Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Managing to Test

Earlier in the year Lena Wiberg posted an interesting challenge on Twitter: 

I would like to pair up with other writers and do a series of pair blog posts. So we agree on a topic, we both write a post on our own blogs and publish at the same time. 2 perspectives for 1 topic! Any takers?

Swaps are fun, so I signed up and Lena asked me for a topic. After some consideration I proposed "testing skills I use in management" for the selfish reasons that I'm interested to hear what she has to say on it and also to collect thoughts that I've had over the years into one place. 


I spent quite some time early in my managerial career observing how I went about my work, finding what I liked and what I didn't, and deciding what my guiding management principles appeared to be and should be. This is what I came up with:
  • Be clear and present
  • Be congruent 
  • Provide motivation, organisation, information, and the occasional jiggle.

To gloss these a little, I want to:
  • be open about what I think, what I will do, and why; be available, approachable, and responsive (see e.g. Clear and Present Manager)
  • in any situation, take into account the interests of the people involved, myself, and the wider context (see e.g. What Did You Say? in Book Notes)
  • try to find ways of working that suit the team and the task (see e.g. Naomi Karten's MOI paper)

When I cast it this way, management skills and testing skills don't seem so far apart. In both cases I want to gather data and understand something about where it came from, when, how, and so on. I then want to integrate it with other data I have from other sources and decide where I should go next. I want to think about how I'm working, be transparent about why, and open to suggestions for change. I want to be prepared to explain the reason for actions I've taken, and to take those actions in a balanced way.

Let's look at an example. As a manager, I am regularly criticised by members of my team. Amongst other things I'm sometimes accused of being overly logical or too analytical. The subjective nature of "overly" and "too" give me leeway to dismiss this assessment as a matter of degree, viewed from a jaundiced perspective, should I choose to. But I don't choose to; instead I regard it as data. (And, yes, I am aware of the potential irony there.)

It's valuable information when someone on the team is feeling sufficiently strongly to tell me to my face that I have the wrong take on an issue. (Aside: finding out that someone is saying it to others but not me is also valuable, but different.) I will always by default respect it as given honestly with good motivation. 

For me, this is data from a known source in a particular context and is to be integrated with other data from other known sources in their particular contexts. Other sources include me and the team and the company, and other contexts include mine and the team's and the company's. 

I am likely to want to ask questions to try to understand what is beneath an observation which is critical of me. (The data question, due to Jerry Weinberg e.g. Perfect Software is "What did you see or hear ... that led you to that interpretation?") I think that, over the years, I have got better at doing it in a way that is both non-judgemental and non-defensive and, crucially, comes across that way too.

On any given issue, I will want to give individual pieces of data different weights depending on the context they come from and the problem at hand.

But, and this is a big one, the kind of data gathered this way is rarely quantifiable. It's usually messy and incomplete and it's often tangled up with other issues in complex and non-visible ways. We are human, after all. 

This feels a lot like testing to me.

In testing, I find, data comes from all sorts of disparate sources with different motivations, including the stated requirements, the market conditions that make these requirements relevant now, the level of understanding of the problem we're solving for the customer, the informal conversations with stakeholders, the developer's personal opinions on the approach requested and their personal preferences, the technology stack's prejudices, what the software tells you when you engage with it, and so on and so on.

How do I, as a tester, balance this data? I use critical thinking and heuristics based on experience and social interaction and investigation and research and modelling and empathy and pragmatism and numerous other skills. My overriding aim is that of pursuing relevant incongruity, by which I mean helping the project to be the best that it can be within the known constraints that it has, by targeting my efforts and finding issues and potential issues that threaten it. 

And as a manager? Well, in all honesty, this is how I approach management problems too. 

So where is the difference between being a manager and a (cough) individual contributor? For me, I think it's in the degree of responsibility for people and wide-scope decisions. As a manager there are many bucks that stop with me which intimately involve other people whose happiness, career, and actions I'm responsible for.  As a tester I'm generally only responsible for my own decisions and actions.  

See also:

Testing Skills I Use in Management is Lena's post on the same topic over at her blog. We agreed to swap comments too, so you can find mine with her piece, and her thoughts on what I said here:

I did what I shouldn’t and instinctively messaged James after reading with: “So interesting! Completely different takes!” Funny enough, he thought we had come  to very similar conclusions. Which of course had me read his comment before writing this, thus influencing me. So, I cannot write a completely unbiased comment. But  on the other hand I can now try to analyse why I felt we had so different takes while James felt we ended up so alike.

First of all, I haven’t known James long. And I’ve mostly gotten to know him through his blog posts, his twitter and through our work on board for the Association for Software Testing. My view of  him has been that he is very calm, methodical, well spoken (and written) and with a great sense of humour. I have gotten a lot of inspiration from his blog posts in my own writing and I have very much appreciated our discussions both in real life and online. 

When I read his post my gut reaction was that ours were completely different but analysing it a bit more I can see why James feels we ended up in the same place. Because we did, just by different routes. I write a lot about feelings, James writes a lot about data - our conclusion however seems the same: A lot of skills from testing are definitely transferable to managing. Reading our posts it is clear to me that the way we used to approach testing probably spilled over to how we chose to approach management.  I can see that we have the same goal, we care about the same things but the road we would choose would probably look completely different. Thank you so much James for giving me your perspective!

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