What Makes Software Testers Tick

Key Lessons for Leaders on Training, Engaging and Retaining Software Testers

By Federico Toledo, PhD

Answering a question from the audience after her talk at TestingUy 2019, Melissa Eaden said something that really stuck with me,

“Anybody can do testing, a tester is somebody that does testing well."

I fully agree with her, but I’d like to add my own spin on that, only a motivated tester does testing well. So, what motivates testers? What makes them tick?

I started out in my career as a tester, then I became a leader of other testers and today, I am a leader of a group of test leaders. I want to share some experiences and lessons I’ve learned from starting and growing a software testing services company. This could give you some food for thought on leading and caring for your testers, helping them grow, becoming happier and more motivated, ultimately resulting in better testing.  

Give Them One Good Reason, Or Two

Not long ago, my co-founders and I decided we wanted to be the “best testing company in the world.” Our biggest, “shoot for the moon” goal was to reach an Initial public offering (IPO). We wanted to be better than others. Essentially, competition for competition’s sake. As it turned out, that goal was not what would motivate and inspire our employees. It didn’t even inspire ourselves because it was a hollow goal.

Time has taught us what actually motivates us the most to keep working in and on the business. Our purpose, we firmly believe in, is to improve people’s quality of life (as software quality can have a direct impact on the quality of life), create even more job opportunities in our community and industry, and contribute to the betterment of society by giving back and sharing our knowledge. We even wrote our manifesto about it. 

These were the real reasons why we wanted to be the best testing company. That is what being the best means to us. Discovering this with our testers, they too understood why we wanted to grow. By training and hiring more people to join in the world of testing, we can improve the quality of life of others and contribute to the creation of software that can change the world. More motivating, right?!

Ask For Feedback And Act On It

While we were clarifying our “why” we were experiencing our first year ever of dramatic growth, and conversely, our worst year for employee turnover. 

We didn’t know why some people were happy and wanted to stay with us and why others wanted to leave. So, we conducted exit surveys to help us understand how we could improve. We needed to find out what other companies were offering that we didn't and what our testers valued most at work. Overwhelmingly, the response was about people (they should be great), the atmosphere (it must be friendly) and the learning opportunities (must be numerous). 

But, feedback loops aren’t useful in and of themselves. What matters is what you do with the feedback. So, we made several changes to bring these things into focus. 

Today, our leadership’s key focus is on employee wellbeing, maintaining a bright company culture and promoting continuous learning. Testers want to learn. Testers need to learn so that they can experience career development. We made sure to demonstrate that these changes were a result of their feedback.

Challenge Your Testers 

Boring tasks are boring. Repetitive tasks are boring. If you learn something but you can’t actually apply it somewhere, you waste the training and the human potential you just started to shape. It happens that there are periods of time when you will give your testers a job that must be done and it’s not that attractive nor challenging. Sometimes, it’s a matter of how you have them perform the task, how you “sell it,” how you think about it. Part of leadership for me is to get the best out of a context and push to improve that context. 

Outside of the necessary but maybe boring tasks, leaders can make things more interesting or challenging by encouraging your testers in different ways. For instance, challenge them to give a talk about their project or task them with learning a new tool and then show others how to use it, assign them more complex side projects, etc. 

As a leader, you must come to understand what makes each person feel challenged, pushing their comfort zone, but not so much as to paralyze them with the idea (maybe you shouldn’t ask an introverted, shy person to give a talk, but they could pair up with someone else with the same type of goal). 

Believe In Your Testers

To challenge your testers, first, you have to believe in them. Believe in them, more than they may believe in themselves (this is love). Someone explained to me once, if you love someone, you see something in that person and help them see it as well. At the risk of sounding cheesy, people need to be loved or cared about, need to belong, and need someone believing in them. 

Embrace Your Testers’ Special Qualities

If you lead testers, you should be aware of their typical particularities. For one, they’re typically curious. Ask them questions, "How could we improve this?", "What would happen if...?", "What could we achieve if we try this?" 

Secondly, most testers hate ambiguity. They need clarity, this is what they look for, for the sake of usability. Try to be clear with them in everything, setting goals, scope, permissions. Be clear about future expectations and possibilities.

Third, most testers are obsessed with improvement… So let them be, it's beneficial for all! Listen to them in retrospective meetings and do something with their feedback. Remember, they are not always regarded as well as programmers. They’re not heard sometimes. Be sure they don't feel alone, fighting with the rest. Testers want to feel like they belong to the team and that the rest can see that they’re also pushing to reach the same goals.

