right away or ignore it when they find one. If the bug is ignored, they don't bother to document it in version control. This makes traditional tracking, counts, defect trending, bug advocacy and triage skills much less valuable for text and QA managers.
  • A shifting emphasis away from preventive testing. This is also less common, but many Web-based companies allow bugs in production -- as long as they can be found and fixed quickly. 

If you look at all of these trends together, you see something happening: The tools we used for traditional test management are becoming obsolete -- or at least become less valuable. Industry pundit James Whittaker claimed that traditional test was dying in his keynote address at STARWest last year. Whittaker later served as program chair for Google's Test Automation Conference, where Alberto Savoia reinforced his allegations by dressing up as the Grim Reaper and giving a talk titled "Test is Dead."

These trends may be more or less relevant in your industry or company. One of my clients recently went the other way: Instead of the testers reporting to a generalist development manager, they now report to a formal QA manager.

Every company is different. Expect to see resistance or outright ignoring of these changes in more established companies and mature industries, or when the behavior of the software group is prescribed by regulation or contract. For example, I expect avionics, banking and embedded medical devices to be less likely to change.

If you are influenced by these trends, you might feel a little uncomfortable as a test manager.

So, now that we've talked about trends, let's talk about ways to successfully adapt QA management styles.

Changes to consider

Add Scrum master responsibilities. The role of the Scrum master is both a process cop (making sure the team keeps its commitments) and an obstacle remover. Many QA managers have the people and process skills to accomplish those tasks. Anna Royzman, a functional testing expert is adapting her role to include Scrum master and even some project manager responsibilities.

  • Become a product owner. While Extreme Programming defines a customer as a line business leader, in practice, line business leaders tend to hire analysts to steer the team. Defining what a product should do and providing direction on fixing old versus creating new features are two things that many QA managers do informally. Making that part of their formal responsibilities makes sense.   
  • Break the invisible barrier and spend more time testing. With all these changes, a QA manager's role might not go away -- but it might mean the manager has more time to invest in other activities. Benjamin Yaroch, a test manager at WTS Paradigm in Madison, Wis., said that he was hired in as a manager, but he sees the role evolving more into a "lead," as he makes active contributions on projects. That keeps his decisions and experience grounded in the work and allows direct leadership and mentoring.  
  • Become a practice manager that works at a higher level. While generalist development managers might direct the day-to-day work of a tester on a product team, it is unlikely that they will have the skills or inclination to help that tester grow professionally. A higher-level manager supervises testers on many teams, fosters communication and helps with defining what testing means. A colleague of mine did this for some time, managing the practice of multiple teams in four different states. 
  • Become a consultant, moving from team to team. When I asked Todd Webb, a technical leader at Groupon, to describe his job, he told me he makes active contributions on a team for a few months, then moves on work with the next team. While this sort of role is less common, Microsoft has had a "test architect" role over the years, and some test architects look very much like internal consultants. Jason McDonald, a test architect, tells me that he spends a lot of time focusing on driving the business value of testing, doing vendor relationship management, evaluating tools and supporting enterprise initiatives.

Plotting your QA management course

The next step is to ask yourself what kind of company you want to work for. Cutting-edge companies are more likely to continue to speed the pace of development, blending development, testing and operations. To keep current with those companies, QA managers have to find new ways to add value, new roles to take on and new opportunities to pursue.

On the other hand, you might work at a company that is pleased with its development mode and wants to focus its energies for innovation elsewhere. Product development, new technologies, and changing the business model or customer base are all fine ways to innovate. At these types of companies, QA might adapt in entirely different ways.

Tomorrow's QA management

Like a poet said, let a thousand test strategies bloom; the market will pick the winners and losers.

Whatever we call it, quality will always have its champions, and QA personnel will be needed in software for a long, long time.

The author would like to thank Lanette Creamer, Wade Wachs, Anna Royzman, Ben Yaroch and Debbie Richardson, who provided background research and advice for this article.

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