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Software test professionals: Five tester personality types

Balancing a test team with diverse skill sets and personalities can help provide a strong team. In this tip, Catherine Powell describes five distinctive tester personality types: the questioner, the fixer, the submarine, the visual aide and the utility infielder. Read on to discover more about each type and how each uniquely contributes to a team.

"He doesn't think like I do."

"I would never have even thought of trying to do that."

"Wait, you what?! Awesome!"

We've all said these things about other people. We've even said these things about other testers. Why? Because we approach problems in different ways. We find different things interesting and useful. In short, we have different tester personalities.

A tester's personality is like a person's personality; it guides what someone is likely to do, what things that person enjoys, and the way that person approaches a problem, conundrum, finding, or task. Testing encompasses a huge variety of problems and approaches, all of which are valid. Your tester personality guides which choices you will make.

Building a test team is about balancing the tester personalities. A test team gets stronger by having a variety of personalities, and by matching the personalities on the team to the product under test. Bring in the right people for the jobs you have to do, and for the approaches that work on your system, and team productivity and happiness soar.

After working with, meeting, and testing with hundreds of testers over the years, I have identified five distinct tester personalities:

- The Questioner

- The Fixer

- The Submarine

- The Visual Aide

- The Utility Infielder

The Questioner is that tester who asks, "Why?" about almost everything. He is highly aware of just how many tests he could perform and how few he can actually accomplish in any given time period, and in consequence he spends a lot of time understanding the justification for performing any one test or set of tests. He wants to know why approach A rather than approach B, and why test C and not test D. He's not advocating for approach B or test D necessarily; he just wants to understand. He also reacts poorly to being asked to "just do something" or "just trust that it's right", and can be a challenge for a manager (some Questioners are aware of and even proud of this). The Questioner frequently points out unnecessary tests and tasks - when there's no good answer to, "why," then this tester will figure that out. Because he spends a lot of time ensuring that the tests he performs are high value, the Questioner often has a low bug find rate, but the bugs he finds are likely to be highly focused.

The Fixer would very much like to be the test team's resident code geek, and a good Fixer generally is. The Fixer emphasizes "understanding the guts of the system" as a laudable goal, and generally gravitates toward white-box test techniques. Often she is a developer -- or was a developer, or would like to be a developer -- and is known for writing code to assist in tests. Bugs are frequently reported with speculation about the underlying cause, and sometimes with suggested fixes, blurring the line between identifying behaviors and describing ways those behaviors could be changed. She can be highly effective at root cause analysis, once she truly understands the system; without that understanding, her analysis can be misleading. For this reason, the Fixer's value to a team tends to grow significantly over time.

The Submarine is often the quietest person on the test team. He'll disappear into his screen for days or even weeks at a time, and no one on the team is quite sure what he's doing. The answer: he's tracking down a subtle problem. The Submarine is the tester who tracks down the bugs that no one can reproduce, who identifies race conditions and is most likely to pinpoint multi-condition problems. He doesn't log very many bugs, but has the highest proportion of most severe defects of anyone on the team. The Submarine has deep knowledge of the system under test and also of the environment in which it lives; a systems administration background is common.

The Visual Aide is the one who draws on the board. Often. By choice she focuses on user interface tests, documentation and other elements she can see and interact with directly. Usually the Visual Aide is good at identifying consistency issues and UI problems. She's a fast tester, and likely has a relatively high bug find rate, although the bugs tend to not be very severe. If your product's look is very important, then the Visual Aide is an essential part of the team; she'll help get things polished. The Visual Aide is frequently a good writer or editor.

The Utility Infielder craves variety and is very rarely intimidated. He is often the first to "dive right in," whether it's a build or a technique or a problem. The Utility Infielder's found bugs run the gamut from typos in the UI to deadlocks deep in the database, mostly as a result of the myriad of approaches that he uses. He's rarely the best at any one thing, but is good at many different types of tests and has a very large tool kit. If you can only have one tester, you usually want a Utility Infielder.

So, what's your tester personality?

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