Grow With Your Testers

I heard a story about someone who was in a job interview and when they asked about potential growth opportunities, the manager who was conducting it told them that the only way they’d be able to grow was if they were to assume her role, and in order for that to happen, she herself would first have to move up. 

Wow! What I find off-putting about this attitude is that there is only one possible route. Personally, for anyone we hire, I’d be pleased if they were to rise higher up than me! It would be a win-win. The more knowledge and leadership inside our company, the better. I think that leaders should try to grow together with their team, in parallel. As a team grows, so does the number of opportunities, with completely new ones emerging. 

For example, five years ago, we didn’t have a Customer Success Manager, and now we are adding more people to our customer success team. We didn’t have a Chief People Officer either and now we do. I guess this is a natural part of growing into a more mature company, but even in large enterprises, there is always room to expand both vertically and horizontally. 

Don’t Avoid Tough Conversations  

Your job isn’t a place that’s just one big group of friends. Even if you participate in the hiring process, you cannot expect that all team members will get along as well as friends do. I had to learn this the hard way as I’m the type of person who avoids conflict. This has been a problem for me, because I have experienced some situations that could have been improved or solved at the outset but weren’t because of the lack of having a proper conversation, a tough one, but at the right moment. Avoiding tough conversations doesn't solve problems, it only allows them to fester, creating more stress, worsened relationships, etc. Don't be afraid to speak up, practice empathy and always be kind.

Also, encourage your testers to communicate with others. There’s a very particular thing about the role of the tester: they have to critique others’ work frequently. Not everyone is prepared to do this or to work with someone else who constantly does this. Work on training your team (testers, programmers, and others) to work well together. Ask them how they feel, what's working and what’s not.

Carefully Assign Your Testers

We assign people to projects thoughtfully and not only based on the needs of the project or the client, but also according to our employees’ personal and professional pursuits that we know are important to them. That means, if there was a tester engaged in functional testing and they wanted to learn automation, we would do our best to assign them to work under an automator from whom they could learn. Or if they wanted to move to a different country, or even as it happened last year, to Spain to live there and work remotely, we’d prioritize assigning them to a more flexible project. Same thing if they are planning to have a family and need to work from home, or work fewer hours for some time, etc… It’s not easy to consider all the variables and coordinate competing needs, but it’s worth trying if you want to keep your best talent. 

Express And Maintain Your Personal Motivation

You cannot motivate and inspire others if you’re not motivated and inspired. Sad leaders are bad leaders. That means, to lead testers and keep them motivated, first, pay attention to you. 

Keep you motivated. Ask yourself: 

  • Do I have a purpose? 
  • Am I training, learning constantly? 
  • Are my own leaders people I look up to? 
  • Is someone paying attention to me? 
  • Do I have exciting challenges? 
  • Do I have a clear path? 
  • Is the company growing with me? 
  • Who believes in me? 
  • Do I have the courage to face difficult situations and tough conversations?

Know Yourself Well To Work Better With Others 

Your job will be a lot easier if you know these traits about yourself:

  • Your likes and dislikes
  • Things that drive you
  • How you are today and how you’d like to be
  • The unique value you bring to the table (what you value in yourself and what others think you’re good at) 

For example, someone once told me they admired the way I formulate questions that unveil the important stuff. For me, that always came naturally, but thanks to this person pointing that out, I realize I have to keep doing it, even more.

Do What You Love

It would be a shame if by becoming great at what you love, you’d have to move on and do something else for the sake of advancement. I’ve known many testers who, as they gain more and more experience under their belts, ask to continue in testing. If they love testing, don't ask them to manage other testers or to start automating as the only way they can progress in their career path or something similar

I hope you can take away some of the lessons that I’ve learned about what makes testers tick and motivates them, how to lead them to where they want to be. To support them, and be a good leader, it’s important to keep yourself motivated as their leader. Grow with them, challenge them, embrace them, have important conversations, assign them projects that will stimulate them, and so much more. 

Do you agree? What do you think makes testers tick and how can you use that knowledge to better lead them?

Author Bio:

A software quality engineer with over 15 years of experience in performance, automation and functional testing, Federico Toledo is a Co-founder and Director of software testing company, Abstracta. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from University of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain. Dedicated to testing education, he wrote one of the first books in Spanish on testing and formed Abstracta Academy. He’s also a collaborator of TestingUY, the largest testing conference in Latin America, and frequently publishes articles on his Spanish testing blog, federico-toledo.com. Federico is a firm advocate for agile methodologies and testing as a driver that facilitates DevOps and CI/CD. Follow him on twitter: @fltoledo.

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