Does your test manager ever test? They should.

I recently got promoted to test manager. About three months in, I started to get used to delegating much of the testing tasks. I have to admit, it was nice to focus on the big picture for a while. I began sounding like a manager, being more interested in status rather than test value.

When one of my testers took a vacation to India and the other two got sick, I had to jump in where my testers left off and complete a variety of testing activities. It was like getting smacked in the face.

  • In some places where I thought the tester was dragging, I discovered legitimate test impediments.
  • In some places where I believed the tester excuses, I found tester misunderstandings or poorly designed tests.
  • In all areas, I experienced the stress of uncertainty, the constant decision making, and the thrill of finding important problems.

The best way to really grok a job is to perform it yourself. Experiencing the act of testing is different than observing it or hearing summaries of it. So...

  • Testers, the next time you take a personal day off work, ask your manager to be your backup and actually do some of your work while you’re out.
  • Managers, offer to jump in and be the backup tester.

I caught two Stareast James Bach talks. The “The Myths of Rigor” dealt with when to use rigor and when not to. The main idea (as I understood) was to use more rigor upstream and less downstream. For example, if you're coaching a new tester, you may want to provide them with checklists and lots of details, then encourage them to begin thinking without following said checklists once they grok the concept. Experts are bad at explaining what they know and learners tend to say they understand when they don't; the checklists and details may help, but only at the beginning.

This clicked for me when James asked, “Have you ever written a process document and then not followed it?”. Absolutely! I'm smart enough to understand when to break the rules. How about a test case? Of course! Per James...

  • Rigor at the outcome of a test is optimized for a static well-known world.
  • Rigor at the planning of a test helps you adopt to a changing world.

Writing test cases is valuable as long as we don’t become victims of what James calls “Pathetic Compliance”; following the rules just so we don’t get yelled at, even though we don’t understand the rules. The value in writing test cases is:

  • they are excellent for a quick review before test sessions to get your head straight
  • they are a good tool for discussing tests and understanding each other
  • creating them helps learning

So write test cases but don’t force yourself to use them.

BTW - James Bach is working on a book about how to coach software testers.

The second of James Bach’s talks was a keynote, “The Buccaneer Tester: Winning Your Reputation”. This seemingly dull topic is actually important. The main takeaway for me was:

Making yourself unremarkable does not keep your job safe.

Per James, being good at testing and getting credit for your work are both optional. Sadly, I’ve worked with lots of unremarkable testers. His advice, if you choose to become remarkable:

  • Determine what mix of tester skills you have that nobody else has.
  • Use the above to come up with some kind of vision about testing. It doesn’t even need to be a good vision; bad visions can also give you a reputation.
  • Take a stand on an issue.
  • Participate in public (volunteer) testing.
  • Write, teach, speak, study, and experience more types of testing

After a long day at one of the best software testing conferences I’ve attended, I opened the door to my hotel room and found it full of Stareast keynote speakers, track presenters, and five author/editors of testing books I had recently been reading. It was like some creepy tester fantasy. About half of my favorite tester thinkers had gathered into my hotel room and were conducting lightning talks in front of a flip chart and flat screen TV, some 15 feet from the Queen-sized Murphy bed I sleep in.

This is one of the reasons I love being a software tester. After a bit of networking during my first day at Stareast, I found myself invited to dinner with the Stareast Rebel Alliance, a group of testers who are becoming active in the speaker circuit, blogosphere, and Twitter, attempting to improve the craft of testing. They answered testing questions, gave me an Alliance t-shirt, tried to buy me dinner, and made me feel like family. Special thanks to Alex Kell for introducing me to this crowd.

When Matthew Heusser mentioned he needed a place to host a tester gathering the following night, I suggested my hotel room. After all, the Rosen Shingle Creek had overbooked and given me the parlor suite (maximum occupancy 78). True to their plan, this ambitious group of testers met after the conference and gave lightning talks, provided support and candor, challenged each other with testing games, ate, drank, and were merry. Jon Bach and Michael Bolton were each at different tables, using dice games and puzzles to teach testers better thinking. Adam Goucher, Lanette Creamer, and Matthew Heusser practiced newish lightning talks on tester roles. Shmuel Gershon demonstrated a new session based testing tool he is writing (to be less disruptive to the tester’s concentration). Justin Hunter gracefully demoed his Hexawise test case generation tool. Lisa Crispin and Janet Gregory, co-authors of Agile Testing were there asking questions and providing support. Tim Riley happily discussed various Mozilla testing processes. Agile testing experts Dawn Cannan and Elizabeth Hendrickson also showed up to defend and explain their ideas.

There were many other testers who came and went that night, all were polite, interesting, modest, and fun to hang out with. The last of them left around 2:30 AM some time after winding down and watching a few choice TED talks. I went to sleep with the thick smell of carry-out Indian Food next to my bed.

The next day I woke up and walked barefoot across my 78 occupancy room. I stepped on something. About 5 hours earlier, Michael Bolton was shoving Smartfood popcorn into his mouth and spilling it on the floor. He picked some up saying, “I wouldn’t want you to get Smartfood Foot tomorrow”. I guess he missed a piece.

Lanette Creamer has an excellent overview of the conference on her testyredhead blog. I'll list my personal take-aways in future posts.

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