What Makes a Good Test Manager
In essence, a good test manager should ensure each project they work on delivers a quality outcome that delights their customer. However, that’s easier said than done and in most cases it isn’t something that comes naturally.
There are many obvious technical expectations of a test manager, including:
- Developing a test approach/test strategy
- Deciding what needs to be tested
- Building the test activity plan
- Identifying what roles/skills are needed and who will perform them
- Finding and assigning resources for the different tasks that have been defined
- Defining/agreeing what the documentation for the test project will be
- Managing the day-to-day test activity
- Agreeing the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and providing regular management information
The foundation of test management
Based on over 30 years of experience, I would say that the core skill of test management is not creating a plan and Gant charts; nor is it in producing regular, accurate reports (though all of these are important). The real skill is how you interact with the test team and manage your relationships with the project team and any third-party suppliers as a whole.
I have seen many projects pull in the best test engineers and assume this is all that’s needed to ensure a quality delivery. However, even with the best people, you need a manager who can mold and manage the team to work collaboratively to deliver a quality outcome. A good analogy for this would be some of our historic England football teams. They may have had some of the best players in the world but with less-than-optimal management they were unable to win any trophies.
All of the expectations above form part of any good project/test management training course available on the market today and some will even test the learning with certifications via various schemes, such as Prince2 and ISTQB. These certificates quite rightly give employers confidence that an individual understands and can implement test management practices effectively. However, what these training courses don’t teach is the individual’s ability with the softer skills, which I would posit are just as critical to their success.
People make the difference
People are a test manager’s greatest asset. A good test manager needs to understand whether their team:
- Has the right skills
- Has the right knowledge and experience
- Works well together
- Is motivated to succeed
Understanding what will be successful and steering the team to achieve this is mainly down to the test manager’s ability to negotiate, motivate and influence their team and their project and delivery stakeholders. These softer skills are relevant in all delivery models from Agile/DevOps to Waterfall.
If we look initially at identifying the right skills, knowledge and experience we first need to understand what the requirements are.
In the 1990s, anyone joining IT and testing was judged in two dimensions:
- Technical skills
- Domain knowledge
Today, the more mature companies identify resources using at least four key dimensions:
- IT skills
- Test skills
- Domain knowledge
- Soft skills
So using these four dimensions a test manager needs to understand what is needed, and if required understand what help is required to develop people who might have some but not all of these dimensions.
Examples of IT skills are:
- Understanding of Requirements Engineering
- Understanding of Configuration Management
- Understanding of Change Management
- Development experience
- Technology specific skills, e.g Java, C#
- Test tool skills
Examples of test skills are:
- ISTQB qualified – Foundation, Agile Certified, Advanced and/or Expert
- Working knowledge of test techniques relevant for the job
- Defect management
- Risk-based testing
- Test case design and selection, both functional and non-functional
- Test coverage
Examples of domain knowledge are:
- Experience of the business being tested, what they do, what their objectives are etc.
- Understanding of the business process being tested
- Understanding of the industry sector e.g. Banking, Insurance, Retail etc.
- Knowledge of who to talk to within the business (for background and/or a detailed understanding of requirements)
Examples of soft skills are:
- Can the person communicate effectively, are they confident in front of senior management?
- Do they listen or do they only hear what they want to hear?
- Are they motivated to do a good job for themselves and for the team?
- Are they able to support and manage other resources?
- Do they accept accountability?
- Team interaction
- Do they prefer to work in a team or individually?
- Body language
- This forms the largest part of how we communicate. If our body language is poor then our communication may not be heard, understood and/or accepted
Act like a team
Once you have a team you need to understand how they will all operate together. Each person in the team has a role, which can be defined as “A tendency to behave, contribute and interrelate with others in a particular way.” The key to successful teams is a balance of roles.
In my experience the best way to do this is to perform a Belbin review. Belbin reviews look at the 9 key roles required to make a team effective. These roles are:
Finally, a good test manager will possess strong motivation, delegation and negotiation/influencing skills.
It is important that a team is motivated to achieve a common goal. Each individual will be motivated by different things, some will just need the occasional “thank you” or “well done”, some will need more support to complete their tasks while others will want to be given more and more challenging tasks.
There is a real skill behind understanding people motivation, while identifying demotivated people is somewhat easier. They may, for example, be disruptive, often late, lethargic and uncooperative, secretive, etc. Learning how to recognize and turn around any demotivated team members is a must have skill for a good test manager.
Delegation is key
Delegation is one of the more important skills that a test manager needs to master.
Good delegation will:
- Save you time
- Develops your people
- Identify a deputy and/or a successor
- Provide individual motivation
Poor delegation will:
- Cause frustration
- De-motivate and confuse people
- Fail to achieve a quality outcome
Good delegation requires trust on both sides of the relationship, and the test manager should always ensure the person being delegated to has all the information and equipment needed to succeed. It is also a good idea not to micromanage anyone whilst they complete their task, but to set a regular catch up to understand challenges/successes and provide guidance and support as required.
There is a path to success when delegating. Dependant on the skills and experience of the person being delegated to you might say:
- Do exactly what I say within these parameters
- Look into the cause of the issue and feedback then I’ll guide you
- Look into the cause of the issue and we’ll decide together
- Tell me the background to the issue and what you need from me to help you complete your assessment, then we can decide together
- Give me your analysis of the situation and your recommendation. Then I’ll let you know if you can go ahead
- You decide on the course of action, what support you may need and then let me know the outcome
- This is now your responsibility, you decide and manage the situation, let me know when its resolved or if you need my support
Good negotiation and influencing skills are critical to an effective team to achieve a mutually acceptable solution for both parties which should ideally end in a win/win situation.
To negotiate or influence you need to be well prepared:
- With a range of objectives, yet be willing to compromise
- With the ability to explore wide range of options
- To listen and question to enhance your knowledge/understanding
- With the ability to clearly prioritize
In testing these skills will prove invaluable when agreeing:
- Budgets/costs (estimates)
- Scope of work
- Priority/severity of incidents
- Purchase/use of test tools
- More resource
- staff, software, hardware
- Implementation of changes to the test process
Excellent test management requires both the practical methodology skills and the softer skills discussed above. Equipped with the practical capability and the softer skills anyone can become more than a test manager, you will be a leader of an effective and happy team.
Paraphrasing Russell H. Ewing:
- A test boss creates fear, a test leader creates confidence.
- A test boss fixes blame, a test leader corrects mistakes.
- A test boss knows all, a test leader asks questions.
- A test boss makes work drudgery, a test leader makes it interesting.
- A test boss is interested in himself or herself, a test leader is interested in the group.