Quality Coaching: A Road Less Traveled

Quality Coaching: A Road Less Traveled

Explore the unique and impactful role of a quality coach in revolutionising software testing practices

One of the most significant advantages of a software testing career is the vast amount of options open to you to grow in your career. As we get more experience, we may get tired of doing the same old thing every day, and feel the need to look for changes and challenges. 

And challenges abound: you can become an automation specialist, security tester, niche domain specialist tester, generalist tester, Agile tester, SDET, QA team lead, test architect, test manager, user acceptance tester, head of quality, mobile tester, usability tester, performance tester, just to name a few. And one of the newer options for you: quality coach!

The role of the quality coach is relatively new, and since it is not encountered as often as other QA / testing roles, it remains virtually unknown to many testers and IT professionals. I’ll outline aspects of the role in this article.

What Is A Quality Coach?

For a certain kind of tester, the role of a quality coach is ideal. If you…

  • Are empathetic
  • Analyze risks with comfort and skill
  • Lead people and teams effectively
  • Have broad and deep technical knowledge
  • Know how to set up processes from the ground up 

You might be a great quality coach! Sprinkle in relevant domain knowledge, the ability to ask the right questions, and keen listening and observation skills, and you have a winner. Not all quality coaches come from a traditional QA background; some coaches I’ve spoken to were developers, scrum masters, or customer support managers before they moved into the quality coach role.

To me, this seems like a dream job. Just imagine helping teams set up and maintain a culture of quality and to advocate a change in mindset, with the end goal of delivering the best possible product for customers!

Some of the things done by a quality coach in a typical working day:

  • Attend sprint demos
  • Work with stakeholders to understand upcoming features thoroughly
  • Read the documentation and contributing to it
  • Lead practical workshops for testers and non-testers
  • Teach testing techniques to developers and other people in non-testing roles
  • Participate in bug analysis 
  • Take part in triage sessions, such as going over production defects
  • Organize mob-testing sessions throughout the organization
  • Promote pairing 
  • Propose and implement quality improvements
  • Use monitoring to obtain data about use of the product by real-world customers
  • Analyze existing metrics and propose improvements 
  • Teach by doing: join the teams in their regular testing activities
  • Take part in regular meetings, such as scrum events
  • Formulate a quality road map for the whole company
  • Practice individual one-to-one coaching with team members
  • Work closely with domain experts
  • Establish new and improve existing processes

What Is The Difference Between A Quality Coach And A QA Lead Or Test Manager?

Quality coaching focuses on:

  • Changing team and organizational culture to promote shared ownership of quality
  • Helping the team improve soft AND technical skills
  • Facilitating learning and adaptability 
  • Building toward long-term continuous improvement 

Also, a quality coach fosters individual growth among the team members. A good coach will work themselves out of the job, so to speak, by enabling and encouraging the team towards independence.

In contrast, QA leads and managers are focused on team activities, testing processes, day-to-day testing activities, reporting to stakeholders, evaluating the risks of release. Their priority is usually short-term projects and improving technical knowledge to get the job done. Additionally, typical leads and managers generally have some executive authority, while a coach is more of an advisor.

A common quality among all three roles is excellent communication and organizational skills. While managers will primarily focus on team-level communication, the coach will put more emphasis on cross-team and organizational communication. Even in organizations where there is no formal quality coach role defined, the whole organization can benefit from leads                            or managers adopting a coaching approach. This way they can inspire individual contributors towards more autonomy, resulting in increased performance and productivity.

Isn’t “Quality Coach” Just Another Name For Scrum Master Or Agile Coach?

Generally, a scrum master or an Agile coach guides the team through the initial Agile transformation, providing support during scrums and stand-ups, for example. And they usually take the lead when it comes to grooming the backlog. 

In contrast, the quality coach is more of a generalist. The coach promotes quality through the entire process with an end goal of shipping products of higher value to the customer. But the quality coach shares with the scrum master and Agile coach the duty to lead by example and to foster changes in mindset. 

How Do You Succeed As A Quality Coach? 

Get Managerial Buy-In

You might have great leadership skills as well as broad and deep technical knowledge. But to be truly successful in this role, it is crucial that you have support from management at your organization. 

Sometimes, suggestions by a quality coach might seem disruptive to the way people are used to doing things. Here’s where having support and general consensus goes a long way toward achieving a culture of quality. You will still need to put in a lot of hard work and make long-term commitments, with having the flexibility to adapt to changes when needed. Remember, someone in authority will need to give your recommendations their blessing before you start implementing them. Finally, but perhaps most important, you need to get your teams on board with your vision of quality!

Without backing from management, any significant change will simply not be possible. Introducing process changes will often require additional budget. The management will approve the additional cost of a measure only if they are convinced that the measure will help retain existing customers and attract new ones. A quality coach needs to speak to everyone in their own language, and it’s wise to remember that management’s first language is generally that of money.

Fit In On The Team And At The Organization

Depending on the direction you are heading, and whether or not the company has dedicated testers, will determine how you implement quality improvements. Having a dedicated QA department in the company means that the testers will be able to assist in teaching team members from other roles how to get more involved in testing. If there are no dedicated testers in the company, a quality coach will need to distribute testing activities among the existing team members. For example, developers could perform technical testing, unit, integration, and end-to-end testing, while product owners or other business people could do the functional testing. 

And organizational structure beyond the immediate team matters, too. For example, some organizations have a head of quality, to whom the quality coach reports, while the technical team leads might report to the quality coach. 

Promote Shared Ownership Of Quality

When a quality coach is placed in a team, they should be an advocate and a champion of quality. A quality coach can help implement a whole-team approach to quality, where ownership over features is shared by the entire team. And of course, if needed, the quality coach can be a member of multiple teams. 

Team adoption of shared ownership of quality can succeed only after you have gained the trust of the team, as this is not a simple short-term process. You need to set clear expectations. Measures that embody shared ownership of quality might include moving towards earlier testing, more effective detection of defects, and shifting left or right in terms of when testing activities occur. Shifting left usually entails testing “earlier,” evaluating the product requirements before there is any code. Shifting right can include testing in production and monitoring use of the product by customers in real time. 

You will need to practice what you preach and lead by example. A quality coach is not there just to lecture, but to teach by doing as well. Fortunately, technical people are very responsive to logical arguments and are quick to try out new approaches, out of curiosity. Show that you care; do not hide that you are passionate about promoting and embedding quality. Collaborate frequently to drive change and motivate team members. No significant change happens overnight and you need to be patient and persistent. Small incremental changes will build up over time and results will speak for themselves.

Preach Testing To Developers

Sometimes developers are so used to having a dedicated tester that they don’t even consider the alternatives. Apportioning a few testing tasks to every team member no matter what their role removes and reduces bottlenecks. Quality should be the responsibility of every team member. 

If you are a bit old-fashioned, like me, you might think of it as being honor-bound to deliver value to the customer! Concepts like the theory of constraints can help teams deliver faster; with everyone testing, you eliminate the “bottleneck” of testing at the end of the cycle. Pair with the developers often, hold workshops to teach the team useful testing techniques, and try to involve them in end-to-end automation as well. 

Here’s a real-world example for you. On my current project, the developers are the ones doing most of the end to end automation testing. It’s a way to do modern testing through BDD, the testers write test scenarios before the code, and those scenarios are reviewed by other testers, product owners, and developers. The three amigos session is a very effective way to distill your requirements and to get a deeper look at how to test your features better.

Convince QA You’re On Their Side

When you first come on board, QA team members might look at you with some suspicion, thinking you’ll advocate for a way to eliminate testing as a role altogether. 

So you will need to proceed with compassion and caution. You might explain your role as advocating for a cross-disciplinary approach to quality. Ideally, people with different perspectives should be able to share their opinions and observations.

Another way to build trust: Find out what motivates your testers. If it’s exploratory testing, have them pair with the developers to teach them how to make the most out of their exploratory sessions. Also, try to identify what people from different roles do not like about current practices and suggest concrete improvements.

Manage Conflicts

In any line of work, occasional conflict is unavoidable. But it does not always have to be destructive. Conflict can illuminate different points of view, leading to constructive changes in thought and process. 

It’s best to start by listening to the parties involved and getting to know each side of the story to understand all viewpoints. This can be a simple face to face meeting, augmented if you want by using a “retrospective” note-taking tool. 

Be gentle when introducing new ideas. If people go along with it, proceed, otherwise adjust your approach. Show that you care and the team will trust in you, and trust goes a long way towards helping to resolve conflicts.

To Wrap Up…

To reiterate some of the points made above:

The quality coach will need to work closely with the team and even be a member of teams to lead by example and earn the trust of team members. For a quality coach, it’s also important to be able to handle and resolve conflict situations in a manner that is respectful and to be able to turn conflict into something productive.

Promoting quality and advocating for shared ownership of quality is a continuous, ongoing task. There will always be room for improvement. However, it’s also important to give praise for successes along the way. This will motivate the team to stay the course of a cultural transformation. Pair with the developers, convince them to help out with the automation effort, and teach them testing techniques and the value of exploratory testing of their own features.

Getting traditional testers on your side might be tricky, but it’s not impossible. This might require a unique and creative approach to convince the testers to share their responsibilities with other roles. Also, make it clear to the testers that they can do more for quality than simply planning and executing thousands of test cases! It’s likely that their jobs will become more interactive and interesting in a whole-team approach. 

A quality coach will also need full management support and buy-in, from top to bottom. As a coach, you might not have the authority to tell someone to change the way things are done: you’ll need a manager to tell them to do it. 

And remember, the most important thing is to convince people, not to boss anyone around. We want to improve quality and integrate it into our very culture, and quality is not simply believing in clean code and well-tested software. An essential precondition for quality is trust among team members and within your organization.

For More Information

Mirza Sisic's profile
Mirza Sisic

Testing Consultant

Mirza has always been a technology geek, helping friends and family with computer-related issues. Started originally in tech support and moved to software testing and has been there since. Worked as a freelance web developer for a while as well. A casual RPG gamer and a Sci-fi fan. When he’s not sharing memes online Mirza is usually learning new things, taking part in the testing community, or writing posts for his blog.

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